Queer Kino: 1970s and ‘80s Gay German Arthouse Cinema
The rise of New German Cinema coincided with the birth of gay liberation. Perhaps as a result, the movement was far queerer than any precursor, apart from the ‘60s American avant-garde. The Quad’s June series “Queer Kino” commemorated this by showing German films from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Its programmer, filmmaker Wieland Speck, says that “questioning our parents’ generation, the war generation, had a strong impact on the developing gay movement, especially the first feminist cineastes.” While it’s inevitable that two R.W. Fassbinder films were included (Fox and His Friends and Querelle), as well as other well-known directors like Ulrike Ottinger and Monika Treut, the meat of the series relies on lesser-known work that shone a light on aspects of German life that have since disappeared.
Frank Ripploh’s Taxi zum Klo (1980) was well-received upon its American release in ‘81, but it’s rarely revived now. It was a victim of tragic bad timing: its celebration of the liberating potential of casual sex, including encounters in public restrooms, was instantly dated by the onset of AIDS. Speck describes the attitude among German gay men at the time it was made: “every possible STD was ridiculed as the invincibility of the gay psyche made its first appearance in history.” He adds: “This high time was met hard by the ‘gay cancer’ which made its way into the consciousness of German society in about 1986 — an awareness spearheaded by Arthur J. Bressan’s Buddies, which hit Germany in its year of completion.”
Rosa von Praunheim’s confrontational It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives (1971) has been credited with inspiring the German gay liberation movement, although Speck describes this milestone as “already straining at the leash. Nothing starts from scratch.” “Queer Kino” included Praunheim’s A Virus Knows No Morals (1986), a radical dark comedy responding to the AIDS crisis as soon as it hit Germany. Praunheim recognized the danger stemming both from the virus itself and the resurgence in homophobia it led to, envisioning a near-future version of a leper colony. Collectively written, it stars the director as a bathhouse owner who profits from allowing his gay customers to have unsafe sex while struggling with AIDS and his own homophobia. The aggressively tilted camera angles set the stage for an overriding mood of activist camp, with recurring appearances by a drag quintet. The film juggles several narrative lines, including an editor who spreads misinformation in her tabloid paper and a woman who fetishizes sex with gay men, ending up in a dystopian 1987, where 70% of German prisoners are HIV-positive and the government has made HIV tests mandatory. Praunheim fought desperately against this possibility. Looking back on it now, it’s a document of its time, but limited by that too: one can easily forgive its factual mistakes about HIV transmission, but its casual racism and hostility towards women hamper its politics. The film suggests a bridge between ‘70s Derek Jarman, John Waters, and New Queer Cinema, if Waters had any impulse in joining ACT UP.
Speck’s Westler (1985) is rooted in the director’s own life. In love with a man who lived in East Berlin, the film was intended as a way to get him out of the country. Speck originally wanted his boyfriend to play a character based on himself, the idea being that the East German authorities would realize the extent of his rebellion after the film’s release and let him emigrate to the West. This plan’s failure is reflected in Westler’s ambiguous and melancholy tone.
An American tourist, Bruce (Andy Lucas, who also translated the English subtitles), visits Felix (Sigurd Rachman) in West Berlin. They take a trip together to East Berlin, where they meet Thomas (Rainer Strecker). Thomas and Felix get along great and quickly become a couple. Felix has the ability to travel east to see him periodically, but the frequency of his visits makes the East German government suspicious. Thomas seeks a way out of his country, thinking up baroque schemes involving travel to Yugoslavia and finally decides to risk an escape via Prague.
The film has an unusual flavor, possibly looking more experimental than Speck originally intended. The circumstances under which it was made meant that shooting on East Berlin streets had to be done with a hidden Super-8 camera. Thus, the exteriors have an extremely grainy look. Since Speck couldn’t shoot those scenes with sound, Engelbert Rehm’s post-punk, proto-techno electronic score plays over them.
Westler’s characters have no trouble accepting their sexuality or maintaining their relationship apart from the difficulty of staying together. This isn’t a coming-out story, and AIDS isn’t an issue in it. But his characters’ freedom is strictly internal. Felix and Thomas don’t suffer from self-hatred. Still, they can only express their love in private apartments. Two scenes are set in bars, but they’re not depicted as an oasis of freedom despite an entertaining performance by trans singer Zazie de Paris. (The military garb in which she and her band perform rhymes with a brief fantasy scene of the barracks earlier in the film.)
Speck doesn’t demonize East Germany — in a Q&A after the Quad’s screening, he said that at the time he made Westler, he respected the country’s leftism and hoped that West Germany could move in a similar direction — but he does show the amount of control the country had over its citizens’ lives. Bruce remarks on the exoticism of “communist TV,” but the nature show they briefly watch is rather banal.
30 years later, the narrative of Heiner Carow’s Coming Out (1989) seems a bit basic: Philipp (Matthias Freihof), who is married to a woman, realizes that he’s gay after becoming attracted to Matthias (Dirk Kummer). He starts exploring East Berlin’s gay bar scene and sleeps with Matthias. Crucially, the film emphasizes the tenderness between them, as they cuddle and talk for several minutes after sex. It avoids the common impulse of queer cinema towards tragedy, despite the opening scene’s depiction of Matthias getting his stomach pumped after a suicide attempt driven by self-hatred about his gayness. Instead, it takes in the world Philipp starts exploring.
In one of the final scenes, an elderly man sits down with Philipp, who is drunk and unhappy. He describes his experience being arrested by the Nazis during World War II and sent to a concentration camp. Afterwards, he embraced communism and remains satisfied by it — he says, “we stopped mankind’s exploitation by mankind” — but complains that it ignored the problems of gays. (Gay men were freer legally in East Germany than the West after World War II, where the Nazi law that criminalized homosexuality stayed on the books until 1969.) Coming Out was the only gay-themed film produced in East Germany, and it took Carow years to get permission to direct it.
The idealism reflected in that scene is frayed at the edges: there are two episodes beforehand of violence in the subway. In the first one, Philipp gets beaten up after intervening in a group of skinheads’ assault on a black man. He exits near his home at the Marx-Engles-Platz stop. Carow may not have intended any symbolism in that choice of subway stops, even though it seems pointed.
Coming Out’s content may be overshadowed by the fact that it premiered the night the Berlin Wall fell. The East German life it depicted was quickly on its way to becoming a period piece. According to legend, the country’s officials didn’t notice the fall of the Wall because they were busy watching the film on opening night. At the 1990 Berlin Film Festival, it won the Silver Bear and the Teddy (the festival’s prize for best gay-themed film.) The novelty of its gay subject matter may have gotten it more attention than other East German films of the ‘80s, but it genuinely feels like a precursor to Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011). The emphasis on a man struggling to accept his sexuality and live an honest, open life isn’t yet outdated, even if the narrative of Coming Out is exactly what one might expect.
Americans, in particular, tend to talk about queerness with a touch of presentist superiority. The fact that AIDS killed off half a generation of gay men, while the closet rendered many of the survivors invisible, meant that our images of gay life in the ‘70s and ‘80s are dominated by that tragedy, which wiped out filmmakers like Marlon Riggs, Bill Sherwood, Derek Jarman, and Arthur J. Bressan. Films like Coming Out and Westler offer a snapshot of a different gay ‘80s, and a culture whose central conflict is much different.
“Queer Cinema” took place at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema between June 21 and June 27.