Helma Sanders in Emden, Germany, 20 November 1940; added her
mother's maiden name to her own to differentiate herself from
another New German Cinema filmmaker, Helke Sander.
Studied acting in Hanover, Germany; studied drama and literature at
Worked as an announcer and interviewer for a Cologne television station,
1960s; began directing shorts and documentaries for German television,
1970; directed first feature,
, 1971; made
Erdbeben in Chile
, her first film for the Filmverlag der Autoren, set up by thirteen New
German Cinema directors as a production and distribution cooperative,
Angelika Urban, verkauferin, verlobt ( Angelika Urban, Salesgirl, Engaged ) (short)
Gewalt ( Violence ); Die industrielle Reservarmee ( The Industrial Reserve Army ) (doc)
Der angestellte ( The Employee )
Die machine ( The Machine ) (doc)
Die letzten tage von Gomorrah ( The Last Days of Gomorrah ); Erdbebenin Chile ( Earthquake in Chile )
Unter dem pflaster ist der strand ( The Sand under the Pavement )
Shirins hochzeit ( Shirin's Wedding )
Deutschland bleiche mutter ( Germany, Pale Mother ) (+ pr); Vringsveedeler triptichon ( The Vringsveedel Tryptych ) (doc)
Die beruhrte ( No Mercy No Future ; No Exit No Panic ) (+ pr, costumes, makeup)
Flugel und fesseln ( L'Avenir d'Emilie ; The Future of Emily )
Geteilte liebe ( Divided Love ; Manoever ) (+ pr)
Apfelbaume ( Apple Trees )
Lumière et compagnie ( Lumière and Company ) (short Lumière film)
Jetzt leben—Juden in Berlin
Mein Herz—Niemandem! ( My Heart Is Mine Alone ) (+ pr)
Clara (+ co-sc)
Der Subjektive Faktor (role)
The Night of the Filmmakers (appearance)
"Misunderstood Mother and Forgotten Father," interview with G. Vincendeau in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), May 1985.
Interview with C. Racine in Sequences (Montreal), February 1987.
Interview with Peter Brunette in Film Quarterly (Berkeley, California), Winter 1990.
Sanders-Brahms, Helma, and S. Toubiana, "Menace a l'est," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1990.
Interview with E. Richter and R. Richter in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), vol. 19, no. 8/9, 1991.
Interview with Janine Euvrard, in Ciné-Bulles (Montreal), Spring 1994.
Interview with Erika Richter, in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), vol. 25, no. 2, 1997.
Silberman, M., "Women Filmmakers in West Germany: A Catalog," in Camera Obscura (Los Angeles), Autumn 1980.
Aude, F., article in Positif (Paris), November 1981.
Silberman, M., "Women Working: Women Filmmakers in West Germany: A Catalog (Part 2)," in Camera Obscura (Los Angeles), Fall 1983.
Article in Film a Doba (Prague), June 1985.
Bammer, A., "Through a Daughter's Eyes: Helma Sanders-Brahms's Germany, Pale Mother ," in New German Critique , Fall 1985.
Fjordholm, H., article in Z Filmtidsskrift (Oslo), vol. 4, no. 5, 1986.
Desjardins, M., " Germany, Pale Mother and the Maternal: Toward a Feminist Spectatorship," in Spectator , vol. 8, no. 1, 1987.
Elsaesser, T., "Public Bodies and Divided Selves: German Women Filmmakers in the 1980s," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), December 1987.
Hyams, B., "Is the Apolitical Woman at Peace? A Reading of the Fairy Tale in Germany, Pale Mother ," in Wide Angle (Baltimore, Maryland), vol. 10, no. 3, 1988.
Kinder, M., "Ideological Parody in the New German Cinema: Reading The State of Things , The Desire of Veronika Voss , and Germany, Pale Mother as Postmodernist Rewritings of The Searchers , Sunset Boulevard , and Blonde Venus ," in Quarterly Review of Film and Video vol. 12, no. 1/2, 1990.
Kindred, Jack, "German Helmer Quits Fest over Yank Invasion," in Variety (New York), 14 February 1990.
Euvrard, J., in Ciné-Bulles (Montreal), no. 2, 1994.
Keene, J., "Mothering Daughters: Subjectivity and History in the Work of Helma Sanders-Brahms's Germany, Pale Mother (1979–1980), in Film-Historia , no. 1, 1997.
