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Ulrike Ottinger, Das perfekte Ebenbild und seine unaufthaltsame Mechanik  (The Perfect Image and Its Unrelenting Mechanics), 1977, C-print, 35 3⁄8 × 23 5⁄8".

Ulrike Ottinger, Das perfekte Ebenbild und seine unaufthaltsame Mechanik (The Perfect Image and Its Unrelenting Mechanics), 1977, C-print, 35 3⁄8 × 23 5⁄8".

Ulrike Ottinger

Bridget Donahue

Taken on the set of filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger’s swashbuckling s/m fantasy Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1977), the photograph Das perfekte Ebenbild und seine unaufthaltsame Mechanik (The Perfect Image and Its Unrelenting Mechanics) captures a saucy tableau on board the corsair Orlando. A female pirate—sporting fetishy, elbow-length gloves; a black bralette; and an irrepressibly blonde, Boris Vallejo–worthy mane—wields a stake over actress Tabea Blumenschein, cast as the flesh-and-blood, leather-clad figurehead bedecking the ship’s bow. Moments later, the pirate will ecstatically plunge her blade into the speciously motionless ornament. The figure will then awaken and put her assailant in a chokehold, asphyxiating her with cyborg strength.

Beginning as a painter in the 1960s, Ottinger emerged in the following decade as a leading maker of postmodern German film. Loosely plotted, image-driven, and disposed to camp and grotesquerie, her early works occupied a singular place between the New German Cinema (a style heavily associated with, if not overdetermined by, famous male auteurs such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders), and the activist, documentary-oriented women’s film movement, which cohered around the journal Frauen und Film (Women and Film). The latter couldn’t abide the problematic pleasures of Madame X. As the film historian Miriam Hansen has recounted, its burlesque depiction of Sapphic violence—already a perverse pastiche of the internecine battles within second-wave feminism—became a lightning rod for debates about feminist aesthetics: “Ottinger’s highly stylized exploration of the erotic fringe, her foregrounding of sado-masochistic and fetishistic tendencies as culturally constructed (and constructing) signs, obviously presented a challenge to essentialist positions which would condemn such tendencies as ‘naturally’ male.”

Ottinger’s eponymous exhibition at Bridget Donahue, her first New York gallery show in nearly two decades, featured photographs, most of which were production stills from the numerous films she made in the course of her storied career. (Also in the exhibition was a suite of map collages from 2011 that, despite their large scale, felt relatively minor.) The stills are not epiphenomenal, but in fact are foundational to Ottinger’s cinema; she has described them as “visual notes” that help her imagine and crystallize her ideas in time-based media. Many of the exhibition’s most unforgettable images—Jacobs Pilger (Jacob’s Pilgrims); Das Gastmahl der verfolgten Wissenschaftler und Künstler (The Feast of Persecuted Scientists and Artists); Zwerges und einer Bartfrau (Narcissistic Hermaphrodite Accompanied by a Dwarf and a Beard)—came out of Ottinger’s time-warping genderfuck fairy tale Freak Orlando (1981), a Rabelaisian pageant of flagellants, false messiahs, carnies, and showgirls.

In Aller—jamais retour (Go—Never Return), 1979, Blumenschein—immaculately coiffed and attired in a tomato-red pillbox hat and matching funnel-neck coat—raises her white-gloved hand against a cloudy, water-streaked pane of glass. Made during the filming of Ottinger’s Ticket of No Return, the image is about artifice, surface, and shimmer. Coterminous with the picture plane, the glittering transparency partitions the viewer from Blumenschein’s fatally glamorous protagonist. She doesn’t look through the window so much as at it with her bleary, heavily mascaraed eyes. In the movie, Blumenschein plays an alcoholic socialite—a woman of “exquisite beauty” and “harmonious Raphaelesque proportion”—who buys a one-way plane ticket to Berlin with the sole objective of drinking herself to death. Aller—jamais retour is as easy to look at as Ticket of No Return is difficult to watch. Wrested from the latter’s procedural debauchery and flaneurial drift, the image—like the best of Ottinger’s pictures—demands narrative elaboration while also asserting its own powerful erotics.