“A woman” in the cinema: everything about my mother – culture

“A woman” in the cinema: everything about my mother – culture

There is a situation that comes up again and again in Jeanine Meerapfel’s great essay film “A Woman”. The Argentinian-German filmmaker wants to shoot in an apartment where her mother used to live, but first has to ask the current residents for permission. Of course, they immediately agree and allow themselves to be filmed, standing or on the sofa, with children and pets.

And yet there is initially a hesitation in the pictures, a cautious approach, a doubt. As if Meerapfel could only film other things than what she is really about: the traces of her mother’s life. And as if she wasn’t even sure if she was even allowed to do that: one Movie do about this woman who has always remained strange to her.

Marie-Luise Chatelaine, called “Malou”, who was born in Burgundy, France at the beginning of the 20th century, had what can be called an eventful life. The girl grew up in an orphanage and later with a loveless aunt until she left the provinces as a young woman, went to Strasbourg and met a wealthy Jewish tobacco manufacturer from Karlsruhe. In order to marry him, Marie-Luise converts to Judaism and becomes Frau Meerapfel.

The family later fled from the Nazis, first settling in Amsterdam and then in Buenos Aires, where Jeanine was born in 1943. For some time, the woman, who exudes an ethereal beauty in old photos, leads a happy and sophisticated life at the side of a rich man. But then he rejects her and Marie-Luise slides into poverty. The end of your life is determined by too much vermouth, too many cigarettes and too much mold on the walls.

Meerapfel had already dealt with her mother’s life in her first feature film from 1980, “Malou”, but at that time in the form of a fiction. Now it’s a matter of looking at the personal memories and material remains from the mother’s life as directly as possible. The photographs, documents and letters, minutes of conversations and eight-millimeter films are commented on by Meerapfel’s voice from the off.

Her speaking rhythm lends the story a lyrical note. The pauses she intersperses between the words are reminiscent of line breaks in a poem. When it comes to the mother’s silver cutlery and the spoon that disappeared from that, Meerapfel emphasizes that from now on they only exist in her memory: “as a gap / something / that’s missing”.

The film is underlaid with a gentle, seemingly improvised score by the jazz musician and clarinettist Floros Floridis, a wonderfully open and searching movement that is taken over and continued by the images. The archive materials are only part of the cinematic attempt at order, which mainly takes place in the present. Meerapfel travels the stations of his mother’s life: Chalon-sur-Sâone, Strasbourg, Untergrombach near Karlsruhe, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires.

What can still be filmed reveals nothing more about the mother

She films the cows in Burgundy and wonders if these were the first images the mother saw as a child. She films the buildings and the people on the streets and has to admit that they don’t reveal anything about her mother. She films the swallows in the blue sky and has to realize that the swallows are too fast for the camera and that this picture doesn’t say anything either.

Later the seagulls, which the father once took with his eight-millimeter camera in Amsterdam, answer. Here, too, the swift movement of the birds escapes the picture. Present and past combine in a lively elan, a flutter that cannot be captured.

There are always these shortcuts. The French Sâone seems to anticipate the Argentine Río de la Plata. And doesn’t the fate of the wife who was expelled from the family remind one of that of a concubine of Henri IV who had fallen out of favor? Meerapfel shares this playful association, this sense of the beauty of what only appears in one’s own perception, with the Nouvelle Vague icon Agnès Varda. Like Varda, Meerapfel physically places photographs from the family archive in the landscape, on stairs, fences and house walls – even on the beach.

“If you open people, you will find landscapes,” Varda once said. Open Marie Louise Chatelaine and you will find the chaotic history of the 20th century. One encounters the Shoah, flight and emigration, an exile that does not mean the same thing for everyone, Evita Peron, the “saint of the poor”, and the Argentine military dictatorship. Above all, one encounters the realization that one cannot film the past – only the present. There is now a parking lot where the hospital where the mother died once stood. Just film the parking lot.

A woman, Germany 2021. – Direction and script: Jeanine Meerapfel. Camera: Johann Steht. Editing: Vasso Florida. Music: Floros Floridis. Realfiction, 104 min. Theatrical release: December 1st, 2022.

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