Director / Producer / Writer / Cinematography / Editor / Sound: Su Friedrich
Black & White
a dreamlike memory film... experimental and affecting
- Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video
Diverse as the film's sources of information are, they are bound tightly by Friedrich's intricate editing... The Ties that Bind is a consistently moving record of a filmmaker's coming to terms with her mother's troubled past and her own threatened present.
- Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews With Independent Filmmakers
The narrator is a German woman from a liberal family - not a Nazi sympathizer, but not a freedom fighter, either. Like most Germans, she never hurt anyone personally but has been punished and reviled in the years since the war for allowing Hitler's crimes to go unchallenged. That's one binding tie; the other, no less central, is between this woman and her daughter, who happens to have made the movie and whose questions to her mother are presented, one word at a time, in a quivery grade-school scrawl. Shot in bleached black and white, the movie offers the mother's recollections and the daughter's free-form visual meditation: her mother bathing in the sea, her mother's gesturing hand, beads of water on her mother's flesh, and the piece-by-piece construction of a miniature house. Another motif is the New York Post and its splashy headlines, many Nazi-related, viz., MADMAN'S DIARY SHOCKS THE WORLD. The first judgement in my notebook is the blunt "diffuse and pretentious." Take that! But after a while I gave up fighting and simply listened to the mother's story, which told of persecution by her countrymen when she wouldn't declare her ardour for the Reich; then persecution by the occupying army for being German and, ipso facto, swine. Then the pictures began to resonate... the filmmaker's scratchy questions are her way of telling us that, compared to what her mother has lived through, she is just a child, scrawling her naivete on an eternal chalkboard. And so, she implies, are we: again and again we confront how much cultural debris there is between our experience and her mother's - including those tabloid headlines, which routinely exploit Nazism for cheap shocks and titters. Friedrich's technique captures the bleakness of her mother's worldview, the limbo bounded by outrage at the injustices done to her - including her abandonment by an American husband who warned her, when they married and moved to America, that one day he might walk - and guilt over her passive complicity in her country's history. (Her crime was not seeking martyrdom.) The film is an original: a moving and courageous tribute from a child to a mother's beleaguered memory.
- David Edelstein, The Village Voice, 9/4/85
Su Friedrich's The Ties That Bind is a scrutiny of both a mother/daughter relationship and the demands of national identity. That the nation delineating this identity is Germany in the '30s and '40s ominously multiplies the problematics of nationalism; the ties that bind are not only the supposed benevolences of motherhood, but also the repressive dictates of the Fatherland. Friedrich, the daughter of a German Catholic mother and an American serviceman, travelled to Germany in 1982 to shoot footage of its monumental sites of oppression - Dachau, the Berlin Wall, and so on. She juxtaposes these scenes with found footage of wartime Ulm, her mother's hometown, and accompanies both groups of images with her mother's photographic and verbal accounts of the Nazi regime under which she grew up, the Allied bombings, and her marriage to an American. This allows the maternal storyteller to 'state her case', and also illuminates the virtual impossibility of individual rebellion (as opposed to group action) in the face of governmental terrorism.
The guilt of the Nazi regime is, of course, without doubt, but the mother's ability to speak the truth is clearly under investigation. She speaks only in response to her daughter's questioning, but we barely hear the interrogator's voice as it almost silently feeds its queries to the defendant. While Friedrich remains the silent child, the mother gives voice to the daughter's filmwork. This childlike silence has been a major operative in Friedrich's earlier work - Gently Down the Stream (1981), for example, a succesion of dream sequences culled from eight years of journals, in which the images are interrupted with text rendered in a scratchy juvenile scrawl. In Ties Friedrich attempts to join her repertoire of riveting images, which instantly look like extraordinary pieces of antiquity, with intelligently articulate sound, but again she chooses not to relinquish her own silence. As her mother narrates a tale of failed opposition to the Nazis, we see hands riffling through the pages of The New York Times Magazine, drawing moustaches on the fashionable male models; we see someone construct a tiny house from a build-it-yourself kit as we listen to the mother's story of her own childhood. This ties in with Friedrich's search for her mother's house in Ulm, a search strongly portrayed through the use of a flashlight beam darting about on a darkened map of the town. And this constant focus on 'the house' also suggests its place as the site of women's presence, their interiority. Finally the miniature house is smashed by a marauding pair of boots, and this shot is followed by one of soldiers marching.
The Ties That Bind connects its effective literalism with a group of complex issues: the shifting attributes of memory, the repression of familial contempt, and the economy of fascism, be it that of Nazi Germany or of today's more integrated logistics of 'pure war.' One hopes that Friedrich will continue to move away from the silent, the intimate, and the psychologized toward a more vocal rigorous picturing.
- Barbara Kruger, Artforum, 10/84
The film presents the life of an 'ordinary' woman living through extraordinary times - not in order to make her a hero, but to investigate how fascism and war are formed by and affect daily life. There is a lot of material available about the extremes of good (the very few resistance groups) and evil in Nazi Germany, but there is still a lot to be uncovered about how and why the average person who isn't usually a 'political activist', either complies with or resists fascism. During the two years of making the film, the hardest things for me to come to terms with were how ambivalent I still feel towards my mother's past, and how confused her own feelings have always been about the origins of Nazism, the nature of being German, etc. So I asked myself constantly: If I had been her, would I have resisted, knowing that I would probably die trying? It's so easy to imagine one's heroism from a safe distance, but when I put myself in her place, I can't answer that question. It certainly doesn't let my mother (or other Germans) off the hook, it puts me on the hook with her. Clearly, once fascism is instated, it 'works' because most people are (rightly) so afraid or (unfortunately) so ill-equipped to confront such extremes of physical violence. And still the sabres rattle East and West, and the above question is put to thousands daily in Central America, and the Mideast, and ...
- Su Friedrich