Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Rosa von Praunheim | Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt (It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives

pilgrim’s progress

by Douglas Messerli

Martin Dannecker, Sigurd Wurl and Rosa von Praunheim (writers), Rosa von Praunheim (director) Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt (It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives) / 1971

Early in his perceptive essay on Rosa von Praunheim’s radical manifesto about the gay male experience, Călin Boto writes:

 It Is Not the Homosexual was undoubtedly the cherry bomb of German Queer Cinema. Its rough looks and extravaganza, with a nervous voiceover barely overlapping the campy sketchy visuals of the narrative, made it a strange animal for film culture at that time. If anything, it has certain similarities to a subgroup of the New American Cinema, namely the avantgarde erotica of Jack Smith and Ron Rice, but also to the histrionic suburban comedies of John Waters and the homoerotic cheap flicks made by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But these films had more to do with political existence than with political engagement, and their directors rarely turned against their own characters (up to some point they even seem to adore their characters and the over-the-topness of everything that’s on-screen...)”

     Von Praunheim’s film certainly was a “cherry bomb” of sorts, and still startles a bit today it its seeming attack on the very gay community it sets out to explore; but that depends upon how you read his work which might be open to question even after one individual’s multiple viewings.

     It Is Not the Homosexual begins, in fact, a bit like the American film of 17 years later, Roger Stigliano’s Fun Down There, in which a completely innocent and clueless young man from upstate New York determines to move “down there” to New York to find out what gay life is really all about. In von Praunheim’s film the country cousin is Daniel (Bernd Feuerhelm), an attractive young man dressed in a dark suit who somehow connects up with the handsome, blond-haired, and more casually and fashionably-dressed Clemens (Berryt Bohlen) who after a short walk down a German boulevard in which they share banal information—via a voiceover which continues the narrative throughout—takes Daniel home for “a cup of coffee.”

        It is no surprise that in the very next scene we observe them in Clemens rather’ kitchily decorated apartment kissing, and a moment later Clemens is telling Daniel how lonely he is and how much he longs for a sincere friend. There is from the very beginning of this scene almost a sense of camp, as when Clemens almost immediately attempts to “court” his young street discovery by pulling away from the kiss and turning to face Daniel directly to say in an almost Brechtian manner:

                       I like you my boy. I’m so glad we met. You seem so natural

                       and honest. That’s rare. Most guys are callous and phony.

                       Speaking of love while already thinking of the next guy....

                       I’ve never stopped looking for a true friend. Guys don’t want

                       to be gay. They don’t want to be different. They want to live

                       as kitchy and bourgeois as the average citizen. They long for

                       a home where they can live with an honest and faithful friend.

     Already, the “assigned” dialogue—since the speeches come not through the lips of the characters acting in a naturalistic manner, but from an identified source in the form of the voiceover— is filled with the contradictions that the film itself will play off of and contradict again with its secondary and tertiary arguments. But for the moment, we certainly can well imagine that Clemens is one of those gay men who don’t want to be gay or different and who obviously desires to live in a sexual relationship more akin to those of heterosexual society. And those in von Praunheim’s audience who have had any experience with being gay already may begin to chafe at Clemens’ comments. Who said we all don’t like being gay and different? And who presumes that we all desire to live lives as “kitchy and bourgeois” as those with normative values? Or, we might even ask, who presumes those are the truly normative values?

      By the end of this scene the statements that appeared to represent Clemens’ point of view, subtly switch to become intrusive generalities of gay life spoken by some presumable authority such as a government judge, a psychologist, or possibly even a homosexual apologist.

      Moving quickly away from Clemens’ personal beliefs, these generalizations of gay life almost immediately irritate and anger anyone invested in the queer experince. Indeed, one might almost imagine these statements, at first, to be similar to those one might encounter in a didactic student film on the dangers of homosexuals like the 1950s US shorts Beware!, Boys Beware!, and Beware of Homosexuals—in Frank Ripploh’s Taxi zum Klo (1981) we see an example of a German version—used here, one might imagine, as a camp device to rouse the viewer into his own sense of caution regarding von Praunheim’s narrative.

