HISTORY / In returning to Paris, German avant-garde filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger resurrects memories of the city that she called home through the 1960s.

In her essayistic documentary Paris Calligrammes, German avant-garde filmmaker and visual artist Ulrike Ottinger brings together the perspectives of a young and an old artist. She takes a look at her Paris years between 1962 and 1969 from a present-day viewpoint. The documentary is reminiscent of Ottinger’s Parisian paintings in the style of narrative figuration. The film is a fragmented mosaic, poppish, entertaining, but nevertheless critical and daring.

Artistic and intellectual influences

In a way, the autobiographical documentary is a love song to Paris embodying the spirit of the time. In Bernardo Bertolucci’s Dreamers (2013), cinema takes the leading place; in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), dead litterateurs and artists materialize; in the Paris Calligrammes director’s personal memories, movie clips and found-footage material are mixed to capture an artistically explosive environment. Young Ottinger works in cafes next to Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, attends lectures by the anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, watches movies in the famous French Cinémathèque, learns etching technique in Johnny Friedlaender’s studio, organizes her canvases in the backyards of Montparnasse studios, and participates in the bohemian life of Paris.

«Librairie Calligrammes», owned by the German-Jewish exile Fritz Picard, becomes the central intellectual spot for the young German artist. The bookshop was a meeting point for German and French litterateurs, old Marxists, Dadaists, and Surrealists. Its guestbook contains inscriptions by countless artists and intellectuals, including Max Ernst, Paul Celan, Marcel Marceau, Hans Richter, Raoul Hausmann, and Walter Mehring. Ottinger remembers Mehring reading a touching poem dedicated to the intellectuals that were persecuted by the Nazis: «The richest fruitage in the season’s yield was left to rot upon a German field.» The moving words take the viewer closer to the ghosts which also inhabit the bookstore itself. Most of the literary treasures there were once owned by German-Jewish refugees and left behind in Paris before they continued their journey to other destinations.

Paris Calligrammes-Ulrike Ottinger-documentary-MTR-post
Paris Calligrammes, a film by Ulrike Ottinger

A post-colonial perspective

Despite her fascination with the city’s intellectual scene, the German director remains highly critical of social injustice. She depicts the gap between the rich and the poor, students and politicians, the colonizers and the colonized.

Algeria was one of the last French colonies, and the French soldiers and settlers finally left only in the early 60s. The social tensions among Algerians and the French government were also present in the streets of Paris. Ottinger remembers discussing the controversial documentary Octobre à Paris (dir. Jacques Panijel, 1962), which revealed the brutal civilian murders in 1961 when thousands of unarmed Algerians went out on the streets of Paris to peacefully demonstrate against colonization and demand better living conditions. The protesters were met by incredible police violence. Hundreds were killed on the first night, many followed afterward. The fact that even critical newspapers didn’t cover the bloody events is surprising.

Despite her fascination with the city’s intellectual scene, the German director remains highly critical of social injustice.

The forbidden aura surrounding the sensitive topic is the reason why it took several years before the theater play The Screens was staged in Paris. Written by Jean Genet, the impressive satire problematizes the French-Algerian war. The scandalous production by the director Roger Blin attracted both intellectuals and right-wing protesters.

Even nowadays Paris is full of traces of French colonialism. Ottinger is wandering through the floors of «Hôtel Drouot», a famous auction house, which is, in some sense, an embodiment of Europe’s colonial history. The same could be probably said about many museums housing ethnographic treasures from all over the world.

Paris Calligrammes-Ulrike Ottinger-documentary-MTR-post2
Paris Calligrammes, a film by Ulrike Ottinger

After the revolution

In 1968, protests swept much of the world. A «love and peace» generation was born in the Western World, and it brought along new perspectives. Young people came together to protest against war, criticize capitalism, demand more civil, women’s, and environmental rights. In cities like Berlin and Paris, students were at the heart of these movements. In the beginning, Ulrike Ottinger observed the events from her roof window in the Latin Quarter. Later on, when police started using tear gas against protesters, she had to not only close but also seal her windows.

Even nowadays Paris is full of traces of French colonialism.

The end of the revolution starts a new era not only in the French capital but also in Ulrike’s life. Soon after the famous protests, she heads back to Germany. There the artist uses much of the creative energy soaked up in Paris to develop her vision as an avant-garde filmmaker. In her audiovisual works, she combines surrealistic and ethnographic elements of film.

Almost 50 years later, Ulrike revisits Paris to make this documentary. She re-organizes the shop window in «Librairie Calligrammes», revisits her roof apartment, films the street life of Paris. Her Paris Calligrammes reveal specific angles of the artist’s experiences, nevertheless, some parts of the puzzle remain hidden and create open questions. Whom did she kiss, dance, and fall in love with in Paris? Is the spirit of the gentrified city transformed or does the creative energy hide in secret corners of the contemporary French capital?