Premiering this year at the Berlinale film festival, Je suis Annemarie Schwarzenbach reads on paper like the most artsy, obtuse reality show imaginable. Watch Pop Idle as five contestants battle it out in a country house to see WHO will be the next star of louche, gamine ennui! See the cocktails fly as Annemarie and Erika Mann clash in The Real Housewives of Weimar Berlin! Marvel as our rich-girl-gone-bad picks her fragrant beau in My Big Fat Lavender Wedding!
Why exactly someone would want to make a film about a woman who was beautiful, androgynous, ferociously talented and highly complex, who left her patrician family behind to ride the tempests of the between-the-wars era before succumbing to addiction and dying at a tragically young age – well I think the preceding speaks for itself. In fact the Swiss writer and adventurer has already been the subject of two full-length treatments. In 2000 Une suisse rebelle offered some extraordinary early home footage of the young Annemarie and family, as well as interviews with the ageing witnesses to her life: husband Claude-Achille Clarac, sister Suzanne Öhman, photographer Marianne Breslauer, travelling companion Ella Maillart (you can see it online here, though only in French I’m afraid). The following year, The Journey to Kafiristan dramatised Schwarzenbach and Maillart’s Amazing Race-style overland journey from Geneva to Kabul on the eve of the Second World War (trailer here).
So with documentary Annemarie and fictional Annemarie already taken, what to do? Blend the two, apparently, which is more or less what French filmmaker Véronique Aubouy does with Je suis Annemarie Schwarzenbach. However the line between orchestrated and incidental is at times extremely difficult to discern.
It’s worth noting that the title predates the terrorist attacks in Paris last month, and that it isn’t a tasteless riff on the ensuing motto of empathetic identification, “Je suis Charlie“. But empathetic identification is very much at the heart of this film, as we see around ten young actors auditioning for the part of Annemarie Schwarzenbach by sharing their own experiences, reading text and posing languidly. Aubouy rightfully acknowledges the centrality of the subject’s self-presentation and particularly Breslauer’s immortal portraits; Schwarzenbach herself was highly conscious of her image and constantly pestered the photographer for new prints.
The applicants are encouraged to find some point of commonality with Schwarzenbach – sexuality, boyishness, even a Swiss background – as if clicking on keywords in an imaginary word cloud. The film then switches from Paris to a house in the country, overlaying the casting format with the artificial constraint. But instead of living like the Amish, being an Osbourne or foraging a meal of grubs and leaves from the forest floor, the five chosen applicants – four female and one male – spend their days trying to out-Annemarie each other.
Their challenges consist in performing passages from Schwarzenbach’s writing. One exercise requires two contestants to poke and prod and otherwise hinder a third who is trying to read from a script, at another point they sing/shout phrases over a garage band backing. In between, in “real life” (but sheesh, who knows at this stage) they conduct the kind of conversations any one of us might have, or will have, conducted in our early twenties, full of airy proclamations on gender and sexuality. These are words uttered less for any insights that they might offer in and of themselves than for their value in establishing our liberal credentials with our peers. And that’s fine, that’s life, but it is not clear why we should be witness to it on this occasion.
The sincerity of the director’s enthusiasm for Schwarzenbach is evident, and she plainly wants to share her life and work with us by having her live through others. The living text is clearly a passion: Aubouy’s immense Proust project is one of the most ambitious conjunctions of film and literature ever conceived, with over 100 hours of footage to date of readings which when finished (c. 2050) will cover the entirety of A la recherche du temps perdu. With over 1000 readers, it suggests that there is something in this vast body of work for everyone.
Je suis Annemarie Schwarzenbach is a chamber piece by comparison, and risks robbing the text of its potential universality by fitting it with tags. It suggests that access to the work and and its creator is conditional on presentation of the right badge of identity. If one is Swiss and/or lesbian and one dons a tie, does that make one Annemarie Schwarzenbach? I’m a gay Australian with some pretty swishy cufflinks but it hardly makes me Robert Helpmann. Does it not betray some disrespect for the performers’ craft that the actors are not simply allowed to…act?
Je suis Annemarie Schwarzenbach is nominally listed as a documentary, although it fatigues and finally defeats that label. So here it might be instructive to compare it with another film under that rubric which appears to be at the other extreme of authorial interference. Jean-Gabriel Périot’s Une jeunesse allemande, also showing at the Berlinale, is the product of editing rather than filmmaking, consisting entirely of footage related to the Rote Armee Fraktion, better known to the rest of the world as the Baader-Meinhof Group. But this apparent lack of intervention in fact serves to highlight the impossibility of objectivity. You can’t condense the most tumultuous decade of post-war Germany without making some intensely individual choices, passing thousands of hours of footage through a personal filter.
So is Aubouy just being more honest, more transparent about her manipulation of “real life”? Possibly, but she also offers very little we haven’t seen in dozens and dozens of scripted reality shows, with all their squalor and sadism. The contestants must come with an emotional back story, they must be pushed (literally, in this case) to catharsis, there must be tension, ideally sexual. Our five suitors woo the director, the unseen bachelorette. She, a disembodied presence, at least acknowledges the cruelty of it all.
All of this will presumably result in an actual dramatised account of Schwarzenbach at some point, although that’s never entirely clear. Here the preparation is the project, and with no apparent outlet for the conflicts and emotions which arise in the process, inertia sets in. Towards the end of Keeping up with the Claracs, sorry, Je suis Annemarie Schwarzenbach, we see someone dressed as a bear, and a fat man dancing in his underpants. Why? The snarky answer would be “because art film”. The director herself vaguely suggested that they might symbolise the dangers these young people face in the outside world. But frankly, with this film in the can I’d say the worst is behind them.
Julia Perazzini emerges as the most compelling performer, even though she bears the least resemblance to the film’s subject. She smoulders with ambition, and so when she appears to fall for the other apparently unattached female of the group, it is unclear if this is happening in real life, or in “real life”, or if she is simply pushing method as far as it will go to prove that no-one can take this away from her. She also does a highly convincing turn as Annemarie’s butch, controlling, Nazi-sympathising mother (if someone wants to make Je suis Renée Schwarzenbach, I’ll be first in line).
Perazzini’s is the last face we see, so does this mean she’s the Next Top Annemarie Schwarzenbach? Were the other Annemaries voted off the island? The ultimate question here, though, if we’re talking empathetic identification: would someone as wary and self-possessed as Annemarie Schwarzenbach ever have submitted herself to such an invasive process?
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