Ticket of No Return (Ulrike Ottinger, 1979)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Ticket of No Return.

The it-girl of the West German art subculture, Tabea Blumenschein, stars as a nameless, silent stranger with a one-way ticket to Berlin and a plan to drink herself to death. While touring high class bars, queer nightspots, and seedy dives, she befriends a struggling homeless woman and runs across a trio of prim, judgemental women known as Social Question, Accurate Statistics, and Common Sense. With Blumenschein’s extravagant costumes and writer/director/cinematographer Ulrike Ottinger’s eye for a city still struggling to lift itself out of the bombed-out depression of World War II, Ticket of No Return is an unforgettably unique tour of Berlin and a deliciously shrewd example of feminist camp.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • Restored 4K digital transfer, overseen by director Ulrike Ottinger, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • New interview with Ottinger
  • Berlinfever – Wolf Vostell, Ottinger’s 16 minute short film of a 1973 Happening organized by artist and friend Wolf Vostell
  • Gallery of Ottinger’s workbook used to develop and produce the film
  • Gallery featuring rare behind-the-scenes production photos
  • An excerpt from Gérard Courant’s Cinématon (2009) featuring Ottinger
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: A new essay by critic Michael Koresky

As previously noted, MMC!’s favourite film from last month’s We Are One Film Festival was Ulrike Ottinger’s Ticket of No Return (1979). Ottinger’s second full-length feature and the first of her “Berlin Trilogy,” Ticket concerns a beautiful, fashionable, and nearly silent foreigner who travels to Berlin out of a passion for alcohol and a desire to drink herself to death. The film is subtitled as “Portrait of a Female Drunkard” and it opens with an expository mission statement revealed in voice-over narration:

She, a woman of great beauty, of antique grace and Raphaelic harmony, a woman, created like no other to be Medea, Madonna, Beatrice, Iphigenia, Aspasia, decided one sunny day to leave La Rotonda. She bought a one-way ticket to Berlin -Tegel. … She wanted to forget her past, rather leave it like a house to be demolished. To concentrate all her strength on one affair. Her affair. It was her desire to finally follow her destiny. Berlin, a city completely foreign to her, seemed to be the place to live out her passion. Her passion was to drink — live to drink — a drunken life — Life of a drunkard. Upon landing at Berlin-Tegel she’s made a decision that was irrevocable. Thanks to a Berlin brochure, given to her by a friendly stewardess, she decided to set up a drinking schedule. The detailed description of a sightseeing tour gave her assistance and comprehensive help. She decided to do a sort of boozer’s sightseeing. Briefly, sightseeing for her personal needs. Berlin seemed to be just right in a special way for her purpose. Her plans for a narcissistic worship of loneliness had become deepened on the short flight and intensified to the point where they enter a stage worthy of living, not to risk losing them in the realm of fantasies. Now the time had come to make it all come true.

Ticket of No Return sets out many of its central interests in this initial passage: the iconic femininity of its nameless protagonist, her single-mindedness and the near-transcendent vocation of her drinking, the idea of Berlin as the perfect locale for this forsaken, solipsistic effort. The opening visuals of a red screen pulling focus to reveal draped fabric and the fashionably heeled feet of the Drinker loudly echoing as they stride across polished marble floors establish the film’s visual and auditory compositions, embracing texture, colour, lighting, and reflection and suppressing realistic background noise to enhance the emptiness of Ticket’s locations and the isolation of its silent drinker.

Ottinger was once a visitor to Berlin also, arriving in 1973 at the invitation of German artist Wolf Vostell. (Vostell was the subject of Ottinger’s first film, Berlinfever – Wolf Vostell (1973), and he appears in Ticket of No Return as a man adorned with loaves of bread on which he and others periodically gnaw.) Ottinger was born in 1942 in Konstanz, Germany. Her Jewish mother and gentile father unsuccessfully attempted to escape Nazi Germany for Switzerland with her. Unable to avoid conscription, Ottinger’s father served during World War II while she and her mother were sheltered by her paternal grandmother. In 1962, a 20 year-old Ottinger moved to Paris as a painter and discovered cinema through the Cinémathèque and lectures by structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch. She returned to Konstanz in 1969 and founded Visuell, a film club and cultural centre that hosted exhibitions of artists like Vostell and David Hockney. Berlin was a revelation to Ottinger when she arrived in 1973, still showing the signs of WWII more than 30 years later. Craters still marred roadways and bomb damage was still visible on buildings. Ottinger recalls, “[In Berlin] I walked day and night through the streets and it was fascinating. I took thousands of photographs … I thought: Here you see and feel German history.”

