by Douglas Messerli
Alexander Ziegler and Wolfgang Petersen (screenplay), Wolfgang Petersen (director) Die Konsequenz (The Consequence) / 1977
In the context of today’s absolute hysteria concerning adult/child sex, particularly in the US, German director Wolfgang Petersen, creating the script from a book by Swiss author Alexander Ziegler begins his highly intelligent and emotionally wrenching 1977 film, Die Konsequenz (The Consequence) with a highly improbable hero, Martin Kurath (Jürgen Prochnow), a gay actor/director who has just been arrested and imprisoned for having had a sexual relationship with a 15-year old boy.
We learn nothing about that relationship, but through the events that occur throughout this film, we presume that there had to be extenuating circumstances and that the boy had consensually participated in their affair.* Yet, given his guilt in the German courts and perhaps the minds of most respectable adults throughout the world, Martin is a child abuser if not a “pervert.” And there is no one on the prison staff who sympathizes with him, he suffering their disdain along with the hostility of several of his fellow inmates.
Once imprisoned, Martin is approached by a fellow intern attempting to convince him to direct his play within the confines of the prison, a task to which Martin rather reluctantly agrees. His cast made up mostly of prisoners, one playing a female role, also includes the handsome young son, Thomas Manzoni (Ernst Hannawald) of the prison warden (Walo Lüönd). The 17-year old teenager—he tells Martin that his father demands he get a job instead of starting college in the fall, hinting that he is at least of 16, but more likely 17—recognizes himself as gay and immediately develops a crush on the director, despite the warnings of the prison snitch that he should stay away from Martin since he is “queer.”
The next night Martin, upon returning from rehearsals, finds the almost giddy boy hiding in his prison cell. He immediately warns Thomas of the dangers, but the boy is so hungry for affection that he refuses to leave—besides his father won’t miss him, argues Thomas, since he gets drunk every evening and his mother takes sleeping pills (the boy insists that his father by this time in their bitter marriage has probably even forgotten his wife’s name)—and once the cell has been locked the two are forced to spend the night together, beginning a romantic liaison that includes Thomas providing Martin with a image of himself and secret letters, the boy assuring the elder that we will wait for his release from jail.
The open alliance of the young son of the homophobic leader of an institution with an older resident reminds me somewhat of Swedish directors’ Lasse Nielsen and Ernst Johansen’s film of a year later, You Are Not Alone (1978), in which an even younger boy, son of the rektor of the school, falls in love with a senior student.
Although Martin might have been released early for good behavior, the prison snitch sees Martin reading the boy’s letters, forcing the prison head to extend Martin’s sentence for the full two and a-half years to which he has been sentenced. Indeed, Thomas is waiting for him upon Martin’s release, the two overjoyed in the possibility of embarking upon the full expression of their heretofore thwarted love.
Even though Thomas is now clearly of age, Martin wants still to enter their relationship with openness and honesty, and insists the two vision the Manzoni family, despite Thomas’ warnings. The meeting is not only hostile, with the prison warden insisting that Martin is attempting to “covert” his son to his own sexuality—this despite the boy’s insistence that he is gay and has long been so—and ends in the father severing all connections to his son.
What those who pretend to desire normative societal values seldom recognize is that in delimiting outsider behavior they also help to destroy and corrupt their own supposed social values. In this instance, Thomas’ parents obtain a warrant to return their son as their ward to be incarcerated in a Swiss reformatory. Despite Martin’s attempts to prevent the action, his own past imprisonment only hardens the judge to side in favor of the Manzonis.
Outwardly, the reform school appears to be almost a model of educational enlightenment, but once within, Thomas perceives that there are no choices in this supposed “educational” institution. Under the “guidance” of the sadist counselor Diethelm, Erzieher (Werner Schwuchow), Thomas is offered a chance to become an arborist, but when he refuses, Diethelm sentences him to the infamous Ward “C,” where harsh discipline replaces any attempt at friendly persuasion, and where some boys have committed suicide from the harshness of their treatment.
Thomas temporarily escapes to call Martin, only to discover that neither of them have received any of the letters they have written to one another. Martin begins to outline a wild plan to help Thomas escape the confines of the reformatory only to have the conversation interrupted by his recapture by Diethelm, who later punishes the boy by putting out a cigarette on his back.
Martin’s plan is to buy the fraudulent passport of a Swiss psychiatrist—for which payment is demanded in the form of sexual favors, again suggesting the corruption the two “innocents” must endure to enable them their would-be idyll—which permits him entry into the company of the boys locked away in the reformatory. He finds his beloved friend in almost comatose condition, psychologically effected by Diethelm’s Nazi-like control.
