It was almost seven years ago that the work of a Berlin-based filmmaker changed the way I watched films entirely. There was a big retrospective at the Arsenal and I was extremely curious to discover someone whose films had labels like “women’s film” “art film” “queer cinema” and “independent director” attached to them. I had seen images of wild costumes, extravagant make-up, outlandish performers and fantastic imagery before I had actually seen the films they were taken from. Of all the magical hours I had spent getting sucked into this mad universe, one film had stayed with me the most. It is called Freak Orlando and its director is a true artist and can be best described as an untamed magician: Ulrike Ottinger.
I am not the first person to discover the wonders of Ottinger’s films; her oeuvre has filled books and exhibitions, there have been retrospectives and prizes, etc. So this is not the place for me to be a smart-ass and analyse Freak Orlando to bits (which others have done before me with great insight and eloquence). Instead, I will share my fascination with a film that evokes the slightly wistful hope that a new generation of filmmakers will have the guts to follow Ulrike Ottinger’s footsteps, not give a shit about the market and follow their inspirations and subjective worldviews and, ultimately, let their imaginations run completely wild.
Freak Orlando starts with a monk-like drifter somewhere in no-man’s land on the outskirts of Berlin, where a naked woman is a tree in a bed of plastic grass and guides our hero/heroine to a gate that has “Freak City” written over it in illuminated letters. His/her first transformation begins in the halls of a shopping mall (the former West Berlin place-to-shop Europa Center). Now dressed in a black vinyl coat and wearing a dramatic hat with a third eye, Orlando (that’s his/her name) brand marks consumer’s goods for the mall’s action week of “Sellout of Myths”. All that sounds strange to you? It is, trust me, and that’s one of the most fascinating aspects of this and of many other of Ottinger’s films. A synopsis does not only do an injustice to the film, it’s utterly impossible to summarize it and might even destroy the magic of a filmmaker who has had the guts to produce image after image without hardly using any dialogue or caring about a strict narrative logic.
Freak Orlando is a trip into what cinema can be if you are uncompromising enough to be daring: A feast for the eyes and a chain of creative explosions of art direction, mise-en-scène, costumes, situations, associations, citations, imaginations and insanity. Based loosely on the Virginia Woolf novel “Orlando” and Tod Browning’s 1932 cult film “Freaks,” the film sends the unique Magdalena Montezuma (who you might know from the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Werner Schroeter) on a journey of constant transformation and change. Some stations of her odyssey are a nightly park filled with illuminated electric stoves, a banquet on the top of a gasometer, a psychiatric home and, finally, a contest for the ugliest people of “Freak City”.
Ottinger uses the freak as a metaphor for society’s outsiders when she draws from art and film history, sociology, women’s and gay rights and creates a truly queer exploration of sex, gender and the body. She uses these as sites of cinematic constructions and fantasies. Bearded women and self-scourging leather gays are accompanied by Japanese dancers and so-called midgets. Disabled bodies, Siamese twins and old men in black wedding dresses belong to Ottinger’s enigmatically crazy inventory as much as crucified opera singers, hermaphrodites and naked servants who are all part of a festive congregation in an abandoned, half-filled indoor pool. All this is arranged as a form of theatrical performance that is seen through the camera eye of a photographer and arranged as tableaux of great attraction and beauty that are cinematically orchestrated like an opera.
Freak Orlando is also a mysterious exploration of Berlin as a film city in ways you haven’t seen before. Ottinger has a brilliantly queer eye for locations like stone pits and other industrial urban spaces and turns them into her playgrounds of abnormalities and fairy tales. If you get the chance to discover one of Germany’s most exciting filmmakers, you should take it and maybe have some of the (literally) eye-opening and mind-blowing cinematic experiences that I had. Tonight, after a hot and sunny day, there’s no better thing to do than take a trip to “Freak City” and let the circus begin!
Screening: Arsenal, today, Thursday May 22, 8 pm
The film is part of the Magical History Tour Clothes in Motion – Costumes, Styles and Fashion in Film that runs until end of May
Freak Orlando, West Germany, 1981, 126 min.
director/ writer/ cinematography: Ulrike Ottinger, actors: Magdalena Montezuma, Delphine Seyrig, Albert Heins, Claudio Pantoja, Hiro Uschiyama, Eddie Constantine, languages: some German and French, distribution: arsenal distribution
For more of Ulrike Ottinger’s work, check out her homepage: http://www.ulrikeottinger.com/
Discover This! is a Berlin–based film comment.