“The filming baker’s wife” Elisabeth Wilms – Amateur film practices and/as useful cinema culture

Alexander Stark

A city in ruins. The camera pans over what once was the center of Dortmund, Germany. It captures people who live in wet basements and self-made sheds, people who steal coal from railway wagons and search for food in rubbish heaps. It catches malnourished children, dependent on food from foreign aid organizations, who explore this landscape of debris in tattered clothes. It follows district nurses in their daily job to take care of the old, the sick and those who lost family members or their belongings in the air raids on the city.

This film footage, made in the first months and years after the Second World War, does not stem from a governmental or military initiative, but is in fact the work of a German amateur filmmaker named Elisabeth Wilms, who had started her hobby only a few years earlier in 1941. Since then, the autodidact used most of her free time to capture her surroundings with a 16mm camera. Early on, she started to create her own documentary films from the material she shot. Two examples for that are the color films Pumpernickel (1942) and Der Weihnachtsbäcker (1943), which depict work processes in the bakery that she ran together with her husband in a rural part of Dortmund. Unlike many other buildings in the city, the family’s house and business wasn’t destroyed during the war. At its end, Wilms was able to hide her camera and kept on filming the daily life around her. Thus the German clerical charity organization Evangelisches Hilfswerk got to know about her and asked her to produce to fundraising films about the postwar hardship in Germany for them. Elisabeth Wilms agreed. The shots described above stem from these films, named Dortmund November 1947 (1947) and Schaffende in Not (1948), and were made for the purpose of persuading people to donate money.

Although the two films were a failed venture, as my research shows, they were Wilms’ entry into the business of sponsored filmmaking. They gave her a certain degree of local popularity, which enabled her to obtain her first paid film projects in recovering post-war Germany – projects ordered by municipal companies and industrial corporations located in and around Dortmund. Within a few years, this commissioned activity became more and more extensive, so that she soon produced up to ten documentary films per year. The filmmaker, nicknamed “Die filmende Bäckersfrau” (the filming baker’s wife) by the press, used the income and knowledge gain from these projects to further professionalize herself. Over the course of four decades, she worked for a wide variety of clients and was thus active in almost all areas of non-commercial cinema. Her films were projected almost exclusively as non-theatrical exhibitions in various contexts, which depended on their purpose. When Elisabeth Wilms died in 1981, she left around one hundred films, of which about sixty were commissioned works, as well as an extensive written estate of over two thousand paper documents related to her film production. These remnants, supplemented by documents from the archives of Wilms’ customers, serve as the body of sources for my PhD-project, entitled “The filming baker’s wife” Elisabeth Wilms – Amateur film practices and/as useful cinema culture.

The project is located in the areas of amateur film studies and useful cinema studies. Both are comparatively young branches of film and media studies. Amateur film as a research object was marginalized for many years and only slowly came to attention since the middle of the 1980s, for example through the works of Roger Odin and Patricia Zimmermann. Today, it is a vibrant field of research, with scholars like Martina Roepke, Alexandra Schneider, Siegfried Mattl, Ryan Shand, Charles Tepperman, Nico de Klerk and Mats Jönsson who have contributed to this. Nevertheless, previous work in this field has mainly been limited to the private use of amateur films, which, however, hardly played a role in the case of Elisabeth Wilms. From the beginning on, she produced most of her films for public or semi-public audiences, regardless of the existence of a client. Moreover, attempts are often made to create a definition of the amateur with a clear distinction from the professional. The grey zone between these two ascriptions, in which Wilms was working throughout her life and which was apparently marked only by blurred boundaries, is hardly noticed instead. In addition, the perspective of female amateur filmmakers is underrepresented in research already published.

The study of utility films also only recently attracted growing attention, for example through the works of Yvonne Zimmermann, Alexandra Schneider, Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson. With regard to the numerous films in Elisabeth Wilms’ portfolio which were part of the useful cinema culture, it is without question to make the methods and findings of this research branch fruitful for my project. While previous studies in this field are mostly limited to either the perspective of the client or the filmmaker, the numerous source materials available in the case of “the filming baker’s wife” make it possible to study the perspectives of filmmaker and client as complementary to one another within the scope of my project.

Against this background, the case of Elisabeth Wilms is an interesting object for media historical research for several reasons. What is striking at first is the gender aspect of the topic: Her professionalization began in the early 1950s. At a time when the (West) German society was still far from striving for gender equality and emancipation and when female film producers were the exception, she was already a successful filmmaker who worked for clients from clearly male-dominated sectors such as the steel industry. It is also important to note that Wilms grew up and lived in the craftsmen milieu and, despite her success with her film projects, worked in the family bakery and grocery store until 1964.

Although she was a successful filmmaker, her undetermined status remained an area of tension throughout her whole career and she never left the grey area between amateur film and professional filmmaking. Besides, her filmic life’s work is also characterized by an extraordinary range that covers almost all areas of non-commercial cinema, which is due to the long period of her activity and the diversity of her clients. Moreover, Wilms also became a visual chronologist of Dortmund by capturing everyday life as well as major events in her surroundings with her camera for about forty years. Thus, her films reflect destruction, reconstruction, economic miracle and structural change. Last but not least, her work is extraordinarily well documented both in writing and film, and can provide detailed insights into her career, production processes, the reception of many of her films, as well as into the areas of amateur and utility film in general.

Taking these aspects into account, the aim of my PhD-project is therefore to take Wilms’ case as an example for the interconnections of amateur and commissioned film production in Germany during her period of filmmaking. In doing so, I do not only study her professionalization process and the questions relations related to her status, but also the three fields of utility film production which played the biggest role in her career: Charity films, promotional films for the City of Dortmund and industrial film production. Additionally, I focus on the role that her films play in the local commemorative culture of Dortmund. Methodically, a combination of film-historical production analysis, context analysis and reception analysis is used, which is based on the examination of written sources and selected film examples.

Image source: Stadtarchiv Dortmund (date unknown)

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