With gentle, serene images, Paola Calvo’s documentary Violently Happy offers a glimpse inside Schwelle 7, choreographer Felix Ruckert’s sun-drenched physical performance space in Wedding – a space where all kinds of experimental body practices, from the spiritual to the sexual, unfolded until it shut its doors in 2016. Violently Happy features members of the community and Ruckert himself talking about their lives, ideas and BDSM desires, as well as depicting Schwelle 7's activities: myriad bodies involved in everything from meditation to mass orgy. A snapshot of Berlin sexual freedom and experimentation, the film plays at Moviemento through February 15.
So what exactly was Schwelle 7?
To me, it’s a playground for adults. It’s about having fun through sex and role play. And, like in kids’ play, sometimes you bruise your knee and get hurt a little. To me, it was primarily about having fun, more than about inflicting pain or being hurt. It’s a hedonistic place, but neither Felix nor me would describe ourselves as hedonists.
How did you come across it?
I had a friend who kept telling me to go and take a look. I wasn’t interested, even from an aesthetic point of view. He was so insistent that I agreed at some point, but the thought of it still made me super nervous. I went for Xplore, the festival on the art of lust, which they used to host there. There were different workshops going on, some sexual, some not so much. I remember taking part in one workshop that involved crawling over naked bodies on your knees. That was really when all my prejudice disappeared. I’d never experienced anything similar to how pleasantly and respectfully these people at Schwelle got together.
How did you manage to replicate this kind of intimacy on screen?
That’s something that I didn’t do by myself. It only worked so well because the intimacy had time to develop, between the protagonists and the camera. The film started out as a really small project in 2012, as I began studying cinematography. I planned to film there with a small crew, but it quickly became clear that even a small crew would be a hindrance. In the end, it was just me, alone with a camera, sneaking round Schwelle like a little cat. Between 2012 and 2014, I came and went as I pleased, sometimes three times a day, sometimes only for half an hour. I had absolute freedom, maybe also because at that time nobody thought anything was going to come of it.
So everybody was fine with you filming in there?
No, of course, there were many people who didn’t want to be shown. Schwelle was a place for the kinds of experiments which, in most other settings, wouldn’t be accepted: body experiments, BDSM... Luckily, our society offers the possibility of living with multiple identities. Some people want to keep their interest strictly private, and that’s fine. There was a point at which people actually suggested everyone wear masks. But the film wouldn’t have worked that way. I wanted to show what actually happens. So naturally, it took me some time to identify the people I was able to work with. After a while, Mara, who’s a sex worker, and Felix crystallised as two of the main protagonists since they were particularly good in interacting with the camera and very articulate about what they were doing.
This is your first proper film as a director, but you've done some camera work in the past... had you already worked with naked bodies and sex before?
Yes and no. I’ve long been interested in how films portray sexuality. My application to film school was very sexual and explicit, but in an artsy way. I’ve never made porn films, though I think that they’re important in that they inspire many people to explore their own sexualities. I wouldn’t say Violently Happy is pornographic though. Basically, film is a way to transmit emotions, and that can include sexual attraction.
Somebody wrote that, in your film, the camera becomes another toy for the protagonists to play with. Maybe that’s what makes it seem a little pornographic – it’s like it’s adding another kick.
That’s a very good comparison. Generally, a camera will change the situation. It always has a very immediate impact So there’s no objective representation of reality. As a result, filming is only a certain look at things, and it’s always very personal. Mara said that the camera made a new level of reflection possible for her. It made her more conscious of what was going on.
Despite the fact that it’s all supposed to be a game, the people you show seem ultra serious about what they do...
Actually, I think that the people at Schwelle are all very humorous. But of course, at the same time, they have chosen to give these experiments a lot of room in their life. When people invest a lot of time and energy into playing with their own boundaries, it’s automatically going to seem serious from the outside. I didn’t experience it in that way at all.
It seems that the film is doing quite well – there's an interest in alternative sexual practices that wouldn’t have existed even 10 years ago, when Felix left the art world. Both of the film's premiere screenings in January sold out...
I’m really surprised that it’s been so well received. It’s important that these kinds of things are finally being discussed. And it’s really not about getting everybody to try them out; it’s about familiarising people with certain practices and getting them to tolerate them.
Do you think of BDSM, and the other things that the film shows, as normal?
I am convinced, and here I quote Felix, that if people had the opportunity to act out their violent impulses in a safe environment, the world would be a better place. Of course it doesn’t need to be BDSM. It can be sport or it can be dance. If all people would do that, our society would be a healthier one. For now, not everyone is so open to it: My mother, for example, hated the film and said it made her sick. My father just fell asleep.