Dec 1, 2012

Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia

After finishing her “Berlin triology” (Ticket of No Return, Freak Orlando, Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press), German Sapphic auteur Ulrike Ottinger decided to venture outside of her native Germany and outside the restraints of both narrative fiction/documentary with her postmodern Trans-Siberian epic Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia (1989) aka Joan of Arc of Mongolia. Essentially like Ottinger’s first feature-length work Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1978) except with Mongolian lesbos of the seemingly sexually-repressed sort instead of  a wild assortment of pussy-plundering female pirates, Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia is quirky yet relatively restrained and sentimental for an Ulrike Ottinger celluloid saga in that it depicts the lighter side of a cultural clash between two strikingly different groups: ‘Western’ women (including a European ethnographer and her young ‘companion,’ a trio of three Jewish klemzer, a naïve German  teacher/tourist) and barbarian nomadic Mongols. Described in the past as a “lesbian Lawrence of Arabia,” Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia is indeed one of Ottinger’s most truly 'epic' and professionally executed and directed works, but with a glaring lack of freak worship (which is replaced with philo-semitism and Mongol-mania) and the subversive idiosyncrasy that drive her previous efforts. In turn, the film also happens to be one of Ottinger’s most accessible works as the sort of film a 7-year-old girl could watch and enjoy, at least in the superficial literal sense. Mixing 19th and 20th century American and European Jewish Yiddish culture with ancient Mongolian traditions and rituals performed by authentic modern day nomadic Mongols, Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia also lacks – probably in part due to the severance of her relationship with her longtime lover/collaborator Tabea Blumenschein – the sadomasochistic abberosexual essence that dominates her previous works (although to be fair, Ottinger is half Jewish, through her mother, and her trans-continental epic would be the first time the female director would portray overtly Judaic themes in her films). Part neo-Yiddish musical and part Mongol-philic action-adventure romance flick, Joan of Arc of Mongolia – despite its aesthetic and thematic weakness – is just another example as to why Ulrike Ottinger is the greatest and most strikingly singular female German auteur of her generation. 

 Starring Delphine Seyrig as the ambiguous lesbian and cultured ethnologist Lady Windermere in her last Ottinger film (preceding Freak Orlando and Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press) and last screen appearance before her premature death from lung cancer at the age of 58 in 1990, as well as Fassbinder graduates Irm Hermann as a secondary-school teacher named Fräulein Mueller-Vohwinkel and Austrian Peter Kern as an affluent Jewish fat cat and Yiddish neo-vaudevillian tenor/entertainer, Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia brings the stars of European arthouse and Neuer Deutscher Film to strikingly strange scenery – sort of in the spirit of Christoph Schlingensief’s Tunguska - Die Kisten sind da (1984), except less sardonic – where very few filmmakers and actors dare to tread. Set on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia begins as an eccentric Yiddish musical of sorts, with the introduction of a merry cast of Fellini-esque characters, including Lady Windermere (Delphine Seyrig), Ms. Mueller-Vohwinkel (Irm Hermann), a beautiful peasant girl named Giovanni (later called Johanna) played by Spanish actress Inés Sastre, a 1930/1940s style musical star named Fanny Ziegfield (Gillian Scalici), the Kalinka Sisters which Ottinger described in an interview as being “like a traveling Yiddish version of the Andrew Sisters,” Mickey Katz (Peter Kern), and a Soviet Russian officer (Nugzar Sharia) who is a direct descendent of collectivist anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin and his young attaché (Christoph Eichhorn).  Of course, like most of Ottinger's films, Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia is fundamentally a femme fling flick where women (this time against their own will) fulfill their wildest fantasies.

 A wealthy quasi-Victorian aristocrat of immense independent wealth, Lady Windermere travels in her own private and lavishly furnished train boxcar and seems like she suffers from Aspergers syndrome due to her incessant and patently pedantic rambling off of facts regarding Mongolian nomads. Resembling Marlene Dietrich in her androgynous explorer outfit, Windermere takes a special liking to Giovanni and lets her join her private boxcar. After having some fun by playing a number of Yiddish musical hits, including performances by the Kalinka Sisters and the morbidly obese Mickey Katz, the train riders' diversion comes to an abrupt end in Mongolia when the train's passage is halted by a Mongolian princess and her henchwomen, who have strategically deposited a large hill of sand in its tracks, bringing the train to a complete stop. Led by Princess Ulun Iga (played by Xu Re Huar), the she-warriors demand that all female members of the train get off and be taken hostage, thus ushering in the sheltered western women's wild and wonderful journey. From here on, Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia more resembles a documentary with slight shades of action and romance as opposed to the semi-surreal and intentionally artificial first chapter set on the aesthetically anachronistic train (which was filmed in a singular and strikingly stylized studio set reminiscent of Ottinger’s short “Superbia - The Pride” contributed to the feature-length feminist film anthology Seven Women, Seven Sins (1986)). Princess Ulun Iga is a greatly feared woman among Mongols everywhere who has conquered and destroyed various male Mongolian tribes, so much so that a diplomat from an enemy tribe begs the stoic she-beast not to destroy their terror-ridden tribe. The western women seem barely phased by the fact they are taken hostage by the medieval-like Mongol hordes as if suffering from an acute case of Stockholm syndrome.  Luckily for the passive ladies of the Trans-Siberian express, the Mongol princess, despite her apparent ferocity, takes a keen liking to her captives, especially Giovanni and eventually makes the Mediterranean peasant girl her princess in plundering and pillaging, thus renaming her Princess Johanna, hence the title of the film Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia

 Admittedly, aesthetically and thematically, Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia was not my celluloid cup of tea, as old school Yid mu-sick and Mongolian barbarian kultur is not exactly something that I digest well. Personal preferences aside, there are many ‘disconnects’ in the film, most glaringly the shift between the inside of the postmodern high-kitsch of the inside of the Trans-Siberian train and the ethnographic realism of the Mongolian nomadic scenes. Assuredly a softcore work of semi-subversive cinema for Ulrike Ottinger, Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia ultimately feels like campy children’s fairy tale meets National Geographic; a sentiment that both my girlfriend – who is hopelessly obsessed with the German auteuress’ Madame X: An Absolute Ruler and Freak Orlando – and I could not deny. Despite its rather sentimental and playful tone, Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia does feature a brutal real goat killing set to traditional Mongolian musical that is equally as disturbing and disgusting as the slaughterhouse scene from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978); a film that Ottinger apparently found quite “interesting.”  Personally, my favorite scene in the film is when the Mongolian princess grabs the genitals of a horse and is kicked to the ground. Apparently, certain politically correct film critics took offense to Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia due to its supposedly offensive depiction of certain Jewish stereotypes, especially in regard to the large and in charge Mickey Katz; a pompously plump and bodacious braggart of immense wealth who is essentially harmless aside from his repellant character and physique. Ottinger would follow-up Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia with the exceedingly epic 500-minute ethnological documentary on Mongols entitled Taiga (1992), which the director described as being, “like a fairy tale.” Although not as gripping and tragic as the tale of the real "The Maid of Orléans," Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia is a superlatively symptomatic work that could have only been directed by Ulrike Ottinger, thus making it at least worth seeing for fan of the dandysette explorer auteur.

-Ty E

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