A reputation for sexual tolerance, low rents and a hungry consumer market might make Berlin the perfect place for producing porn, but the city’s pornographers say their lives are anything but easy. It seems that in Berlin, where prostitution is legal and fetish nightlife a ritual, turning tricks is a lot easier than turning a profit.
Eighty percent of Germans say they have consumed porn; a quarter have a porn film at home. In Berlin, people and porn are even closer. Every year the Venus International Erotic Trade Fair brings in thousands of porn enthusiasts, last year a record 29,000.
In October the fifth Berlin Porn Film Festival screened 120 films and hosted 100 filmmakers from around the world. Multi-level, multi-purpose sex shops are easy to find. But does Berlin’s tolerance of all things kinky translate into a thriving homegrown industry?
In 1978 Jürgen Brüning, the future founder of two porn studios and the Berlin Porn Film Festival, left his hometown Bad Honnef on the Rhine for the decadence of West Berlin. “There was such a creative energy here at the time,” he recalls. “People wanted to be ‘alternative’.”
He shot his first porn in a squatter-run building in post-Wall East Berlin. “When we told them it was gay porn, they said, ‘Okay.’ They wouldn’t have let us if we were doing straight porn.”
The worldwide porn industry exploded in the mid-1990s as technology was standardized. Some filmmakers saw an opportunity to spread an artistic vision, while others saw a moneymaking opportunity.
Brüning founded Cazzo Film (Italian for “cock”) in 1996 with Jörg Andreas. Their goal was an authentic portrayal of Berlin’s gay subculture. “Everyone knows porn actors can’t act. It’s just embarrassing when they try. So we wanted to focus on the atmosphere, with colors and light and music, but no dialogue,” he says.
They teamed up with Canadian director Bruce LaBruce, to try to inject more art into their films. Wurstfilm, Brüning’s studio since 2003, produces six films per year, though this year he expects to do less. “We shoot scenes, then package them as a DVD. That’s the business now,” he sighs.
Kaviar und sekt
In his 2009 book Alles über Porno! Berlin-based writer Marcel Feige laments the international opinion of Germany’s porn industry, quoting American Seth Grahame-Smith’s The Big Book of Porn: “More shit flies around in German porn than in the ape house of the Berlin Zoo.” Feige doesn’t deny the presence of shit, but isn’t there more?
Yes, Sekt, or Natur-Sekt, when paired with Kaviar in toilet-training sessions, is one of Domina Silvia’s ‘special passions’. Producing two films per month in her SM Studio Berlin, Silvia Wahl follows her own fantasies when producing porn, giving her customer “ideas they never dared dream about.”
“Most of the [German] producers of BDSM and fetish movies are based in Berlin because of the large community of kinky people,” says Wahl. An established fetish performer, she decided five years ago to produce her own films. To Wahl, the city is prime terrain for porn production. “Berlin has lots of interesting locations to shoot, and BDSM and fetish-oriented people are eager to come and explore its nightlife,” she says.
The whips-and-chains ‘alternative’ side of the industry gets a lot of the press, but it isn’t making the majority of the cash. The big daddy of Berlin porn production is Inflagranti. The prolific Kreuzberg studio pumps out six films per month, on par with the world’s largest, California’s Vivid Entertainment, and Jana Bach, one of the industry’s best-known starlets, performs exclusively for the company.
Though Inflagranti produces fetish films, including the 28-film Schwarze Flamme series, the real money is in the so-called ‘reality porn’ genre. As far as storylines go, ‘wandering about town looking for a guy to fuck and okay, why not here under the S-Bahn with this random guy?’ requires very little prep work or overhead. The end result might not be movie magic, but it sells.
Since 1997, Inflagranti has seen commercial success by riding the wave of consumer-driven trends in porn production, such as Gonzo porn which brings the camera operator into the scene, or amateur ‘caught-in-the-act’ virgin sex-scenes.
Berlin has everything it needs for a flourishing porn scene: a tolerant society, available actors, artists, technicians, cheap rents and eager consumers. So why is the dynamic industry that turned heads with record profits just a few years ago, suddenly desperate to stay afloat? Reflexively people scapegoat the internet, that black hole of intellectual property. But porn’s been adapting to technology advancements for 30 years. What’s so perilous about the current crisis?
West Germany legalized pornography in 1975, nearly a decade after Denmark was the first on the continent to do it, but almost a quarter-century before the UK in 1999. The current climate of controlling porn stems from a post-reunification case centered on the 1906 Austrian novel Josephine Mutzenbacher, a first-person account of a Viennese prostitute’s sexual escapades. In 1990 Germany’s Constitutional Court proclaimed that pornography and art were not mutually exclusive, clearing the way for the title – and other pornographic works – to be sold in bookstores and placed on library shelves.
Two years later, however, ‘protecting’ children trumped artistic expression, relegating future editions of the novel to the infamous ‘Index’, the list of material deemed a danger to German children and forcing it out of the public purview.
