In her feature-length doc Walchansee Forever German/US filmmaker Janna Ji Wonders tells the complex story of her family, much of it set in their cafe beside the idyllic Walchansee lake in Germany, before we are presented footage of dramatic and highly cinematic sojourns to Munich, Mexico, the Greek islands and San Francisco.
The work spans a century and is one that very much places the females of the family, and their respective fates, at its core. “It is a film about us women and our family history,” we are told at the beginning.
Walchansee Forever constitutes a sublime collage of archive footage, photographs and letters, much of which the director uncovered in the cellar of the café. We hear the dramatic contents of some of those letters in voice-over and a sizeable portion of the film shows the director and her mother Antje in conversation from various times in their lives, starting when Wonders was just a small child.
“I started the film when I was five, but I didn’t it know back then,” she says.
The main characters are Antje, her complex and fragile sister Frauke, their perpetually frowning mother Norma and the director herself, with a late appearance by the latest addition to the sisterhood, Wonders’ own daughter Rumi. We also see the beautiful but austere great-grandmother Apa who, we are told, smelled of fresh laundry and always wore jewellery, in stark contrast to her daughter Norma “who wore her apron like a Cinderalla.”
But the heart of the film is the story of sisters Antje and Frauke, who left Walchansee first for Munich, where they became folk music sensations, playing their dulcimer and guitar respectively and yodelling their way into the public consciousness, before setting off first to Mexico and then to San Francisco, just in time for the Summer of Love in 1968.
Beautiful, beguiling and exotic, the pair discover their innate sense of artistry on their travels. They do it all, fall in love, make experimental films and try out mind-expanding drugs, which have profound and tragic repercussions for Frauke. We follow them back to Germany where the spirit of 1960s is as evident as was in California. There, the fascinating, sexy and magnetic Rainer comes on the scene, and captures the hearts of both sisters, before Antje eventually meets the father of director Wonders.
The men in the film are characterised by their absence. After blazing into Walchansee like a comet, Antje’s father (and director Wonder’s grandfather) left to pursue a life as an artist in Munich. He leaves behind both a letter that is devastatingly critical of his wife Norma (who is a constant presence from teenager to 103-year-old matriarch by the film’s end) as well as a treasure trove of filmed material. The director’s father Jazon disengages as soon as she is born, and Rainer remains distant to Antje, even as they share a naked, meditative and epicurean retreat in a cave on a Greek island.
“The men are more absent [because] that is how I experienced it as a child… And now I am also raising my child alone,” say Wonders.
Given the extreme intimacy of the family story, how does director Wonders feel about committing it all to film? “It was really a decision, should I do this or not,” she answers. “Because I knew it would be a very emotional journey. I didn’t know how it would be with my mother, and if I do this how will our relationship be? [But] now we feel very free. We freed ourselves from the past. We talked about it and we told the story to ourselves.”
Wonders tells how the amount of archive at her disposal was vast and at times she felt lost in it all. “I revised continually throughout the filming, a constant process of rethinking. It was not easy. It was a constant search. I could even have made make a whole series out of it.”
She also had to kill an army of darlings in the process. “There were lots of amazing photographs of my mother and stories that we had to edit out because we had to keep within the framework of 100 minutes (the film runs for 110 minutes), and there were lots of other stories that concerned Frauke, but we had to make a point to make it very tight to keep the flow of the story. Also when I was filming with my grandmother when I was 20, there were so many nice scenes between the two of us.”
Wonders tells how the Berlinale screenings were rapturously received, with high levels of emotional engagement not least on the tragic character of Frauke, whose beauty, complexities and sheer screen presence remain etched in the memory post-viewing.
“It’s what my mum says, that Frauke is watching from above, and she is kind of guiding us through the film, and she would really have loved the film in the end,” concludes Wonders.