Sanders-Brahms, Helma 1940-

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(Helma Sanders)


Born November 20, 1940, in Emden, Germany; added mother's maiden name to birth name to differentiate herself from another New German Cinema filmmaker; children: Anna Sanders. Education: Studied acting in Hanover, Germany; attended Cologne University.


Movie director and writer. Television station announcer, Cologne, Germany, 1960's; field director, 1970—; began directing shorts and documentaries for German television and then moved on to features, beginning with Gewelt, 1974, and Erdbeben in Chile; Media Group of the Cultural Council in the European Commission, vice-president, 1988-90; appeared in several films, including Der Subjektive Faktor, 1981, and Die Nacht der Regisseure (title means "The Night of the Filmmakers"), 1995.


Teleplay Award, Baden-Baden TV Film Festival, 1976, for Shirins Hochzeit; Film Award in Gold, German Film Awards, 1977, for Heinrich; Grand Prix award, Créteil International Women's Film Festival, 1980, for Deutschland bleiche Mutter; Jury Prize, Montreal World Film Festival, 1986, for Laputa; Yasue Yamamoto Award for outstanding artist in Tokyo.


Deutschland, bleiche Mutter: Film-Erzählung, (title means "Germany, Pale Mother"), Rowohlt (Hamburg, Germany), 1980.

(Writer and director, with Christel Buschmann, Helke Sander, and Margarethe von Trotta) Felix (movie), Future Film Production, 1987.

Dunkle zwischen den Bildern: Essays, Porträts, Kritiken, edited by Norbert Grob, Verlag der Autoren (Frankfurt, Germany), 1992.

Gottfried Benn und Else Lasker-Schuler: Giselheer und Prinz Jussuf, Rowohlt (Berlin, Germany), 1997.

Marlene und Jo: Recherche einer Leidenschaft, Argon (Berlin, Germany), 2000.

Screenwriter for and director of numerous films for theatres and television, including Angelika Urban, verkauferin, verlobt (short; title means "Angelika Urban, Salesgirl, Engaged"), 1970; Gewalt (title means "Violence"), 1971; Die industrielle Reservarmee (documentary; title means "The Industrial Reserve Army"), 1971; Der angestellte (title means "The Employee"), 1972; Die machine (documentary; title means "The Machine"), 1973; Die letzten tage von Gomorrah (title means "The Last Days of Gomorrah"), 1974; Erdbebenin Chile (title means "Earthquake in Chile"), 1974; Unter dem pflaster ist der strand (title means "The Sand under the Pavement"), 1975; Shirins hochzeit (title means "Shirin's Wedding,"), 1976; Heinrich, 1977; Deutschland bleiche mutter (title means "Germany, Pale Mother"), 1980; Vringsveedeler triptichon (documentary; "The Vringsveedel Tryptych"), 1980; (and producer) Die beruhrte (English title "No Mercy No Future; No Exit No Panic"), 1981; (and producer) Geteilte liebe (title means "Divided Love"), 1981; Flugel und fesseln (title means "The Future of Emily"), 1984; Laputa, 1986; Apfelbaume (title means "Apple Trees"), 1992; Lumière et compagnie (short; title means "Lumière and Company"), 1995; Jetzt leben—Juden in Berlin, 1995; (and producer) Mein Herz—Niemandem! (title means "My Heart Is Mine Alone"), 1997; Clara, 2000.

Contributor to periodicals, including Film Bulletin, Sequences, Film Quarterly, Cahiers du Cinéma, Film und Fernsehen, and Ciné-Bulles.


The films of Helma Sanders-Brahms have been programmed with some amount of relish at film festivals and in art houses, but it is a safe bet that they never will be mainstream movie fare. They are not engrossing dramas in which the audience can become emotionally involved in the on-screen action. Instead, Sanders-Brahms presents, from a distance, observable archetypes of life, often with a deliberate pacing. Rather than directing actors to express emotion, she prefers "pent-up" performers who hide their real feelings. In fact, actor Heinrich Giskes found himself so emotionally "pent-up" while shooting a scene for Heinrich that he broke a glass over his director's head as soon as she yelled cut.

Sanders-Brahms is a rebel against Hollywood conventions. She avoids casting glamorous leading ladies or hunky actors in order to sell tickets, and her films are often very slowly paced. A producer and writer in addition to director, Sanders-Brahms is a member of the New German Cinema movement, and as such she builds her scripts around the concerns of the political left. Many of her films present themes pertaining to the plight of the worker in Germany: the inequities of modern working conditions; how workers have been pitted against one another in order to attain Germany's capitalist "economic miracle"; and how the Gastarbeiter ("guest worker," or foreign migrant worker in Germany) is exploited. Shirin's Wedding addresses the Gastarbeiter problem, focusing on the suffering of a Turkish woman. As a child, Shirin was betrothed to Mahmud, but he left for Germany to become a Gastarbeiter. To escape an arranged marriage, Shirin travels to Germany to find Mahmud. She obtains work in a factory in Cologne and later as a cleaner, a job that disappears after she is raped by her boss. She winds up a prostitute, with Mahmud paying to have sex with her. Eventually, she is killed by a pimp's bullet. In No Mercy No Future, the daughter of a bourgeois family seeks sexual partners in the streets, including black migrant workers, derelicts, and aged, crippled cast-offs of society. In these neglected people, she sees the essence of Christ. Finally, Apple Trees shows the destruction of a family whose members are adversely affected by the politics of reunification.

