Category Archives: Rosa von Praunheim

A Virus Has No Morals (1986)

“Mother, what are you doing here? You were always a bit eccentric, but I didn’t realise that you were so perverse.”

A son meets his mother in a public toilet. Nurses on the graveyard shift throw the dice to see which AIDS patient will die next. A virologist uses dildos to demonstrate the effects of AIDS. This all happens in A Virus Has No Morals (AKA Ein Virus Kennt Keine Moral), Rosa von Praunheim’s satire about AIDS. A satire about AIDS!!!! Yes, you read that correctly. There are probably only a handful of directors who could pull this off successfully (John Waters leaps to mind). Rosa von Praunheim is a renegade German director who’s made a number of documentaries about AIDS, and his gay activism brought him death threats in his native Germany. Only someone with von Praunheim’s reputation as a fierce, unrelenting defender of gay rights could make this film and get away with it.

As its title suggests, A Virus Has No Morals argues that AIDS does not discriminate when it comes to infection (i.e. it’s not sent by some deity as a punishment). But when the film begins, we see several moral authorities who have various twisted beliefs about AIDS. The film’s moral authorities include: virologist, Dr. Blood, a therapist (Regina Rudnick) who believes that AIDS is psychosomatic, and a reporter (Eva Kurz) for the sleazy tabloid Purple Pages. Of course, their smug attitudes grant them a certain comfort. After all, if they are fine, upstanding, moral people, then they can’t have anything to worry about….

On the other side of the fence, in the face of infection, there are many who still think they are invulnerable–including a sauna owner (played by von Praunheim). He sees AIDS as detrimental to business, and he tries to dream up social events to encourage business.

By showing the entire spectrum of those involved one way or another with AIDS, von Praunheim illustrates the social dynamic of the disease. There are those who make money off of AIDS by sensationalizing it (the Purple Pagesreporter), and those who promise ‘cures’ (the therapist). Outraged by the “fascist medical regime,” a caring nurse forms a revolutionary group called AIDS (Angry, Sick, and Impotent Direct Action). Meanwhile as paranoia runs unchecked in the country, the Minister of Health draws up plans to start shipping AIDS patients to “ideal isolation” on an island for Quarantine. here AIDS patients will exist in a “post modern viral infection park,” with its own condom factory.

A Virus Has No Morals isn’t von Praunheim’s best film (my favourites are Neurosia and Anita: Dances of Vice), but it is typical von Praunheim fare–very colourful outrageous, and complete with a savage, riotous wit. Somehow, when I watch his films, I have the sensation that the situation is barely under control, but at the same time, it’s obvious that von Praunheim is having a great time making his films. Take for example, the sequences of von Praunheim’s version of Masque of the Red Death, scenes that are interjected into the middle of the film. It’s all von Praunheim madness and marvellous mayhem, and if you are a von Praunheim fan, you won’t mind a bit.

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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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“Bureaucracy only responds to pressure.”

“Positive” is one part of a trilogy of films about AIDS from German director and gay activist Rosa von Praunheim. In the year 1989, 100,000 people in the United States had AIDS and 22,000 lived in New York City, so Rosa von Praunheim travels to New York–the East Coast centre of the AIDS epidemic–to make his documentary. Hoping to list the assistance of a local filmmaker and journalist, AIDS afflicted Phil Zwickler, the two meet, and Zwickler questions why he should become involved with von Praunheim charging, “You make these voyeuristic nightmarish films.”

“Positive” charts how the gay community organized to help each other, gained public awareness, and battled the disease. The growth of the Gay Mens’ Health Crisis (GMHC) co-founded by author Larry Kramer showed that the gay community was “capable of organizing in face of government neglect.” Kramer acted as an early warning voice for gays when he predicted that AIDS would be seen as a “moralistic” result against promiscuity. The film also explores why Kramer’s warning was largely ignored and rejected throughout some strains of gay culture. According to the film, sexual encounters between gays had become a “sexless and cold commodity marked by self-hatred and fear of emotional closeness.” Kramer’s radical stance–especially against politicians–didn’t win him many points, and he was eventually tossed out of the GMHC.

The film takes a hard look at the manner in which AIDS was considered a ‘gay disease’ and its sufferers marginalized by such a sweeping judgment. Included are clips of Ronald Reagan and Mayor Koch on the topic of AIDS. (Koch is seen trying to avoid questions in a press conference.)

Unfortunately, the film distracts itself from its topic and takes many diversions. For example, while the voice-over narration explains the development of the first “safe-sex gay adult video”, we are shown more than a snippet of footage. Another section deals with the development of the gay phone sex industry. Well you learn something new every day … but that doesn’t mean an extensive, detailed reenactment is necessary. These diversions, unfortunately, go off on a tangent and detract from the film’s overall message, and the film suffers as a result.