Ticket’s star, Tabea Blumenschein, met Ottinger as a 17 year-old art student. Lovers at the time of the filmmaker’s relocation, Blumenschein followed Ottinger to Berlin shortly after the director’s move and Blumenschein became a central figure in Ottinger’s early films – the magical Laocoon & Sons (1975), the seductive The Enchantment of the Blue Sailors (1975), and the lesbian pirate opus Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1978). Ticket of No Return made Blumenschein the it-girl of the West German art subculture and she remained a queer-punk-feminist voice throughout her diverse artistic career until she passed away earlier this year. As the silent Drinker of Ticket of No Return, Blumenschein is magnetic, playing the character with imperious detachment, glorious eccentricity, and unglamourous inebriation. Certainly the pageant of fashion forward garments that the Drinker parades around in is key to her arresting persona. All credit goes again to the film’s star who also served as its costume designer, creating haute couture frocks that ostentatiously set the Drinker apart from all others in the film. Janet Maslin claimed in her review that Ticket of No Return “ostensibly has a serious subject, but it’s really more of a fashion statement than a film.” Ottinger’s statement is more serious than Maslin seems to acknowledge, although it is closely connected Blumenschein and her dazzling clothing.

Miriam Hansen maintains that the overriding objective of Ticket of No Return is to disentangle visual pleasure from cinema’s patriarchal hold and Ottinger does so by leaping into the contradictory image of the fabulously adorned Drinker. Exquisitely dressed and beautifully made-up, the Drinker could easily become an object of cinematic fascination, captured by film’s presumptive male gaze as theorized by Laura Mulvey, however the Drinker is too excessive and too unwieldy for such containment. Her outfits are too outlandish, her silence is too deafing, and her devotion to alcohol is too unconventional to be merely contained in a frame of soft-focus and then wondered at. Hansen observes that fashion has consistently been the domain of women, having been excluded from other avenues of artistic expression, but the Drinker’s en vogue style crosses over from art to fetish, revealing by its intensity the repressive power of that beauty and then turning it back on the viewer like a force for resistance. Blumenschien’s costuming confronts the camera’s gaze and by its monochromatic grandeur and stunning architecture, refuses its objectification.

The Drinker’s iconoclastic aura is not limited to her dress. She drinks to excess, mugs and gesticulates, smashes glasses, has little time for men and befriends unconventional women. Most obviously, she finds a drinking buddy in a homeless woman (Lutze) with whom she shares her refreshments, her clothing, her hotel room, and even her bath. Nina Hagen’s cameo as a bar’s singer and fellow drinker is also notable, as Hagen had made a splash less than a year earlier with her debut studio album and sparked a media uproar shortly before the film’s release when she explicitly demonstrated female masturbation positions on an Austrian talk show and got into a heated debate with various other panelists. Ottinger’s purposeful resistance to convention spills over from her lead character and into the film’s broader construction, creating an aesthetic that Angela McRobbie calls “lesbian punk anti-realism.”

Ottinger creates a world around the Drinker that is as plainly artificial as her appearance, being full of surrealist flair and self-conscious distanciation. The Drinker’s presence causes travelers’ suitcases to spring open, an airport PA system requests “Reality, please,” and an well-dressed little person (Paul Gaulet) ushers in moments of unreal fancy. The film proceeds episodically, prizing aesthetics over individuals, emphasizing cinematic space over time, celebrating scenes over their connections, and exploring fantasy. The Drinker smashes plates with Wolf Vostell and Eddie Constantine, crashes a feast of bratwurst and sauerkraut held by alpine yodellers, and disrupts a cruise on the inland waters of Berlin aboard the MS Moby Dick. These and other scenes stand as isolated tableaux alongside various fantasies of the Drinker in which she imagines herself in a number of unconventional roles: as a manly cab driver, a Shakespearean actor, a lip-synched advertising executive, a speedway daredevil. These flambouyant, unpredictable, and often disconnected moments eschew the lulling force of continuity and logic and dismantle the classical Hollywood infrastructure that enables cinema’s male gaze.

