THE IMAGES MOST ASSOCIATED with the German filmmaker and artist Dore O. are of a woman, face-up like Millais’s Ophelia, drifting phantasmally over ocean waters, her body a gauzy projection superimposed onto a blue backdrop of restless movement. The woman is twentysomething Dore herself in her second film, Alaska (1968), a supple succession of beachy still shots and double exposures whose femininity and softness feel deceptive. Staccato editing rhythms and a menacing drone agitate these ethereal visions. And is the woman fading, or coming into view? The images now carry an awful prescience in light of Dore’s recent death at age seventy-five. This March, the filmmaker’s body was found in the Ruhr river; reportedly she had been suffering from mild dementia. Dore O., who was not immediately identified, had been missing for weeks.
Until a few years ago, Dore’s films from the 1960s and ’70s had practically been lost; the remaining prints had badly deteriorated and become unwatchable. The archivist and researcher Masha Matzke, who spearheaded the films’ digital restoration with the collaboration of Dore and the Deutsche Kinemathek, is largely responsible for reversing their fates and launching an increasingly enthusiastic reappraisal of Dore’s output. Better late than never: Dore was one of the only German women consistently making experimental films before the ’80s, and at every turn, it seems, her work bucks easy categorization, even as its primal poetics evoke the films of celebrated avant-gardists like Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage. “A Tribute to Dore O.,” a three-day series hosted by Anthology Film Archives, will provide New York audiences an opportunity to see for themselves the sensual and haunting force of this neglected figure from Germany’s “other” cinema.
Born Dore Oberloskammp in 1946, Dore O. was a painter before turning to film in the late ’60s, a not uncommon shift for young West German artists at the time, swept up as many of them were by the anti-imperialist and anti-fascist ideals of the New Left. The medium’s powers of documentation were considered key in the struggle against the prevailing social order, inspiring a rethinking of the means of artistic production and distribution that resulted in the proliferation of film collectives across the country.
Dore O. was a cofounder of one such group, the Hamburg Filmmakers’ Cooperative, which formed in 1968 after the avant-garde historian P. Adams Sitney visited the city and presented screenings by Brakhage, Andy Warhol, Gregory Markopoulos, and Jonas Mekas, among others. The collective became one of Europe’s most important independent distributors, distinguished by its auteurist leanings and its close ties to the international experimental film community. Perhaps this connection can account, at least in part, for the commonalities between Dore’s work and that of the American avant-garde—as well as Dore’s outlier status within her home country’s experimental film scene. Where many of her West German contemporaries pivoted to grassroots media activism or leftist film theory, Dore continued to build upon a legacy of nonnarrative surrealist cinema rooted in the poetical textures of the unconscious. From the get-go, her work articulated subterranean moods and feelings anchored to her own memories and experiences, creating an alternative realm of perception shot through with nostalgia, vulnerability, distress, and longing.
Take Lawale (1969), a kind of domestic drama that unfolds across a series of static shots. In the film, we see the members of a bourgeois family placed in different arrangements around a house, snapshots of a routine existence instilled with dread and tension—the score, industrial clanging accompanied by what sounds like the world’s worst violin player, ensures this. These eerie portraits see the frozen family members at tea, on the stairway, gazing out the window, their backs typically to the camera, suggesting a certain emotional inaccessibility. Shots of a distant hill, menacingly primordial against a cloudy sky, bookend the film, with close-ups of a struggling body, or bodies, faintly superimposed over the monolithic landscape; and then, the jarringly tactile image of Dore herself, kneeling over a bed of sheepskins, tossing her hair back and forth as if in the grip of a feverish possession.
Dore often collaborated with her husband, the artist Werner Nekes; the two codirected Dore’s first film, the 1968 short Jüm-Jüm—a percussive concatenation of stationary shots that show a woman swinging in front of a large painting of a phallus—and they shared an affinity for vintage optical devices (Nekes was a collector). Their work both relied on an inventive manipulation of celluloid film, though Dore in particular used techniques like double exposure, rear projections, and superimposition to get at a new kind of language, a way of seeing whose logic was related more to the intuitively expressive powers of music than any rational principle. Dore’s fascination with the parameters of perception—how film can disrupt and expand them—is perhaps most obviously apparent in Kaskara (1974), composed almost entirely of the passageways (doors, windows, mirrors) that recur throughout Dore’s oeuvre, and which are here multiplied and dense with reflective layers. Shot in the couple’s summer cottage in Sweden, the film finds a man, Nekes, floating in and around the house, with superimpositions dissolving the boundaries between the landscape and the rooms, collapsing exterior and interior into one unified reality.
While Dore was not interested in explicitly engaging with politics, her work was not hermetic. Instead, it obliquely folded Germany’s history—its long shadow of fascism, its colonial violence, its brutally reinforced iron curtain—into a rich and generative mode of subjectivity. Alaska contains flashes of unidentified Indigenous people and opens with images of a prison, a nod to the mounting unease back in West Berlin, where the then-recent killing of student protestor Benno Ohnesorg by a policeman catalyzed a movement against the state’s authoritarian impulses; Blonde Barbarei (1972) alludes to the aesthetics of the Third Reich, with a triumphant choral arrangement given Riefenstahlian undertones thanks to the distant outline of an enormous construction project; shadowy glimpses of a cabaret performance produce a sense of decadence and foreboding. And then there is Kaladon (1971), a sort of travelogue of Dore and Nekes’s journey to Iceland, its rocky landscape captured in woozy, paranormal greens. For an older generation of German viewers, these vistas might conjure the country’s postwar ruins, the backdrop for late-’40s Trümmerfilme, or “rubble films.”
Yet the films of Dore O. cannot be pinned down to a single preoccupation—that is their great virtue, and one of the reasons why they very nearly vanished. They are thick with Dore’s life, whose facets are disassembled and reconstituted by new, more slippery designs. She beckons us to commune with her on a gut level, allowing herself to remain elusive even as she lays bare her deepest intimacies.
“A Tribute to Dore O.” runs at Anthology Film Archives in New York from June 17 to June 19.