Eine Flexible Frau directed by Tatjana Turanskyj (and now showing in Berlin cinemas) explores the psychological landscape of a seemingly free, post-feminist, well-educated young woman who has gained an independence which women in previous generations could only dream of. However this Berlin architect called Greta, who is perhaps in her late 30s, finds herself not just a fortunate beneficiary of her feminist predecessors’ hard won struggles, but also a reluctant subject of the new individualisation processes. She is required, indeed expected to be resilient and self-organised when her firm makes her redundant. This coincides with the city of Berlin being suddenly overtaken by property speculators and companies who have spotted opportunities for the building of gated communities and all the anonymous forms of residential loft apartments that have come to be associated with so-called urban lifestyle. Greta along with her liberal-minded friends finds this abominable. She and her friends are all equipped with a sophisticated vocabulary which allows then to analyse the dire consequences of this hyper-exploitation of hitherto open and un-demarcated urban spaces, the wonderful way, for example, in which the city of Berlin has innumerable unused stretches of land which are somewhere between park, garden and built up space, used by the public, but not for any specific purpose. Greta deplores the idea of these being eaten up for upmarket developments, but this is where new jobs in her field, even as a construction manager, are opening up. She cannot adjust and so throws away her chances.
She then becomes a job-seeker. With a light touch the film embarks on a sociological journey detailing the new world of women’s work in the service sector. Greta joins a group of super-glamorous young women who are in the same position as herself, and are having to take jobs in a call-centre. Where they, under the strict supervision of the always-enthusiastic female manager, are able to hit their targets, Greta fails miserably. Every subsequent encounter provides a snapshot analysis of the ‘job creation’ milieu. There is, it seems, a surplus of young women looking for work and a shortage of the kinds of jobs for which they are trained. Most of these young women exude the PR skills they have been encouraged to develop. They have prefect make-up, endless smiles, and a charming ‘unflappable’ demeanour. So flawless is their performance of femininity it seems staged, and thus slightly unreal and camp. It is close to what I have called (in The Aftermath of Feminism) a post-feminist masquerade. This over-groomed femininity is also a way of undermining the power of women’s own participation in work, which in turn confirms male dominance by relinquishing the seriousness of the workplace to men. Such a scenario indeed begs the question, what do women nowadays want from work? To what extent can they gain equality? How do they respond to the values of neo-liberalism in the workplace? What will be the outcome as more young women find themselves caught in this bind of being highly educated, but able only to find part-time jobs or project-based work? In one telling moment, when Greta spends the evening in a flirtatious encounter with the pretty primary school teacher of her young son, the teacher, having given a long drunken account of the new regime which restricts her freedoms with the curriculum, nevertheless proclaims that she is at least a civil servant, a paid employee of the federal state, with all the rights and entitlements that this status provides. In another encounter, this time with a female architect friend to whom Greta turns in the hope that she will offer her a job, the woman in question demurs when Greta who by this stage in the film is almost always drunk, accuses her of having subordinated her career to be a mother, the woman in question calmly explains that she and her husband are ‘a team’. What the film also conveys is that this generation of individualised women have lost a sense of the feminist ‘collective’. This means they can only look for individual or autobiographical solutions to what are, quoting Ulrich Beck, systemic or structural problems. Greta has available for her any number of therapists. It seems the city is full of these kinds of healers and practitioners. But all they do is try to find ways of bolstering the kind of self which is needed for these ‘cheerful’ service sector jobs.
Greta is also a product of the club culture generation for whom partying carries on into the workplace. The film opens and closes and is punctuated throughout by the techno sounds of the city and by her falling about, passing out and waking up hung-over. Greta also is the bearer of post-feminist sexual freedoms. She is flirtatious on every occasion she is interacting with women, she seems to be gay, but is not identified as such. She was married but is now single and she does not even have the burden of looking after her son who is mostly cared for by his father. She is not entirely likeable and her drinking creates a kind of angry narcissism. She is wounded when her son rejects her, but does not go to any great lengths to bond with him. The more difficult it is for her to conform to the requirements of the labour market, the more she falls apart. The film clearly has the intention of conflating Greta’s experience with that of the city itself. It asks the question how can a post-industrial city like Berlin create jobs for its citizens without pursuing the neo-liberal agenda? This film engages overtly, though not didactically, with socio-political themes of women and work which have for so long seemed unappealing and tedious to all except the ranks of the ‘old feminists’. The film-maker is not afraid to make Greta self-absorbed and concerned only with her own problems. The film also dissects the states of depression, which are now so endemic within the ranks of the workers in the new ‘creative economy’.
The film is also a grande hommage to Ulrike Ottinger’s celebrated film of 1980 Bildnis Einer Trinkerin. Its opening and closing scenes refer to and quote liberally from this archetypal Berlin film, but in Eine Flexible Frau the Berlin sky is not so blue, indeed it is almost gray. Ottinger is of course one of the generation of German film- makers who through the 1970s and ‘80s transformed the cultural milieu of post-war Germany with a vibrant camp, pre-queer avant garde, an anti-realist aesthetic which foregrounded female pleasure and eroticism in a way which scandalised feminists of the time. Her heroine, like Greta, was beautiful, an absolute hedonist and a follower of fashion. She also wanted to somehow possess or make claims to the city. This was a bold feminist move, to produce a distinctly woman’s map of the city through drinking and staggering about from one bar to the next. Eine Flexible Frau quotes from many key moments in. By the end of the film Greta has indeed adopted the hairstyle and look of her punk-fashion predecessor Tabea Blumestein. They both choose to pursue a self-destructive course but in so doing they make an argument about retaining the spirit and autonomy of the city.