German filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger has been making films for nearly 50 years now, creating experimental and often transgressive work that frequently walks the line between documentary reality and artistic truth. Nothing has fazed her in this time, even working in the bohemian heyday of the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin, but her latest film, in which she turns the camera on herself, proved to be the most challenging so far.

Making its Dutch premiere in IDFA’s Masters section—after debuting at the Berlin Film Festival, where she was honored with the Berlinale Camera—“Paris Calligrammes” finds the director reflecting on her own formative experiences as a young painter and photographer in Paris, where she lived from 1962 to early 1969. She moved there to learn etching, but, because of a voracious appetite for learning, she also attended lectures by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, philosopher Louis Althusser and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu at the Collège de France, which may explain the philosophical and anthropological content of her work.

Moving from director to subject was hard for the director, now 78. “I was always too shy to talk about myself,” she told Pamela Cohn during an interview at IDFA. “It’s something I’ve never really done before. Your personal experience is in every film you make, of course, but not in a direct way. This time, the process was very complicated. I started to write down my memories and [stories] I have told my friends over dinners, as they were the ones who encouraged me to make it. There was a moment when I was thinking: ‘Maybe it’s a good thing, as there are similar situations happening now.’ But then it almost imploded.”

With a title inspired by Fritz Picard’s legendary bookshop Librairie Calligrammes, an astonishingly storied intellectual hangout on the Left Bank, Ottinger’s film explores the cultural scene of that era, and the ever-festering wound that was the Algerian War, which she researched exhaustively in various archives before shooting. “All my French friends had to become soldiers,” she recalled. “There was no chance to step out. Some could become teachers, but not many.” The first cut of the film, led by this theme of Algeria, was three hours long. “I was starting to get desperate,” she said, “convinced I would never finish this film. But when I first came to Paris, that’s what we used to discuss. We used to wonder how we could escape this conflict and how we could change the society so that these things wouldn’t happen again.” The editing alone took her, and editor Anette Fleming, two years—the most in her entire career.

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Fernand Tessier (Courtesy of Serpentine Teyssier)

Encouraged to talk about her early films as well, Ottinger noted that she had constantly been “learning by doing,” and that her time in Paris inspired her next move: after relocating to West Germany, she turned to cinema, making her debut in 1972 with “Laocoon & Sons,” a surreal meditation on gender inspired by Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel “Orlando: A Biography.” “When I came back to Germany from Paris,” she said, “I was surprised to discover a whole new vocabulary. I had to learn it from scratch. I was so amazed to see that my friends had changed so much.”

Ottinger also opened up about her use of music, not just in her fiction work but in her documentary features as well, ones that saw her travel to Mongolia, South Korea and China. “Before going to another country, I always look for its music,” she explained. “This is something very important to me. In ‘Exile Shanghai’ [six life stories of German, Austrian and Russian Jews that intersect in exile in Shanghai], it was Chinese music influenced by modern Western culture. Jewish refugees couldn’t bring anything valuable with them at the time, so they brought some cooking utensils and records of all these Jewish composers and singers like Joseph Schmidt, for example. When he arrived in New York, thousands of people were waiting for him, playing ‘My Song Goes ‘Round the World.’ That’s also the end song of ‘Exile Shanghai’.”

Acquiring the nickname of a ‘nomad’ filmmaker, Ottinger noted that discovering other worlds actually forced her to look for brand new solutions as a director. “In Mongolia [where she shot ‘Taiga’ in 1992], the nomads liked to be entertained,” she said, “so I would sing for them. I don’t have a great voice, but they liked it.”

“It’s a way to get closer to other people,” she observed, also mentioning that her unorthodox screenplays—collections of visual materials and texts that she picks up along the way—come in handy too. “You can’t just come with a camera and shoot,” she said. “First, you have to talk to people. You can’t just come with some inquisitorial questions either, it needs to be a dialogue. These ‘books’ of mine, which are usually quite big, are a good way of starting to talk about all the details they already know and recognize. And then … well, you always need a good translator.”