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I Am My Own Woman

“Art had to compensate for Nature’s oversights.”

The German documentary, “I Am My Own Woman” from director Rosa von Praunheim explores the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Charlotte was born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, but he showed an interest in women’s clothing that eventually led to the adoption of a female name and identity. Beatings, WWII, the Stasi, and even skinheads–Charlotte survived it all–and eventually ran a museum devoted to the Grunderzeit period of 1880-1900.

Part interview and part reenactment, director von Praunheim uses several actors to portray Charlotte at various ages. In some scenes, the real Charlotte meets her fictional counterparts, and the situation becomes a teaching experience as Charlotte relates many of the atrocities she witnessed as she struggled to survive in WWII Germany. Recollections of The Euthanasia Programme mingle with Charlotte’s staunch refusal to participate in war. She admits in a shocked tone: “I would never put on a uniform or shoot at people.” In another scene, an outraged coworker tells Charlotte “last weekend you were seen at a party in women’s clothes.” The film also has its lighter moments–one of my favourite parts occurs when Charlotte crosses into West Germany using her male passport. The reenactment of the guard’s astonishment is both amusing and sympathetic.

Overall, however, while there’s no doubt that Charlotte led a fascinating life (and miraculously survived) to tell tales of violence and discrimination, the reenactments of her life are decidedly cheesy and this lessens the documentary’s power. This German language film with English subtitles is based on Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s autobiography.

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The Einstein of Sex (1999)

“Your name tops the list of Jewish criminals.”

The film’s unfortunate title The Einstein of Sex is one of the nicknames given to Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a Socialist German Jew whose pioneer studies in human sexuality came to a crashing halt when the Nazis took power. The Einstein of Sex charts Hirschfeld’s life from boyhood in the late 1800s, to his interest in the study of human sexuality, and then concentrates on his medical career.

The film does an excellent job of showing attitudes towards human sexuality at the end of the 19th century. Human subjects under scrutiny are treated abominably, and homosexuals are especially mistreated. German law (specifically Paragraph 175) stated that homosexuality was illegal, and after Hirschfeld encounters a homosexual who commits suicide due to the fear of exposure and blackmail, it becomes Hirschfeld’s goal to have this law repealed.

Hirschfeld battles prejudice, fear and ignorance in a society in which Prussian strains of militarism are deeply embedded. The plot also covers the German Youth Movement and the macho homosexual activist Herr Brand (Ben Becker). Hirschfeld struggles with his own preconceptions of homosexuality at many points, and locks horns with Brand–who believes in ‘outing’ prominent homosexuals to advance the cause.

The film’s production values leave a lot to be desired, and that’s a shame (I’d really like to give this film a higher rating due to its unusual and worthy content). The quality here is about what you’d expect from a televised play, and at times, it’s rather amateurish. Some of the acting is spotty–the scene at the club of transvestites is especially poor. Two actors play Hirschfeld as an adult–Kai Schuhmann plays the younger version, and Friedel von Wangenheim plays the middle-aged Hirschfeld; meanwhile, other characters do not age at all. The film’s quality distracts from the excellently conveyed texture and culture of Weimar’s Germany.

The film was at its best–and most powerful–in the final half hour. An interview with the engaging filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim is included in the DVD extras, and this interview is well worth watching. Von Praunheim explains that he adopted a feminine name, ‘Rosa’ in remembrance of the pink triangle homosexuals were forced to wear in concentration camps. In German with English subtitles.

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Anita: Dances of Vice (1987)

“I’m not even sure I’m here.”

I’d like to think that there are at least a dozen people on the planet who enjoyed Anita–Dances of Vice (Anita-Tanze des Lasters) as much as I did. With a ‘John Waters Meets German Silent Film Expressionism’ approach, director Rosa von Praunheim explores the brief and wild life of the notorious actress/dancer, Anita Berber. In scandalous no-holds barred Weimar Berlin, Berber was considered the wildest and most excessive of them all. Berber–who was addicted to numerous substances–died of Tuberculosis in 1928. Von Praunheim’s brilliant, provocative film begins on the streets of modern Berlin as the plump, elderly Frau Kutowski (Lotti Huber) begins stripping in front of an appalled–yet fascinated–crowd. The tubby old lady (who looks remarkably like an escapee from a John Waters film) loudly proclaims that she’s Anita Berber, and she takes off her clothes to prove it. She ends up in a mental hospital still insisting she’s the infamous dancer.

