- The Autobiographical Turn in Germanophone Documentary and Experimental Film eds. by Robin Curtis and Angelica Fenner
I have to admit that I approached reading this volume with a fair degree of scepticism. As Angelica Fenner and Robin Curtis acknowledge in their editorial introduction to the twelve essays, “the films explored in the present essay collection do signal that autobiographical discourse in the German-speaking countries has assumed forms contrasting markedly with, for example, those described in Jim Lane’s study, The Autobiographical Documentary in America, or in Michael Renov’s The Subject of Documentary” (3). Both of the volumes cited are about documentaries such as Roger and Me (Michael Moore, 1989) or Lost Lost Lost (Jonas Mekas, 1976) which unambiguously work in first-person narrative modes, developing auto-ethnographic techniques and formal experimentation with perspective and point of view, to grapple with the objectifying tendencies of the camera. It would seem that this is critical for the whole idea of an “autobiographical turn” but Curtis and Fenner argue that cultural difference justifies a broader understanding of a global tendency in contemporary documentary. They argue along with Alisa Lebow (First Person Jewish) for an expansion of the idea of autobiography into examples where the first person is not used directly. In the case of Germanophone documentary (made in Germany, Austria, Switzerland), they argue that to interpret some films as autobiographical is to understand how the filmmakers of the region have managed to allow the formation, deconstruction, and reconstruction of the self within the complex politicization of identity politics itself. It might be added that to recognize the autobiographical in the films is also to translate them into a language – American English – that is more comfortable with the word “I.”
The introduction sets the context for a series of essays that collectively put the case for an autobiographical turn, dividing them into four sections. Thus, while Jim Lane divides his book into diary films, family stories, and women’s films, Curtis and Fenner’s section titles are more complex: “The Geographies of Self-Inscription,” “Subalterities of Gender, Race, and Nation,” “Our Parents, Our Selves: Families Framed by History,” and “Revisiting Authorship in New German Cinema.” These section titles point to a pervasive tendency in European documentary to use subjectivity as one element within a more general strategy of self-reflexive montage. [End Page 349]
The opening group, entitled “The Geographies of Self-Inscription,” is programmatically the most paradoxical, exploring the politics of not asserting, and not accepting individual identification at all, contextualizing this artistic decision as resistance to ethnic and national assumptions. In a very lively discussion with Fenner and Curtis on her film Lovely Andrea, among others, Hito Steyerl explains how the refusal to say “I” even in the most systematically objectifying circumstances of bondage photography can be the means through which an individual can resist. Furthermore, Christopher Pavsek interprets Sylvia Schedelbauer’s Erinnerungen as an exploration of another such refusal, this time in a German-Japanese context. Marcy Goldberg’s contribution is about explaining the difficulty of asserting Swiss identity, interpreting Peter Liechti’s walk through the Swiss Alps in Hans im Glück as neither a Heimat nor an anti-Heimat film but a film for the Heimat-less. The last essay in this section, by Anna Stainton, bucks the trend in reading Helke Misselwitz’s Winter Adé as “women’s autobiography in the plural” (p. 88). Stainton cleverly thematizes the fascinating story, however, as an imposition of the idea of the autobiographical on the film through its reception in the German Democratic Republic, in the Federal Republic of Germany and then in its journey beyond the German-speaking countries.
After this fraught opening, the second section settles into discussion about experiments with autobiographical strategies to explore identity. By using the term “subalterities,” the editors place these within a postcolonial and feminist discourse. The films are about migration and encounters, particularly in Berlin, with ambiguity about national identity in particular. Feng-Mei Heberer writes about...