Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Wiktor Grodecki | Tělo bez duše (Body without Soul)

the lost boys

by Douglas Messerli

Wiktor Grodecki (writer and director) Tělo bez duše (Body without Soul) / 1996

Grodecki’s second film in his trilogy (Not Angels but Angels, 1994; Body without Soul, 1996; and Mandragora, 1997) of young gay Czech prostitutes—or hustlers as many of them who define themselves as heterosexual prefer describe themselves—begins simply with the boys, aged 14-17, simply introducing themselves and admitting to their “professions.” Slowly the interviewer gets them to begin  describing how them got involved with being a prostitute, and most of them seem ready to describe their situation involving running away from home, being kicked out of their houses for being gay or criminal activities, or losing their parents to death and winding up, for these and other reasons in the Prague railroad station sex shop, nearby video arcades, the Podolí swimming pools, or nightclubs like the Riviera where they are met by homosexual tourists who lure them into their beds, meet up with other boys who tell them how to pick up strangers, or are scouted by pimps who offer them what they are all seeking and very much in need of, money.

     They seldom get paid what they are told they might, although some of the scores of mostly German, Swiss, Austrian, and Dutch gay tourists do pay them fairly, mostly for a quick blow job but others demanding and even forcing, if the boy insists he is straight as most of them do, anal sex. But almost all of them seem in Grodecki’s earliest interviews to be now well accustomed and even somewhat “adjusted” to their roles as quick sex pickups for male tourists. Prague is one vast brothel, as one of the boys says late in the film, and they are there, under the terms of the capitalist system, to give pleasure to those of the tourists searching for young boys. Several of them even knowingly bemoan the fact that since the younger, sometimes pre-puberty street boys are willing to do anything for less, that they have had to bring down their own prices. 

      Some writers have described the boys as appearing glum, dour, or doomed, but in these earlier sequences I would simply say they are aware of the lives—depending upon the charity of your viewpoint—they chose or was forced upon them. Some of them are clearly more alert and less seeming drugged-out than others, and some of the boys are particularly intelligent in their comments, one of them asserting that even if they mostly claim to be heterosexuals, they are clearly, given the vast number of men they weekly service, either bisexual or gay. One hold-out, who declares he is not only heterosexual but hates homosexuals “I don’t like the fact that homosexuals exist. The Bible tells us that Adam and Eva had children. If they were homosexuals they couldn’t have any children.”) admits to having had sex 200 men, and when asked how many girls, answers: “Four.”

       One might instead of describing them as doomed—which of course they most certainly are given the fact that in a couple of years or so these boys will no longer be of interest for the tourists with money—I would describe almost all of them as deluded. Although some of them do use condoms with their customers, others argue that there the Czech Republic doesn’t have much AIDS, or that they don’t fear death,  or that AIDS is simply a myth, or somehow since they don’t allow themselves to be fucked, but only swallow, they’ll be safe. While at the same time Grodecki speaks to one of their friends who has tested positive for AIDS, facing his death now for a year as he speaks from a prone position in bed, unable to explain how he got the disease, suggesting it was perhaps from the movies.

       Indeed, it is only when these boys begin to open up about their meager earnings from  appearing in movies by the well know Czech director Roman Hysek—who appears to be in jail during the filming of the movie for soliciting underage boys for his films—and Pavel Rousek, who goes under the name of Hans Miller in the German world where his reedited and rescripted movies are finally released. Most  of the boys interviewed have also worked for these directors, particularly Rousek who grinds out several each month paying the boys paltry wages, no condom protection (demanded by his German audience), lots of bullying behavior and even punches and slugs in turn for their on-screen nakedness, kissing, sucking, fucking, and for the lead the bottom position of being fucked.

       If at first we might simply see this porn maker as part of the horrific money-making machine is never fully paid the usual 6000 DM promised, and has out of that money to pay for film, the boys, their food, drugs, and other costs—at least as Rusek tells it. He is near poverty he insists, sending away his wife and daughter to the several days that he spends with the boys filming them in the family bed. Some of the boys, those he defines as criminals as opposed to the more pliable exhibitionists, rob him while on the job of lightbulbs and other camera devices useless to them.

