On February 26, 2020, I sat in a crowded café outside the Sony Center on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin recording an interview with filmmaker Ula Stöckl. Stöckl, who had recently turned 82, occupies a unique place in German film history. When she enrolled at the newly established Ulm Film School in 1962, she became the first woman film student in West Germany; six years later, she was the first person to graduate from the school. Her graduation film, The Cat Has Nine Lives, which Stöckl wrote and directed, is now viewed as postwar Germany’s very first feminist feature film. At the time of its premiere in the watershed year of 1968, second-wave feminism had not yet emerged in Germany and, as a woman director, Stöckl was viewed as an anomaly. Shot in vibrant Technicolor, The Cat Has Nine Lives offers a remarkable depiction of women’s friendship and the search for emancipation outside of pre-ordained gender roles and sexual norms that remains remarkably relevant today.
Debuting in advance of later developments (including the women’s movement and the advent of feminist cinema and feminist film theory) that might have helped to contextualize it, The Cat Has Nine Lives elaborates a radical aesthetics and politics that could not be assimilated in the 1960s, leading to both incomprehension and criticism of the film among contemporary viewers and critics. Not least due to this rejection, the film largely disappeared from view after its distributor went bankrupt following the 1968 premiere. The Cat Has Nine Lives never received a cinematic release, and it only screened occasionally at arthouse theatres. For years, many of Stöckl’s subsequent films—an oeuvre consisting of twenty-two shorts and features— also languished without commercial distribution. Recently, this has begun to change, due to renewed interest in the historical legacies of feminist cinema following digital campaigns—including #TimesUp, #MeToo, and their equivalents around the world—that have called attention to the underrepresentation of women and widespread sexism in the global film and media industries. These campaigns have helped to highlight the double precariousness of women’s cinema due to the historical marginalization of women film authors and the concomitant ephemerality of their works.
When I met with Ula Stöckl in February 2020, I was about to start work on my book about The Cat Has Nine Lives, which aims to restore the film to its rightful place as a German film classic. In Berlin, my colleague Angelica Fenner and I conducted a wide-ranging interview with Stöckl, in which she spoke about her formative experiences at the Ulm Film School, her relation to the emergent women’s movement in West Germany in the 1970s, and her own pedagogy as a professor of film production at the University of Central Florida. (The interview will be published in the journal Feminist German Studies in Summer 2022). I have often dwelled on this conversation since, because of the unique way it came to index questions of temporality and futurity that shaped both my approach to the film and my own experience of writing the book.
Most pertinently, Stöckl emphasized in the interview how, 52 years after the premiere of The Cat Has Nine Lives, both the authorship of her film and its representation of the injustices that exist in women’s lives continue to matter: as she put it, “we have yet to reach the point where we can ignore gender in filmmaking,” not least because of ongoing inequity in funding and distribution structures. But the conversation has stayed with me for another reason as well: it occurred during the last trip I took before the pandemic, a trip to the 2020 Berlin Film Festival during which I sat every day in packed cinemas elbow to elbow with complete strangers, none of us masked, breathing in unfiltered air, as we absorbed a panorama of moving pictures. Indeed, the interview with Stöckl was one of the last events in my life that unfolded as planned; just after this, people started cancelling appointments, doors started closing, and I managed to get on a plane back home on March 10, one day before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Abruptly, like many of us, I experienced the strange, simultaneous expansion and compression of time, as the quarantine thoroughly jumbled the steady rhythms of the academic calendar and derailed all of my future plans. The deferred timelines that characterized my experience of writing The Cat Has Nine Lives during deep lockdown echoed the sense of suspended time that the film itself engenders. Archiving a past—the moment of opening onto new aesthetic and political possibilities marked by 1968—that has been foreclosed upon by the intensification of advanced capitalism, while resonating anew with conversations about feminist film and media in the twenty-first century, Stöckl’s film presages a future that is yet to arrive. The Cat Has Nine Lives is an unseen classic whose time has come.
This guest post was written by HESTER BAER, Professor of German Studies at the University of Maryland, where she is a core faculty member in the Cinema and Media Studies and Comparative Literature programs and an affiliate in the Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.