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No frills woman

Maren Kroymann made a name for herself as a stand-up comedienne. She is now starring in the role of the older lover in "Verfolgt", an amazingly restrained film about an S&M relationship, writes Liane von Billerbeck.

Having spent half the morning talking to her about her latest film, about women and women's careers, I have plenty to write about. Nothing or next to nothing of this concerns her appearance, although this is so important in her profession. How she wore her hair, which pullover she had on, which skirt, which shoes, nothing about all the little things one normally notices. "I seem to radiate something very average," Maren Kroymann says. Which was precisely what director Angelina Maccarone wanted for her film. A woman like her. No frills. In the seventies TV programme "Was bin ich? Heiteres Beruferaten" (What am I? Jolly job guessing) no one would ever have guessed Maren Kroymann was an actress. Especially not one in the "erotic" category. By industry rules, Elsa in "Verfolgt" (pursued) was definitely mis-cast.

All photos courtesy of the "Verfolgt" website

At the last film festival in Locarno, the film won the Golden Leopard, and audience reactions to the film were positive. There could equally have been protests. "Note the reactions you get when you outline the plot," says Kroymann. "Almost immediately a deep frown appears and this look of concentration. Then comes the question: Does she really have to play THAT as well?" She didn't have to, she wanted to. A film about an S&M relationship: a woman, early fifties, married, with a grown-up daughter, a probation officer who is approached by a sixteen-year old offender who wants to submit to her sexually. After initial protest she takes him up on his offer, insecurely, amateurishly, almost shyly, until she allows herself to be consumed by desire.

Elsa and Jan (Kostja Ullmann) have an S&M affair, minus the leather and PVC, but with a tension that permeates every gesture, step, glance. S&M sounds like calculated taboo breaking and indeed it does cross the boundaries of film. Here is an older woman with a much younger man, a social worker with her ward and – and let's not forget – this is the avowed lesbian Maren Kroyman and the classically beautiful Kostja Ullmann. "Does it help you to know I'm a lesbian?" she had asked him when they got to one very intimate scene. "It would have helped me to know that the other person involved didn't have the hots for me." Kostja Ullmann had just laughed.

But the real taboos are broken elsewhere. "Here is a woman who does not fulfil any of the criteria for sexiness laid out by cinema, TV or advertising." One who looks normal, looks her age, and yet is being sexually desired. This is the disturbing thing. This is what provokes aggression, also among women.

Script, direction, camera: all practise maximum restraint. Filmed in black and white, the nudity scenes – he is naked, not her – are never voyeuristic. Little flesh is exposed, even less would have worked. The eroticism is in the way they look at each other – and in the minds of the viewers. Aside from a bit of powder, there is no make-up. And the camera moves in very close. The lines around the woman's mouth are mercilessly exposed. Yet for all the closeness, a distance prevails, like when Elsa describes how she feels when Jan submits to her. "It's like being in a blue room. And something in me opens up completely. I've never experienced anything like it." These are the words of a grown woman telling her husband about her sado-masochistic relationship with a 16-year-old. The film remains sober in tone, even in moments of great joy. Only once, when Elsa is posing on the bed in a blouse bought for her by Jan, do we get a brief flash of the other Maren Kroymann. In a twist of the hips, in words, which are set like points, the stand-up comedian in her comes out.

As a child, brought up to talk Hochdeutsch but preferring to learn the Swabian dialect in school so as not to be the outsider, she learnt this outsider's view. It was the same with her fellow Swabian stand-up comedians Matthias Richling and Harald Schmidt. This ethnological take on dialect, on a way of thinking, is a "good qualification for stand-up". Amazingly, Kroymann's first TV role was playing a Swabian vicar's wife. She loves Swabian, Maren Kroymann says, a dialect known for being coarse and heavy, but which has such wonderful words as "Hennedeppele" (little steps) and "Trottwar", a relic from Napoleonic times.

"Do you want to be my wife's successor?" Kay Lorentz asked her when Lore Lorentz, legendary since the fifties left the stand-up stage. "Wrong question," replied Kroymann. "He didn't want me to head the thing." She turned him down. She already had her first solo stage programme by that time, and she also turned down an offer from the famous political stand-up group, the Munich "Lach-und Schießgesellschaft" (laugh and shoot society).

A woman who makes decision on content, who is intellectual, political, feminist even, who makes the jokes, does not exist in German television. Or rather, not any more. Since the satire show "Nachtschwester Kroymann"(Nightsister Kroymann - see youTube clip) disappeared from the screens in 1997 after four years on air. There's only Harald Schmidt, the comedy pope, who famously never makes jokes about the real Pope. Which is not to say that Kroymann didn't get good viewer ratings. But she never got a regular slot. That's how they get rid of something. And two years go by before anyone notices. When Kroymann made jokes about lesbian winegrowers making lesbian wine, lesbians were not amused. Women and bawdy jokes? Doesn't work. Stand-up is the final frontier for the men, says Kroymann. When was the last time a woman appeared on "Scheibenwischer" (windscreen wipers - a political ARD stand-up show)? On RTL Maren Kroymann now plays in the sitcom "Mein Leben und Ich" (My life and I). Satire is in short supply on public TV.

"Verfolgt" happened without any backing from German TV. You can imagine the scenario, the negative reactions to the plot and script. But this means that the script has been spared any surgery. Little by little Angelina Maccarone's film dispelled all the little uptight anxieties of the viewer: that it might be embarrassing, this S&M story. That Elsa will go too far, that everything will get too over the top. When Jan dangles the two flight tickets to Brazil before Elsa's eyes, you have the same reaction: she can't do that! And then you feel ashamed. At the end Elsa is a changed woman. You can see it when Kroymann looks into the camera. Her eyes show desire and experience, happiness, insecurity, hope. And you think to yourself: this woman is capable of anything.


This article originally appeared in die Zeit on Janary 4, 2007.

Liane von Billerbeck is a freelance journalist, court reporter, radio and television announcer and commentator.

Translation: lp - let's talk european