Several films in the Retrospective 2007 are nearly a century old, yet still they delight and surprise audiences. Far from an anachronism, “City Girls – the image of women in the era of silent film” promises the dual pleasure of seeing old films from a new perspective – half of them in restored version – thereby rediscovering the qualities of the "New Woman" of the 1910s and 1920s. “It’s a great pleasure to see how these female characters turned the traditional model on its head with an easygoing freshness and a great deal of boisterousness,“ enthuses Rainer Rother about a programme in which both the “young years” of film as a medium and of the modern metropolis are reflected – in tales of of disruption and upheaval of a sometimes astonishing timeliness. An interview with the director of the Retrospective.
Many factors play a role in deciding on the theme of a Retrospective – interesting content, topicality, but also the availability of film prints. Can you recap how the theme of “City Girls” was developed, and why you’re interested in images of women in the era of silent film?
When I took over as director of the Retrospective in April, the fundamental decision had already been made to do a Retrospective dedicated solely to silent film with a focus on the image of women in the 1910s and 1920s. The exact formulation of the theme was the result of watching a lot of films. We know that the image of women changed radically between the 1910s and 1920s, but there were also continuities. We try to show audiences both tendencies through our selection of films. Still, the phenomenon of the "New Woman" is at the centre of our Retrospective – the societal changes of their time are reflected in their image. The playfulness and challenging character of these new female figures, their mobility, their pert glances – all of that fascinated us. It’s a great pleasure to see how they turned the old model on its head with an easygoing freshness and a great deal of boisterousness.
"The New Woman would have been unthinkable without the modern metropolis."
The Retrospective is titled “City Girls”. How closely is the establishment of the image of the New Woman connected to the concurrent growth of the modern metropolis?
The New Woman would have been unthinkable without the existence of the metropolis. The spaces she conquers are urban spaces. She works in open-plan offices, factories, sewing studios or department stores. Well-lit streets and transport, amusement parks and dance clubs – all this creates the public space from which she emerged, in which she could move. Here she becomes a part of the masses, who are giving themselves over to a new, intoxicating attitude towards life. These masses are permanently on the move and therefore create an anonymity in which the New Woman can free herself from the rules of convention and refine her position in society. Otherwise, it was also the urban media that provided a stage for the New Woman and created and distributed new images of women: posters, magazines. Fashion also played a role in these processes, as did the totally new field of leisure culture. Here, of course, the cinema has a very special significance. As a place of visual pleasure, the cinema was very popular with female audiences and was therefore especially effective and influential.
On the one hand there is the image of women in film, on the other hand the reflection that you mention: One can consider these films as representations of a historical reality, in which the role of women actually changed. Yet surely one can’t approach these films with the expectation that they depict the real lives of women at that time one-to-one. How would you describe this relationship?