To me, there are few things more repugnant in the cinematic realm than feminist filmmakers, as they actively debase the artistic medium of film and seem to think that spreading some sort of innately incoherent and rarely concrete message about ‘female power’ is all that one needs to do to make a film, as if aesthetics and entertainment value are totally insignificant matters that are, at best, of secondary importance. One of the few self-professed feminist filmmakers that I actually I have a degree of respect for is German auteur Helma Sanders-Brahms who, despite being a feminist, was not afraid to direct films about quasi-fascist poets (i.e. Heinrich, My Heart is Mine Alone aka Mein Herz – niemandem!) and even went so far as to defend her cinematic mother-figure Leni Riefenstahl by lauding her work Tiefland (1954) as an anti-Hitler allegory of sorts and rhetorically asking regarding the film: “How is it possible that after fifty years the fear of dealing with this film is still so great that just the refusal to view it is considered a correct attitude for German intellectuals?” With Sanders-Brahms’ rather recent death on May 27, 2014, I decided it was about time that I watch her first feature Under the Pavement Lies the Strand (1975) aka Unter dem Pflaster ist der Strand aka Under the Beach's Cobbles aka Beach under the Sidewalk starring Grischa Huber (The Serpent’s Egg, Malou) and Heinrich Giskes (Heinrich, Bang Boom Bang - Ein todsicheres Ding). Created when Sanders-Brahms was totally unknown and had yet to have any meaningful involvement with any sort of feminist movement, Under the Pavement Lies the Strand is a black-and-white low-budget avant-garde work that went on to became “a cult film in the German feminist movement” and rightfully earned its lead Grischa Huber the the Deutscher Filmpreis (Filmband in Gold) at the 1975 German Film Awards. A melancholy work about two stage actors/left-wing activists who were involved with the German “68er-Bewegung” student movement yet have now become somewhat disillusioned with the cause and further find their ideals tested when the female protagonist becomes pregnant amidst a new abortion law in West Germany that they had previously actively protested, Under the Pavement Lies the Strand is a thoughtful and relatively nuanced work that ultimately asks more questions than it answers, thus making it quite different from the idiotically idealistic philo-Semitic/man-hating Hollywoodized agitprop pieces of Margarethe von Trotta and the aesthetically sterile celluloid manifestos of Helke Sander. Indeed, like her Austrian celluloid compatriot Valie Export (Unsichtbare Gegner aka Invisible Adversaries, Menschenfrauen), Sanders-Brahms clearly took cinema serious as an art form and demonstrated with Under the Pavement Lies the Strand she had a keen talent for assembling a realistic modern romance film set during a degenerate zeitgeist when young men and women were increasingly confused about their place in German society.
Grischa (Grischa Huber) and Heinrich (Heinrich Giskes) are stage actors involved in a feminist reworking of a Greek tragedy that is being shot for German television (indeed, during this time, filming theatre for TV was not uncommon in Germany, with Fassbinder directing no less than four of these TV plays). As the narrator (Helma Sanders-Brahms) states of a scene featuring an eclectic group of female actresses: “These actresses act out the rule of women, as it was thousands of years ago, and its abolition ordained by men.” Like all the actresses, Grischa rehearses for the play during the the day and thinks of her ‘role as a woman’ during the night, but that is about to change when genuine human feeling gets in the way of cold and abstract political idealism. During one of these nights, Heinrich, who is wearing nothing but a cock-shaped codpiece and has brought his two dogs along with him, visits Grischa in her dressing room after practicing for a play. Assumedly rainwashed by pinko-hippie ideas of communal living, Grischa complains to Heinrich, “I’d like to see an end of the separation of private life and job. What I do on the stage is what I need, you see. What I say comes from deep within me, and, of course, it comes out stronger on stage.” Ultimately, the two get locked in the building and after Heinrich describes to Grischa how she resembles his dead sister who was murdered (he was 4 and she was 15 at the time, thus hinting she was murdered during the Second World War), so naturally they make love. As Grischa states of Heinrich and their relationship: “In Heinrich’s mind always the hope…that remained unfulfilled with the many…because they were too few and not tenacious enough; hope of fulfillment with one person, taking up the struggle, with love a revolution for two.” Indeed, Heinrich complains about how everyone was united in 1968 during the time of the student movement protests, but now everyone has splintered off into smaller groups, which has created a sort of rivalry amongst former comrades. It seems Heinrich has finally grown up and realizes having a family is more important than any sort of abstract political idealism, telling Grischa, “I will give you a baby,” though he seems somewhat immature in other regards, as he cannot stand it when his girlfriend does not give him 100% of her attention and acts out as a result. Of course, being more concerned with her acting career and political activism and resenting more than anything the idea of living a “domesticate life” as a housewife with children, as if that is somehow beneath her, Grischa tells Heinrich more than one time that she does not want to have a child. Obsessed with feminist ideas that she has clearly been brainwashed with, Grischa begins actively interviewing proletarian factory workers about motherhood and abortions, as if she has been contracted by some feminist think-tank to carry out a study. Virtually every woman that the actress ends up interviewing confesses to having had an abortion at some point in their life as a result of necessity and none of them seem particularly proud of it, though they have no problem stating these things in front of their children.