       The earliest of these, at first, seems benign enough: “Gays demand each other to be aesthetes, to care about their appearances. It makes them proud and distinguishes them from the rest. Condemned as sick and inferior by the bourgeoisie they try to be even more like them in order to wear away their feeling of guilt....They’re politically passive and conservative in gratitude for not being beaten to death.”  By the time it closes, beginning with the statement, “A homosexual relationship, as much as both partners want it, is doomed to fail,” almost anyone who has lived as a gay man, a lesbian, bisexual, or transgender individual for more than a couple of months should be already enraged with this movie. Fortunately, the narrative voice reappears celebrating the love of the two men who have just had sex in front of us.

       Given Clemens’ stated values it is not surprising that Daniel soon leaves the relationship to explore other kinds of sexual relationships and encounters. If these were presented simply as a series of narrative events we might almost see Daniel’s Pilgrim’s Progress in reverse or what might better be described as a Dantean voyage into Inferno as a fascinating study in male gay sexual variations. Daniel first hooks up with a wealthy art-collector, a man who surrounds himself with similar men who use their young boys as performing objects who they show off for their own and other’s pleasure. Certainly, Daniel learns immensely from his time with his “daddy,” now able to speak of art, music, and literature, but he soon realizes that he is himself like the subjects he as acquired, a “representation” of financial and social prestige instead of a human being to be treasured. One day, he realizes, he too might be sold off when the elder man grows tired of his accoutrement.

       Becoming a barista in a gay establishment, Daniel suddenly finds a new independence where he can become a regular in the gay culture he now inhabits. His daily pick-ups introduce him to a world based on, as Boto summarizes: “good looks, flirts, flings, dress codes” and geniality—a world defined, in short, by surfaces.

       By night he scours the gay bars and clubs where sex depends not only on the daylight charms and signals but on patience, waiting, and chance (as we have seen in films such as Ron Peck’s Nighthawks of 1978). Tired of those determinants, Daniel also begins to explore cruising in public parks, at leather men and their motorcycle hangouts, and in toilets (the favorite locale of the character in the aforementioned Taxi zum Klo).

     When all these fail to satisfy Daniel’s now seemingly insatiable sexual desires, he gathers with others from the various gay cliques we have already encountered—older gay men, motorcycle boys, drugged-out juveniles, transvestites, and transgender women at an after-hours club to sing, dance, and decompress. There he surprisingly runs into an old friend.       

    This seemingly endless struggle for sexual satiation, particularly given Daniel’s radical transformation from a handsome young man to a dead-eyed, hulking beast with outsized mutton-chopped sideburns might have been entertaining if only for its exploration of the limits of gay sexual expression if it were not for the increasingly rabid commentary of the voiceover evaluation of gay life that by the penultimate scene of the film has utterly infuriated any viewer who might have bothered to watch this work by Rosa von Praunheim—who adopted the female name Rosa as a testament to the pink triangles gay men were forced to wear in the Nazi Concentration Camps and took on the name Praunheim from the neighborhood in which he grew up—that might be best categorized as a moral manifesto.

       To give you a sense of the near hysteria that the anti-narrative accessors’ rant finally reaches, I’ve chosen a longish passage almost at random:

                    Most gays resemble the type of “nice guy” from a good family

                    who places great value on a masculine appearance. They lead a

                    double life, afraid of being outed as homosexuals. Their greatest

                    enemy is the flamboyant “fairy.” Fairies are effeminate homo-

                    sexuals who attempt to act like hysterical women. They wear

                    makeup and are the worst nightmare of the bourgeoisie and of

                    closeted gays who could be exposed by them. Fairies are not as

                    phony as bourgeois gays. Gays are often conceited, moody, and

                    jealous. Fairies overdo their gay attitudes and ridicule them. They

                    question society’s standards and show what it means to be gay.


And later, when Daniel begins to frequent pissoirs:

                    Public toilets are the most popular meeting points for homosexuals.

                   Gays who have trouble connecting are forced to have their first

                   homosexual experience in a public toilet. Being punished for their

                   homosexuality by society and left with a guilty conscience, many

                   have reduced their homosexuality strictly to sex. They stand side

                   by side in constant fear of discovery and finally if they pick some-

                   one up, they have to get off within seconds. A relationship directed

                   only to a man’s penis is for many gays the only kind of love-

                   making they know. They go from toilet to toilet constantly seeking

                   satisfaction, which, if they’re lucky, can only be found

                   compromised. Gays hold public toilets in low esteem. They

                   claim to despise “toilet-queers,” but secretly go there them-

                   selves if they don’t score in one of their fancy bars. Here

                   they appreciate the often “masculine laborer” kind of guys

                   who are not interested in hiding their lust underneath

                   fashion and good manners....

