In March of this year, sad news came that Dore O., a prolific German experimental filmmaker, photographer, editor, camerawoman, and more, had died in Mülheim. Even in the COVID age, when we’re inundated with tragedy, her passing at 75 was particularly bitter. Dore had been reported missing weeks before, noted as not being good on her feet and having slight dementia. Fishermen ultimately found her body in the Ruhr River. As writer and programmer Steve Macfarlane notes, O. “was as close to a second renown as she had been in the second half of her career,” having recently worked with the Deutsche Kinemathek Berlin to restore her earliest films. The Association of German Film Critics had even announced she would be receiving their Honorary Award for her films, which “represent a fundamental break with the conventions of cinematic storytelling and impress with their radically subjective mode of expression and enigmatic poetry.”
As distressing as Dore’s death was, Anthology Film Archives is offering an opportunity to celebrate her life and work with their series Tribute to Dore O. The program includes both the aforementioned restorations of Dore’s early works — including her masterpiece Kaldalon (1971) and Jüm-Jüm (1967), a collaboration with her husband Werner Nekes — as well as her later films like Xoanon (1994) and Stern des Méliès (1982) presented in 16mm.
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Born in 1946, Dore was a student of design and painting across Europe until she fell into acting in Hamburg in the 1960s, where she met Nekes. Their first cinematic project, Jüm-Jüm, features Dore on a swing in front of a hardly subtle painting of a phallic shape. Instead of smooth arcs, her motions are edited sharply; she’s all over the frame, moving forward, backward, upside-down, and suddenly, jarringly still. Together with Nekes and a crew of like-minded artists, Dore co-founded the Hamburg Filmmakers Co-op in 1968. That same year she directed her first solo film, the dreamy, drone-y Alaska. Images of buildings and concrete give way to waves crashing onto the shore, eventually overlaid by footage of a motionless woman floating, soundtracked by a violin and a blow dryer. Dore shows the woman simultaneously walking up and down a pier. Where is she going, what does she want, and can the sea (which never stops) give it to her?
With their multilayered imagery and stream-of-unconsciousness logic, Dore’s films are a feminist European counterpart to the likes of Stan Brakhage. Jonas Mekas said that of all Dore’s work, Kaldalon comes closest to the Brakhage aesthetic. An Icelandic travelogue, diaristic without narration or narrative, it uses first-person perspective to create a sense of dread (her trademark) not often seen in experimental film. As the camera ascends an eerie staircase, it’s genuinely suspenseful where it will end up. Kaldalon’s duplication, layering, and collaging of images is the work of both an artist and a artisan, and to see it restored helps one appreciate its craftsmanship anew.
More austere, less layered filmmaking is on display in Lawale (1969), Blonde Barbarei (1972), and Frozen Flashes (1976), which consist of quick flashing images edited sharply, again summoning unease in the viewer. Kaskara (1974), which won the Grand Prize at the Knokke Film Festival (a first for a female filmmaker) and a German Critics’ award, reimagines Dore and Nekes’s summer cabin through overlaid images and editing. Rooms grow and shrink, domestic scenes melting away and people suddenly appearing and disappearing. Dore described the intent of the film as “the purpose of creating a sensual topology” — feelings creating their own reality.
In the second half of her career, Dore was often exhibiting work alongside a generation of women she inspired. The rarely-screened Stern des Méliès (1982) is dedicated to the legendary early French filmmaker Georges Méliès, and displays the same whimsy and mastery of form. Blindman’s Ball (1988) has more of a straightforward narrative than her other films; once again, doubled imagery creates a sense of dreamlike unreality as a woman takes care of a blind man, their mundane actions contrasted against their erotic, traumatic, and horrifying inner thoughts. Xoanon (1994), the most recent film in the series, brings Dore’s career focus on double images and double lives full circle, featuring an artist who creates at the same time he is overlaid with footage of his art and the monotonous tasks of everyday life.
Dore O.’s beautiful, haunting work explores the juxtaposition between the mundanity of the real world and the extraordinariness of our inner lives. According to Masha Matzke, an archivist of her work, Dore creates “new modes of subjectivity and states of consciousness,” which are intertwined with and ultimately inseparable from one another. While not as well-known as her peers in the European experimental film scene of the late ’60s, Dore O.’s films embody a rich, entrancing, often playful sense of female creativity.
Tribute to Dore O. runs June 17–19 at Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Avenue, Bowery, Manhattan).