Meanwhile, ‘Heini’ (as Grischa affectionately calls him) begins getting all moody and broody about his girlfriend’s refusal to pregnant, so he mopes around his apartment while reading Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884)—a work that absurdly argues that the proletariat is free from ‘moral decay’ (i.e. prostitution, extramarital affairs, etc.) because they lack the monetary means to have a inheritance-based bourgeois marriage, which forces people to marry for monetary reasons and not out of love, thus causing them to seek prostitutes—as if such an outmoded feminist communist text will provide him with inspiration for being a husband and father. Heini is also a fan of the Persian fairytale Majnun Layla aka Lelia and Madschnun, which he describes as having essentially the same message as Engels’ work. Fed up with Grischa’s seemingly pathological activism (at one point, he asks her: “Why not let me rot?”), Heinrich begins hanging out with a cute blonde chick and complains to her about he is tired of “play acting,” adding: “I’m not so stuck on politics. I think it’s arrogant for an actor to go and tell workers what it’s all about. I’d like a kind of folk theatre, something like I’ve seen the French doing. Like “Théâtre du Soleil.” […] something people get a kick out of.” When Grischa calls Heini and states, “I understand you wanting your freedom. I want mine, too. But you won’t be freer by being alone. It’s something different. You just have…to discover a new way of life, right? I know I’ve made mistakes but we can change that. If we separate for a few days, it’ll be all right perhaps,” he says nothing, even though she begs him to. Since Grischa has just recently stopped taking birth control after 7 years of continuously using them after hearing they cause sterilization, she naturally ends up getting pregnant, but she is too afraid to tell Heini, so she attempts to get the courage to do so by practicing what she plans to say to her boyfriend and recording it on her tape-recorder (which, is ironically the same tape-recorder she uses to interview prole women about abortions). Eventually, Grischa goes to a feminist rally to look for a feminist gynecologist named Dr. Siebert and while she is there she hears a bunch of hilariously deluded feminist folk musicians singing the following loony lyrics: “We are women and we fight fearlessly for the revolution…With all comrades for communism…United in struggle we are strong.” When Grischa finally finds Dr. Siebert, she complains about her worries regarding her pregnancy and asks whether or not she should keep the baby due to her dubious relationship with Heinrich and her concerns about the future of her career. Grischa also complains about how Heinrich suffers a “mother complex” and has no realistic means to become a father. Ultimately, Dr. Siebert gives Grischa advice on how to get an abortion, recommending that she fake being suicidal if she wants a legal abortion. After talking to the gynecologist, Grischa goes by Heinrich’s apartment and attempts to reconcile with him, but he complains to his girlfriend that, “You’re too strong for me” and claims he has an incapacity for tenderness because, “I was brought up by Nazis, I’m a fascist. I have visions of beating you to a pulp.” In the end, Heinrich says he would rather screw his dog than Grischa and even threatens suicide, though the two seem to more or less reconcile, though the future of their relationship seems dubious at best.
As German novelist Peter Schneider, who was a spokesman for the German student movement, noted regarding his generation and the failure of 68er-Bewegung movement to achieve anything of value: “It is now clear…that the protestors were terribly naïve and unself-conscious in their anti-fascism. There has probably never been a movement at once so obsessed with language and so incapable of articulating its ideas and desires.” Indeed, the protagonists of Sanders-Brahms’ Under the Pavement Lies the Strand certainly seem like they have no clue what they are doing, as if their political activism is merely a truly reactionary response to some sort of inner void, as well as a nonsensical means to atone for the supposed sins of their parents’ generation, with Heinrich’s remark, “I was brought up by Nazis, I’m a fascist,” completely highlighting this hysterical post-Hitler/post-holocaust phenomenon of collective guilt and ethno-masochism. Of course, instead of evolving into morally pristine humanist heroes, these student activists essentially became perennial children who denied themselves of adulthood and maturity, with their activism being a mere pathetic substitute for a real life that involves marriage, children, and a fruitful career. As Sanders-Brahms would demonstrate with her most popular film, Germany, Pale Mother (1980) aka Deutschland, bleiche Mutter, which is highly autobiographical in nature (the director even cast her own daughter to player herself as a baby), she seemed to have not completely forgiven her father for how he treated her mother, hence the director's unsurprising adoption of a feminism Weltanschauung. Ironically, at the same time, as Under the Pavement Lies the Strand, as well as Heinrich, Germany, Pale Mother, My Heart is Mine Alone, and Geliebte Clara (2008) aka Beloved Clara demonstrate, Sanders-Brahms seemed to have a strange empathy and attraction to weak and mentally disturbed men, so I would argue that her feminism was less a result of feminist brainwashing than her natural reaction to being a truly strong and independent woman who was attracted to weak men, hence her respect for Riefenstahl (who, when she was 60 years old, started a lifelong romance with her cameraman Horst Kettner, who was 40 years her junior!). Indeed, very rarely do women make good filmmakers and the only thing most women have to do to get critical appraisal is simply directing a film, no matter how horrendous it is, and they will touted around as geniuses and the most important voices of their generation. While one can argue that most of Sanders-Brahms’ work has some feminist themes, she never followed any sort of artistically-stifling misandrist dogma and was not afraid to branch out by making period pieces about gay proto-fascist poets and rather dark semi-surreal work like No Mercy, No Future that somewhat grotesquely depicts literal and figurative schizophrenia in post-WWII Berlin. Although the director’s first and most innately feminist-themed work, Under the Pavement Lies the Strand proves that Sanders-Brahms was first and foremost a serious filmmaker who had a rather idiosyncratic obsession with idiosyncratic men who seemed less masculine-minded than she was. Indeed, when the great Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger wrote in his masterpiece Sex and Character (1903) aka Geschlecht und Charakter that there was a small percentage of the female population that had what it took to be truly emancipated in society despite their gender, he was speaking of women like Helma Sanders-Brahms. Arguably the greatest ‘Trauerarbeit’ (aka “working of mourning”) film ever made about the Teutonic student movement of 1968, Under the Pavement Lies the Strand reveals in an understated and totally serious fashion that melancholy did not die with the Hitler generation, but was passed on to the subsequent generation, who quite arguably found it harder to cope with German history than their parents who had actually lived through it.