Ella Bergmann-Michel’s Short Documentary Films
By Guest Contributor Sabrina Vetter
For the majority of her career, Ella Bergmann-Michel (1895-1971) was known as a collage artist, a photographer and a pioneer of modern art. For a brief period she added filmmaking to her list of talents. Between 1931-1933, Bergmann-Michel shot five documentary films until the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany eventually forced her to retire from filmmaking because of their avant-garde, even experimental nature. By looking at everyday aspects of society (with particular focus on poverty and unemployment), she observed how individuals live and interact with each other and in what ways they are influenced by their surroundings. In this article, we take a look at Bergman-Michel’s unique film work and how her short films documented realities that shaped public spaces.
New in Frankfurt
Bergmann-Michel’s work in film is undeniably interconnected with Frankfurt, Germany and especially the public housing program called “Neues Frankfurt” – which seems to have started it all for Bergmann-Michel as a film director. “Neues Frankfurt” (“New Frankfurt”), which lasted from 1925 until 1930, was supposed to shape the landscape of housing in Frankfurt, as well as solve the city's housing shortage. It was therefore as much an urban development project as it was a social one. The architectural and interior design concepts developed at that time were decidedly marked by a modern aesthetic, breaking with traditional conventions and focusing on comfort, functionality and homogeneity for standardized housing. All in all, “Neues Frankfurt” was interested in exploring new ways of looking at and creating things. A piece of trivia about this era: the implementation of the architectural designs of “Neues Frankfurt” also marked the birth of the famous Frankfurt kitchen.
In order to get scientists, artists, designers, economists and others on board with the innovative public housing program, the network “Das Neue Frankfurt” was founded within “Neues Frankfurt.” As part of “Das Neue Frankfurt,” a special section focusing on film (also known as the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft für unabhängigen Film”) was founded under the guidance of Bergmann-Michel in 1931. This project aimed to create modern, candid films that were critical as well as informative.
At that time, photographer Ilse Bling, a member of one of Frankfurt’s wealthy Jewish merchant families, introduced Bergmann-Michel to the Dutch architect Mart Stam. Stam, alongside architects Werner Max Moser, Ferdinand Kramer and Erika Habermann, was responsible for planning the construction of the “Henry und Emma Budge Altenheim” as part of Frankfurt’s housing program. It was Stam who proposed that Bergmann-Michel should shoot a film about the nursing home. The final product, the short film “Wo wohnen alte Leute?“ (“Where do old people live?”), was supposed to be an instructional film on how to build better nursing homes, while also addressing the ever-growing housing shortage – the heart of “Neues Frankfurt”.
Interestingly, for this first film, Bergmann-Michel wasn’t even equipped to shoot properly. She didn’t own a camera when Stam approached her about the documentary project. A fellow photographer luckily did and handed his camera over to Bergmann-Michel so shooting could begin.
As with all her documentary projects, “Wo wohnen alte Leute?” was about observing everyday events, revealing new as well as previously unseen aspects of public life – and thereby opening up spaces that had remained invisible up to that point. Therefore, this work was not just about simply depicting a building and its individual rooms, walls or corridors; rather, Bergmann-Michel depicted the home as a living organism, in which social interactions between residents show the necessity of space for people to thrive, which is why a building’s architecture is so important. After “Wo wohnen alte Leute?“ was finalized, Bergmann-Michel was responsible not only for directing but also for writing, production, cinematography and editing on all further documentary projects.
"Bergmann-Michel depicted the home as a living organism, in which social interactions between residents show the necessity of space for people to thrive, which is why a building’s architecture is so important."
Avant-garde and Experimental
Her second venture „Erwerbslose kochen für Erwerbslose“ (“Unemployed People Cook for Unemployed People”) dove even deeper into observing how individual members of society live alongside each other, by carefully examining social issues like poverty and unemployment. “Erwerbslose kochen für Erwerbslose” lives in a murky area – just like „Wo wohnen alte Leute?“ – in between showing its audience how people as a collective can do better for the good of all and propaganda. In its final shot, “Erwerbslose kochen für Erwerbslose” directly addresses its audience in bold letters by stating that “Alle!” ("All!") have to help.
Still, it was with this second film that Bergmann-Michel could truly manifest herself as an avant-garde, even experimental filmmaker. With a 35 mm Kinamo camera in hand – after large film companies denied their interest in shooting a film focused on “Erwerbsküchen” and claimed the money for such a project wasn’t worth it – Bergmann-Michel made the film on her own and against all odds with minimal resources. The director recalls how she put the negative in the Kinamo in dark cellars or in photo shops – if there even was film stock to shoot with in the first place. However, with all required material shot in the end, Bergmann-Michel was able to fulfill the initial task: to shoot a promotional film at the request of the “Verein der Frankfurter Erwerbslosen-Küchen” including images of the everyday events happening in 28 kitchens, where unemployed people handed out 10,000 liters of food to other unemployed people. The goal was to convincingly show that people should donate to support the initiative. Despite no support from larger film companies, Bergmann-Michel finished her short film and it was a success. The film was screened outdoors at Frankfurt’s Hauptwache under the then-Schiller monument, with each showing during the evening generating over 600 Reichsmark.
