By Erika Balsom
Cherchez la femme, they say. It sounds nice, but what this expression actually means is that woman is the root of all (male) problems, always to blame. Claudia von Alemann’s extraordinary Blind Spot (Die Reise nach Lyon, 1980), recently restored by the Deutsche Kinemathek in cooperation with the Institut Lumière, is a rare film that puts the pursuit of a woman at its heart—not so that she can be punished, not so that a man’s troubles can be explained, but so that her achievements might be rescued from oblivion and might, in the process, change another woman’s life.
It is the story of Elisabeth, who abruptly leaves her partner and young daughter in Germany to travel by train to the French city of Lyon. When she arrives at her destination, she has her picture taken in a photo booth, as if seeking confirmation of her own existence. In the summer heat, she wanders near-empty streets in pursuit of Flora Tristan, the socialist feminist activist and writer who spent time in Lyon in 1844, just months before her death at age 41. Tristan roamed the country with the aim of organizing workers, calling on them to form a single trade union, while also campaigning for recognition of the fact that “woman is the proletariat of the proletariat.” Carrying with her a tape recorder, a notebook, and Tristan’s posthumously published diary, Le Tour de France, Elisabethdrifts across the cobblestones, unfettered by the demands of family life, subject to no will but her own. She runs into dead ends, kisses a stranger, sleeps in the daytime. “No one expects anything of me,” she says in voiceover. Is it a declaration of a freedom? Or the despair of feeling like the world has decided that she—a woman, a mother—will now bother with little beyond family?
Elisabeth is a trained historian who left the profession for reasons unexplained. Perhaps she put her career on hold when her daughter was born; perhaps she quit out of frustration with disciplinary methods. In conversation with a male professor who admits to knowing little about Tristan, she says that reading books and visiting archives were “not enough” to satisfy her interest in the underacknowledged woman: “I want to imagine what she might have heard, seen, or felt. Colours, noises, all of that, in this town, Lyon, where she spent some time while travelling. I want to make the same trip.” To bend time in this way is, of course, an impossibility. Yet the former historian persists nonetheless, seeking a rematerialization of the past that is inseparable from a present desire for change. “I wonder,” she says to the professor, “whether the identification with the pain, the suffering, and the feelings of women in history can be transformed into action, so that it isn’t merely passive understanding.” The film does not allow him an opportunity to answer; he has bloviated enough. Instead, von Alemann cuts away to a quiet street where a sweet dog dozes in a window, one of many such urban vistas shot by cinematographer Hille Sagel, a former painter, thatappear throughout the nearly two-hour running time.
Blind Spot was von Alemann’s debut feature, made with a small crew after more than a decade of activity during which she produced short documentaries marked by militant internationalism. In This is Only the Beginning – The Struggle Continues (Das is nur der Anfang – der Kampf geht weiter, 1969), she captured les événements of 1968 in Paris; in 1970, she travelled to Algiers to meet Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver, and filmed each of them directly addressing the camera. A concern with interrogating the status of women in relation to imperialist violence and capitalist exploitation is prominent in her work of the early ’70s, whether in the counterinformation newsreel Through Their Own Efforts – Women in Vietnam (Aus eigener Kraft – Frauen in Vietnam, 1971), or her study of women’s factory work in the Federal Republic, The Point is to Change It (Es kommt drauf an, sie zu verändern, 1974), which takes its title from the most famous sentence of Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach.” In November 1973, together with filmmaker Helke Sander, von Alemann co-organized the First International Women’s Film Seminar at the Arsenal cinema in West Berlin, an event boasting some 250 attendees, comprising discussions and screenings of 45 contemporary films by women.