While any LGBTQ person would find these passages to be filled with stereotypical nonsense, we also cannot help but sense there is some element of truth behind these vociferous attacks. Why, we have to ask is the highly concerned gay activist von Praunheim saying all these things without putting them into any context?

     As one anonymous commentator writing on the Mubi site expressed it: “I don't get this. Is it supposed to be funny or is it just awkward incompetence. If you are not gay, this is bound to bore you to death, but if you are gay, do you really want Rosa von Praunheim to prattle on for over an hour about how fucked up gays are. I guess, if you see this at a public screening it's good laughs all around, whereas my main reaction was a deep gratefulness that the Seventies have long gone past.”

     At the after-hours club, the man whom our anti-hero Daniel met invites him home to the gay commune in which he lives. There five naked men, laying on the floor, patiently listen while Daniel describes his Berlin adventures. Boto nicely sums up the questions and answers they put to him:

“Who are these men? They seem some kind of radical collective, free love and hard politics (“erotically free and socially responsible”), who deliver an uncompromising diagnosis: Daniel has been living the sugar cotton dream of a faux sexually emancipated queer. Instead of becoming politically aware of his status and making use of it, he offered himself to frivolous hedonistic fantasies, deeply rooted in meaningless concepts—sex without responsibilities, fashion, bourgeois art and education, self-destructive vices etc. They preach a new way of being queer, consisting of responsible free love, political activism, togetherness with other oppressed minorities, an en masse coming out etc. Is this von Praunheim’s ideal of queers? It surely seems so. “Closeted gays must have the guts to come out. Fairies and leather men should end their feud and fight for their freedom side by side,” they tell Daniel. “Get out of the toilets, take to the streets,” von Praunheim concludes with full-screen cardboard signs.”

      If this is von Praunheim’s suggestion of how to erase all the slurs that he has previously posited against gays in the rest of film, I would argue the film is a total failure. What these men argue for is in many respects what had already begun to happen after Stonewall and by 1971 was being argued for in gay liberation meetings throughout the world. My husband Howard and I met at one in Madison, Wisconsin while presumably von Praunheim was shooting this work. Yet many of the major elements of his idealistic manifesto were simply impossible, given, first of all, that gay men and the entire LGBTQ community (the latter of which von Praunheim inexplicably ignores in his manifesto) are made up of a wildly diverse group of individuals not only in their sexual preferences—as the film has certainly revealed—but socially, financially, and intellectually as well, and given that fact such a purposeful paradise was simply impossible, even if many of this communes’ wishes were already granted.

     Gays with lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, and those who just don’t yet know or may never know where they stand with regard to sexual orientation, along with their parents and friends took to the streets. The vast majority of closeted gays came out over the next few decades. Fairies and leather men joined together in annual Gay Pride marches.

     But at the heart of it, sex, given the AIDS epidemic, even as “responsible” free love seemed a dangerous thing, although it is still practiced (sometimes not so responsibly). Contrarily, a large portion of the LGBTQ community fought for and entered into marriages which these five naked men might also have perceived as utterly bourgeois. Parks are still cruised, bathrooms still frequented when they exist. Blacks, Hispanics, and other people of color joined with gays when it was useful, but often found their needs and the ways to achieve them radically different from the LGBTQ agendas. If this concluding scene is why this film is still so very important today then I’d have to agree with the confused Mubi correspondent: “I’m glad the 1970s are over.”

     What von Praunheim really achieved was to create a narrative and attending commentary that functioned something like the sound of a drag queen’s fingernails scratching across the clapperboard of this film’s content. It drove us crazy; it made us mad; it helped us to sit up and ask questions we had long been afraid to ask. Those lazy nude men could say whatever they might, but we had already pricked up our ears and begun to fight.

      I’d like to see It Is Not the Homosexual all over again, but run backwards so that we might see Daniel dance through the urinals back into Clemens’ arms, but with the knowledge of all he had learned to tell his lover that a relationship is not at all what he had imagined it to be. For god’s sake, pull down that wallpaper, Clemens, and stroll with Daniel once again down the Ku'damm. Today it’s a different place. Now that would be a true pilgrim’s progress.

Los Angeles, January 26, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (January 2021).          

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