Gotteszell– A Women’s Prison

Helga Reidemeister

Germany, 2001, 103 min.

Helga Reidemeister has followed life in the prison over a period of time, focusing on six of the women inmates. Each shares a piece of their lives, and it becomes evident that they are just as victimised as those they have murdered or robbed. You wonder how you would react in a similar situation. If you had been sexually abused by your father since the age of five and your mother had committed suicide, and one day when a man attempts to rape you, would you kill him? Hard to say, but the film makes a point of stating that all of us could end up here serving a long prison sentence, depending on the conditions and pressures we are exposed to in our lives. One of the guards says that if you can blame them for anything, it is for putting up with things too long before saying enough is enough.

Helga Reidemeister

Some of the inmates we follow are in for ‘lighter crimes’ like drug dealing, but all of them have experienced a childhood with violence or neglect. Still they feel guilt; they feel they have disappointed parents, who were never really parents for them.

The film is mainly based on the inmates who tell their stories to the director asking questions off-camera. It is obvious that she has spent a lot of time with the characters and gained their trust; she gets them to talk about their innermost thoughts and feelings, even when it gets very painful as in the relationship to their children.

The film is not so much about prison life. It goes much deeper, asking fundamental questions about justice and society’s ability to deal with crime and criminals: what make people act as they do, what consequences should their actions have?

It avoids the trap of the cliché that society is to blame for everything – these people do blame themselves – ‘nothing can justify taking another person’s life,’ says one of the murderesses. But it is hard for them to accept that the people who ruined their lives go free, while they have to pay for their acts.

It is a very convincing film. Apart from its other qualities, it is beautifully filmed with great sensitivity for the subject, a lot of food for thought.  It is one of the documentaries that proves that the question of time is crucial for making a film that communicates something essential, much different from the ‘48 hours in a prison’ type of television programmes we are frequently exposed to.


Modern Times Review