“Either you find a man and marry him. Then you can paint in your free time if he’s fine with it. Or… You can look for a job. As a governess or a teacher”. A woman at the turn of the 20th century would get a speech like this from her father. Women today still get lectures like this from their families. But it stings when I hear a father talk like this when his daughter turns out to be Paula Modersohn-Becker. She unsurprisingly disagrees, slamming a canvas on the table for her father to see. My art education gave me the impression that Modersohn-Becker was a mere follower of the German Expressionist movement. Yet more contemporary scholarship and Christian Schwochow’s film Paula proposes that she might have led it. And she does so while pushing back against her mustache-twirling enemies within a country that she must escape.
Award winning Swiss actress Carla Juri plays the artist. Paula moves to Worpswede, a place outside the city serving as both a retreat and a school. She meets another student, an artist turned poet Clara Westerhoff (The White Ribbon‘s Roxanne Duran). She also meets her adversarial, gun-toting teacher Fritz Mackensen (Nicki von Tempelhoff). Again, my art education warned me about the overt masculine dominance that German male artists exuded. Yet Fritz’s dismissal of her as a ‘spoilt rich girl’ fleshes that ugliness out. It’s something even I have wrongly felt about some women I’ve encountered. And it’s a reminder of the misogynistic attitudes breeding in supposedly liberal artistic environments. Thankfully, Clara isn’t her only ally. She also gets support from male artists like poet and Clara’s future husband Rainer Maria Rilke (Joel Basman). There’s also painter and widower Otto Modersohn (Albrecht Schuch), the man Paula eventually marries.
A portion of the film focuses on Paula’s marriage to Otto. He, for some reason, insists on not consummating his marriage. A person who was initially curious about Paula’s strange perspective of nature, he eventually echoes Fritz’ cynicism towards her aesthetic. The film then becomes about a woman on the verge of losing her original spark and trying to regaining it. And she does to by moving to Paris. Paula’s life in Paris shows a dark side to her character. She coldly telling Otto that she’ll write him if she needs more money. Otherwise, the city brings out positive things in her. It lets her reconnect with Clara who was also living in Paris. The film shows where she enters a more established fine art school where male artists encourage her success. It switches between that city and back to Germany where Otto deals with Paula’s departure.
Juri imbues an irresistible quirky smile to Paula, a person an audience can’t help but root for. Schwochow, as a director, also organically lets awkwardness develop in scenes like her breakup with Otto in Paris. It also shows a cameo of someone playing a rough Camille Claudel, enduring the same hurdles Paula faces. Yes, there’s the sense that this would be the kind of film that Greta Gerwig would turn down. Or a film she’d do if she wanted an Oscar. This seems silly but the male characters toe the line of parody in antagonizing Paula. Whether or not they are for Paula they resemble today’s hipsters so much that I can’t take them seriously. But despite of these flaws I still liked her interactions with the characters, both good and bad. I had fun watching a woman flirt with gaining confidence as an artist, running towards greatness.