Director: Sabine Derflinger (Austria). Year of Release: 2022
Whether you like her or not (and we’ll get onto that), Alice Schwarzer is the best known and one of the most influential German representatives of the second wave of feminism. The first hour of this film gives us some idea why. In 1969 until the early 1970s, Schwarzer lived in France just as the new women’s liberation movement was being born. influenced by the similar upsurge in the USA. Schwarzer was part of this movement, marching for women’s rights alongside Simone de Beauvoir.
Returning to Germany, she continued the fight, often in Emma, the feminist magazine which she launched and edited. We see her taking on Stern magazine for repeatedly having front covers of women wearing few clothes, or in television debates with dinosaurs who ask her if she didn’t think that women now have it all. In one memorable confrontation, a man arrogantly slouches on a tv sofa, legs apart, explaining women’s rights. It’s fun to watch Schwarzer make mincemeat of him.
Perhaps most importantly, in 1971 she initiated the action “Wir haben abgetrieben!” where 374 prominent and not-prominent women declared on the front page of Stern that they had had an abortion. She also arranged for German tv to show an abortion as if it were a normal medical procedure, which of course it is. The show, and abortion itself were illegal under Paragraph 218 of the German constitution. They still are – the paragraph is still part of German law.
We see Schwarzer engaging with feminists from different countries, most notably France, where old tv footage shows her speaking in fluent French. She discusses with a woman from the DDR how despite the talk of “socialism” liberating women by allowing them to work, all this meant was that they carried the double burden of working in the daytime while being expected to do all the cleaning and childcare in the evening.
For those of us who mainly know Schwarzer’s recent statements, this is a great counterweight which shows why she is important and why we should take what she says seriously. Which is important as, two-thirds through the film, she goes all racist on us. It starts with the sexual attacks near Cologne Cathedral on New Years Eve 2015, where Schwarzer joined the clamour of the right wing press in blaming Muslims and migrants. It moves quickly onto the headscarf.
Schwarzer’s modus operandi is to make a reasonable statement, and then to go on to say something which sounds the same, but has quite different implications. She says that of course she is on the side of individual women who want to wear a headscarf for reasons of tradition or a feeling of identity, quickly adding that headscarves should be banned in all schools, Universities and state jobs. Schwarzer sympathizes with Muslim women, but only if they know their place.
Similarly, she states that political Islam has as much to do with Islam as Fundamentalist Christianity, but goes on immediately to argue that all men from Arab countries must be suspect, as they’ve been brought up in a patriarchal society. For a woman who has spent her life campaigning against patriarchy in Germany, her unwillingness to make similar generalisations about German men is a little, shall we say, inconsistent.
It is perhaps unsurprizing that Schwarzer refuses to see the contradictions in her own arguments. It is more pernicious that the film does not pick them up – indeed it provides more of the same. An Iranian woman argues that all wearers of the headscarf are endorsing women’s subjugation in Iran. The next scene shows the Emma editorial board discussing Bavarian schoolboys using and creating pornography. No-one suggests that everyone who wears lederhosen is responsible for porn.
This film is clearly the case for the defence in the light of recent attempts by Third Wave feminists to reject Schwarzer’s recent, more distasteful, interventions. Yes, we do hear an occasional voice criticising Schwarzer, but it is given short shrift and no time to make a case. There is a short scene of Schwarzer talking to a woman wearing a headscarf, saying that they should talk later. We do not see the ensuing talk, and whether Schwarzer shows any respect for this intelligent woman.
There is a slightly interesting editorial point here, but it is very slight. There’s no need to bring on anti-abortion sexists to debate Schwarzer, so what’s wrong with just hearing just her point of view? Well, apart from making the film slightly boring, it fails to address the more than legitimate criticisms by people who had been inspired by Schwarzer. We also only skim the surface of her racism, and hear absolutely nothing about her transphobia or support for Angela Merkel.
There is enough in this film to warrant a visit, particularly for those of us who didn’t grow up with Schwarzer’s battle with the complacent German media. And yet the film’s uncritical treatment of her recent statements does make you wonder if the earlier footage – which makes her look magnificent – is actually as clear cut as it seems. This is a hagiography which skirts on the edges of much more interesting discussions without really engaging with them. A missed opportunity.