We see just one of the punishments imposed upon the sensitive Thomas as he is forced to join the other boys on their weekly trip to a nearby shed wherein a young girl, Babette (Elisabeth Fricker) willingly awaits to be gang-fucked. The boys attempt to enforce the heterosexual, so-called normative sexual encounter upon Thomas who successfully battles them off. Petersen and Ziegler make it clear that the true criminals are not necessarily the loving gay men who seek the companionship of a younger male, but the brutal “normal” kids simply venting their pent-up sexual desires, an act of which Diethelm thoroughly approves. If Babette, who must be even younger than 15, does not represent sexual abuse then certainly Martin’s nurturing love cannot be described as such.
Martin’s plan almost succeeds, as the two, meeting up in Germany seek out the help of a lower official in the German government to allow them a permit to remain together in Germany. Yet we recognize what these true innocents only gradually begin suspect: that even here they are being betrayed as the official first suggests they visit his estate, where he obsequiously exhibits a heterosexual sex tape for them, part of his larger porno collection.
The next day, he suggests that Martin travel back to his play rehearsals, while he travels on to Bonn with Thomas to settle things with the authorities. Yet Thomas never appears at Martin’s theater, only calling him again months later to say that he has been forced to be the lover of the government figure, but has finally been abandoned and has worked even as a male prostitute. To these two men seeking love, even the gay world has taken advantage of them. Authority of any sort, given their relationship, cannot be trusted.
Recognizing that none of their good intentions have come to anything, Thomas is prepared to return to the reform school and suffer it out. Surely it cannot be worse than what he has previously had to endure. Before Martin can even begin to try to convince him to return to him, the boy has hung up.
Time goes on, and Martin has by now
acquired a lover of his own age. The ring of his doorbell throughout this film has
come almost to symbolize unhappy news, so when it again rings, Martin lets his
friend answer it. The boy at the door, Enrico, a school-friend of Thomas, is
startled to find another man at the door, but when he finally is admitted tells
Martin that Thomas is about to be
Martin meets Thomas at the train station near the school, taking him home only discover that his beloved young lover is now nearly alcoholic, bitter, and utterly cynical about their being any possible future between him and Martin. Apologizing for his actions, he leaves Martin apparently forever.
We already know—since we witnessed the scene early in the film, which, from that perspective has presented the rest of the film as a sort of flashback—what happens. Having taken an overdose of pills, Thomas falls into a lake, to be saved, Martin brought to his side again, after the police ring his doorbell once too many times. Thomas does not respond to Martin’s voice this time, and the convicted former child-abuser can honestly answer the hostile suspicions of authorities: he knows nothing about why Thomas has done this. Yet of course he knows everything, but what can be said: how the bourgeois world with all their good intentions have driven the handsome young boy with whom fell in love to attempted suicide.
The doctors diagnose deep depression, but suggest that after a few weeks in their institution he is sure to recover. Over the TV Martin hears a late night report: a young man institutionalized at a mental sanitorium has disappeared. The public is warned that if they see him to approach and “treat him gently.”
Obviously, you can interpret the lost boy’s condition as representing “the consequence” of what Martin and he have done by plotting out a life different from the societal norm. Yet those words depend upon from which perspective you are looking. I would argue that Thomas’ condition is instead “the consequence” of no one except Martin ever treating him gently, let alone with empathy, sympathy, or love. Labeled as rebels simply for loving one another, Thomas and Martin, like Nicolas Ray’s characters Jim Stark and the boy who loved him, Plato, had no particular “cause” for which to fight except for the dignity of their own lives.**
*One needs to comprehend that the law under which Martin was convicted is far from consistent in German history. Since the penal law reform of 1994—which we might imagine was influenced, in part, by this film—the age of consent is 14 “as long as a person over the age of 21 does not exploit a 14- to 15-year-old person's lack of capacity for sexual self-determination, in which case a conviction of an individual over the age of 21 requires a complaint from the younger individual.” However, male homosexuality was illegal since 1872, and was only legalized in 1969. In 1975, the age of consent was changed to 18 years of age, and the seduction of an “unblemished girl under the age of 16” was prosecuted upon complaint of parents or a legal guardian only. Yet male homosexuals could be prosecuted if the offender was over 21. Martin’s crime had as much to do with his gay sexuality as with the age of the boy with whom he evidently had sex.
**Ziegler’s and Pettersen’s work is almost a mirror image of John Henry Mackay’s 1926 German fiction, Der Puppenjunge, also about man-boy love. The older man in this fiction, Hermann Graff and his young boy hustler Gunther’s brief love affair ends up very similarly as the young boy is imprisoned (also twice) and returns from Berlin to his rural homestead, as I wrote in a 2015 review of that title, “having been left, through his incarceration, without any will or desire; a walking dead man, he has been destroyed not through the sexual attentions of his johns, but through the inattentions of the prison system.”
Los Angeles, January 3, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (January 2021).