‘Menschenfrauen’ and the Battle of the Sexes

Director Valie Export and writer Peter Weibel come from Germany’s post-1960s avant-garde generation of confrontational performance and video artists. PopMatters reviewed Export’s first two features here and we’re tempted to summarize this 1980 effort as “third verse, same as the first”, though it’s not that simple.

This is a highly dialectical film on the topic of the relations between sexes, or more specifically women trying to reconcile motherhood with “personhood.” The point of the title is that women/wives (frauen) must be allowed to be human beings (menschen). A central conflict for each woman involves her status as a mother or would-be mother; it’s notable that all four women in the film want to have children or keep the ones they have, and the prospect of going childless isn’t desirable for any of them.

The premise is that a man (Klaus Wildbolz) has a working wife (Susanne Widl) and a mistress (Christiane von Aster) while pursuing another liaison with a single-mom barmaid (Renée Felden) and occasionally talking with a former college girlfriend who’s now a high-school teacher (Maria Martina). These combinations allow him to have arguments in which he’s alternately sincere, hypocritical and self-delusional, while the film also presents the women’s arguments with various authority figures–bosses, social workers, etc. Women aren’t necessarily let off the ideological hook either. For example, the barmaid reaps the rewards of her problematic motherhood. When a boyfriend beats her in front of her grown son, the callow youth observes that she used to beat him too.

This film is more straightforward than the previous two. Export seems to be having less fun with the formal ideas that organize and energize her, although there are nice examples. She uses video-monitor footage for flashbacks and fantasies, and one argument between the husband and wife turns into a split-screen parody with the characters not only repeating each other’s lines but swapping clothes. (This is a clever variation on a similar sequence in Export and Weibel’s first feature, Invisible Adversaries.) Multiple characters allow for several endings, from high-strung melodrama to escapism, although Export finally seems to give up and just post a dictum onscreen to send us out of the theatre with a clear directive: “We must establish a human society in which motherhood does not restrict a woman in her creativity and determination.”

RATING 4 / 10