Activist, artist, filmmaker and "woman-about-town"
By Sabrina Vetter
Those well-versed in abstract art, knowledgeable in collage art, modern art, Expressionism, Surrealism and Constructivism or interested in the art circles in and around the Bauhaus in Weimar are likely familiar with Ella Bergmann-Michel’s name – and, if her name still doesn’t ring any bells for you, a deeper look at the aesthetic of her collages reveals that they are created by a pioneer of modern art. Still, how is an artist, educated in drawing, inspired by Bauhaus, Surrealism and Dadaism and one of the first to include photographs into her collages, relevant to a project like FemFilmFans that looks at female filmmakers up close? The answer: Bergmann-Michel didn’t stop at drawing, making collages and photography; the abstract artist’s woman-about-town attitude also took her into the world of filmmaking.
Before she started her work as a filmmaker of short documentary films, Bergmann-Michel already had made her mark as an abstract artist and ventured into photography. Her rich oeuvre of paintings, graphic works, photography and films is marked by a deep love for art and plenty of creative ventures. Therefore, Bergmann-Michel’s fascinating story takes us from short-lived music studies to modern art collages to Bauhaus exhibitions to living in a windmill to avant-garde filmmaking – with stops in Paderborn, Weimar, the Netherlands, London, Frankfurt and Eppstein/Taunus. At the end of this journey, there is a filmmaker’s endeavor cut short at the hands of the Nazi Party in 1933.
The Art of the Filmmaker
As an artist, Bergmann-Michel took to modern abstract art, with especially her collages considered as prime examples of her pioneering ideas in this realm. She included wood, metal and other for that time quite unusual materials in her pieces of art, thereby combining fine arts and crafts – an artistic style that put her right in line with the avant-garde movement of the Bauhaus school of art. However, while some of her and her husband Robert Michel’s collages were hand-selected by Bauhaus-founder Walter Gropius to be shown during the opening of the school in 1919, Bergmann-Michel was never among the student body at school. Even though Gropius created Bauhaus Weimar, the art school’s first version, as a joint venture between Großherzoglich-Sächsischen Hochschule für Bildende Kunst in Weimar and the Kunstgewerbeschule Weimar – the former where Bergmann-Michel started her art studies in 1914 and took on drawing classes –, she didn’t warm up to the atmosphere created by teacher Johannes Itten permeating Bauhaus’s teachings and general philosophy. Ippen’s world view was marked by a strict mysticism grounded in the cult-like, religious Mazdaznan teachings, which just a few years later spoke in a favor of the Nazi Party and its ideologies such as sterilization and raciology. Therefore, Bergmann-Michel looked elsewhere to create art which was up to her standards.
Home in Hesse
Ella Bergmann-Michel was born on 20th October, 1895 in Paderborn, Germany, leaving her hometown in 1914, heading to Weimar to at first study music, eventually switching to graphic arts and ending up at the Großherzoglichen Sächsischen Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Weimar under the guidance of German painter, printmaker, and illustrator Walter Klemm. She continued her studies at the art school until 1920 and it was during that time that she refined her skills in photography, drawing and collage art and became interested in Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Futurism. No longer interested in the rather old-fashioned teachings of the art school as well alienated by the prevailing internal structures at Bauhaus, Bergmann-Michel and her husband – whom she met during her studies in 1917 and married in 1919 – headed somewhere else in 1920: Eppstein/Taunus (near Frankfurt) in the German state of Hesse, where they took up residence in an old mill that produced paint called “Schmelz” and which was part of Robert’s family inheritance. The Bergmann-Michels were able to live out their creative geniuses at their new home, while at the same time creating a “hang out” for a motley crew of Dadaists, Constructivists and other artists the likes of Willi Baumeister, László Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwitters, and, later on, Joris Ivens, Asja Lacis und Dziga Vertov. Robert would eventually re-name the “Schmelz” as “Heimatmuseum of Modern Art” (“Local Museum of Modern Art”), in order to celebrate its newfound role as the two artists’ home and studio. From here on, the Bergmann-Michels’ works would eventually find their way to the New York Museum of Modern Art via the wife of a curator from Wiesbaden. Eppstein-Vockenhausen would remain the home of the Bergmann-Michels – or the “Michelmänner” as they were known among their neighbors and friends – until Ella’s death in 1971.
From 1927 onwards, – after traveling the Netherlands with her husband and meeting collage artist Hannah Höch – Bergmann-Michel focused more and more on photography: she set up a studio in Frankfurt and started documenting moments of everyday life as well as modern architecture. In her photography predating any filmmaking endeavors, Bergmann-Michel was interested in looking at private and public spheres and how they interconnected. This meant taking a look at social circumstances and working as well as living conditions specific to Frankfurt. Bergmann-Michel’s photography style was deeply rooted in “Neues Sehen” (“New Vision”) – a style of photography originating in the 1920s which aimed at dismantling fixed structures of the artform and tried to shake up laws of lightning as well as composition and positioned the lens not just as part of the apparatus but as a second eye. “Neues Sehen” was therefore an experimental approach to photography; this style was also found at Bauhaus.
Filmmaking in Frankfurt
However, in the 1930s, Bergmann-Michel broadened her oeuvre by another artistic process: filmmaking. In between 1931-1933, Bergmann-Michel shot five short documentary films – until the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany cut her time as a filmmaker short, eventually forcing the artist to retire from shooting documentaries and to relocate to London for some years where she took up work as a graphic designer. The five short documentaries are: “Wo wohnen alte Leute?“ (1931), “Erwerbslose kochen für Erwerbslose” (1932), „Fliegende Händler in Frankfurt am Main” (1932), “Fischfang in der Rhön (an der Sinn)” (1932) and “Wahlkampf 1932 (Letzte Wahl)” (1932/33). Bergmann-Michel’s work in film is undeniably interconnected with Frankfurt am Main, Germany and especially the public housing program called “Neues Frankfurt” (“New Frankfurt”). The director’s first film “Wo wohnen alte Leute?” was actually a commissioned work by architect Mart Stam, who was responsible for the construction of the “Henry und Emma Budge-Altenheim” as part “Neues Frankfurt”.
Bergmann-Michel got involved in film in the first place with the foundation of the network “Das Neue Frankfurt” within “Neues Frankfurt”. As part of “Das Neue Frankfurt”, a special section focused on film (also known as “Arbeitsgemeinschaft für unabhängigen Film”) was founded under the guidance of Bergmann-Michel in 1931. This project was focused on creating candid films, focusing on the present and conveying stories that needed to be told via a modern style. The project was led by a three-person management body, one of which was Bergmann-Michel.
Suiting the new ways of “Neues Frankfurt” of looking at and creating things, Bergmann-Michel presented herself as an avant-garde, even experimental filmmaker who looked at everyday aspects of social interactions, and observed how individual members of society live with each other and how they are influenced by their surroundings. In her projects, she closely looked at social issues like poverty, unemployment and political campaigning.
During WWII and after she was forced to stop her artistic efforts due to the Nazi Party’s rise to power, Bergmann-Michel worked as a graphic designer in London for some years and was eventually 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, she solely focused on this aspect of her artistic work, never returning to filmmaking. Bergmann-Michel lived and worked at the “Michelmänners’” mill in Eppstein-Vockenhausen until she passed away on 8th August, 1971.
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!