Paula Modersohn-Becker is considered an early pioneer of Expressionism, but the chauvinistic art world has yet to fully acknowledge her significance. In contrast, the patriarchy could be relied upon to shower acclaim and prestige upon male artists, like Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, right? Maybe it is just tough for any artist with a truly original vision. Despite her early death, Modersohn-Becker seems to have lived an easier life than her aforementioned contemporaries, at least judging from Christian Schwochow’s biopic, Paula (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 KINO! festival of German cinema in New York.
If viewers had a dollar for every time a man pats Modersohn-Becker on the head and tells her pretty little ladies can’t paint, they might be able to afford one of her paintings. Yet, her unsupportive father was supportive enough to cover her expenses while she was a pupil at the Worpswede artists’ colony. Most of the faculty were predictably dismissive, but obviously not the widowed Otto Modersohn. Their union had its issues, including artistic rivalry, but he continued to support her, even when she absconded to Paris.
Frankly, screenwriters Stefan (Generation War) Kolditz & Stephan Suschke do not exactly burnish Modersohn-Becker’s reputation as a feminist icon. In point of fact, she comes across as rather selfish and short on empathy. It is a good thing she produced such distinctive work or else the two-hour-and-three-minute running time would really feel excessive.
On the other hand, Carla Juri’s Modersohn-Becker is truly a neurotic tornado. You would definitely say she has an artistic temperament. Roxane Duran provides a reality check and an accessible audience vantage point as Modersohn-Becker’s best friend and colleague Clara Westoff (Rilke). However, it is Albrecht Schuch who really engages viewers’ sympathy as the put-upon Otto.
Arguably, Paula is a perfectly presentable work of biographical narrative filmmaking, but Schwochow never develops a hook to differentiate it from thematically similar films, such as Séraphine. The period trappings are quite lovely, but the arc is as predictable as the setting sun. Still, it is the sort of safe programming choice that always gets a positive response.
In the doc !Women Art Revolution, New Yorkers were asked if they could name three women artists, but few could get past Frida Kahlo. You might think any school child could rattle off Georgia O’Keefe, Marry Cassatt, and Diane Arbus, but apparently, the state of New York public schools is such that they cannot. Maybe the increased attention for Hilma af Klint in Personal Shopper and Modersohn-Becker here will help them with their next man-in-the-street pop quiz. It is classy and informative, but not particularly involving. Recommended for fans of films like Cézanne et Moi and Renoir, Paula screens tomorrow (3/31) and Saturday (4/1) as part of this year’s KINO.