Antje Engelmann’s films are about roots and family history. They shift between two poles: straight documentation and pre-arranged scenes. Personal stories are composed and edited before and behind the camera.
The film “Renate” accompanies Renate, a prostitute in her fifties, from Ulm via Hamburg to Berlin. The journey on German motorways to places where the protagonist once lived and worked provides the symbolic framework for Renate’s life story, as the film-maker draws the spectator deeper and deeper into the details. The film begins in her home, where she is preparing for a visit from a regular client with a foot fetish, then traces the life of a woman who entered this milieu on a quest for adventure, although the glamour of those early years has long since faded. Her tales of fast money and feeling desirable reflect that spirit of freedom and independence the young Renate was seeking. It is clear from her narrative that Renate never saw selling her body as humiliating, but rather as expressing an alternative attitude to life. To her, prostitution was not despicable horse-trading, but an opportunity for personal development thanks to an active sexual culture for which she was even paid money. Renate, then, does not look back with bitterness, but recalls these heady days with amusement, although – as she puts it – it really needed to end at some point. What has drained the glamour from Renate’s present life is not the radical difference between prostitution then and now, but the precarious financial position in which prostitutes find themselves today. And also sober recognition of the long-term consequences of exercising the trade. After all, as the protagonist comments, “your soul dies a little by the day”.
Antje Engelmann accompanies her aunt with a hand camera, always focussing solely on the woman as she talks, never interrupting her flow. She is an observer, structuring the narrative, but never once confronting Renate in any way – not with questions, and not with moral objections.
Wie Wann Wo Warum (2007)
“How When Where Why” is about the death of hamster Rufus and the way Laurin, the artist’s 12-year-old sister, deals with her loss. What seems at first to be a simple record on film turns out to be an opportunity for channelling her sister’s grief and helping her work it out on a different level. When news arrives that the animal must be put to sleep, Antje Engelmann sets up a funeral rite: she and Laurin find a lonely spot in the woods to build a little altar, where they watch as the corpse is consumed by flames. The ritual silences the protagonists, providing space for the spectator to reflect on the power of symbolic acts. But the spectators are not alone with these questions about the meaning of rites and symbols. Engelmann’s latest film also addresses them closely.
A Manual to Change the Past (2011)
The artist began working on this major film project in 2003, when her great-grandmother was still alive. Engelmann’s family history is told here as a multi-layered construct, with documentary footage, orchestrated rituals, and material she has found elsewhere, in films from the big screen and in the family’s own Super 8 archives.
Structurally, the principal points of reference are the ancestral origins of the Swabians who once settled along the Danube, and the ethnic rites and symbols they performed there. Antje Engelmann’s work on a personal search for traces of the family and her own identity resembles an ethnographic study. Aided by personal conversations with relatives, Engelmann traces the path her great-grandparents took when they were expelled from Hungary and came to Germany – and on to Brazil, where some of the Danube Swabians established a colony. There she discovers the daily lives of a community living in a kind of diaspora, who still observe the traditions and customs of their forefathers.
Her own biography thus becomes the springboard to explore the significance of homeland and community rites in a world widely assumed to be cosmopolitan. How important are folk costumes, dialects, eating habits – the desire to preserve traditions – as markers, enabling people to belong to something distinct and locate their own roots? Engelmann’s exploration of her own history oscillates between attraction and repulsion. But she also poses questions. How do you reconstruct the past? From pictures, stories, time travel, or from souvenirs and heirlooms? How do picture archives shape our personal memories?
Antje Engelmann adopts a structured approach. Understanding the past begins with museological research: the Central Museum of the Danube Swabians holds the clothes worn by her great-grandmother, but the trip to Entre Rios in Brazil provides an opportunity to enter a milieu preserved against time. Initially, all the details have to be painstakingly reconstructed, because in Germany the lifestyle of Danube Swabians is confined to clubs for wearing traditional costumes. In Brazil, however, the experience is still being lived. Ultimately only ritual seems to offer catharsis: the film ends with the artist and her brother in folk costume dancing the Hungarian czardas. History becomes performance, and performance is the chance to experience first-hand.
A collage approach not only enables the film-maker to play with different techniques for reconstructing the past and constructing identity. It also allows the narrative to shift skilfully between things that determine the narrator and her efforts to find herself.
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