Review by William J. Hammon, Creator of I Actually Paid to See This blog
We Are One: A Global Film Festival has assembled selections from a broad range of talents and art forms, showcasing old and new voices in a first of its kind celebration of film. Courtesy of the Berlin Film Festival, viewers were given an opportunity to see one of the absolute classics of the German New Wave in the form of Ticket of No Return. It’s been on my personal list of “must-see” films ever since I first heard of it years ago, so when I saw it on the We Are One docket, I leapt at the chance.
Director Ulrike Ottinger is one of the most celebrated names in German cinema, because she has spent her entire career challenging conventions. Her films parody social conventions with avant garde visuals and a remarkable sense of the absurd. She’s also a pioneer in the realm of LGBTQ artistry, being completely open about her sexuality in an era where doing so could be deadly. But she has never been deterred, telling unique stories that feature women in nontraditional roles commanding the screen long before the idea came into the mainstream.
Ticket of No Return is one such story, though it’s not a linear narrative, rather a series of vignettes with a loose thread of a story line. Tabea Blumenschein, who passed away in March, was a staple of Ottinger’s films, and stars here in the lead role. The character has no name (only listed as “Sie”, German for “She,” in the credits, which is how I’ll refer to her going forward), and never actually speaks on camera. Any dialogue attributed to her is an ambient voice over to which She merely gestures. Even when her lips move, it’s purely pantomime.
After being fired from an office job for drinking the boss’ wine, She decides to take a vacation to Berlin, one way, with the sole plan of drinking herself into a stupor. Thematically, you could compare the film to The Lost Weekend or Leaving Las Vegas. Even the original German title of the film – Bildnis einer Trinkerin – literally translates as Portrait of a Drinker. But Ottinger’s visual style takes that well-tread idea and puts it through an almost Fellini-esque lens of surrealism and absurdity, and we’re all richer for the experience.
From the moment She arrives in Berlin, she is indirectly beset by a Greek chorus of judgmental women: Social Question (played by Magdalena Montezuma, another Ottinger leading lady), Accurate Statistics (Orpha Termin), and Common Sense (Monika von Cube). Wherever She goes to drink, the three teetotalers follow, giving passive-aggressive commentary on the dangers and societal failures of being an alcoholic, particularly if you’re a woman. She downs cognac like it’s water at one table at a bar, while the trio drinks fruit smoothies at the next table over while discussing domestic violence statistics. It’s an amazing juxtaposition.
In fact, a great deal of the film’s comedy comes from these diametrically opposed influences. She wears a different high-fashion outfit in every scene she’s in, as if she’s just walked off the runway during a 1960s show from the House of Dior. But she befriends a homeless woman (the actress simply went by the mononym, Lutze), showing her a little bit of luxury in exchange for having a drinking buddy, as well as a potential lover. The trio of non-drinkers in a side fantasy sequence actually become quite interested in alcohol when they’re in a marketing meeting with She posing as a businesswoman. The drinking binge eventually goes to a lesbian bar, where Social Question is asked to dance by another woman, and she gleefully does so, not a care for any social consequences to her actions. A wealthy socialite seduces the homeless woman and they dance all night at a ruined train station.
Not only is this kind of filmmaking funny and poignant, it was also quite dangerous for its time. The film came out in 1979. The Berlin Wall was still 10 years away from falling. Authoritarian regimes still ruled much of Eastern Europe (Berlin, while split as a city, was still well within the oppressive East German borders). Someone looking as extravagant as She while drinking herself nearly to death is a bold visual for that era, especially when it’s coupled with scenes of underground casinos where dealers greedily rake chips (the over-modulated sound effects are a great touch throughout) or when well-dressed people dance among the ashes of industry.
In addition, Tabea Blumenschein’s performance is otherworldly. Given that she’s never allowed to speak throughout the entire film, she conveys so much character as She that you never once wonder what her motivations are and what her emotional state might be. She is fully realized from the moment she appears on screen – so dead inside that she can’t even get an automatic door to open – that she never needs to say a single word. She’s detached from society but engaged with the narrow pockets of nightlife she encounters. She’s blasé about the world but invested in its people. She’s a walking contradiction of substance versus style, and yet she oozes gravitas with every clock tick-like sound of her heels hitting the ground as she walks.
This is truly a masterpiece of experimental cinema, and a gem for those willing to discover it. Now 41 years on from its debut, it is a film that ages like the fine wine She guzzles without a care. Watch this if you can. Parse the scenes for each individual moment of brilliance. You will not be left holding an empty glass.