Film

Hiding in Plain Sight

Ursula Reuter Christiansen, Skarpretteren (The Executioner), 1971, 16 mm, color, sound, 35 minutes.

“THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN MY LIFE,” says Ursula Reuter Christiansen in a new interview that’s included in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Denmark, in Copenhagen. The show revolves around her cult classic short film Skarpretteren (The Executioner), 1971, and features related artworks, along with production and archival material. Reuter Christiansen began studying under Joseph Beuys at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1965, and then left her native Germany in 1970 for a farmhouse on a small Danish island with her husband, the composer Henning Christiansen. “It was a shock,” she recalls, “a never-ending struggle. I was in a conventional marriage to a man, eleven years older than me, who had never touched a dishcloth.”

This tension between her commitment to the women’s movement and her simultaneous love for and dependency on men—the eternal Gordian knot of feminism—plays out in and around her work from those years. In 1971, the Danish painter and filmmaker Per Kirkeby controversially offered his own funding from a Danish short-film council grant to Reuter Christiansen, Lene Adler Pedersen, and Elisabeth Terkelsen to produce a work. Tre Piger og en Gris (Three Girls and a Pig), 1971, was the result. Set entirely inside a bedroom, the three artists, dressed in white nightgowns, keep a pet piglet to play with. Once they change into uniforms, they castrate it.

The animal, a stand-in for an unambiguously subordinate and dispensable man, belies the real and beguiling Janus-faced Dracula character, understood to be hiding in the night, who would be far more hesitantly neutered. The same year, the poet and filmmaker Jørgen Leth, who was on the board of the aforementioned short-film council, provided funding for her follow-up: The Executioner. “I was not interested in ‘flip flip,’” Reuter Christiansen says, referring to the handheld Super 8 cameras that dominated the early 1970s film scene. “I just wanted”—she cuts her hands vertically through the air—“that.” She means perfection. In such a pursuit, of course, she needed money and the best cinematographers in the field—in short, to create her pastiche parable of a woman’s struggle against her oppressor, she needed men.

Ursula Reuter Christiansen, Skarpretteren (The Executioner), 1971, 16 mm, color, sound, 35 minutes.

The film is a fractured narrative in which the filmmaker herself, in one stunning painterly composition after another, performs the unnamed embodiment of a mythical eternal feminine: picking flowers in a field, wandering through the forest with a basket, rescuing a wounded soldier before breastfeeding him, bathed in a divine ray of light. The eponymous figure of The Executioner, clad in red, is also simply Man: husband, father, everywhere and interchangeably carrying an axe or idyllically jumping rope with children. As Reuter Christiansen relays in a poetic voice-over, her character––an emblem of womanhood––is simultaneously constituted and exasperated by her roles as mother and lover. She knows that when the band of men go to work, shovels resting on their shoulders, their job for the day is to dig her grave. She considers her options: Abandoning the children, although they tire her, is not one, and neither is lesbian separatism (a nude blonde covered in flowers briefly but insufficiently entices), leading her, finally, to the red-cloaked killer. Unlike the mysterious antagonist of Three Girls and a Pig, as the artist explains in the interview, the executioner is not necessarily evil, only “his profession, his task, quite simply, is to kill.” As such, the challenge of feminist emancipation, in this director’s vision, lies not in patricide but in first coming to terms with the parts of her own female identity that will have to die with it.

As the archival material shows, the mournful and beautiful images that the film offers were, at the time of its release, seen as incongruous with its political agenda. Upon its premier at the 1974 Berlinale, one reviewer noted that “the feminist statements are as if attached in an afterthought,” like a bouquet of images that do not add up. But the symbolism is only as irresolvable as the reality that it speaks to. For instance, in 1971, Jørgen Leth won the main award at Oberhausen, the most prestigious short-film festival of the day, to which Reuter Christiansen’s work was never admitted. And the final words of her film—“The next great moment in history is ours”—spoken as the death mask of the female martyr is hung on a barn door, were chosen by the American artist Dorothy Iannone, a friend of the filmmaker’s, who spent much of her career in the shadow of her partner, Dieter Roth. Remember, the man in red is not evil, yet his contract says to murder.

The Executioner does not despair in the face of this ambivalence, but rather recognizes it as an opportunity to kill two fictitious birds with one stone: woman and the patriarch. A sculpture of a torso holding its own head, which Reuter Christiansen produced during her time with Beuys in Düsseldorf, decorates the gallows of her main character’s beheading, as if to join her creations in the grave. “The day that Beuys died,” she wrote in a book of texts relating to the film and published in 1986, again, at the encouragement of Per Kirkeby, “a bird of prey crashed its head beak first with a bang against the window / it then flew tumbling out over the fields.” For her, it was a reminder of “a story from a coast where I used to live,” one that has “long passed” yet remains all too resonant.

Ursula Reuter Christiansen, Skarpretteren (The Executioner), 1971, 16 mm, color, sound, 35 minutes.

Ursula Reuter Christiansen’s The Executioner (1971) screens as part of the artist’s solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Denmark through June 10, 2018.

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