– Autumn/Winter 2007

Sign in the Void: Ulrike Ottinger's Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia

Homay King

Ulrike Ottinger's films teeter between fiction and documentary, and between an attitude of knowing critical distance and seeming sincerity. At first glance this tension appears to map neatly onto her career, with the ironic pastiches of the early Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1978), Ticket of No Return (1979) and The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press (1984), followed by the experimental ethnographic styles of such films as China: The Arts - Everyday Life (1986), TaigaExile Shanghai (1997).

In his text 'My Last Interview with Ulrike Ottinger: On Southeast Passage and Beyond', Laurence Rickels notes that shortly after the release of Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia (1989) critics hastened to mark a 'before' and 'after' point in Ottinger's career. But as Rickels implies, this gesture to some extent belies Ottinger's 'dual - and in every film moment double - investment in fictional art cinema and documentary film'.1

Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia seems to occupy the fulcrum of this binary opposition in Ottinger's oeuvre. Its two-part structure folds over an internal fulcrum, making the film metonymic of the oeuvre as a whole. The film's two sections dramatise a clash not only between cultures, but also between filmmaking styles. The first hour of the film introduces a motley group of European, Russian and American travellers aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway. These characters, like many of their predecessors in Ottinger's work, seem to typify or allegorise particular imagos and worldviews. The ilm takes a detour when, in a scene reminiscent of Joseph von Sternberg's imagos The Shanghai Express (1932), the train is brought to a halt in the middle of the Gobi desert by a nomadic tribe of Mongolians

  1. Laurence A. Rickels, 'My Last Interview with Ulrike Ottinger: On Southeast Passage and Beyond', in Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour (ed.), Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2004, p.422.

  2. Julia Knight, 'Observing Rituals: Ulrike Ottinger's Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia', in Ingeborg Majer O'Sickey and Ingeborg von Zadow (ed.), Triangulated Visions: Women in Recent German Film, Albany: SUNY Press, 1998, p.111.

  3. Brenda Longfellow, 'Lesbian Phantasy and the Other Woman in Ottinger's Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia', Screen, vol.34 no.2, Summer 1993, p.127.

  4. Janet Bergstrom, 'The Theatre of Everyday Life: Ulrike Ottinger's China: The Arts - Everyday Life', Camera Obscura, no.18, September 1988, p.47.

  5. In a discussion with Ottinger, Mandy Merck notes stylistic similarities between Ottinger's first China documentary and Antonioni's Chung Kuo: Cina (1972). See Annette Kuhn, 'Encounter between Two Cultures: A Discussion with Ulrike Ottinger', Screen, vol.28 no.4, Autumn 1987, p.77.

  6. Janet A. Kaplan, 'Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia: Interview with Ulrike Ottinger', Art Journal, vol.61 no.3, Fall 2002, p.7.

  7. Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, New York: Hill and Wang, 1982, p.3.

  8. J. Knight, 'Observing Rituals', op. cit., p.110.

  9. For a reading of Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia that situates it in these terms, see Longfellow, op. cit. For readings of Madame X - An Absolute Ruler that follow similar lines of argument, see Patricia White, 'Madame X of the China Seas', Screen, vol.28 no.4, Autumn 1987, pp.80-95; and Sabine Hake, '"And with Favourable Winds They Sailed Away": Madame X and Femininity', in Sandra Frieden et al. (ed.), Gender and German Cinema, Volume 1: Gender and Representation in New German Cinema, Providence and Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1993, pp.179-88. For readings of Ticket of No Return that centre on female subjectivity, see Miriam Hansen, 'Visual Pleasure, Fetishism and the Problem of Feminine/Feminist Discourse: Ulrike Ottinger's Ticket of No Return', New German Critique, no.31, Winter 1984, pp.95-108; and Kaja Silverman, 'From the Ideal-Ego to the Active Gift of Love', The Threshold of the Visible World, New York: Routledge, 1996, as well as 'Narcissism: The Impossible Love', in I. M. O'Sickey and I. von Zadow (ed.), Triangulated Visions. Women in Recent German Film Albany: SUNY Press, 1998. On Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press, see Roswitha Mueller, 'The Mirror and the Vamp', New German Critique, no.34, Winter, 1985, pp.176-93. For a reading of Exile Shanghai that highlights the significance of a lesbian, feminist perspective, see Amy Villarejo, 'Archiving the Diaspora: A Lesbian Impression of Ulrike Ottinger's Exile Shanghai', New German Critique, no.87, Autumn 2002, pp.157-91.

  10. J. Knight, 'Observing Rituals', op. cit., p.111; and Roswitha Mueller, 'Telling Wander Tales', http://www.ulrikeottinger.com/de/tueb-mueller.html (last accessed on 11 June 2007).

  11. See Katie Trumpener, 'Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia in the Mirror of Dorian Gray: Ethnographic Recordings and the Aesthetics of the Market in the Recent Films of Ulrike Ottinger', New German Critique, no.60, Autumn 1993, pp.77-99; and Kristen Whissel, 'Racialized Spectacle, Exchange Relations, and the Western in Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia', Screen, vol.37 no.1, Spring 1996, pp.41-67.

  12. Gaylyn Studlar, In the Realm of Pleasure: Von Sternberg, Dietrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

  13. B. Longfellow, 'Lesbian Phantasy', op. cit., p.134.

  14. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, p.223.