The Ties that Bind, 1985

In an interview with Scott MacDonald for A Critical Cinema 2, Su Friedrich comments that the inspiration for her first feature film arose from the idea of her mother’s seeming uprootedness despite having settled in the United States since after the war. This sentiment of an elusive home suffuses her mother, Lore Bucher Friedrich’s candid, heartfelt, and thoughtful account on her early life in 1930s Germany as well – a traumatic experience that, in its fateful intersection with the collective shame of a terrible national history, could only be relegated to the silence of personal memory – as a young woman orphaned in part by the cumulative toll of persecution on her defiantly anti-Nazi family, as a civilian driven out of her late parents’ house by insensitive American soldiers during the occupation, as a postwar immigrant starting over a new life in the United States, and as a wife and mother whose husband left the family after fifteen years of marriage:

“Before I made The Ties That Bind I had such bad feelings of being German; and my father is half-German too. I don’t think I really trusted the material I had. When I was working on the film, I told myself to stop worrying, to stop thinking I shouldn’t be doing it, to stop disbelieving her, to trust her. I figured if the film was a failure in the long run I wouldn’t show it. At some point I just stopped carrying on about it. It was strange to suddenly be thinking of my mother in this respectful way, to really be admiring her for what she did, for surviving. I had never thought of her.”

Introducing her mother through an idiosyncratic montage of arms, elbows, hands, and feet, the fragmented images serve as an oblique reflection of Friedrich’s own process of re-framing her mother’s life within the context of personal testimony rather than a representative collective history. As the youngest daughter of a German Catholic family in the town of Ulm whose family patriarch, from the onset, had distrusted the lofty promises of Adolf Hitler and refused to join the wave of popular support despite social (and financial) pressure, Lore recounts her ostracism from school as being only one of the three girls who was not a member of the BDM (League of German Girls branch of the Hitler Youth movement), her family’s unexpected disinheritance from their father’s will at the hands of a suspicious executor that prevented her from pursuing her university studies, her forced draft into a Dornstadt air facility at the age of 19 at a time when her mother was dying from incurable cancer (an involuntary service that she suspects was instigated by a former piano teacher’s denunciation of her), her increasing awareness of resistance groups, such as the White Rose Group formed by siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl who were also from Ulm, her traumatic memory of the bombing of Stuttgart that killed 3/4 of the local population and left her shell-shocked and wandering aimlessly through the streets, her fateful encounter with American soldier Paul Friedrich who was working on the de-nazification program, and finally, her emigration and less than fairytale marriage that would end in divorce .

Eschewing the interview format by replacing oral questions and observations with scratch film, the prominence of her mother’s lone voice ironically reflects Friedrich’s own process of personalization, introducing a physical self-imprint – the figurative ties that bind – that connects her mother’s life experience with the formation of her own identity. This imprinting of collective consciousness is suggested in an early intertitle commenting on her mother’s odd aversion to fireworks that is subsequently reinforced, not only in Lore’s recollection of the bombing of Stuttgart, but also the continuous bombardment that would mark the last day of the war. Juxtaposed against images of the filmmaker’s own acts of protest and resistance against the military and nuclear proliferation, and in particular, the implementation of Ronald Reagan’s capstone Star Wars program, Friedrich subverts the notion of a silenced history, and instead presents a multifaceted collage of a remarkable, humble life lived within the eternal recursions of an all too human history, where a return to the simple pleasures of swimming in the sea and playing the piano serve, not only as implicit acts of defiance, but also as a re-assertion of suppressed identity.

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