Montgomery Fellow Ulrike Ottinger is in residence this fall

by Madison Wilson | 9/28/18 2:00am

Ulrike Ottinger, the avant-garde German filmmaker, will be this fall’s Montgomery Fellow. As a Montgomery Fellow, Ottinger will come to classes, host events, interact with students and screen excerpts from her latest film “Chamisso’s Shadow” on Tuesday, Oct. 2.

The Montgomery Fellows program will be celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, said Klaus Milich, director of the program. After years as a nominee, Ottinger was able to take time away from her career to spend the entirety of the fall term in Hanover, he said. Ottinger writes, films, cuts and produces virtually all of her work, so her talks will cover all stages of the filmmaking process, Milich said.

Ottinger will be joining a group of more than 230 previous Montgomery Fellows, including visionaries and artists like Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Sheryl Crow, Phillip Roth and Michel Foucault, since Montgomery Fellows are fellows for life, Milich said.

“I wanted to invite someone who addresses not only the classical humanities,” Milich said. “I also wanted to bring someone who speaks to people, for example, in Arctic studies, who speaks to people in Anthropology, in cultural anthropology in particular, who speaks to people in East Asian studies, in Native American studies, in Chinese studies ...”

Ottinger was born in West Germany and started out as a painter, living and studying in Paris in the 1960s. She moved back to Berlin in the early 1970s, where she pursued a film career in earnest and produced works like the controversial “Madame X,” a fantastical contemplation of femininity and sexuality where a band of female pirates roam the sea, pillaging and plundering as they go.

In Berlin, Ottinger developed the style her fiction pieces are known for: characters that defy convention, outrageous costumes and absurd settings. While her characters can be outlandish, she creates films that meditate deeply on the inner workings of each person while making a larger commentary on social conventions. As one of the first queer German filmmakers, Ottinger’s success brought more attention to queer German film and German film in general.

German and film professor Gerd Gemunden described her as an outsider in German film, an artist who flows across genre and convention because these borders do not exist for her.

After establishing her career with fictional films, Ottinger moved to a new challenge: documentary. With “China. The Arts – The People” in 1985, Ottinger began producing longform documentaries that explore the people, the art, the language and the customs of different cultures. Her most recent work, “Chamisso’s Shadow,” is a twelve-hour voyage into the culture, geography and traditions of the people living along the Bering Sea. Ottinger said she was interested in the region because of its mercurial nature — one side is American, one side is Russian — and yet there are families living on either side of the strait. She wanted to see how the region has changed over various political rules and how it has stayed the same, she explained.

“You have the encounter with the other, but it’s not exoticized,” Gemunden said, “[The film] doesn’t look like National Geographic or Discovery Channel, it’s not just [Anthony] Bourdain taking you to places nobody’s been and sampling the food — even though I have a lot of respect for Bourdain. But her style is slower, more immersive, less obtrusive, and [about] spending significant time with the people she films and who she puts in front of her camera.”

For the film, Ottinger traveled to Alaska, then to the Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands, following the route of Russian fur merchants. Through enslavement and cruelty, these fur merchants reduced the Aleutian population by two-thirds, which Ottinger said was an effective genocide. However, they brought some fascinating traditions as well. Many indigenous Aleuts are now Russian Orthodox, a religious leftover from the missionaries that followed the fur merchants. On the Russian side of the Bering Strait, socialism completely transformed the region and the collapse of the Soviet Union did the same. Russian Aleuts condensed, then expanded again along the coast, reviving their traditional hunting and fishing methods as they lost support from the now-extinct USSR.

Ottinger said she did not intend the film to last 12 hours, but her subjects simply could not stop talking to her. She wanted to capture the complexity of the region while giving agency to her characters, and since she had complete artistic control, she could make the film as long as necessary, she said.

“Because this was so rich, and the people were so open and I was so interested in them, I think they felt this,” Ottinger said. “They wanted to tell me and tell me and tell me what was going on. And therefore, the film became 12 hours … I felt that the filming material decided the montage.”

“Chamisso’s Shadow” premiered at the Berlinale International Film Festival in 2016 to rave reviews, not only in Berlin, but across Europe. Ottinger will take the film to the U.S. this year, premiering in New York City.

“It’s a deep insight into another culture,” Ottinger said. “It’s an epic culture, it’s not our destruction culture. And there, the epic time is necessary.”

The film also conveys Ottinger’s fascination with natural geography. Another documentary, “Taiga,” explores the lifestyle of nomads in northern Mongolia who ride reindeer in a landscape Ottinger found fascinating. In making “Chamisso’s Shadow,” she was astounded by the natural beauty on both sides of the Bering Strait, she said. More specifically, the sounds of nature — the wind sounds different in other parts of the world — were incorporated into the film, she said. She also incorporates traditional music, dancing and celebrations, which almost become a part of the natural landscape these people have inhabited for so many years.

“I was there at rivers where you could have walked over the salmon,” Ottinger said. “It was unbelievable.”

What’s next for Ottinger? The artist said she hopes to have a film about Paris in the 1960s out next year. Paris was a locus of art during this time, Ottinger said, describing lectures she attended at Sorbonne University and her interactions with artists and painters from the area, experiences that shaped the rest of her life and career. This new film will explore the cultural, political and structural context of the era and Ottinger will be spending much of her time at the Montgomery House editing the film, she said.

Ottinger is excited to meet students and discover what is important to their generation, she said. For students interested in getting to know Ottinger, Gemunden says she’s very accessible.

“She’s really outgoing, and she’s totally curious about people, and she loves to exchange and she’s very accessible,” Gemunden said. “Even though she’s really very famous, she’s very humble.””

Perhaps this is why her films, regardless of their genre, provide such intriguing and in-depth examinations into people: Ottinger is curious.

Clips from “Chamisso’s Shadow” will play in an hour-long excerpt on Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. at Loew Auditorium at the Black Family Visual Arts Center.