Under the Pavement Lies the Strand

Helma Sanders-Brahms’ intelligent, complex, and highly rewarding 1975 masterpiece asks a series of impossible questions, and never pretends to have any of the answers. Like its subjects (sex, death, politics, love, illusion, psychology, labour, abortion) it defies easy conclusions, even as it seems to be offering them up. A revelation, Sanders-Brahms’ astonishingly assured début film stands today as a significant statement by a neglected artist.

By turns erotic, charming, harrowing, and informative, the film is as much entertainment as discussion. The plot is simple, and barely there: a pair of ex-Marxist activists, reflecting on the denouement of their movement after 1968, fall into a casual love affair which leads to an attempt at co-habitation and then an accidental pregnancy. As Heinrich moves from charming skirt-chaser to tiresome misogynist, Grischa moves from drifting single woman to frustrated kept woman. But, through it all, she maintains a distance from her increasingly tortured and repressed boyfriend that allows her to sustain a degree of independence.

Significantly, in all of the sexual encounters we witness, she is entirely in command – it seems more than a little notable that they first get physical not when he asks her to (she says no) but a few days later when she calls him up and says she wants to have sex with him. Even then, when they finally get down to it, she informs him that she has her period. They have sex anyway (he simply shrugs this off), but this suggests a certain power advantage she holds, clearly daring him to say no, and asserting her ownership of her menstruation. An audacious, important moment.

Grischa (played by a darkly sexy Grischa Huber) is an actor who wishes her whole life could take place onstage. Her ambivalence about her own place in the world leads her to undertake a kind of I am Curious voyage, interviewing various women on questions of sex, love, work, and children. The politics of working women are at the heart of this project, and she becomes ever more interested in unraveling the paradox at the core of the modern woman in a political climate where women’s reproductive rights are not guaranteed. Her own unplanned pregnancy reflects the accidents that can lead to a sudden feeling of the loss of control over one’s own body, and hence, one’s own future.

She meets a variety of working women, all of whom have either had abortions, or suggest that they should have, at least once. But, when she tries herself to obtain an abortion, she discovers that the Byzantine rules that held sway in mid-70s Berlin nearly preclude her from being a candidate. (In that era, one had to prove oneself to be insane in order to be granted permission to abort.)

Meanwhile, as Grischa moves into her new role as documentarian, taping conversations and transcribing them at the kitchen table, her boyfriend (played by a pouting Heinrich Giskes) becomes frustrated, alienated, and, eventually, openly hostile to the project. His failure to grasp the politics of women’s liberation mirrors the kind of ugly debates that went on among 1960s political groups (both in Europe and in North America) as the male-dominated New Left tended to disregard gender politics as insignificant in the face of racial issues.

Their relationship, like those between the radical feminists and the New Left movements of which they had initially been a part, breaks down over this basic problem. (In one telling sequence, she tells him a parable about a woman who loves her husband deeply, but he is compelled to leave her because she won’t commit to his politics. The gender reversal is striking, and seems to wound him.)

Throughout the film, Heinrich is seen reading from Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (which argues that monogamy and prostitution and the enslavement of women are all related to capitalism, and will be dispensed with come the Revolution), trying to achieve through theory what she is learning by discussion and first-person research. His failure to grasp feminist politics, then, seems a metaphor for the failure of social theory to help women in the here and now. Indeed, in one of her interviews, Grischa and a lovely young woman have a discussion of Freud’s infamous theory of “mature” (vaginal) versus “immature” (clitoral) female orgasms and suggests that theories such as these (ie written and propagated by men) have stood in the way of feminism. (This seems a reference to Anne Koedt’s seminal 1968 essay The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm, required reading for anyone interested in women’s history.)

All of this likely sounds terribly cerebral and dry, but it isn’t. The film is often dialogue-heavy – of this there should be no doubt – but the frequent love scenes and gorgeous black and white photography in general help to push the thing along. To be sure, the love scenes manage the terrific stunt of being both tremendously erotic and yet light and fun, simultaneously underlining the quotidian nature of sexuality and the vast potential of sexual pleasure. The interplay between lightness and shadow, dark skin on bright white bedsheets, nipples and penises and smiles and skin and teeth, combine in gorgeous display. As painful as sexual politics can be, sexuality itself is still worthy of celebration.

All in all, a fascinating, and important, film.

RATING 8 / 10