Kino (Warsaw), no. 2, 1997.
* * *
The films of Helma Sanders-Brahms have been programmed with some amount of relish at film festivals and in art houses and cinematheques, but it is a safe bet that they never will be mainstream movie fare. They are not engrossing dramas in which the audience can become emotionally involved in the onscreen action. Instead, Sanders-Brahms presents, from a distance, observable archetypes of life, often with a deliberate pacing. Rather than directing actors to express emotion, she prefers "pent-up" performers who hide their real feelings. In fact, actor Heinrich Giskes found himself so emotionally "pent-up" while shooting a scene for Heinrich that he broke a glass over his director's head as soon as she yelled cut.
Sanders-Brahms is a rebel to Hollywood conventions. She avoids casting glamorous leading ladies or hunky actors in order to sell tickets, and her films are often very slowly paced. She does not make "road movies," because she does not revel in what she calls "the poetry of the road, the journey. The autobahn and the factory assembly line are the same thing, the same prison."
A producer and writer in addition to director, Sanders-Brahms is a member of the New German Cinema movement, and as such she builds her scripts around the concerns of the political left. Many of her films present themes pertaining to the plight of the worker in Germany: the inequities of modern working conditions; how workers have been pitted against one another in order to attain Germany's capitalist "economic miracle"; and how the Gastarbeiter ("guest worker," or foreign migrant worker in Germany) is exploited.
Shirin's Wedding addresses the Gastarbeiter problem, focusing on the suffering of a Turkish woman. As a child, Shirin was betrothed to Mahmud, but he left for Germany to become a Gastarbeiter. To escape an arranged marriage, Shirin travels to Germany to find Mahmud. She obtains work in a factory in Cologne and later as a cleaner, a job which disappears after she is raped by her boss. She winds up a prostitute, with Mahmud paying to have sex with her. Eventually, she is killed by a pimp's bullet. In Die Beruhrte , the daughter of a bourgeois family seeks sexual partners in the streets, including black migrant workers, derelicts, and aged, crippled cast-offs of society. In these neglected people, she sees the essence of Christ. Finally, Apfelbaume shows the destruction of a family whose members are adversely affected by the politics of reunification.
Other motifs in Sanders-Brahms's work are the independent woman under fire and the mother-daughter relationship. She herself was raised by her self-reliant mother while her father was away fighting in Hitler's armies. He did not return until she was five years old. Much of her perception of her parents' relationship and her own childhood is depicted in Germany, Pale Mother , one of her best-known films. The mother is shown as a strong and independent woman who gives birth to her daughter (played by Sanders-Brahms's own baby girl) during an air raid. When the war ends, this woman is expected to file away her independence in order to be an obedient wife. She does so, but her frustrations take hold in the form of a disease which paralyzes her face and, in a gut-wrenching scene, calls for the removal of all her teeth.
The Future of Emilie tells of an actress who lives a single, unconventional lifestyle. She returns to her parents' home to retrieve her daughter, only to be told by her own mother that she is a bad influence on the child. In a powerful scene the actress and her little girl visit the beach, where they spin fantasy adventures with each other. The movie makes reference to the myth of an Amazon queen, a woman who has killed off the man she loves and is living quite nicely without the company of men. Sanders-Brahms's point is that, in modern society, there are women who also are living well without men, but they are brainwashed into thinking that they would be better off with male partners.
Sanders-Brahms's us-against-them brand of feminism mirrors the early 1970s, when the modern feminist movement was new and women who had grown up in a male-dominated society were feeling confrontational. Indeed, Felix , released in 1987, might have been made in the early 1970s. It is the politically loaded story of an egocentric, hypocritical modern male whose lack of self-awareness borders on the ridiculous. He has just been left by his lover, and he finds himself cast adrift in a world in which women no longer need men, or want men. Felix is filmed in four episodes, each shot by a different woman director—Christel Buschmann, Helke Sander, and Margarethe von Trotta, in addition to Sanders-Brahms. All are guilty of stereotyping men as jabbering idiots, and women as collectively sensitive, sensuous, and perceptive—practically perfect.
Sanders-Brahms's films are united in that they are reflective of the society in which she came of age. Along with her fellow members of the New German Cinema, she has a mission: to point out what is wrong with the world as she sees it.
—Audrey E. Kupferberg