A heart beats on the soundtrack. We see a head covered in a stocking, but the face is not visible. The stocking tears, revealing layers upon layers of tearing material, newspaper, collaged mouths cut from magazines ripping away to reveal only more mouths.
After the credits, we return to a shot of a woman with a stocking over her head, only this time the face is visible and writhing. It’s as if she’s attempting to escape, turning her head and pressing her tongue against the material, forcing it to rip through only the muscles in her face.
This is Nabelfabel (1984), Mara Mattuschka’s first film.
Mattuschka’s films have something anxious and unsettled about them. Most of them star herself, credited as “Mimi Minus.” Across her early films, the Mimi character experiences a tension between having her body acted upon (as in Nabelfabel) and taking action upon herself.
Cerolax II (1985), Der Untergang Der Titania (The Sinking of Titania, 1985), and Kugelkopf (Ball-head, 1985) represent one end of the trajectory. Though she does exhibit agency in each of these films, the core themes emphasize how a woman’s body is inscribed by culture. In Cerolax II, it is commercialism and anti-semitism; in Der Untergang, it is male desire; and in Kugelkopf, it is language itself.
The next set of films from 1986 — Pascal-Gödel and Parasympathica — show an identity in rupture. Pascal-Gödel features Mimi and her doppelgänger sitting across from each other at a table playing some sort of chess-like game with a bottle of wine. The doppelgänger is shown in a photographic negative, while the other Mimi is shot normally. It seems significant that the mathematicians that inspired the title should both be known for their theories of probability and choice. Pascal-Gödel is a film about a self in conflict with its own mind.
Then, in Parasympathica Mimi is painted in halves. One side of her body is painted fully white and the other fully black. She wears a crown and moves frenetically, performing for the camera. Often, Mattuschka employs animation techniques, like taking single frames of Mimi in alternating poses, back and forth, turning the white side toward the camera in one frame and the left toward the camera in another. The effect is jarring and communicates a fractured identity. In the end, the two halves begin to bleed into one another.
Toward the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, Mattuschka began exploring some of the contradictions inherent in motherhood. For example, her film Kaiser Schnitt (Cesarean Section, 1987) illustrates the crudeness of cutting a woman’s body through a domestic metaphor. A doctor boils forceps in a pot on the stove and uses a fork and spoon to pry open the hole he cuts. From the hole he pulls out a bag of pasta that he tosses back into the boiling water. The woman’s body is eaten to produce something nourishing.
Finally, in Der Schöne, Die Biest (The Beauty and the Beast, 1993), Mimi plays the Beast as Mother to her Baby as Beauty. Motherhood is fraught and tender at the same time. At one moment, Mimi offers the child her breast and serenades it with a stringless violin. In another, she roars and beholds her face — marked with paint — in the reflection of a butcher knife.
Mattuschka’s early films get under the skin, asking how meaning is made of our bodies before we even have the chance to define them ourselves.
You can see a selection of Mara Mattuschka’s shorts at the IU Cinema on March 4 at 7 pm as part of the series Women on Top: Legacies of Women in Global Cinema.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.