Porn producers and consumers, curious or committed, have to rely on designated sex shops accessible only to adults to buy and sell hardcore porn materials, unlike other age-restricted goods like cigarettes and alcohol. Video stores that offer hardcore porn must have separate areas accessible only to adults. And a 2008 court case in Munich found that even advertising availability of hardcore porn without age verification is illegal under German law.
Then came the internet, opening avenues to markets across the globe. File sharing, video downloads, on-demand streaming and online communities make personal porn consumption easier than ever before. But websites made in Germany fall under the Mutzenbacher jurisprudence as well as DVDs and printed material, restricting Berlin producers’ ability to compete with more lax regulations in other countries like the Netherlands, whose websites can be viewed in Germany.
“You don’t have to leave Berlin, but your website does,” Brüning says. In fact, that’s what Cazzo did. Cazzo Film’s website is run by Revel Media out of Amsterdam, though their film production is in Berlin. Having an Amsterdam based site allows them to show erections, anal penetration and come shots, all helpful in piquing interest, and generating sales. You can purchase hardcore DVDs direct from the Cazzo site; from Wurstfilm, only softcore is for sale.
The newest government regulation, which took effect on January 1, might have more influence on the industry’s future. ‘Erotic’ websites, which don’t show penetration or full erections, got a break. Instead of requiring costly age verification systems, companies resisting hardcore content can simply ask internet users to ‘promise’ that they are 18. Though this is an easing of adult content regulations, it may signal to purveyors of porn that simply changing the camera angle so the penis isn’t seen entering the mouth (fellatio falls under ‘hardcore’) could be the quickest, easiest path to the open market.
Domina Silvia’s fetish films are particularly affected by what can be shown on the internet: visible marks from whippings, penetration of someone bound and almost any human fluid, piss included, is forbidden. But as Brüning points out, semen is, ironically, the exception.
Internet piracy impacts the porn industry much the way it does the music business. Illegal reproductions of copyrighted material are available around the globe and policing is difficult. In 2007, producers in Germany worked together to take on the Bittorrent sharing system, hiring Swiss anti-piracy firm Logistep. Cease-and-desist letters, as well as €250 fines were sent out to known offenders. But such efforts are time-consuming, and its effects are minimal.
The world’s largest consumer electronics fair was held last month in Las Vegas at the same time as AVN, the world’s largest “adult entertainment” trade fair. One of the most talked-about attractions at the geek-show was the coming of 3D porn. In Berlin, 3D porn is not on the radar, even for a studio the size of Inflagranti, but it is affecting the outlook for the porn industry’s future.
“I want to do more interesting porn, with a story, with more energy. And now I hear of some triple-x, 3D, Avatar porn with a million-dollar budget. What the hell is that? I don’t have that kind of money,” Brüning complains. In truth, technology advances are outpacing revenue at a rate that will leave most firms out of the race. “It’s just stupid marketing thinking,” he says. It certainly doesn’t sound like art.
But porn is a business, not simply an exercise in sexual expression. Hubertus Leischner, a director of more than 250 films with Inflagranti, shared his ideas about the business in Feige’s book: “Alternative porn, porn with more of a story, more content, more art… I don’t really see that trend. Mainstream porn aims directly at the cock, underground porn at the mind. The average consumer of porn is not interested in underground films.”
In 1987 feminist and journalist Alice Schwarzer initiated the PorNO campaign, demanding a change in the legal definition of pornography. It didn’t change any laws, but Schwarzer’s effort to raise awareness of the way women are portrayed and treated in the porn industry had legs.
Now, a new generation of sex-positive defenders of women in porn has started the ‘PorYes’ campaign. Laura Méritt runs the sex shop Sexclusivitäten out of her apartment in Kreuzberg. She sees PorYes like the ‘Bio’ or ‘Fair Trade’ labeling programs. The goal is to support porn that reflects women positively, on screen and off.
But porn is fantasy, and applying real-life rules removes the element of fantasy, doesn’t it? “Fantasies are a huge source of self-awareness,” Méritt says. She wants to see more fantasies depicted in film that encourage social awareness. Méritt sees the porn industry’s economic woes as an opportunity. “The profits are gone. It’s a chance for new ideas, new ways of portraying sexuality to come forward.”
Silvia Wahl now lives in the Spanish Mediterranean town of Costa Blanca. She splits her time between dominatrix studios (she also maintains one in Augsburg), but always finds her way to Berlin for video production. She knows that internet piracy can impact sales, but she stays positive. “There are too many websites that offer my movies for free. But to comfort myself, I believe this is also free advertising.”
She acknowledges that the global reach of an online presence, even a regulated one, increases traffic too, particularly that of BDSM curious beginners who might not become customers if they weren’t first able to access Wahl’s films in the privacy of their own homes.
Berlin’s place in the global porn industry remains a question. Competing with the world’s largest studios and countries with less restrictive distribution regulations remain challenging. But a city that embraces kink the way Berlin does will always find a way to play. “I’ve been making controversial films for 15 years,” Brüning says. “Now it’s other people’s turn to make interesting porn. And those people are in Berlin.”