Walker Art Center

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Filmmakers Doris Dörrie: Straight through the Heart

Dialogue: Doris Dörrie with Klaus Phillips

  • Retrospective: July 8–27, 2000
  • Regional Premiere: Erleuchtung garantiert (Enlightenment Guaranteed)

In an introductory essay to a film annual she co-edited while a student at Munich’s renowned Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film (HFF) in 1978, Doris Dörrie decried the disillusioning state of feature film production in Germany. She pleaded for more films that, as Godard put it, reveal truth 24 times each second, films that manage to leave a lingering sensation in the heads, hearts, and stomachs of viewers and thus question, distort, or confirm truth. Eight years later, Men, her scathing comedy about a businessman who infiltrates the life of his wife’s Bohemian lover and transforms him into a conformist capitalist slave, became the top-grossing film in postwar German history, beating Out of Africa, Rocky IV, and everything else that came out of Hollywood that year. Der Spiegel proclaimed Dörrie “Germany’s most successful filmmaking woman.” She was the only woman to be featured on the magazine’s cover in 1986, and, much to the chagrin of the colleagues whose work she had bemoaned in her essay, the first German filmmaker since Rainer Werner Fassbinder to be given that recognition.

In addition to her 10 feature films and several documentaries and shorts, Dörrie’s astounding body of work includes seven volumes of short stories, a novel, and, most recently, three illustrated children’s books. The characters in her films frequently originate in her stories, where she claims she can become thoroughly familiar with them before she transforms them into characters in a screenplay. More often than not, Dörrie’s sympathies lie with underdog misfits struggling with love and with life in general, characters she once described as “not congruent with the world in which they live.” Her exploration of their dreams, fears, and prejudices invariably places them into extreme circumstances in which weird people appear normal and normal people seem weird. Accordingly, in Nobody Loves Me, Orfeo, a terminally ill, gay, black fortuneteller with suspect connections to outer space as well as Africa (“Uagnosch,” his purported home, is the southern German town “Schongau” spelled backward) is more sympathetic and “normal” than Lothar Sticker, the two-faced, Armani-suited lothario who suffers from impotence and cat allergies.

It is easy to see parallels between Dörrie’s narratives and the melodramas of Douglas Sirk or the seminal screwball comedies of Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, and Preston Sturges, which she may have encountered during her three post-Abitur years in California and New York. Dörrie redefines and refocuses the essential function of comedy, seeking to invalidate the proverbial German notion that you shouldn’t take something seriously if it makes you laugh. Without overt didacticism, she employs comedy to take a penetrating look at universal aspects of the human condition, but also at specifically German issues, such as the unwillingness or inability to accept the reality of a multicultural society.

From big-budget productions such as Am I Beautiful?, which in terms of its cast is a veritable “who’s who in German film today,” to Enlightenment Guaranteed, which was shot on digital video with a rudimentary crew, Dörrie’s films are roller coasters of emotion. By the time they are over we will have cried and we will have laughed. And we will have lingering sensations in our heads, hearts, and stomachs.

—Klaus Phillips

Klaus Phillips is an internationally recognized film scholar specializing in new German cinema, censorship, and women’s images in films. His articles have appeared in publications such as World Literature Today and Quarterly Review of Film Studies. His published books include Rainer Maria Rilke: Nine Plays, Women in Recent German Films, and New German Filmmakers: From Oberhausen Through the 1970’s, a collection of critical essays.

Doris Dörrie