In Paris Calligrammes (2019), Ulrike Ottinger’s most recent film, we experience a whole new chapter in her ethnographic expeditions. We now embark on a journey through time, leading us back to Paris in the 1960s. Utopian research differentiates between spatial and temporal utopias, but this film is both. It is a spatial utopia going, not to the ends of the world or into uncharted territory, but into the heart of the Parisian metropolis, and also a temporal utopia whose time lies, not in the future, but in the past. It is an autobiographical journey back to her own youth, to the years of her all-important coming of age.

Focusing specifically on this phase of her life, Ulrike Ottinger’s film forges a bridge between the then and now. Images intersect, meld, and overlap. This is at its most evident when the artist reappropriates the shop window of the former Librairie Calligrammes—in Saint-Germain-des-Prés quartier, Paris—for her own exhibition. Momentarily, the window display is swept clean and adorned with her own treasures: the collection of books she acquired at the time and which she has assiduously cultivated throughout the intervening years. Just like the window display, the entire film abounds with impressions, experiences, and memories. Yet, the period fifty years ago, the “past present” that she so vividly brings back to life, is receptive in equal measure to both the burden of a traumatic history and to the allure of an experimental and vibrant future.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Ulrike Ottinger spent the formative phase of her youth in voluntary exile in France. Anxious to escape her provincial hometown, the then twenty-year-old came to appreciate that even the metropolis Paris was, in fact, a village, full of distinctive, autonomous quarters, intimate circles, communal cafes, and the promise of renewed encounters. What she learned here over almost a decade would suffice to serve as the inspiration for an entire life’s work. Consequently, the film is also a biography of Ottinger’s output. It not only reimagines the enduring impressions and stimuli affecting her, but also traces the trajectory of her own oeuvre: From the early ornamental etchings in the internationally mixed master classes of Johnny Friedlaender and the narrative images and striking colors of her creative explosion in Pop art—replete with art objects and happenings—through to her films, which thematize her artistic role models from the early days of film and theater, as well as Orientalizing paintings, Francisco Goya’s artworks, or scenes depicting the violence on the streets of Paris.

When was Europe?

The Paris in which the artist first arrives and subsequently lives was the Paris of the Jewish and political émigrés who had fled political persecution, and who were once again devotedly scouring attic floors and antiquarian bookshops to collate the vestiges of the ravaged German literature, spanning the classical to the modern period. Time stood still within the sanctuary of exile, and that which was once lost was rediscovered and—before its final disappearance—embodied in honorable collectors and book dealers, bibliophiles and eccentrics, readers and poets, visionaries and philosophers. In the informal gathering places within this subculture—the bookstores, salons, and cafes—people browsed and read, engaged in endless multilingual discussions.

The film paints a group portrait of this displaced generation who had survived two World Wars and the Holocaust. One further highlight is the poignant requiem from Walter Mehring, in which, on New Year’s Eve 1941, he read out the names of the dead artists of his generation and, in the process, summoned them together again.

Outbreaks of Violence

During her period of creative exile, Ulrike Ottinger often experienced firsthand the sudden outbreaks of violence that lurked beneath the elegant veneer of vibrant Parisian life. During the Algerian Civil War, she witnessed how a small gathering of Algerian demonstrators was put down with gratuitous brutality by a police death squad, in an act of violence which claimed the lives of hundreds of people and which was never brought before the courts. Such were the febrile tensions within the city that a public discussion in Jean-Louis Barrault’s theater also culminated in an orgy of violence. Similarly, the May Demonstrations of 1968 soon revealed their destructive potential.

Cultural sites such as the Louvre, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, or the Cinémathèque appear in the film as counter-images to the violence on the streets, shown as places of collection and cultivation, recognition and preservation. In this constellation, these places of tranquility and reflection, memory and communication, manifest themselves as fundamentally precarious and imperiled, confirming that the artist had learned the lessons from her exiled friends. On their own, these institutions of cultural memory are ill-equipped to ward off the forces of destruction, instead requiring the protection, appreciation, and respect of the people.

Colonial Heritage

For Ottinger, the word “culture” exists only in the plural. From the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss she learned that many are required in order to be able to view one’s own culture through the prism of a different culture. She goes to the places in the city that are marked by France’s colonial history. For the artist, the Paris Colonial Museum with its striking architecture is a noteworthy historical citation from a past time. Today, it retells quite a different story, one of continued immigration.

As the counter-image to the racism and fanaticism of the former colonial power, the film presents multiethnic Paris—with its high proportion of citizens originating from the former colonies. How the history of colonialism unspectacularly ran its course and ultimately ended is depicted in the brilliant episode in the auction house, where the national legacy of colonialism comes under the hammer, and—now decontextualized—is borne away as scattered fragments by individual collectors and aficionados. Having reached this final stage, the legacy passes into new ownership, with any artifacts that retain market value either sold off or repossessed; and yet, the viewer’s gaze lingers on the shot of the vast building’s escalator and its rotating perpetual motion, which alludes to the circulation of the market and the inexorable passing of time.

In fact, Ulrike Ottinger’s film brings everything neatly together. The old and the young, pain and pleasure, horror and comedy, experience and curiosity. Curiosity and astonishment are the principal drivers of this film: With our eyes wide open and senses primed, we have participated in her discoveries, in the openness of youth, in the freshness of their perspective, in their joyful receptiveness for everything the artist encounters. Yet, despite her concealment behind a large pair of sunglasses, the roving eyes of the artist are never still. All the places constituting the cabinet of curiosities that is Paris—its narratives, its people, images, poetry, songs, and sounds—have continued to resonate in her work. She has now bequeathed this to us in her poetic, filmic narrative.