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Paris Calligrammes: A Review

I paused this blog when the pandemic began, last spring, given that the possibilities of traveling abroad to study French were slim. In the interim, I decided to refocus the site on discussions of French and francophone culture generally. The earlier posts were my takes on Quebec as a foreigner. In keeping with the theme of examining a culture from the outside, I share with you my review of a recent film presenting a German filmmaker’s remembrance of Paris in the 1960s.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on

Paris Calligrammes

Ulrike Ottinger’s film Paris Calligrammes, screening through Film Forum’s Virtual Cinema, opens with a quote from the poem “Advice to the Good Traveler,” by Victor Segalen:

A town at the end of the road and a road extending

a town: do not choose one or the other, but

one and the other by turns.

Ottinger follows this advice in her film, which examines her experience as an artist in 1960s Paris from multiple angles. She arrived in the city in 1962 from Germany, hitchhiking after her tiny blue Isetta broke down en route. The film mixes archival footage of the period with clips of modern-day Paris, organized into chapters like “Friedlaender’s Studio” and “Saint-Germain-des-Prés,” all tied together by Ottinger’s voice-over, in German. (The film is also available through Film Forum with an English narration and elsewhere with a French one.)

The film’s title derives from the name of the German-language bookstore where Ottinger spent time during her stay, the store in turn named for a collection of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poetry, in which an image is formed from the words in the poems. The store was run by Fritz Picard, who built up his inventory in part by buying, from secondhand bookshops, books left behind by Jewish refugees from Germany who needed to lighten their luggage as they continued to their final destinations. Ottinger attended readings at the store, including one by Walter Mehring, the audio of which we hear in the film: a poem about German intellectuals who died during World War II, at the hands of the Nazis or by suicide— tragedies in which “the best fruit was left to rot.”

Ottinger learned etching in the studio of Johnny Friedlaender while living in an apartment so small that she had to go down to her building’s courtyard to arrange the art panels that she had painted. She and her artist friends escaped their cramped dwellings by spending time in cafés and bookstores like La Hune, frequented by Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus.

A main topic of conversation was the Algerian War, in which Algeria fought for its independence from France. Many of her French friends deserted rather than support their country’s continued occupation of the colony. Ottinger weaves in clips from the film Octobre à Paris, directed by Jacques Panijel, depicting the brutal police suppression in October 1961 of a peaceful march in the French capital supporting the Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front) in Algeria. The crackdown was ordered by the police chief, Maurice Papon, who collaborated with the Nazis under France’s Vichy regime. Although the number of deaths is disputed, hundreds of people were likely killed, many by drowning, when the police threw them into the Seine.

The film covers other aspects of French colonialism, through Ottinger’s visits to the Palais de la Porte Dorée (Palace of the Golden Gate), whose bas-reliefs depict France’s plunder of the colonies’ sugar, cotton, and fruit. She observes that the building later housed the Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie (National Museum of the Arts of Africa and Oceana), now the Musée Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration (National Museum of the History of Immigration), and she spends time at the Drouot auction house, where items like postcards from French soldiers living in Saigon are auctioned off.

Ottinger recounts her move to the Latin Quarter, where she lived in a garret facing the Sorbonne, giving her the opportunity to enjoy the many nearby art galleries and movie theaters, particularly the Cinématique Française. Here she saw films three times a week, including, of course, those by Jean-Luc Godard and others of the French New Wave. She also recalls her visits to the Musée Gustave Moreau, with its floor to ceiling paintings, and to the Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library), where, in a present-day clip, we see patrons sitting in front of giant art books brought to them on carts by the librarians. Ottinger notes that the writer Walter Benjamin, a German refugee, often spent time at the library when he wasn’t strolling Paris’s famous arcades.

The later sections of the film explore Ottinger’s experiences of Parisian nightlife, particularly its jazz clubs; protests against the Vietnam War; and the student demonstrations of May 1968.

Those last two upheavals affected Ottinger’s friendships, sending the artist back to Germany in 1969, where she eventually decided to become a filmmaker, a vocation that allowed her to unite all her interests, including “the public and the private,” “music and language,” “politics and poetry,” “grief and joy.”

At the end of the film, we hear Edith Piaf singing her classic “Je ne regrette rien,” whose nostalgic tone is undercut by a note on the screen telling us that Piaf dedicated the song to the French Foreign Legion, which fought in France’s colonial wars—a fitting conclusion to a memoir that captures the complexity of a decade.


Published by Jen Rappaport

A writer, copyeditor, proofreader, translator, and website expert in New York, Jen studied English and French literature in college and graduate school and the French language in Paris, the South of France, and Quebec. She loves exploring the books and culture of francophone regions around the world.

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  1. Glad you followed through on your idea to change the blog’s focus.

    Excellent review of an interesting film.

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

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