A Life with a View

A Brief Commentary & Review of the film, “Paula”

by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director

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“Whoever you are: in the evening step out
of your room, where you know everything;
yours is the last house before the far-off:
whoever you are.
With your eyes, which in their weariness
barely free themselves from the worn-out threshold,
you lift very slowly one black tree
and place it against the sky: slender, alone.
And you have made the world. And it is huge
and like a word which grows ripe in silence.
And as your will seizes on its meaning,
tenderly your eyes let it go …”

German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Book of Images

The bio-pic about the brief life of Paula Mohdersohn-Becker (1876-1907) begins with a father delivering the most practical advice to his young adult daughter. Marriage is the preferable choice, where there are few other desirable options in a certain day and age. After all, he tells Paula flat out, “Women cannot become great painters.”

Defiantly, Paula heads off to an artist colony to prove her father wrong. Once there, however, her leering male instructor criticizes her attempts to paint a picture of two apples, perched on a wooden table. She failed to successfully “portray nature exactly as it is, with precision and accuracy,” he tells her.

But the whole idea of accurately painting a “still life” is a curious notion; since life, as with nature itself, isn’t “still” unless it’s dead. Instead, it’s all a matter of perception, which to the artist’s eye is subjective, as much as it is objective. And Paula – characteristic of the early expressionist movement – just sees things differently. So Paula grabs her canvas and easel, paints and brushes, and immerses herself in what were considered far less suitable subjects of life. And, in the midst of their gritty squalor she finds her own forms of what constitutes accuracy and reflected beauty for her.

At one point, Paula tells her girlfriend and confidante her entire life’s ambition: Three good paintings and a child will suffice. After all, adding her own premonition, she does not anticipate living a long life.

But meanwhile, the free-spirited Paula falls in love and marries Otto Mohdersohn, a widower with a young daughter. He is also a struggling painter, but follows the conventional artist’s path of what is considered acceptable -- and therefore marketable -- work. But after five years of waiting for her husband to consummate their marriage, a poet and kindred spirit’s simple invitation is sufficient for her to risk being committed to an asylum when she leaves her husband. Following Rainer Maria Rilke, she strikes out alone for Paris and another artist’s enclave.

To the husband left behind, Rainer delivers the unwelcome news: “Your wife is on a journey into an unknown world.” The filmmaker vividly makes the point in an oft-repeated scene of Paula trudging across the screen with an easel over her shoulder representing the cross she must bear.

Throughout the film, there is an aura of vitality about Paula that is often suppressed, but ultimately irrepressible. At the same time, there is also a foreboding sense of her ultimate demise. At a Paris art academy class, the students are presented with a dead man’s naked corpse to sketch. With the body stretched out before her, Paula first reflects and then remarks, “How quickly it’s all over.”

Like all bio-pics Paula combines historical fact with a filmmaker’s imagination that fills in those places of unknowing with universal themes found in what is most common and familiar to the human story. It is in this sense that PAULA is far more than an early women’s empowerment story, or pictorial lecture in art history.

To the age-old debate about art imitating life, or the other way around, this film depicts the story of a woman who expressed equally both halves of just such an equation. jb

Below: Actor Carla Juri, posing beside the self-portrait of Paula Mohdersohn-Becker and the painting that depicted the artist’s creative genius, while reflecting her own life’s story.