Ulrike Ottinger

Travel remains the surest path to the pleasures and politics of defamiliarization. German independent filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger’s Southeast Passage: A Journey to New Blank Spots on the Map of Europe, 2002, is a three-part, six-hour-plus digital video that records aspects of a journey through sections of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Turkey. In the context of a contemporary Europe committed to some kind of union from the Atlantic to the Urals, Ottinger’s film is a reminder of regional difference as an antidote to continental hegemony. A kind of nonnarrative post-travelogue, the work is at times meandering and slowly paced, as Ottinger casually films the towns and landscapes that trickle endlessly by her car window, and at times intense and tautly focused, as she carefully shoots unexpected examples of Art Nouveau architecture, long-abandoned Jewish areas, and the market and communal life of small towns and neighborhoods. Even when what’s onscreen is banal or dreary—possibly especially then—one can tell the filmmaker is seeing it all for the first time. The film is a constellation of reflective snippets driven first by what Ottinger encounters but also by what she seeks: a frank examination of the patterns of life and history in some of Europe’s least observed and economically most depressed places.

Ottinger’s opus is divided into three parts: “From Wroclaw to Varna”; “Odessa”; and “Istanbul.” The first, a leisurely and sequential document of her journey from Poland to the Bulgarian port on the Black Sea, is the closest to a classic road trip, a study of the way not usually taken. Ottinger’s itinerary brings her from Wroclaw, Poland, to Kosice, Slovakia, to the towns of Eger and Szeged in Hungary, to Timisoara, Romania, and finally to Vidin and Varna in Bulgaria, with much countryside in between. She films the vicissitudes of place, the traces everywhere of lives lived in economic duress, seemingly epitomized by her study of the men and women who spend their days going from car to car selling sneakers and bric-a-brac amid the traffic at the Romanian border with Hungary. As a sound track, Ottinger uses her locations’ ambient sounds, recordings of local music, or texts by twentieth-century, mostly Eastern European writers (such as Anna Akhmatova, Isaac Babel, Kavafis, Imre Kertész, and Josef Roth) in voice-over. But if the filmmaker is temporarily transfixed by a child chasing pigeons or a bit of baroque balustrade, that’s what we see: Her visual engagement is, finally, an end in itself.

The visits to Odessa (beginning with the freighter that took her there from Varna) and Istanbul reveal Ottinger attentive to the sedimentary culture of these cities, in which the present is always enacted on the past and which both have an eerie air of unreality. On the fringes of both Europe and Asia, these cities’ bifurcation gives them an expectant quality, as if something is going to happen that never quite does. Ottinger seeks through multiple vignettes to offer the poetics of place and people as an alternative to the politics of power. Whatever occurs under the European Union, Ottinger’s film indicates that something remains untouched and unmoved, and all the more valuable for that reason.

James Yood