Sing, Iris, Sing
Women learning men’s work
by Gretchen Elsner-Sommer
from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, p. 64
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005
Tight close-up on a smiling woman’s face. Machine factory noises in the background.
The camera zooms out to show the woman dressed in a white blouse, a tight skirt, and high-heeled shoes. The softness of the woman’s smile and dress contrasts with the austerity of the machines that surround her.
A man stops to talk to her. “Change your shoes,” he says. His voice is barely audible over the noise of the equipment. The woman walks by another man. “Change everything,” he says.
These images and sounds occur in just the first few seconds of an incredibly long take which begins the film SING, IRIS, SING. This West German documentary glimpses Germany looking at itself — an interesting corollary to the new German cinema features that have become so popular here.
SING, IRIS, SING follows women through five weeks of a government-sponsored retraining program. They are studying to become skilled metal workers or electronic workers. In an uncomplicated style, the camera depicts the obstacles that these women face in the classroom and at home. This is not a self-reflexive film, nor does it answer all the questions that it poses. Rather, it demands a great deal from the viewer, who doesn’t realize until the final scenes that all but five of the women do fail.
SING, IRIS, SING offers a false sense of comfort that is only dispelled by the still images that conclude the film. Throughout we get glimpses into the ease with which women help each other, their honesty in dealing with the program’s difficulties. The relaxed relation that they have with the camera creates a sense of normalcy and comfort. Seemingly none of these shots prepare the audience for the women’s final failure.
Initially thirty-two women began this program. At the time filming started, only eighteen were left in the course. By the end of the program, only five women were to become metal workers, and none were to pass the test to become electronic workers. Such a high rate of failure is alluded to many times in the film by the women themselves as they relate their experiences. However, only in the final scenes does the audience realize the hugeness of the failures. That final recognition leaves a disquieting sense that seems oddly to go hand in hand with the honesty, sincerity, and strength that we’ve seen these women share.
The opening shot provides a metaphor for the comfortable but also disquieting effect that the film has on the audience. As the long take continues down through the machine shop, one woman joins arms with another. Together they walk down a long hall and into a dressing room. Without a single cut, the camera stays with them as the first woman changes into workers’ garb. Often the women look at or refer to the camera but are obviously at ease with its presence. This long, uninterrupted take continues as the women walk back to the shop and take up their stations at the machines. The women seem to assume easily the vast changes they are initiating into their lives. By changing their clothes and entering into a machine world, a world traditionally accessible only to men, the women also introduce tension into their lives, a tension that cannot be fully understood by the women, the filmmakers, or the audience until the final figures are in.
The first indication of something “askew” comes shortly after the first scene. One of the teachers is talking about a student whom he has just tested and he says that the student could learn the material but lacks concentration. While the teacher talks, the camera cuts to a medium shot of the woman at work. The woman appears pensive, obviously not involved completely with her work. The camera pauses only a second, then cuts away to an entirely different scene, where we see a group of women sitting around a table solving math problems. We’ve had no time to think about the former scene. The camera has moved on without comment. It’s only after the film that the audience may have time to reflect, “Why couldn’t she concentrate? Shouldn’t teachers be aware of the circumstances shaping students’ attitudes?
The filmmakers offer no running commentary; no narrator comments on the images. Rather, images are allowed to speak for themselves. Only the bare essentials of the story get spoken by a voice over as the film progresses. Printed titles punctuate the film with information about the content and duration of the women’s course of study. While the audience watches without a narrator to lead, viewers are seemingly free after viewing the film to evaluate the images just seen.
These images are rendered in black and white, captured by cinema verité techniques of long uninterrupted shots and sweeping pans. No montage or quickly edited sequences manipulate viewers’ reactions. The editing appears minimal. Several wide pans pick up the members of the camera crews, and even those shots are not cut out. Presumably this authenticates the unedited form which the filmmakers want to portray. Such a camera style produces images that seem only to recreate what is in front of the camera and not to revise it.
I do not mean that the film is presented without comment by the filmmakers, for the film is full of visual commentary. By choosing which government program to focus on, by selecting which classes would be shot and which women would be interviewed, the filmmakers clearly offer opinions.
Why did these women fail? Again and again the filmmakers show us scenes heavy with future failure. But the reasons are not spelled out, although we see a series of possible trip-ups. Often teachers, students, and even the filmmakers so gloss over these reasons that the viewer may become aware of them only after the film is over.