Other motifs in Sanders-Brahms's work are the independent woman under fire and the mother-daughter relationship. She herself was raised by her self-reliant mother while her father was away fighting in Hitler's armies. He did not return until she was five years old. Much of her perception of her parents' relationship and her own childhood is depicted in Germany, Pale Mother, one of her best-known films. The mother is shown as a strong and independent woman who gives birth to her daughter (played by Sanders-Brahms's own baby girl) during an air raid. When the war ends, this woman is expected to file away her independence in order to be an obedient wife. She does so, but her frustrations take hold in the form of a disease that paralyzes her face and, in a gut-wrenching scene, calls for the removal of all her teeth. In a review of the film in Cineaste, Stuart Liebman called it "a semiautobiographical fiction in which the moral foundation of Sanders-Brahms's own birthright constitutes the stakes." The Future of Emily tells of an actress who lives a single, unconventional lifestyle. She returns to her parents' home to retrieve her daughter, only to be told by her own mother that she is a bad influence on the child. In a powerful scene the actress and her little girl visit the beach, where they spin fantasy adventures with each other. The movie makes reference to the myth of an Amazon queen, a woman who has killed off the man she loves and is living quite nicely without the company of men. Sanders-Brahms's point is that, in modern society, there are women who also are living well without men, but they are brainwashed into thinking that they would be better off with male partners.

Sanders-Brahms's us-against-them brand of feminism mirrors the early 1970s, when the modern feminist movement was new and women who had grown up in a male-dominated society were feeling confrontational. Indeed, Felix, released in 1987, might have been made in the early 1970s. It is the politically loaded story of an egocentric, hypocritical modern male whose lack of self-awareness borders on the ridiculous. He has just been left by his lover, and he finds himself cast adrift in a world in which women no longer need men, or want men. Felix is filmed in four episodes, each shot by a different woman director—Christel Buschmann, Helke Sander, and Margarethe von Trotta, in addition to Sanders-Brahms. All are guilty of stereotyping men as jabbering idiots, and women as collectively sensitive, sensuous, and perceptive and practically perfect. Nevertheless, New York Times contributor Vincent Canby commented: "The pleasures of the film accumulate. Felix is finally so enjoyable that no one, without being told, would easily identify it as the work of four very different talents."

Sanders-Brahms's films are united in that they are reflective of the society in which she came of age. Along with her fellow members of the New German Cinema, she has a mission: to point out what is wrong with the world as she sees it.



Camera Obscura (Los Angeles, CA), autumn, 1980, M. Silberman, "Women Filmakers in West Germany: A Catalog"; fall, 1983, M. Silberman, "Women Working: Women Filmmakers in West Germany: A Catalog (Part 2)."

Cineaste, winter, 1999, Stuart Liebman, review of Germany, Pale Mother, p. 51.

Film-Historia, number 1, 1997, J. Keene, "Mothering Daughters: Subjectivity and History in the Work of Helma Sanders-Brahms's Germany, Pale Mother (1979-1980)."

Monthly Film Bulletin (London, England), December, 1987, T. Elsaesser, "Public Bodies and Divided Selves: German Women Filmmakers in the 1980s."

New German Critique, fall, 1985, A. Bammer, "Through a Daughter's Eyes: Helma Sanders-Brahms's Germany, Pale Mother."

New York Times, March 18, 1984, Janet Maslin, review of Germany, Pale Mother; September 24, 1988, Vincent Canby, review of Felix.

Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Volume 12, number 1-2, 1990, M. Kinder, "Ideological Parody in the New German Cinema: Reading The State of Things, The Desire of Veronika Voss, and Germany, Pale Mother As Postmodernist Rewritings of The Searchers, Sunset Boulevard, and Blonde Venus."

Spectator, Volume 8, number 1, 1987, M. Desjardins, "Germany, Pale Mother and the Maternal: Toward a Feminist Spectatorship."

Variety, February 14, 1990, Jack Kindred, "German Helmer Quits Fest over Yank Invasion."

Wide Angle (Baltimore, MD), Volume 10, number 3, 1988, B. Hyams, "Is the Apolitical Woman at Peace? A Reading of the Fairy Tale in Germany, Pale Mother."


German Films, (July 19, 2006), Ron Holloway, profile of author.

Internet Movie Database, (July 19, 2006), information on author's films.

University of Victoria: New German Cinema Web site, (July 19, 2006), profile of author.*

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