Her past and present students describe Ula Stoeckl as sweet and classy. Stoeckl blushes when she hears this.
“You never know what someone will remember,” she says in a quiet and distinct German accent. She just returned to the UCF campus from a month-long celebration of her filmmaking career in Europe from Munich and Berlin, Germany, to Vienna, Austria. While some of her films received awards, recognition for her whole body of work had been long overdue, as can be deduced from a casual conversation with the UCF film professor.
Listen to Stoeckl. The woman who recently celebrated her 80th birthday has much to share, but only if you ask. And if you consume what she is saying with all of your senses, as if experiencing one of her films, you are transported into her shoes literally walking through fire as a child and then blazing new paths for women.
Birth and Death in World War II-era Germany
You cannot ignore the birthplace and birth year on Stoeckl’s bio: Ulm, Germany, 1938. Mention World War II and Ula remembers details. Like Dec. 17, 1944.
“My family was bombed out that day, completely. I remember so vividly, how we came out of the basement and ran through the burning city, me with my mother and my one remaining sibling.”
The following March they were bombed again.
“I can clearly see an American soldier holding my sister in his arms, saying, ‘Don’t die, little girl. Please, don’t die.’ And I still feel how it felt, to lose your sense of belonging in just seconds — your home, your community, your family. I was the only child of four to survive the disease and explosions. I’m still working through it to this day.”
“I was the only child of four to survive the disease and explosions. I’m still working through it to this day.”
In the years after the war, everyone who was impacted did whatever it took to forget. No one talked about it. Stoeckl’s parents tried to replace the disturbing mental pictures with pleasant movie images. “We went to the theater all the time because it was cheap and warm and you could escape. That’s when I fell in love with film,” she says.
Finding a Future in Filmmaking
At first, she wanted to be an actress. But then something clicked about the idea of actually developing the stories. She could write and direct films to show the types of emotions that are impossible to tell. This would become her creative outlet for the sentiments she’d experienced as a 6-year-old in war-imploded Germany.
But Stoeckl’s path into film would lead her into another huge challenge that would provide additional inspiration for her award-winning work and reveal her quiet intensity.
Those mental images that her mother and father lovingly hoped to snuff out after the war would never go away, and they would actually embolden Stoeckl — then and now. “Those memories made me determined to change things — anything — for the better, however I could,” she says. As she considers this, she says, “Maybe I’m tougher than I realized.”
It took a balance of toughness and patience when she became the first woman to be accepted into Germany’s Institute for Filmmaking in 1962. And it took more of the same as she created 23 films from concept to closing credits.
“The old-school filmmakers did not want young people in their world, especially women. I knew that, and it only made me work harder. The truth is, it’s still an uphill challenge for women in the film world. We have been told it doesn’t matter if a film is made by a man or woman, but that’s false.”
40 Years of Films on the Silver Screen
This explains why, when crowds sold out the venues in Germany to see a retrospective of Stoeckl’s work in February, they were watching a few films that no one had ever seen. With no support for distribution or financing, these films had been buried 40 years or more.
“It was very special to see them for the first time in a public theater, and to see the reaction to them,” Stoeckl says. “I thought about what my father told me when I was young: ‘Do not let people tell you what a girl can or cannot do.’ That’s why I love teaching.”
Stoeckl still has plenty of goals. For one, she has 200 hours of raw film waiting to be edited into another feature or documentary, and she wants to teach for as long as possible. “I strive to understand how young people see the world, so I can enable them to show their emotions and issues in the films they will make.”
In typical Stoeckl humility, she says nothing about the reverse — wanting young people to understand how she sees the world, or why. But if you ask, and if you really listen, you will hear a first-hand perspective with all the power of a great film.
More than a story, it’s an experience.