Incited by this success, Bergmann-Michel went into her 3rd and 4th short features all the more hopeful. This time around, she created films based on her own ideas, not on commissioned works.
During the shooting of “Fliegende Händler in Frankfurt am Main“ (“Peddlers in Frankfurt am Main”), the director relied even more on experimental – even guerrilla – filmmaking techniques. Equipped with a 35mm hand camera, Bergmann-Michel shot material of “Fliegender Händler” – unemployed tradespeople who sold a variety of goods in the streets of Frankfurt to make some money, often without official permits, therefore always hiding or on the run from the police. On the final day of shooting, Bergmann-Michel shot “carnies” performing at the fairground of the central market hangar. Having caught the eye of the police, she counted herself lucky to get the finished material home where she was able to edit the film stock and finish the documentary.
“Fliegende Händler” is especially interesting in terms of space-taking. A woman secretly filming a group of people that is also in hiding, both unlawfully present in the cityscape, was a singular if not unique means of entering public life, especially in 1932, the year of the film’s release. This setup allows for an examination of how women claim their space in the public sphere even when they are prohibited to do so by social, legal or historical limitations. Bergmann-Michel and her guerrilla-style filmmaking used for a documentary about tradespeople illegally selling their goods thereby also tells a larger story about how women filmmakers have for most of film history operated at the margins, if not at times completely invisible. In the end, the director is able to talk about the invisibility of women filmmakers by relating the stories of hiding tradesmen to marginalized female directors.
Her next undertaking was “Fischfang in der Rhön (an der Sinn)” (“Fishing in the Rhön Mountains (by the Sinn)”). This project proved to be less adventurous than its predecessor but even more so calming. Inspired by fishing, Bergmann-Michel made use of a walk along the river Rhön to shoot jumping trout in the water. Not much planning went into this project except for a basic idea gestating in the director’s head; no script, no larger concept, just filming nature and light and shadow and people meeting alongside the shore – shots of moments in time. “Fischfang in der Rhön (an der Sinn)” is therefore documentary filmmaking at its most basic and also at its most essential: pure observation and storytelling frame-by-frame.
Bergmann-Michel’s last filmic venture was cut short. “Wahlkampf 1932 (Letzte Wahl)” (“Election campaign 1932 (Last Election)”) was shot on the eve of the rise of the Nazi party. Due to the NSDAP’s rejection of “degenerate art” (art that did not support Nazi ideals), this documentary remains a fragment. Bergmann-Michel shot images of Frankfurt during election time - bustling streets and alleys, campaign posters and pamphlets, and lively political debates between voters. Similar to “Fliegende Händler”, Bergmann-Michel looked at the seemingly everyday happenings in Frankfurt’s streets – only this time during a time of election campaigning. However, it was the year 1932 that Swastika banners were most prominent in the streets. The director even was shortly arrested for recording a fist fight in front of an NSDAP election office, a precursor of the looming limitations and bans waiting for all kinds of artists once the Nazi Party won the election of 1932.
Bergmann-Michel abandoned her work on the film in January 1933, the same month that Hitler was named Reich Chancellor. What remains today is 13-minute of cuts between images from the streets of Frankfurt with people going on about their everyday tasks and engaging in political discussions, and posters, signs, flags, party emblems, banners in the weeks leading up to the German federal election in July 1932. There is no dialogue, the shots are only accompanied by music.
Not only did that film become a fragment, Bergmann-Michel was forced to end her work as a filmmaker and indefinitely stop production on all projects. She worked as a graphic designer in London for some years during WWII and was able to return to her work as an artist – even giving lectures on modern painting and filmmaking – producing paintings and collages after the war ended in 1945. “Wahlkampf 1932 (Letzte Wahl)” remained her last film.
Sabrina Vetter is freelance writer based near Frankfurt, Germany. She received her M.A. in American and English Studies from the Goethe University in Frankfurt, where she focused on film, gender, literature and post-colonial studies. Her previous jobs include editorial assistant at a publishing company and Social Media manager. Besides her freelance work, Sabrina is busy finishing her PhD on marginalized bodies in media, including film and TV. She has also created the Instagram Challenge #365Plus6Films, which will look at 371 films directed by women. Each Monday for the next year, Sabrina will post a list of seven different films directed by women on a specific theme. One film for each day of the week. So be sure to follow her on Instagram!
Edition Filmmuseum, Ella Bergmann-Michel: Dokumentarische Filme 1931-1933
Tagesspiegel, Die Chronistin der arbeitenden Bevölkerung
Remake Film Festival, Alle Filme von Ella Bergman-Michel und das Filmporträt Mein Herz schlägt blau