Black and white footage from the 1950s of Bundestag debates full of old white men, of old white male generals inspecting the troops, and of an old white man conducting an orchestra made up of slightly less old white men. This was, of course, a long time ago. We have nothing to compare with this now. Well, yes and no.
Die Unbeugsamen (roughly translated as the unyielding ones) wants to celebrate the pioneering women who first entered parliament. We see the everyday sexism that they had to put up with. The first female government minister is asked on telly whether she’d prefer to be addressed as Minister or Ministerin (clue, only one of those is a female noun). Women trying to discuss abortion bans and rape in marriage are heckled and laughed at. Others are told by the presiding chair that they he’ll take them seriously as they’re pretty.
The film addresses a number of very serious problems. The problem is that the answers it proffers are only intermittently useful. For a start let’s look at the 12 distinguished female politicians it chooses to interview. I counted 4 or 5 from the FDP – the small Liberal party which is way to the right of its English counterparts, even post Nick Clegg – and nearly as many from the conservative CDU/CSU.
There’s a couple of Social Democrats, but any hint of radicalism is represented by a couple of Greens, who first entered parliament in 1983 on the back of a growing anti-war and anti-nuclear movement. Their first appearance in the film is in a protest against being groped by one of their own Green MPs. But gradually they are able to make some criticisms of systemic sexism.
Some Green MPs did indeed make radical demands and shaking up the Bundestag – but more because of the movement which spawned them than their gender. And yet Die Unbeugsamen keeps returning to the claim that there is something about being female that makes you somehow a better politician.
So we see the no confidence vote in Helmut Schmidt which was the prelude to both the Greens entering parliament and an almost uninterrupted 40 years of Conservative rule. FDP politician Hildegard Hamm-Brücher makes a speech in the Bundestag defending Schmidt. This is seen as a triumph of her gender. But what of the FDP women who voted against Schmidt. What about the women in the CDU/CSU?
Various themes are brought up which are being “women’s issues” – the family, abortion rights, war and peace. First, how dare you insinuate that economics, say, is not a woman’s speciality. But also, in a Germany where the female Chancellor supports the ongoing illegality of abortion in Germany and sends German troops to Africa, when female AfD MPs are at the centre of the current Backlash, this notion of automatic female unity is simply nonsense.
Director Torsten Körner (yes, he’s a man, no, it shouldn’t matter, yes, it does) is able to square the circle by almost arbitrarily focussing on the Bonn government – that is, by making 1989 the cut-off point. This is, quite conveniently, not long before the Greens entered government and foreign minister Joschka Fischer deployed German troops (in Serbia) for the first time since the second world war, with the support of his female MPs.
Any film about female representation in the Bundestag must acknowledge Angela Merkel, which this begrudgingly does, without offering any analysis of her 16 years as Chancellor. All the interviewed women say that her Chancellorship was a Good Thing. One of the Greens goes as far as to say that she didn’t agree with every last thing that Merkel did – but then goes no further.
The truth is that although Merkel becoming Chancellor had some symbolic worth – as did Thatcher becoming Prime Minister of Britain and Obama becoming US President. But none of these cases was of any concrete benefit to the women and Black people who continued to suffer under their leadership. One could argue that because Merkel is a woman, people were more prepared to put up with the inhumanity of her government.
Die Unbeugsamen is right to celebrate the minor gains that women have made in German politics, but because it refuses to recognise that women can have political differences, and because it refuses to acknowledge any opinion to the left of the increasingly neo-liberal Greens, it is unable to offer us much useful analysis. Which is all a bit of a shame, but it is what it is.