       But gradually, as the boy hustlers begin to describe what a standard “shoot” is like and we hear Rousek tell of his own activities we begin to see him for the monster he truly is. Rousek evidently not only has the boys first suck off him, offering them alcohol, drugs, and constant abuse in order to keep them horny and able to function on demand, but we lose all sympathy as we recognize the master manipulator from the moment he meets the boys, takes them for several days on a drunken spree to loosen them up, forces them to sign agreements with clauses claiming that if they force a reshoot (i.e. unable to perform or look up at the camera they will have to pay for the entire film), demands they provide evidence, even if sometimes obviously fraudulent that they are of the age consent (in the Czech Republic it is 15), and bullies them into his inane plots revolving around lost street boys, sex in chicken coops, a  young robber sexually attacked by his would-be victims, etc. 

      Slowly he admits not only to his love of control, seeing his “actors” as even some known beloved Hollywood directors have described them as being like cattle or bodies to move around and manipulate. Working with teenagers, he suggests, you have to psychologically control them demonstrating time and again the possible punishments if they complain or behave otherwise than commanded.

      In their first denuding and group showering, the boys themselves seem to check over one another’s bodies for any sign of a red or dark mark on their otherwise nearly flawless skin, determining amongst their peers which one might be willing to be a “bottom” and therefore the lead of the film.

       When Rusek reveals to the camera that his primary job is that of an autopsy worker at the morgue who is only to ready to invite the director’s camera to follow him into his workspace as he almost gleefully takes up a knife and cuts upon an entire cadaever, himself admitting that he is not wearing garments  required for full protection.

       I resented, at first, Grodecki’s intercuts of Rusek’s almost reckless cutting apart of human body parts and his direction behind the camera of one of his porno scenes, where the fictional “robber” lies on a couch naked, pretending sleep while his intended  “victims” sneak up to fondle him, suck him off, and otherwise use him as a piece of sexual meat. But Rusek himself seems to reiterate the analogies in his own commentary, and later when Grodecki returns to interviewing the boys one-on-one, they describe themselves as bodies for sale, given up for temporary use by others, so much empty meat sold to the tourists. One young man argues that when he sells his body it’s the entire body, if someone likes my legs I won’t cut those off for him.

      For Rusek, so he claims, there is no soul. But for almost all these previously almost illiterate hustlers, there is indeed something they call a soul which they keep apart from their bodies, that provides them with hope that they are more than simply toys for their johns. Some are proud to be unable to fall in love with any of their customers. Others insist that they save their love only for friends, on in one case for a wife with whom he lives with his male lover, insisting that he is justified in occasionally lying to his wife while claiming he is ever honest to his boyfriend, suggesting even to himself that perhaps he loves him more than her. Others are amazed to hear some prostitutes claim that after a few days of paid accompaniment they might even fall in love with their customers, knowing that it’s truly only money that they truly love when it comes to the men who take their bodies temporarily away from them. A couple of the more sophisticated boys recognize that life is only a theater in which they are acting; but one shy boy can only wonder that he has not yet discovered his role in the play.

       One boy admits he has continued to love only one man he has encountered, although the individual may not know it since he has treated him badly. That person he quietly confesses, after a few minutes, is his father.

       Sadly, they need monsters like Rusek as surely as he needs them since in the society in which they live there is apparently to one to whom they can turn for help out of the financial quagmire into which the system has thrown them. One can only imagine that, metaphorically speaking, their bodies will also soon be sacrificed along with what is left of their souls to the street-bin equivalent of the large plastic trash container where Rusek throws, after quick inspection, his cut-up body parts.

       As one anonymous commentator (using only the handle Berry) on this film observed:

 “When Paris is Burning [Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary] concludes, one can simply find the whereabouts of the people featured with a quick Google search. The results aren't always perfect, but you have some closure as to how close they came to their dreams and aspirations before it came to an abrupt conclusion. Streetwise [Martin Bell’s 1994 documentary] is lesser known, but there's an entire section on its Wikipedia article and Facebook group dedicated to answering what happened to the runaways and delinquents. How this relates to Body Without Soul is that it's the most elusive level of obscurity. Therefore, hearing these stories, watching these events, and digesting them long after the film ended becomes more soul-crushing in the realization that there's no information on the subjects. No trace exists to the point that you'd think they never existed, and worst of all, consequences for the monster who feeds off of the youth presented are ambiguous. That's where it becomes startling cinema.” 

Los Angeles, November 3, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2021).


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