The Working Class Family

Interview with Helga Reidemeister

(1) Von wegen ‘Schicksal’ (Helga Reidemeister, 1979)


Born 1940, Helga Reidemeister studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin (1961-1965), had a daughter in 1969, did social work in a Berlin welfare housing district (1973-1974), and studied film at the German Academy for Film and Television in Berlin (1973-1977).

Articles and Interviews in Kursbuch (Nos. 25, 27, 37) Wohnste sozial, hast die Qual (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1977)

1977: Der gekaufte Traum [The Purchased Dream] 79 min., 16mm (Super-8 blowup), color, dist: Zentral Film (Hamburg). The everyday life and problems of a working class family are treated in this documentary, produced together with the Bruder family. Unskilled workers' hopeless situation reproduces itself generationally because of social discrimination that confronts them at every turn.

1979: Von wegen ‘Schicksal’ [This is ‘Destiny’?] 116 min., 16mm, b/w, dist: Basis Film (Berlin). This documentary presents a 50-year old divorced mother questioning the ideology of motherhood and family. At the same time the film observes the violence which family life can produce and reproduce.

Film Projects: Two portraits, one of Carola Bloch, wife of Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, and the other about a jet set model/prostitute (Mit starrem Blick aufs Geld [With Only Money in her Eyes]).




In the late sixties most left students sought out factory work. In contrast, I decided to become involved in community grass roots organizing in the “Märkische Viertel" (a modern high rise West Berlin satellite development) where I became fascinated with my own ignorance about working class daily life.

I was suspicious about how we student leftists tried to learn about the proletariat theoretically. We read books, engaged in endless discussions and held meetings. Yet no one felt the need to go simply where workers live – the sphere of reproduction – and to develop an independent perspective about their daily misery. The only thing we did was go to factories. But even there we students made contact only where we already knew there'd be politically sympathetic skilled workers, a vanguard and visible struggle we could easily support. We completely neglected the whole sphere of reproduction both theoretically and practically.

I got to know a working class family who hated filmmakers like Willutzki and Ziewer. [Max Willutzki and Christian Ziewer are two of the most prominent exponents of the Berlin School of Workers' Films which began to emerge in the mid-sixties. In a conscious effort to revive the tradition of proletarian films of the twenties, these filmmakers produced documentaries aimed at generating discussions with workers about their problems and fictional films about working class life.] The family said,

“They are always making films about us, but never with us. They never show us the way we really want to be shown.”

These filmmakers either documented or interpreted, but always excluded the families from the production process, and, of course, from the final editing. For someone like me, a complete ignoramus, I felt safest beginning work with people in their homes. I made my first film, Der gekaufte Traum, with the Bruder family. They wanted to film something about themselves. I got them a Super-8 camera and some other equipment to document themselves. With their first reels I tried to interest other students in my university class in the project. I recoined a phrase from the May events in Paris, "Let's put the camera into the hands of the workers," to help working class families with student support learn to use simple means of production for their self-representation. For two reasons, the students didn't cooperate. First, these unskilled workers, as measured on the scale of political hubris in the student movement at that time, did not seem politically useful or revolutionary enough. Second, students found it too troublesome to get involved in workers' daily lives.

I started filming with one friend, and the family always had another camera to use as they pleased. There was never one continuous day of filming. We tried to get a feel for their daily life, getting up in the morning, in the kitchen, etc. Reduced to a primitive level, my political commentary rather clumsily showed statistics against building facades; I could find no better way to visualize a critical perspective. Furthermore, at every public institution – youth detention center, school, workplace – the film is interrupted by an X, “filming prohibited.”

Der gekaufte Traum bristles with naiveté. At every turn I had to rely on staging – it's a form of Berufsverbot. Those who criticized me, including my teachers, idealistically wanted pure documentary rather than the hodge-podge I was making (see excerpt following this interview). Ever since I figured out that making pure documentary is impossible, I've realized that I can create a certain approximation of reality only if I pull back consistently within my own four walls. Thus, my most recent film, Von wegen ‘Schicksal’, is completely impoverished in terms of presenting relations between the inner and outer world. There is nothing left of the outer world. But that resulted from the film's material conditions of production.

