gRischa Huber, the German magnetic star died this year at the age of 76, became a feminist icon of European cinema with one of her first feature films. She was an established stage artist at the time she was chosen by the director Helma Sanders-Brahms as a politically engaged theater actor in the film Unter dem Pflaster ist der Strand (1975). It was published with an awkward English title, Under the Pavement Lies the Strand, which failed to translate the last word to “beach.” The original refers to a slogan popular during the 1968 protests in France: “Under the cobblestones, the beach!” Literally, it was a reference to the sand under the dislodged stones thrown in the riots; metaphorically, it implied a utopia preserved by modern society.

The character of Huber, also named Grischa, appears in a Greek drama about how the ancient reign of women was abolished by men. A striking snapshot captures the joined actresses in a silent scream; Sanders-Brahms will continue to explore how women of the 1970s are still silenced, but come together to redefine their roles in society.

The film follows a rekindled relationship between Grischa and her co-star, Heinrich (played by Heinrich Giskes). Their opening conversation is authentically about what the actors might feel after giving a performance. A feeling of anti-climatic exhaustion hangs in the locker room as they remove makeup. Neither of them wants to leave the theater and come home – she lives with her partner, he with his dogs – and they delay so long that they end up locking themselves up.

Under the sidewalk is the strand.
Locked up in the theater… Under the Pavement Lies the Strand. Photography: Courtesy: Facets

Grischa, who is deeply self-analytical throughout the film, wishes that the agency and the vitality she feels in acting could be carried over to the rest of her life. Sanders-Brahms considers the theatrical essence of the couple’s offstage activities. Their nostalgic reminiscences of the protests of the late 1960s in Berlin remind us that the protests are essentially a spectacle. (“We crawled into our shells,” says Heinrich, observing how the spirit of that time has dissipated and the left movement has become more fractured.) When Grischa decides she wants to sleep with Heinrich, they conceive and decorate their own decor for the meeting. A friend’s bedroom is borrowed, the bedding set on the floor, the lights adjusted, and the music set for a scene that is both tender and playful, captured by Sanders-Brahms with gentle humor.

Huber and Sanders-Brahms were both in their early 30s when they created the film and they became forces within the burgeoning movement of new German cinema dominated by young directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. Sanders-Brahms gives a twist to the documentary form: his voiceover comments on Grischa’s activities, and there are cuts to photographs from historic Votes for Women campaigns and Huber’s childhood photos. A few years later, his film Deutschland Bleiche Mutter (Germany Pale Mother, 1980), starring regular Fassbinder star Eva Mattes, incorporated newsreel footage into his mix of fact and fiction.

Helma Sanders-Brahms in 1983.
Helma Sanders-Brahms in 1983. Photograph: Ullstein Bild / Getty Images

As an actor, Grischa chooses projects that match his personal political interests. Sanders-Brahms shows her researching the working lives of women. She films interviews with mothers about how they combine child care with factory changes and talks to women who have had abortions. In another kind of movie, Grischa might have directed her own drama as a result of this research, but Sanders-Brahms suggests it’s a much more personal quest than that. Grischa tries to learn from the experiences of others in order to make a decision on how she might be successful in combining an acting career with raising a child.

What Grischa finds is that women are still silenced: many working mothers simply do not have time to discuss their experiences, their schedules are so tight; others reflect on their conflict with men at home and at work. A woman shares how she was abused as a child, felt unable to talk about it and how it affected her future relationships. Abortion in Berlin, Grischa learns, is only given to women who essentially claim to be suicidal and mentally ill. Throughout these interviews, Grischa emerges as a sensitive collaborator and in search of her subjects – a intended contrast, presumably, to the stone-faced man who directs the Greek drama in the opening scenes. Huber’s concentrated vitality animates the film and is ultimately seen as a threat by Heinrich who angrily tries to disrupt his research and claims he is being overlooked.

Protest as a performance… watch an excerpt from the film.

Grischa gains artistic and personal fulfillment, and self-determination, through her interviews with other women and emerges as a different type of actor from Heinrich, whom she identifies as incapable of expressing her inner feelings. While she still passionately believes in the power of theater to influence change, he tells his new lover, “We have tried to change the world through theater. Nothing happened. I think it’s arrogant for an actor to go and tell workers what it is. This ignores Grischa’s thoughtful attempts to collaborate with workers to understand their stories.

Sanders-Brahms studied acting before becoming a director, partly on encouragement from Pier Paolo Pasolini, and also explored actor relationships in her film Flügel und Fesseln (The Future of Emily, 1984). Under the Pavement was produced with the help of the Schaubühne Theater in Berlin, where its two stars also performed. Even though there are few scenes of the drama in the film, and it doesn’t explore life on stage as directly as other films in this series, the theater’s potential to merge the personal with the political lies in his heart.