Scenes flash back and forth between Anita Berber’s life in the 20s and Frau Kutowski in the mental hospital. Von Praunheim takes an interesting approach–the scenes of Anita’s life in the 20s are conducted in silent film fashion. There are no spoken words–just the text at the bottom of the screen, and the scenes are announced in silent film style. Unlike silent film, however, the scenes of Anita’s life are shot in bold colour–scarlet ostrich plumes, turquoise beads, purple silks, but the actors (even though they are filmed in colour) still carry the silent film look–heavy eye makeup, and all the action is accompanied by strident piano music. Anita (Ina Blum) is shown performing her scandalous nude dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy, turning to prostitution to support her habits, whooping it up with lover Droste (Mikael Honesseau), and smashing champagne bottles over the heads of audience members.

Scenes depicting the madness and decadence of the 20s are in stark contrast to the sections depicting the sterility of the mental hospital. The mental hospital represents the depository of German ideology, and in one scene Decadence (Anita/Kutowski) clashes with Marxism (a patient who thinks she’s Rosa Luxemburg). Frau Kutowski almost causes a riot when she incites the patients with one of her dances, and when the staff threatens to sedate her, she is delighted by the prospect and begins demanding stronger stuff. Accosting the orderlies, and molesting the doctors, she claims, “My revolution is to smash all restraints.”

Adding to the film’s complications, the actress playing Anita Berber also plays Frau Kutowski’s nurse, and the actor playing Droste also plays the role of the doctor. This little known film from German director Rosa von Praunheim is a gloriously creative, surrealistic masterpiece–but with its avant-garde approach and emphasis on the grotesque and the bizarre, it’s not for all tastes. With a great performance by Lotti Huber, Anita: Dances of Vice is in German with English subtitles.

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Neurosia (1995)

 “This was Rosa von Praunheim’s favourite public convenience.”

neurosiaNeurosia: 50 years of Perversion (AKA Neurosia: Who Killed Rosa von Praunheim?, Neurosia-50 Jahre Pervers) is a hilarious, original and bold film from German director Rosa von Praunheim. When the film begins, von Praunheim–in a pink tuxedo–takes the stage and presents his film biography to a booing, hissing audience. He argues that while most people wait until someone is dead or in a coma before making a biographical film of a subject, he decided to film his own story while he is still alive and gorgeous. As he stands in the spotlight, he is shot, there’s a police raid, and after the pandemonium recedes, von Praunheim’s body disappears.

Nosy television journalist, Gesine Ganzmann-Seipel (Desiree Nick) is assigned a series investigating von Praunheim’s murder. Disapproving of von Praunheim’s lifestyle, she starts poking into the infamous director’s past, fingering through his personal belongings, befriending his mother, his auntie and interviewing a legion of complaining ex-lovers. The film is peppered with colourful characters–including actors who claim they’ve been ripped off by von Praunheim, a transvestite who conducts a mock funeral (only two people attend), and a hairdresser whose naked torso sports only sparkles and bizarre body jewelry. (The hairdresser’s poodle–by the way–is better dressed than his owner).

As Gesine investigates and presents her series on von Praunheim, she’s prone to her own imagination and the exaggeration of stereotyping. Her quest to discover the truth takes her from the public toilets of Berlin, to a dream journey through the New York club scene, and finally into the devious heart of the notorious and decadent Pink Army Faction. Gesine concludes that “everything sick, driven, and degenerate fascinated” von Praunheim and the consensus of the German film industry is that this renegade director–whose 50+ films are “all amateurish, naive, and appallingly dilettantish” will “go to hell for the bad films he made.”

While Neurosia: 50 Years of Perversion is extremely funny, there’s also a serious thread through the film. It’s practically impossible here to separate the truth from the rumours that abound regarding von Praunheim–“Germany’s most hated homosexual.” The film includes footage of von Praunheim–one of Germany’s leading Gay Rights activists–in New York in the 70s. And there are clips of Andy Warhol, Divine and various Gay Rights parades. Von Praunheim certainly doesn’t let the gravity of the subject of Gay Liberation detract from the merriment he clearly has as he makes fun of his own life and reputation. If you are a fan of von Praunheim, then you must see this film. It’s a wonderful, bizarre blend of fact and fiction, modesty and hyperbole, reality and fantasy. Von Praunheim pulls out all the stops in this marvelous film–hijacking the negative aspects of his life (such as hate mail and death threats), and making it part of his own hilarious, unique history. Few directors could subsume their ego to art in quite the fashion he does, and the final scene–including its big musical number is proof of exactly how far he’ll go for a laugh. Bravo, Rosa! In German with English subtitles.

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