In retrospect, the film has answers, although it never gave an appearance of having looked for them. The film shows how these women lack confidence and, without confidence, they cannot concentrate because they must constantly ask themselves,
“Am I doing the right thing? Am I capable of doing this work? Should I be doing something else more suited to my education or to my role as a mother?”
For example, like many other women in the program, Doris left school many years ago, before having completed her course work. Now she has to seek assistance in math from her teenage son. Annette relates that by the time she gets home at night, prepares dinner for her son, and helps him with his homework, she feels too tired to do her own work. She has more confidence in herself as a mother than as one striving for a man’s position.
These attitudes are best visualized in the first long scene of women studying math together. The material is different, but the women can share their knowledge and help each other. After they work on math for some time, one woman decides to leave, saying, “I think I would rather be home peeling potatoes.” It is a funny, honest line but becomes poignant when we realize that “peeling potatoes” offers a position in which many women feel safe, a role that always provides an acceptable retreat for women who do not have the self-confidence to move beyond it.
Through a series of interviews with the women in the program, the audience learns that they receive little support from their relationships with men. Iris tells us that her husband locks her in their apartment at night. Agnes, on the other hand, is assured of her fiancé’s support. He is a skilled mechanic and can help her with her difficulties in the technical courses. But she does not tell a very convincing story. During the time that Agnes talks about him, he stands away from her and looks away. He seems uninterested in her words and walks around her in the bar, getting ready to go to his own job. In the shots of them together at home, he stays busy helping clean up. This is an admirable trait; however, he ignores the camera, his fiancée, and their work together. Agnes tries to assure the audience (and perhaps herself) that her fiancé really supports her because he allows her to get angry. This self-indictment points up her lack of confidence. She cannot approve her own anger but only condones it through the approval of the man she lives with.
In a long sequence near the end of the film, Doris and her husband Helmut have a long argument. This scene provides a central example of the obstacles the women are up against and how they choose to deal with them. Helmut offers an idea, a mistaken and denigrating one, about Doris’s work. Doris tries to explain to him that he is wrong. She calmly and repeatedly explains that she is the one taking the course, and she knows what she is studying. The camera slowly pans back and forth between the couple, passing over empty beer bottles, to catch the argument’s every word. No tension-raising editing focuses the viewers’ attention on high points, for the argument has no high points. Doris refuses to get angry at her husband’s lack of support, understanding, or approval.
As the camera slowly wavers back and forth between the two, the viewer could understand some of the combat inside these women’s heads. On the one hand, the women want to learn this work. On the other, everywhere they meet the attitude that any work they do outside the home is unimportant. Until women get angry and find the strength in their anger to move forward, they waver like the camera in this scene between two points.
The women, however, don’t feel comfortable with anger. When Annette, as spokesperson for the group, voices an angry complaint about teaching methods, her fellow students oust her. Her outbursts have led the others to distrust her ability to represent them. Ultimately she is forced out of the program because of medical reasons, which seems to give final proof that anger will undo you.
No wonder the women shy away from anger. Whenever they complain, the brunt of the problem is almost always thrown back at them. They complain to the teacher that he does not go over homework assignments in class. He retorts that they don’t do all their assignments, so what’s the use? Students say that the teacher did not explain the material properly; the teacher proclaims that they should ask more questions.
While the teachers verbally encourage the women to concentrate and to continue, the teachers show no understanding of the pressures that these women are under. Nor do teachers question their material or how it is being presented. They seem to have little awareness of how unprepared these women are to deal with the difficulties of technical material.
This government program ostensibly has been set up to help women. Its failure looks like the women’s fault. Yet, with the incredibly high failure rate, the viewer must look beyond such a simplistic answer. We must study and hold accountable the program itself, the teachers, husbands, society, and the women’s own inner barriers if we will find out the true reasons.
For the English-speaking audience the title of the film FRAUEN LERNEN MÄNNERBERUFE (WOMEN LEARN MEN’S JOBS) has been changed to SING, IRIS, SING. The English title removes a sense of striving for change and replaces it with a tableau of a woman singing.
The English title refers to the only staged shot in the film. Iris is sitting on a chair looking at an empty sofa. An Elvis Presley song, “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” plays in the background and Iris sings along. In this melancholy image, we see Iris definitely finding some comfort and security in this song and the ritual of singing it. The only place in the film that any of the women can find such sense of security is in a staged shot — a bitter commentary. For Iris, security means singing a sad and lonely song. Although her singing brings her familiar contentment, it brings her no understanding of why her loneliness is alleviated in artificial surroundings and with sad songs.