For Hansen, the Drinker recalls the historical figure of the Dandy, remarking that “[t]he Drinker, like the Dandy, is at the same time artist and artifice, using her body as the surface of her art.” Both the Dandy and Ticket’s Drinker are preoccupied with appearance, with touring urban spaces, and by their intense focus on the present, resistant to modernist ideals like rationality and progress — perspectives neatly encapsulated in a passing moment where the Drinker peels an orange and tosses away the fruit so she can admire the handiwork of her splayed peel. The connection between Drinker and Dandy is fitting as Ottinger would evoke the Dandy’s patron saint, Oscar Wilde, with the final film of her Berlin Trilogy, Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press (1984).The Drinker’s decision to pursue her transgressive mission is liberating but its goal, “a narcissistic worship of loneliness,” is obviously self-destructive. In this sense, Hansen’s notion of a body used a medium for art recalls Terry Gilliam’s assertion on the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) audio commentary that the junkie uses their body politically to reflect society’s ills back against it.

Society’s views are most obviously expressed in Ticket of No Return through a trio of pontificating women armoured in houndstooth. These ladies, symbolically named Common Sense, Accurate Statistics, and Social Question (and played respectively by Monika von Cube, Orpha Termin, and Magdalena Montezuma), serve as a kind of Greek Chorus spouting moral judgements on the film’s goings-on. Their clucking lectures vary from comical to obnoxious, but the consequences of the Drinker’s actions are real and damaging and the film does not side-step the issue at its conclusion. Ottinger’s previous film, Madame X, was received poorly by feminist critics who rankled at the notion that Ottinger’s pirate queen could be just as brutal as a man. Ticket of No Return seems to have fared better with critics on its release, perhaps reflecting Ottinger’s sophisticated use of the Drinker’s self-conscious stylishness or perhaps revealing unfortunately that female self-destruction is somehow more palatable than female domination. In the 40 years since Ticket was released, female drinking has become a mainstream declaration of agency and the failure to engage in its practice verges on a betrayal of that solidarity. Having seen Ticket of No Return through to its end, one can’t help but wonder about Ottinger’s take on the trend of “women behaving badly films” and the need of some to work out which character from Amy Poehler’s Wine Country (2019) they identify with most.

With the announcement of the Criterion Collection’s box set of The Complete Films of Agnès Varda, MMC! can’t help but feel there is an audience out there ready to embrace Ulrike Ottinger and her catalogue of daring fiction films and lengthy, experimental documentaries. This is a perfect time as well as Ottinger was the 2020 recipient of the Berlin Film Festival’s prestigious Berlinale Camera. As it stands, Ottinger seems to be distributing her films herself through her website (on DVD and at hefty prices!). It would be wonderful to see these films find wider circulation and the Criterion Collection could be the perfect label to do so. Ticket of No Return is a excellent entry point to Ottinger’s work, being of manageable length compared to her later documentaries and to her other masterpiece, Joan of Arc of Mongolia (1989). It would make sense to release all of Ottinger’s Berlin Trilogy together, but with the director being a lesser known filmmaker in North America and with Criterion rarely being averse to releasing notionally connected films separately, a stand alone release of Ticket of No Return does make sense. Plus, it would fit perfectly into the Collection’s increasing emphasis on cinematic diversity.

No agonizing over a cover commission here as Berlin-based illustrator Steffi Schuetze would be a perfect choice to handle the relevant artwork. German, female, and having a keen interest in fashion and femininity in all its forms, Schuetze would fit Ticket of No Return like a glove.

Credits: This imagined Criterion release has been built from the ground up by MMC! Ottinger did prepare reference books for her films that served as mood boards and storyboards and were filled with newspaper clippings, notes, and sketches. Glimpses of the director’s reference book for the film and her production photographs can be found on her website and so we’ve included them with this potential edition. Michael Koresky was chosen to provide an essay given his “Queer & Now & Then” series for Film Comment and specifically for his essay on Ottinger’s second film in her Berlin Trilogy, Freak Orlando.

Beyond Ulrike Ottinger’s own website and Michael Koresky’s writings, this post was greatly informed by Amy Sherlock’s article for Frieze, Angela Waters’ article for Sleek, Janet Maslin’s review for The New York Times, Paul Clinton’s interview of the filmmaker, Tanzim Pardiwalla’s article for Mashable India, David Hudson’s article for The Criterion Collection, and Miriam Hansen’s essay, “Visual Pleasure, Fetishism and the Problem of Feminine/Feminist Discourse: Ulrike Ottinger’s Ticket of No Return.” Lastly, a shout-out to my lovely wife who happens to be reading Holly Glenn Whitaker’s Quit like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obssessed with Alcohol and who provided some interesting thoughts on the practice of female drinking just when I needed them.

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