Blind Spot arrived nearly a decade after this intense period of political mobilization. The boisterous spirit of collectivity that marks many feminist documentaries of the early ’70s—such as the Collettivo Femminista di Cinema Roma’s L’Aggetivo Donna (1972) or Newsreel’s She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (1969), both of which screened at the 1973 seminar—is nowhere to be found. Here, von Alemann retreats from agitprop into the languor of the Autorenfilm, adopting a style that recalls Marguerite Duras’ Aurélia Steiner diptych (1979) while maintaining a firmer grasp than Duras on narrative convention. Years after the excitement of the second wave has faded, Elisabeth walks alone through Lyon, exhausted. Slow, placid shots of the city fill the film, intermittently accompanied by a solo cello or a ruminative voiceover, in which Elisabeth’s thoughts mingle with passages from Tristan. In this haunted atmosphere, alienation and inertia prevail over any sense of belonging, any hope for revolutionary transformation.
Perhaps this is why the recovery of Tristan is so important to Elisabeth. Before Marx, the author and activist argued that the emancipation of the working class would come from the working class; unlike Marx, she insisted that the liberation of women was essential to this process, writing of the oppression of marriage and advocating the right to divorce. To remember her is to recall a utopian belief in collectivity, to rescue a form of feminism as inextricable from class consciousness as it is antithetical to ideas of individual success. It is to feel connected to a long tradition of struggle. Despite her sombre demeanour, Elisabeth is obsessed with this project. She has crossed a threshold and turned her life upside down, seeking to get outside herself. She is determined to intrude on the patriarchal terrain of traditional historiography—and von Alemann is her companion.
In an interview published in the feminist film journal Frauen und Film in February 1981, the same month Blind Spot screened at the Berlinale Forum, the director ends the conversation by citing her protagonist’s remark concerning how to transform an identification with the past into action in the present, connecting it to her own preoccupation with women’s history—its many gaps and the need for its reconstruction. Blind Spot is ostensibly a realist fiction anchored in the emotional life of an individual woman, but, as von Alemann puts it in the same interview, “It is absolutely not a psychological film.” Details concerning Elisabeth’s situation are slim, and her family problems are unresolved—beside the point, even—by film’s end. Blind Spot might look like a bourgeois character study on the surface, but it is better seen as a metahistorical gambit, a cinematic search for a feminist approach to the feminist past. The film sets aside the psychoanalytic inquiries that preoccupied so many feminist filmmakers and theorists at the time while remaining highly conceptual—a position that might go towards explaining its marginal status in existing accounts of women’s cinema. At a distance from debates concerning scopophilia and lack, von Alemann recognized the urgent need to ask, “Who makes history for whom?”
It was a question British experimental filmmaker Lis Rhodes posed in her landmark text “Whose History?” published just a year before the premiere of Blind Spot as an intervention in the catalogue of “Film as Film: Formal Experiment in Film, 1910–1975.” Contesting the historical narrative of filmic formalism advanced by the Hayward Gallery exhibition, which drew a straight line from the historical avant-gardes to select practitioners of the ’70s, Rhodes preferred a less tidy image: “a crumpled heap, history at my feet, not stretched above my head.” The notion that history could be something close to the body, in contact with the ground, with standard hierarchies of significance trampled underfoot, is one that has a special resonance with the perambulations of Blind Spot. The film assigns a central role to walking and sound recording—the latter resonating, with a slight displacement of medium, as a metacommentary on the stakes of its own historiographic enterprise. Elisabeth’s relation to the past is profoundly embodied, based in sensory experience, inextricable from her emotional life. She seeks contact. She tries to follow in Tristan’s actual footsteps, capturing the sound of her own movements and playing them back, as if they no longer belonged to her. “My steps became hers, the steps of another,” she says, longing for it to be so.
