Do Away with Taboos

Interview with Ula Stöckl

(1) Sonntagsmalerei (Ula Stöckl, 1971)


Born 1938, Ula Stöckl worked as a secretary in Germany, England and France, 1954-1963. She studied at the Film Institute in Ulm 1963-1968 with the auteur filmmakers Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz. She lives in Berlin. Stöckl was one of the co-founders of the Verband der Filmarbeiterinnen (Association of Women Film Workers) and sits on the selection committees for the Hamburg and Berlin film festivals.

1968: Neun Leben hat die Katze [The Cat Has Nine Lives] 90 min., 35mm Techniscope, color, dist: Basis Film (Berlin). Four women become fed up with dependency and decide to pursue success, but they recognize neither the social context of their oppression nor their common interests.

1973: Ein ganz perfektes Ehepaar [A Quite Perfect Couple] 90 min., l6mm, b/w, dist: Basis Film (Berlin). The theory and practice of an open marriage come into conflict when the partners can no longer uphold equality and their mutual expectations. Men's prerogatives – husband's and lover's – usurp the wife's demands for honesty.

1976: Erikas Leidenschaften [Erika‘s Passions] 64 min., l6mm, b/w, dist: Basis Film (Berlin) and Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany (Washington, DC). Two women (or the personification of two aspects within one woman) struggle with one another to decide why their relationship has declined. With mutual reproaches, they trace their respective self-hate while they wait for someone (a man?) who will save them from themselves.

1983: Den Vätern vertrauen, gegen alle Erfahrung [Trust in the Fathers Despite Experience] 30 min., 16mm, color (not yet released). One part of an omnibus film called Die Erbtöchter [The Hereditary Daughters] made by six German and French women filmmakers.

Project: Der Schlaf der Vernunft [Reason Sleeps] ca. 90 min., 35mm, b/w. A contemporary Medea adaptation set in Berlin tells the story through the eyes of a woman who is confronted with her 20-year marriage and two grown daughters.

Project: An autobiographical film about a woman searching for film financing but in the genre of a western or adventure film.




I have had luck financing a film a year since 1968. Two of my early films were made with my teacher and friend, Edgar Reitz. After that I was able to get money from the TV networks, which supported an artistic climate here. In 1973 I received money from another network (WDR), but for the first time I was confronted with censorship. I was too modest then and too dumb to recognize it. The producer – a man I respected and considered my friend – asked me to reduce my budget by 90%. He said that was all he could give me, and I thought it was purely a matter of economics, not censorship. After I had rewritten the script to satisfy him, I suddenly had doubts about it and changed it – not to be more expensive but more radical. Production was stopped until I rewrote the script according to instructions.

I was one of the first women filmmakers in West Germany before the women's movement. As far as the men were concerned, I was "just" a woman. I never conceived of my films as "women's films" or about "women's themes" but as stories about partners, either explicitly as in Ein ganz perfektes Ehepaar or implicitly as in Erikas Leidenschaften. I have made no films about women alone, even if men are absent.

Perhaps you could call Neun Leben hat die Katze the first women's film in West Germany. I was interested more in women because I knew more about them. Moreover, I relegated men to the dream images they have of themselves as absent. We see no men in the film, just women who live only for their relations with men. Today, more than ten years later, I think the struggle has shifted to another arena: Can people live together permanently at all?

Every person experiences this struggle, even men. My work "with" women also concerns the men with whom they live. For who could imagine women without their men? The women's movement is not just the province of women. At a time when women are completely without rights, we need the movement as an absolute necessity. Can men learn from us and begin to see their own misery at the same time that we women attempt to make films about emerging from our misery? If so, then the women's movement will have seen its time.

In Neun Leben hat die Katze I chose the characters as types: the not-yet-married professional woman, the recent divorcee confused about her future, the career woman, the deceived wife and the ultimate dream woman – a legendary Circe. In this film the women seem to be sleeping because each thinks only of herself and that she has an advantage over the other. Each one thinks she has a recipe for happiness, or that being unhappy is her own fault because she's too dumb to be happy. In other words, these women cannot see their anxieties as having something to do with the society in which they live. They exhibit a lack of knowledge about how one could behave differently. In my films now, the characters perceive each other more clearly and recognize their shared misery as something they don't have to be ashamed of – as in Erikas Leidenschaften.

I haven't made a film since 1977. I worked for four years on a script which was rejected in blatant censorship by funding sources everywhere. Apparently my personal radicalism must have shocked producers who consider themselves “feminist." What I perceive as radical is to do away with taboos, to write down my dreams and images.

My script, Killertango, deals with three women – a grandmother, her daughter and her granddaughter – and the pressure passed on from one generation to the next to fulfill contradictory demands. Dramaturgically I made the mother die, so as to free the daughter. It had to happen in a way that would teach the daughter something. That is, the mother died accidentally, when she sucked her lover's penis and he held her so tightly that she suffocated. For me this symbolized the daily suffocation millions of women experience as the result of male demands. Apparently this image was so violent that everyone rejected it out of hand. I am unwilling to drop it. Every artist reaches a point where she either accepts the conditions for continuing her work, conditions which make her lose track of the broader picture, or she refuses to compromise.1

I have never been active in the women's movement and have been criticized frequently for that. Yet the women's movement developed parallel to me. I was already making films when it began to organize and formulate goals. I considered radical separatism absurd. Moreover, the leaders of the organized women's movement in West Germany completely ignored my work. Indeed the fact that I had already achieved what they were still struggling for was counted against me. For them I was a "man's woman.” In any case, I need a certain amount of independence and my commitment is more meaningful through my film work.

I have often been asked why I don't make films about women workers. The answer is directly related to my feelings about the left. In West Germany it was purely a student movement. Although I studied at the Film Institute for five years, I was never really a student and saw the left as elitist. Our aims were the same, but they were so involved in their word games and their struggles with one another were uninteresting. In the women's movement, too, women can never come together around common goals. However, I do confront the ideas of both groups as the very basis of my work.

In the film scene, documentary realism continues to rule, and imagination is unwanted because no one pays for it. The films we see are the ones "allowed." To make those, you don't need imagination. Backers are so confused about their ability to judge that they have lost all their courage. Behind every film lies the commercial question: "How much will it earn?" Ten years ago we experienced a paradise in filmmaking, but now we face an enormous bureaucracy. It is not that we are explicitly persecuted as radicals, but you don't live without fear in a country which keeps everything on file.

  • 1Translator's note: Killertango was never funded, and Stöckl has given up on the project.

Image from Sonntagsmalerei (Ula Stöckl, 1971) / © Deutsche Kinemathek

This text was originally published in Jump Cut, no. 29 (February 1984): 55.

Many thanks to Julia Lesage and Marc Silberman.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.