Silence = Death (1990)

“Death and dying followed us through filming.”

Silence=Death is one part of a trilogy of films on the subject of AIDS from German director Rosa von Praunheim. Von Praunheim, a prominent Gay Rights activist in Germany creates a film that focuses on the impact of AIDS on the artistic community of New York. According to von Praunheim–continued silence about the devastating effects of the virus results in ignorance and more deaths–hence the film’s title: Silence=Death.

Von Praunheim interviews those dying, those newly diagnosed, and those left behind after the loss of a loved one. One interview includes the poet Allen Ginsburg as he shares his feelings about being gay in an AIDS inflicted world. Ginsburg states that “the planet itself has AIDS” and draws comparisons between the symptoms of the virus and ecological damage and devastation wreaked upon the planet.

Many of those interviewed express feelings of anger and isolation, and stress how the disease effectively silenced and alienated them. One man describes rage when hearing the callous statements of several politicians–another man describes joining an AIDS support group and seeing all the other members die. Interviews with artists underscore the idea that many feel the desire to “leave something” behind. Von Praunheim takes the camera to a showing of the AIDS quilt–an event that leaves most viewers devastated by a sense of loss. The film also explores how many artists are galvanized by their experiences with AIDS and feel socially obligated to convert concern, thoughts, and rage into their work. Poets, performance artists, models are included in clips in a range of activities. One man reluctantly agrees to show the paintings of his dead brother to von Praunheim while simply and eloquently explaining how AIDS altered his brother’s work.

The films in von Praunheim’s trilogy are considered some of the most important documentaries on the subject of AIDS. But that doesn’t make them particularly easy to watch. Some of the scenes are extremely graphic and shocking (one scene is of a mouth sewn shut while blood oozes out of the wounds). Silence=Death was made in 1990, and AIDS awareness has increased sufficiently to make much of this material rather dated. Nonetheless, this 60-minute film gives a historical perspective to AIDS, and this continues to make it valuable.


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Filed under Documentary, German, Rosa von Praunheim

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