Sanders-Brahms, Helma (1940—)

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Sanders-Brahms, Helma (1940—)

German screenwriter and director. Name variations: Helma Sanders. Born Helma Sanders on November 20, 1940, in Emden, Germany; attended an acting school in Hanover, 1960–62, and Cologne University; never married; children: Anna Sanders.

Selected films:

(for TV) Gewalt (Violence, 1971); (for TV) Der Angestellte (The Employee, 1972); (documentary) Die Maschine (The Machine, 1973); (for TV) Die letzten Tage von Gomorrah (The Last Days of Gomorrah, 1974); Unter dem Pflaster ist der Strand (The Sand Under the Pavement, 1975); (for TV) Shirins Hochzeit (Shirin's Wedding, 1976); Deutschland bleiche Mutter (Germany, Pale Mother, 1980); Die Berührte (No Mercy, No Future, 1981); Flügel und Fesseln (The Future of Emily, 1984); Laputa (1986); Geteilte Liebe (Divided Love, 1988); Apfelbaume (Apple Trees, 1992); (documentary) Lumière et compagnie (Lumière and Company, 1995).

Helma Sanders-Brahms was born Helma Sanders in Emden along the North Sea in western Germany, on November 20, 1940. Her father was absent during much of her childhood, initially because of World War II and later due to family tension. As a result, her mother, a strong and independent woman, raised Sanders-Brahms almost exclusively on her own. The young girl felt alienated because of her home life, and found escape through her art and cultural pursuits. Even as a child, she harbored an interest in theater and cinema, and decided by the age of ten that she would work in the theater. She read incessantly, went to movies, and wrote her own scripts.

Sanders-Brahms attended an acting school in Hanover, Germany, between 1960 and 1962, and took the advice of teachers who suggested she study direction. During her four years at Cologne University as a drama and literature major, she eschewed the society of other students. "I felt the need to do something different," she said, "to leave the student milieu which was, particularly at that time, divorced from contemporary reality." Instead, she occupied herself in odd jobs as a factory worker, store clerk, and hospital aide in a determined effort to stay closely in touch with real life. "Two or three people died every day in the room where I worked. After a month I couldn't sleep or eat…. I was no help to the sick. Too emotional, too sensitive to be effective." After graduating, she taught one year before securing a position at a television station, WDR-3 in Cologne, as an on-air introducer of film classics. Soon, she was producing film shorts and documentaries for WDR, interviewing Italian directors Pasolini, Zeffirelli, and Corbucci, and directing. Her first film for television involved an interview with terrorist Ulrike Meinhof , one of the leaders of the Baader-Meinhof gang. "The film still exists," says Sanders-Brahms, "but it is very difficult to see it."

Sanders-Brahms considered it both imperative and inevitable that she branch out alone and produce her own work. Her independent nature and unwillingness to compromise her beliefs made it difficult for her to work within the confines of a commercial environment. As such, she joined the New German Cinema movement in constructing her scripts around the political left. The dehumanization brought about by technology and the personal plights of the downtrodden became persistent themes. She created intensely real characters, frequently representative of an imprisoned urban working class.

In 1971, Sanders-Brahms completed her first television film, Gewalt (Violence), for WDR. The movie focused on assembly-line workers at a Ford Motor Company plant. Der Angestellte (The Employee), made in 1972, was a study of the alienation of a computer programmer, played by Ernst Jacobi, who received the Best Actor award at the San Remo (Italy) film festival for his performance. In 1973, her hourlong documentary Die Maschine (The Machine) won the Fipresci prize at Oberhausen.

After 1974, Sanders-Brahms matured quickly into a full-blown artist. She created and produced her own scripts, and earned professional respect and notoriety beyond the borders of her native Germany. Her first international success came with her portrayal of the exploitation of Germany's foreign workers in the film Shirins Hochzeit (Shirin's Wedding) in 1976. The late 1970s saw Sanders-Brahms focus more on radical subjectivism than on the political films of a few years before. Like other German women directors of the time, she probed mother-daughter relationships and linked them with Germany's troubled history.

Her development in this direction resulted in one of her most famous works, Deutschland bleiche Mutter (Germany, Pale Mother), in 1980. "It is my remembrance," said Sanders-Brahms, "a confrontation with the past." The film, which starred Eva Mattes and Ernst Jacobi, also featured Sanders-Brahms' narration and her infant daughter Anna Sanders . The narrative follows the psychological deterioration of a woman whose subjugation by her domineering husband manifests itself in facial paralysis. The treatment: removal of all of her teeth, a scene that is both shocking and symbolic. Deutschland bleiche Mutter took first prize at three film festivals.

The following year, Sanders-Brahms attempted improvisational film with Die Berührte, starring Elisabeth Stepanek . That work, which delved into the world of schizophrenia, won the British Film Institute Award under the title No Mercy, No Future, in part for its daring approach to a difficult subject. But Sanders-Brahms' personal favorite among her films was Die letzten Tage von Gomorrah (The Last Days of Gomorrah, 1974). The piece, a work of science fiction, decries consumer-based culture; in it, a computer factory develops the definitive machine, a television that satiates all human cravings. In the following years, Sanders-Brahms became associated with European art cinema with such films as Flügel und Fesseln (The Future of Emily, 1984) and Laputa (1986). As her fame evolved, Helma Sanders hyphenated her surname to Sanders-Brahms (composer Johannes Brahms is an ancestor on her mother's side) to clearly distinguish herself from a close contemporary, German director Helke Sander .


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. HarperCollins, 1998.

Unterburger, Amy, ed. Women Filmmakers & Their Films. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1998.

Vincendeau, Ginette, ed. Encyclopedia of European Cinema. NY: Facts on File, 1995.

Wakeman, John, ed. World Film Directors, Vol. II, 1945–1985. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1988.

Gloria Cooksey , freelance writer, Sacramento, California

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Sanders-Brahms, Helma (1940—)

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