In some respects, Elisabeth’s impossible desire and its connection to footsteps resembles the story of Nobert Hanold, the protagonist of Wilhelm Jensen’s 1902 novel Gradiva, which was famously analyzed by Freud in Delusion and Dream. Hanold is an archaeologist who, having grown bored with his profession, becomes fixated on a woman who has a peculiar gait, depicted in a bas-relief sculpture he comes across in a Roman museum. He dreams he travels back in time, catching sight of her in Pompeii as Vesuvius erupts, engulfing the city in lava. He then journeys there, searching for her footprint in the ruins, only to find a woman who seems to be her, alive. Has dream bled into reality? She turns out to be his childhood love. For Jacques Derrida, Gradiva is an allegory of “archive fever,” encapsulating the fervent wish to defeat time and revivify the past, to purge history of the pain of absence. Elisabeth, too, suffers from the mal d’archive; it is tempting to say that it strikes her quite literally, late in the film, when she vomits, as if living out the intensity of her identification with Tristan, who had stomach troubles. Yet unlike Hanold, her yearning is untethered from the dynamics of sexual repression and possession, bound instead to an idea of incarnation that muddles distinctions between subject and object, knower and known. As she searches for Tristan, she searches for herself. Where Hanold’s story is ultimately reducible to the private domain of lust, hers opens outwards to ideals of equality and emancipation, and to a metamorphosis of the nature and use of historical knowledge. And crucially, in her case the union of past and present never occurs, even as a delusion.
Blind Spot dwells in this failure, staging the fantasy of intimate communion with the past only to dramatize its futility. It is no coincidence that Elisabeth arrives in Lyon on July 7, the same day her predecessor departed from the city so many years earlier. Everywhere she goes, she is unsuccessful in recovering the traces that she seeks, whether it is her fruitless search for the house where Tristan’s friend and biographer Éléonore Blanc lived, or her realization that the hotel where the former stayed is now a cinema. All these encounters lead her somewhere, but not necessarily back to Tristan. One woman tells her about overhearing a massacre of Jews in the same street in 1943; another speaks of the collages she makes out of newspaper headlines, claiming they render current events accessible to the gaze all at once, appealing to the eye rather than the mind. History comes in many forms, von Alemann insists. The film and its protagonist alike horde details, textures, and feelings in excess of any apparent explanatory value they may have, holding close so much that might typically be deemed irrelevant. The past will never be fully recaptured, but taking this as a goal can provide a useful pretext to get at what is truly important: all that occurs throughout the process of research after the possibility and desirability of distanced objectivity has been rejected.
With a remarkable lightness of touch, Blind Spot sketches a challenge facing feminist historiography, emphasizing the necessity of bringing greater attention to the work of women while also pointing to the limits of any approach content to fill in gaps while leaving how history is written unchanged. Von Alemann suggests that the way forward might reside in the adoption of unconventional, self-reflexive modes of confronting the past and claims filmmaking as a site where this can occur. She sees absence not simply as a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to think otherwise, to play by different rules. This underseen film urges experimentation with altered frameworks of intelligibility, recognizing something that must be remembered today: simply populating old structures with new heroines will only reinscribe the marginalization that must be overcome. Its provocations remain acutely relevant amidst a vogue for literary nonfiction, much of it written by women, that blends scholarly research with first-person expression and a keen interest in “rediscovering” women’s contributions to film history. Would Blind Spot be better known today if von Alemann had made fewer short films, fewer documentaries, less political work, and more feature-length art-house fictions—that is, if her oeuvre were more legible within the hierarchies of prestige and value that dominate film criticism? I imagine so. The work ahead—and already underway—involves not just remembering “forgotten” women but dismantling the mechanisms that led to their oblivion.
At the conclusion of the film, Elisabeth stands alone in the deserted train station, playing her violin, an instrument she describes earlier as dating to 1792 and endowed with a sound that “no longer belongs to anyone, a sound that belongs to history.” As the brief credits roll, its music—her music—rings out. It is an enigmatic ending, one that gives no assurance as to the protagonist’s future trajectory beyond offering a parting image in which she is pleasurably absorbed in a creative task. But Blind Spot was never only about her. Considered in light of Elisabeth’s remarks about the violin, this ending also summons a more general proposition. The voices of history can never speak for themselves; they must be taken up and played like instruments: with artistry, care, and skill. Through this intimate collaboration between past and present, a song will be heard.