Sander attended a drama school in Hamburg. While married to Finnish writer Markku Lahtela, with whom she had a son, she worked as director at the worker's theatre and for Finnish television. She returned to Berlin in 1965.
From 1966 to 1969, she studied at the newly founded film school 'Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie'. Sanders' work in cinema is very closely linked to her political engagement as a feminist.
In 1968, she co-founded the Aktionsrat zu Befreiung der Frauen (Action Committee on the Liberation of Women).
Helke Sander was a member of the SDS, or German Socialist Student Organization. In 1968, Sander made an entreaty to the SDS, hoping for support for the German women's political agenda. Her male colleagues ignored this plea and effectively, the second wave of German feminism was sparked by a thrown tomato.
In 1971, Helke Sander organized the women's group 'Brot und Rosen'. The platform centered on the idea that birth control was not safe for women.
In 1972, Helke Sander continued work on her birth control project. Her film Macht die Pille frei? (Does the Pill Liberate Women?) was a campaign against anti-abortion law. Sander worked on the film with Sara Schumann.
Together with Claudia von Aleman, she organized the feminist film conference 'Erste internationale Frauenfilmseminar' which took place in 1973 in Berlin. In 1974, she founded Frauen und Film (journal), the first feminist European film journal, which she edited until 1982.
Her film The All-Around Reduced Personality is among the most important German feminist films of the 1970s. In part this is because it blends techniques of both documentary and fictional film.
Sander's critical eye towards postwar German culture was expanded in her 1984 satire on sexual politics, Love is the Beginning of All Terror.
In 1985, through an election process, Helke Sander joined the West Berlin Academy of Arts. Sander would later file a resignation from the Academy citing "misogyny, nepotism and corruption".
Starting in 1981 Sander was a professor at the Hochschule für bildende Künste, an Academy of Fine Arts, in Hamburg. She left the institution in 2001.
Helke Sander was honored by the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art (Berlin) in 2003. A retrospective of her collected works in film was shown in their Arsenal Cinema.
Helke Sander's work is characterized by the use of filters, which function as a visual cue to remind the audience of the subjectivity presented. The use of the filter draws attention to the properties of a documentary and the ideology being communicated, allowing the audience an awareness of the rhetoric being delivered.
Redupers is a documentary about the Berlin Wall, the border between East and West Berlin, and the central character's relationship to Berlin . Through authorial inscription, Helke Sander portrays the central character of the film, a woman who must come to terms with the political and private sphere of being a woman against the backdrop of unrest. Helke Sander also focuses on photographer Edda Chiemnyjewski's efforts. Feminist interpretations of Helke Sander's film, Redupers, posit that the Berlin Wall functions not only as a representation of the divide geographically, but also as a stand-in for the psychic and sexual differences between men and women.
The Subjective Factor chronicles the origins of the women's movement and the Berlin student movement, set against the backdrop of a commune, and deals with issues of anarchism, terrorism, and phallocentrism. Sander's portrayal shows Leftist males run the commune while women are relegated to domestic duties and are denied rights to speak out.
The film is set during the late sixties and consists of a combination of fictional footage and newsreel footage. The use of filter in the film draws attention to the properties of the documentary itself, the views that are presented. Sander's use of the female voice over in The Subjective Factor was a marker of progressive film making at the time.
Her 1992 documentary film, BeFreier und BeFreite (Liberators Take Liberties), examines the mass rape of German women committed by soldiers of the Red Army at the end of World War II. Sander's film was particularly controversial because there were concerns that the film placed too much emphasis on German suffering, thereby lessening guilt for the Holocaust. Defenders of the film argue that Sander's project is a complex reflection on rape as a weapon of war. They argue that the film resists presenting a one-sided depiction of German victimization citing the film's attention to German war crimes and self-reflexive qualities.
This documentary won the Nestor Almendros Prize in the 1993 Human Rights Festival. The film situated Sander as a researcher historian contributing to history, because Sander uncovered and catalogued events previously unvisited.
This documentary uses an arrangement of interviews to create an overall thematic message. Questions have been raised in regards to Sanders use of filters in this documentary, especially as it relates to the portrayal of ethnic qualities, which were overemphasized within the interviews.
Director (30 titles)2005 Mitten im Malestream [In Midst of the Malestream] (documentary)
This documentary is a history of the second wave of the German women's movement. Sander examines abortion rights, the birth strike, and the politics of motherhood.
2001 Village (TV documentary)
1998 Muttertier - Muttermensch [Animal Mother - Human Mother] (TV documentary)
This documentary chronicled and examined the maternal role of women.
1992 BeFreier und BeFreite (documentary)
1992 Krieg und Sexualle Gewalt [War and Sexual Violence] (documentary)
This documentary was a report on refugee camps in Hungary and Austria following the Serbian and Bosnian War.
1989 Die Deutschen und ihre Männer - Bericht aus Bonn [The Germans and their Men - Report from Bonn] (TV documentary)
Examines the impact of post-women's activism and feminist thought on the male German public. Men from several social classes are interviewed.
1989 Die Meisen von Frau S. (documentary short)
1988 Felix (segment "Muss ich aufpassen?")
1987 Nr. 5 - Aus Berichten der Wach- und Patrouillendienste (short)
1986 Nr. 8 - Aus Berichten der Wach- und Patrouillendienste (short)
1986 Seven Women, Seven Sins (segment "Völlerei? Füttern!")
1985 Nr. 1 - Aus Berichten der Wach- und Patrouillendienste (short)
1984 Der Beginn aller Schrecken ist Liebe [Love Is the Beginning of All Terror]
Helke Sander takes the main role in this satire. The film revolves around the plot of a man between two women.
1983 Die Gedächtnislücke - Filmminiaturen über den alltäglichen Umgang mit Giften (documentary)
1981 Der subjektive Faktor
1981 Wie geht das Kamel durchs Nadelöhr? (documentary)
1978 Die allseitig reduzierte Persönlichkeit - Redupers
1973 Männerbünde (TV documentary)
1973 Macht die Pille frei? (TV documentary)
1971 Eine Prämie für Irene [A Reward for Irene] (TV movie)
Examined the double exploitation of women; their lives in family and in the factory.
1970 Kinder sind keine Rinder [Children are Not Cattle] (documentary short)
Documented the treatment of children in a childcare center.
1969 Das schwache Geschlecht muss stärker werden - Weibergeschichten (TV movie)
1968 Die rote Fahne (documentary short)
1967/68 Brecht die Macht der Manipulateure! (documentary film)
Campaign of the student movement against Springer, a German media group. Made for Finnish television.
1967 Silvo (documentary short)
1967 Subjektitüde (short)
1965 Naurukierukka (TV movie)
1965 Skorpioni (TV movie)
1965 Teatterituokio (TV series)
Die Geschichten der drei Damen K., München : Frauenbuchverlag, ISBN 3-88897-123-3
Oh Lucy : Erzählung, 2. Aufl., München : Kunstmann, 1991, ISBN 3-88897-044-X