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“If you think about things, you become radicalized”

Helke Sander is a West German women’s activist, film director, writer, producer, and actress. Through her activism and films, Sander has impacted the women’s movement in Germany and Europe by focusing on challenging themes regarding women’s role and experiences.

Sander was born in January 1937 in Berlin, Germany. After graduating from Gymnasium, the German high school, she moved to Hamburg to study at the Ida Ehre School for Acting. Sander then went on to study at the University of Helsinki in Finland where she majored in German and Psychology. In 1959, she married Markku Lahtela, a Finnish writer, with whom she had a child with named Silvo. During this time, Sander was also working as a director for television and for the Finnish Workers’ Theater. In 1966, she moved back to her hometown of Westberlin where she studied at the German Film and Television Academy.

While in Berlin, Sander became a part of the German Socialist Student Organization (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, SDS).  In September 1968  she participated in the SDS Congress in Frankfurt am Main and requested in a speech from the  SDS leaders and members to support women’s issues and policies. In this speech she stated:

We demand that our problems be discussed substantively here. It is no longer enough that women are occasionally allowed to say a few words to which, as good anti-authoritarians, you listen – and then go on with the order of the day. We maintain that the SDS in its internal organization is a reflection of broader social relations. A certain sphere of life is separated from the social and placed under taboo by giving it the name “private life.” In this SDS is no different from the unions or the existing political parties. The tactic allows the specific exploited situation of women to be repressed, enabling the men to retain their old identity as bestowed under patriarchy.

However, the male majority present at the SDS Congres ignored her and other feminist students demands, which led them to start and autonomous group. With other female SDS members Senders initiated  the Action Council for the Liberation of Women (Aktionsrat zur Befreiung der Frau), a socialist-feminist group in Westberlin in same year, which became   the start of the second wave of the German women’s movement.

In 1971, Sander founded a women’s group called “Brot und Rosen” (Bred and Roses) which campaigned against the prohibition of abortion by Paragraph 218 and 219 of the Penal Code of 1871, which was still in place, but also against current practices of birth control. Sander created the film Macht die Pille frei? (Does the Pill Liberate Women?) in1972, which oppose the anti-abortion laws. In 1973, Sander and director Claudia von Alemann organized an autonomous  women’s film festival in Berlin. To further her socially-engaged work, she created the first feminist film journal in Europe called Frauen und Film (Women and Film) and was the chief editor until 1982. This journal provided feminist commentaries to German films produced by female authors.

Throughout her life, Sander has developed films that have caused controversy because of the topics she focused on. There was a period in which Sander did not receive funding for her film projects because she wanted her films to center around themes concerning women. It took five years before she released her first full feature-length film called Die allseitig reduzierte Persönlichkeit – Redupers (The All-Around Reduced Personality), which was released in 1977 and became one of her most well-known films. This film follows the journey of Edda (played by Sander), a freelance photographer, who is a single mother. It focuses on how Edda and other women are having a hard time managing their personal and professional lives while living in Westberlin.

Her 1984 film Der Beginn aller Schrecken ist Liebe (Love is the Beginning of All Horror) is another film in which Sander played the main role.This movie follows the story of two women who go after the same man. Five years later in 1989, Sander came out with a controversial film called Die Deutschen und ihre Männer – Bericht aus Bonn (The Germans and their Men). In this film, men in Bonn were asked about feminism and their political views. The film reveals how some menview women’s rights and their role in society. However, it was not until 1992 that she came out with her most ambitious work called BeFreier und Befreite: Krieg, Vergewaltigungen, Kinder (Liberators Take Liberties: War, Rapes, Children). In this film, German women who were raped at the end of World War II by Soviet soldiers were interviewed. Sander’s most recent film Mitten im Malestream (In the Midst of the Malestream) was released in 2005. In this film, Sander explores the second wave of the German women’s movement while also mentioning issues women face.

Sander is relevant today because her work focuses on issues that have impacted women in the past and continue to impact them in the present. She stands out as a feminist by using film and her acting skills to showcase women’s experiences in their private and public lives during the twentieth century. Not only have her films impacted the women’s movement in Germany, her activist work has affected it as well. By helping organize the Action Council for the Liberation of Women and the “Brot und Rosen,” she helped further the women’s movement and shed light on women’s rights.

Cinthia Salinas-Pavon, Global Studies, Class of 2019


Literature and Websites


Poster for Helke Sander ‘s film Die allseitig reduzierte Persönlichkeit – Redupers (“The All-Around Reduced Personality”), 1977.
Helke Sander as Edda in her film Die allseitig reduzierte Persönlichkeit – Redupers (“The All-Around Reduced Personality”), 1977.
Movie cover from Helke Sander’s 1984 film Der Beginn aller Schrecken ist Liebe (“Love is the Beginning of All Terror”).