Fifty years on, is it possible to make a film from the perspective of the young artist that you once were—or wanted to become? This is the question that artist and filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger asks herself at the start of Paris Calligrammes, her journey through the cultural life of 1960s Paris. The title for the film was inspired by Fritz Picard’s legendary bookshop Librairie Calligrammes, an inspiring safe haven for this twenty-something newcomer to the French capital. The shop was a gathering place for members of the German-speaking intelligentsia, some of whom were struggling with the traumas of war.
Ottinger captures the atmosphere and spirit of a turbulent period in this collage of archive material and fragments from feature films and home movies. We see images of chain-smoking, pastis-sipping artists at Café de Flore, as well as the less romantic aspects of the zeitgeist: racism and colonialism. The tragic low-point is the Paris massacre of October 17, 1961, when police attacked a demonstration of tens of thousands of Algerians protesting a selective curfew, against the backdrop of the Algerian War of Independence.