Rosa Von Praunheim and the Limits of Provocation

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Until its last ten minutes, there is nothing in It is Not the Homosexual Who is Perverse, but the Situation in Which He Lives resembling a political program. Daniel, the protagonist of Rosa Von Praunheim’s ironic soap opera, sits on bed facing a group of men, whose number and state of undress increase with each cut. They exhort him to turn away from self-destructive, antisocial cruising or delusions of bourgeois domesticity and harness the  radical potential of his gay identity. To boycott exploitative bars, join with blacks and women, and refuse to be ashamed by his difference. Praunheim heads off any suggestion of puritanism with the woozy eroticism of the image. These men are comfortable with their desires, they appear happy and free. But after watching Praunheim rain abuse on Daniel for almost an hour, it is unconvincing. We meet him as a naive young man new to Berlin from the country. He establishes a monogamous relationship with Clemens, the first guy to pick him up, but soon grows bored with their imitation of respectability. He ends things with Clemens and indulges the relative freedoms granted him by the anonymity of the city and the recent decriminalization of homosexuality. He picks up strangers in bars, fucks in public bathrooms, dates a rich old man, and gives himself to a group of bikers in the park. Instead of satisfying him, each encounter leads to humiliation or regret. The sex is diverting, but Daniel is still lonely. Trapped in his position by societal approbation, he is unable to really connect with anyone. Each incident occurs in stilted tableau, often revealed in a similar shot pattern. The camera starts close to the action, surveying things in deliberately clumsy movements. It eventually zooms or tracks backwards,  giving us the establishing shot halfway through the scene, and finally makes its way back to actors as awkwardly as it had left them, the pathetic denouement played out in claustrophobic framings of abstracted bodies and objects. We hear dialogue entirely in asynchronous voice over, the actors using exaggerated tones to mock their characters’ motivations. Alternating with this on the soundtrack is a direct address from an unidentified narrator. He describes the scene before him, diagnosing every one of Daniel’s missteps and foibles as a symptom of the the “faggot’s”1 internalized self-hatred.  Praunheim’s distancing tactics make every action absurd, surreal. Daniel is strange to himself and the audience. After the first couple sequences, the small tragedies become inevitable, and every moment is underscored with dread. Instead of refusing our identification with his characters, Praunheim’s Brechtian moves make Daniel’s loneliness and confinement more real. The film devotes so much energy to breaking us down that the call to arms at its conclusion feels paltry. The sadness and anger that inspired its production are overwhelming.

Praunheim isn’t concerned with providing solutions. He wants to pick a fight. And in it’s original context, It is Not the Homosexual… was an effective but complicated provocation. Many films that purport to shock their audience into response reek of cynical self-justification. Praunheim’s movie actually shocked people. It aired on German television shortly after the repeal of the Nazi-era ban of homosexuality, and the movie’s most vocal detractors were not straights offended by its open depections of gay sex, but gay people who felt Praunheim should not have aired his grievances to a mass audience. On Saturday he showed footage from the q-and-a’s that followed the movie’s screening at the GAA Firehouse in 1972. Much of the crowd is enraged, questioners accuse Praunheim of selling out the fledgling gay community, pandering to heterosexuals who will overlook his intent and see only a reflection of their own loathing. But this is Praunheim’s real audience right here. By loudly complaining in public, he forces the conversation about ethics and the meaning of gay identity that he wanted. While the movie never fully satisfies the political questions it poses, it makes the issues those questions address manifest and urgent. Pruanheim’s brutality and directness leave no room for ambivalence.

But if Purchase It is Not the Homosexual… Cheap proves the potential value of this kind of filmic assault, it also shows how easily the trick wears out. The group at UnionDocs on Saturday responded very differently than the people in Praunheim’s 37-year-old footage. The movie is brash, but it’s efficacy is delicate. It was successful because it was perfectly pitched at a specific group of people at a crucial hour. The stakes have lowered, not because the problems it tackles have been resolved, but because it has become a speciality item: the viewer has a pretty good sense of what they’re in for and of who else is watching. The movie safely situated in the past, the emotional vividness of Praunheim’s complaint has overshadowed his plea to do something about it. There is so much bluster in any discussion of a film’s ability to incite spectators to passionate response. It is Not the Homosexual Who is Perverse, but the Situation in Which He Lives is the perfect test case. It illustrates the form’s capacity to change the world as persuasively as the constraints on that power.

1 This is how Praunheim’s word schwule Order is rendered in the English version. Ger Zielinski pointed out on Saturday has been transformed by gay usage. Today the slur by which the narrator addresses the audience is perhaps better translated as “queer”.


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