Von wegen ‘Schicksal’ forced me to stage psychological situations. The protagonist, Irene Rakowitz, insisted that if the film were to present only a half-truth, then it would be worthless. But to present the whole truth demands an enormous effort and, on her part, a commitment to reveal everything. She underestimated what it means to have spotlights, camera, a cameraperson, and a sound technician around all the time. She still expected the truth, but she pulled down the shades. I saw no other possibility but to provoke her, to overcome these inhibitions. I came up with a kind of mise-en-scene to build her a bridge so she could forget the whole alienating situation. Of course, I wanted to bring very particular problems to light. If you don't have that kind of interest, then you won't be forced into staging scenes.

At the end of my first film, Der gekaufte Traum, I wanted gnawing dissatisfaction to continue among the viewers. West Germany provides no social solution for unskilled workers, and I cannot offer answers when there are none. The eldest son was able to complete his schooling in the detention center, so the film offers this consolation: both social and individual insight can be attained only through a sound education.

In contrast, the ending of Von wegen ‘Schicksal’ strikes the audience as artificial and optimistic. There are reasons why I took this risk. In the exhausting discussions with viewers, Irene Bruder heard audiences confirm her fears that an unskilled worker, a cleaning lady, had no chance, that socially she was at the bottom of the heap. Despite the fact that many people expressed their respect for her and her extraordinary achievement in bringing attention to her problems, it was for her a catastrophic experience. I knew that the film with Irene Rakowitz would have a more positive ending. Orphaned at two years of age, she was raised by adoptive parents in a petty bourgeois environment. She was able to finish the first year of Gymnasium schooling (approximately equivalent to finishing U.S. fifth grade) and then became an apprentice housemaid. After her marriage, she worked in a textile factory and at other odd jobs. In contrast to the Bruder children from the family of unskilled workers, who were all placed in schools for slow learners, the Rakowitz daughters all finished the first year of Gymnasium. They had entirely different opportunities. Moreover, I never intended to analyze Irene Rakowitz's situation like a case study. I wanted to show where her strength comes from to go on living.

During the filming I was under terrible pressure, since Irene Rakowitz constantly wanted to know what the whole film's point was. She thought it had no point at all if she saw in it only her own misery:

“If other people don't get a punch or a lift out of it, then the whole thing belongs in the trashcan."

Those were her demands, and I always try to stick very closely to the needs of those people with whom I work. Also, to analyze on film the breakdown of a family under our social circumstances demands that viewers come out with a hopeful attitude. We have to recognize that working through this kind of family life is necessary before we can emancipate ourselves. We are not living in a time that can afford defeatist films; I wanted to be constructive.

The only camerawoman that I have observed was in a film by the Senegalese director Safi Faye. Her camera strokes a person. It is unbelievable and very tender. A father and son converse, while the camera wanders down the entire body of this enormously tall man and from the feet of the son back up to the son's face. I was very touched and wondered how you could explain this kind of movement to a cameraman. When I asked Safi Fay afterwards, she said in English:

“You see, I have moved him.”

And she demonstrated how she had taken hold of the cameraman like a movable tripod and moved him. Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman also reveals the camera eye of a woman, in the way she sees objects and her sensitivity for the things which daily surround a woman. Women get caught up in details.

While I do not try to distinguish here between “male” and “female” forms, certain films – because of their point of view – could only have been made by women. However, that cannot be formulated into a "female aesthetic." Questions about specific male and female aesthetic forms are premature and presumptuous. Should women filmmakers continue to develop themselves and work without the political pressure of adapting to male norms, then it may be possible in ten or twenty years to reflect on what has emerged. Up to now, our films have been more or less first tries without the experience and depth of years of work. And a discussion about concepts might be fatal while there are still so many unexplored possibilities, so many experiments which must and will be attempted.

My main characters are women because in our society women have the greatest difficulty in finding a bit of happiness in their daily lives. But I wouldn't call my films "women’s films,” rather family films. I like to think men can equally learn from them. One-sided learning by women is useless, as far as I'm concerned. I take seriously the viewing habits of the so-called masses in order to reach them. That is public which is consistently deceived and neglected by television because their everyday problems are ignored. I don't make films for the privileged, for intellectuals, although I don't exclude them. My main project is to make films for the people who are in them and who recognize themselves in them. Beyond that, I also make films for myself and for my friends. The themes in my most recent films – about the capacity to love, about violence, dreams, and hope – these are not questions specific to any one class. My films also attempt to work out problems which remain unsaid and repressed. They are documents of what isolates me, what makes me angry, what I want to experience so that it will change, so that it won't stay the way it is.

Image from Von wegen ‘Schicksal’ (Helga Reidemeister, 1979) / © Deutsche Kinemathek

This text was originally published in Jump Cut, no. 27 (July 1982): 44-45.

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.