Chamisso's Shadow starts with "Peter Schlemihl's Miraculous Story", a tale about  a man who sold his shadow to the Devil in exchange for endless wealth, only to find that a man without a shadow is shunned by human society. Adelbert von Chamisso wrote the tale before setting off to Russia on a scientific expedition in 1815. He analysed the flora of Alaska and then explored the Northwest Passage, just like Cook and explorer Bering had done previously, the latter with physician and naturalist Steller in tow. Ulrike embraces the themes of scientific exploration and the return to nature as the catalyst to capture the grandeur of the Archipelago.

Thus begins Ottinger's contemporary journey from Alaska to Kamchatka via Chukotka, with her predecessors’ log books to accompany her on her way. While she describes Steller's texts as "dramatic", she considers Chamisso's diaries lively and sympathetic. Ottinger also keeps a log book that bears the mark of her ethnographic and artistic interests that are also seen in images: water, fish, sea otters, stones, volcanoes, the tundra, houses, villages, photographs, objects, maps. The people she meets talk about their lives, about the past and present. She shows them working, singing and fishing, again and again. Time is revealed to not be linear but rather simultaneous, centuries existing alongside one another, brought to life through Ulrike's lens and reference to the original text.

„But there on the sunny sands, a human shadow, not unlike my own, slid past, wandering alone and seemingly strayed from his Master. This sight awakened in me a powerful drive: shadow, thought I, are you looking for thy Master? Your Master I will be.“

(From Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso)


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Runtime: 720 min
Directed by Ulrike Ottinger
Production Companies: Ulrike Oettinger Filmproduktion, ZDF / 3sat (co-production), Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB) (co-production), Vita Aktiva (line production: Russia)
Year: 2016