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Julia Effertz: The woman making sex scenes safer

Germany’s leading intimacy coordinator on making sex scenes safer in the wake of #MeToo.

Julia Effertz is Germany’s first and leading intimacy coordinator. Photo: Teresa Marenzi

Content warning: rape and sexual assault

In the 1972 film Last Tango in Paris, there is a notorious rape scene in which Marlon Brando’s character anally penetrates Maria Schneider’s character using butter as a lubricant. Schneider later said that she “felt humiliated” and “a little raped” during the filming of the scene, which she claimed “wasn’t in the original script”, and that her on-screen tears were real. She was a 19-year-old unknown actor at the time; Brando was a 48-year-old Hollywood superstar.

During a TV interview in 2013, director Bernardo Bertolucci confirmed that he and Brando came up with the idea of using butter on the morning of the shoot and purposely kept it from Schneider because he “wanted her reaction as a girl not as an actress”. When asked if he regretted it, Bertolucci said he did not: “To make movies, to obtain something, I think that you have to be completely free… I wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and the humiliation.”

For Julia Effertz, Germany’s first and leading intimacy coordinator, Bertolucci’s approach is a prime example of exploitation when it comes to filming intimate content. “That to me is the greatest insult to any actor, because acting is a craft,” she says, sat over coffee at her local cafe in a snow-covered Moabit. “The idea of artistic freedom is a classic justification of abuse.”

Attitudes and experiences like this are what the burgeoning practice of intimacy coordination attempts to eradicate. “Historically, there was no separation between the private sexual self and the sexuality of the character,” Effertz explains. “Actors were just told, ‘Okay you’re adults, you have private lives, you know how this works – just go for it and we’ll let the camera roll and see what happens.’ But this approach is, of course, very dangerous, and there have always been boundaries crossed and actors hurt.”

Safeguarding shoots

Called in for scenes that involve nudity, simulated sex acts and intimate physical contact, from intense kissing to birthing scenes and depictions of sexualised violence, Effertz likens her role to that of a stunt coordinator. “When you act violence in a movie, you know you need someone to choreograph the scene and make sure the actors are safe,” she says. “The same applies to intimate content. You need to make sure the scene looks good and that you serve the director’s vision, while also protecting the cast and crew. There’s a risk of psychological injury here.”

Effertz’s job encompasses initial script analysis – “almost like a risk assessment” –, choreography consultation and rehearsals, through to safeguarding on shoot days. She ensures that nudity agreements are kept, that any genital coverings are provided and that the set is closed except for the most essential crew members. She’ll then stand with the director at the monitor and meet with the actors afterwards to help them wind down.

The intimate scenes of Normal People were coordinated by British movement director Ita O’Brien, whose work inspired Julia Effertz. Photo: Hulu / Element Pictures / Enda Bowe

As an actor first, Effertz knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera. Born in Bergisch Gladbach in 1980, she grew up trilingual and trained in theatre in Paris, Oxford and London. In 2012, she moved to Berlin and began acting in film and TV. Effertz came across intimacy coordination at Cannes Film Festival in 2018, where British movement director Ita O’Brien was presenting her “Intimacy on Set” guidelines. A pioneer in the field, O’Brien rose to fame for her work on award-winning productions such as Sex Education, Normal People and I May Destroy You. “The festival was in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein case and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements,” Effertz recalls. “When I read Ita’s flyer it was like a lightbulb moment. I was immediately hooked.”

Effertz flew to London in summer 2019 and trained under O’Brien through a series of workshops and mentoring sessions. Keen to get an American perspective on the profession, she also trained remotely with LA-based company Intimacy Professionals Association in 2021, receiving her official certification. Since introducing the practice to German cinema and TV in 2019, Effertz has worked on productions including ARD’s Tatort, X Filme’s Wild Republic and Netflix’s soon-to-be-released original series about Elizabeth of Austria, The Empress.

Weinstein watershed

Intimacy on screen may be nothing new, but artistic as well as practical approaches towards it have undergone a transformation over the past two decades. American intimacy coordinator Tonia Sina is credited for laying the foundations of intimacy coordination in 2006, when she outlined the role of Intimacy Director in her MFA thesis. Ten years later, Sina helped to form Intimacy Directors International (now Intimacy for Stage and Screen), the first training company to advocate for and educate on intimacy practices in performance.

It was only with the Weinstein caesura that the industry acknowledged it had a problem and began to do something about it.

After the Weinstein scandal in 2017, the concept took hold at an industry level as discussions regarding consent and safeguarding became commonplace. As Effertz explains: “There were intimacy coordinators around before Weinstein, but the industry didn’t really take them seriously. It was only with the Weinstein caesura that the industry, especially in America, acknowledged it had a problem and began to do something about it.”

Though Effertz has never been seriously disrespected on set, many of her colleagues have. She speaks of a fellow actor who was shocked to be handed nipple covers by the costume department, even though the script read “sex noises off camera” and she hadn’t agreed to any nudity. And of another actor who arrived on set to find that her kissing scene had been turned into a sex scene last minute, with nothing choreographed and all the monitors switched on, enabling everyone on set to watch – including her driver, who expressed his appreciation while transporting her back to her hotel.

On trauma

The profession of intimacy coordination is not only about protecting women from exploitative producers. “My duty of care applies to people of all genders in the acting community, and the risks and challenges are different,” says Effertz. “As our storytelling still conveys a lot through female nudity, there’s a lot of vulnerability for female actors in that regard.” Indeed, a 2018 analysis of 1,100 popular films found that 25.4 percent of women had roles with some nudity, compared with 9.6 percent of men. “Whereas for male actors, a stereotypical depiction of non-consensual sex would usually see them in the role of the perpetrator, so there’s a different psychological challenge there.”

Considering a large number of actors will have had boundaries violated in their personal lives, Effertz believes that conversations about trauma are essential behind the scenes. “I once worked with an actor on a very graphic sex scene who was a survivor of sexual violence in her private life. It was clear that we needed to choreograph the scene to a T, so that she knew exactly where the hand was going, the moment of penetration, how many thrusts,” Effertz explains. “Even though the old memories came back, it was actually a positive experience for her. She was able to say, ‘I want to shoot this scene because I am taking back something that was taken from me’. I found that really powerful.”

Reel sex

The perspective of the viewer is also central to Effertz’s craft. “I’m a consumer, too, and I want to watch more authentic sex scenes,” she says. “A bad sex scene is one that tells me nothing about the characters, it’s just body on body. So my job is about protection, but it’s also a creative role about quality storytelling.”

A common misconception about intimacy coordination is the belief that it’ll lead to duller sex scenes.
“I still have these conversations with German production companies where I feel like I have to even justify why I’m there. I have to explain, no, I’m not the censor, no, I’m not the fun police: I’m here to support your vision, to enhance it.”

At a time when US network HBO and UK broadcaster the BBC are making intimacy coordinators mandatory, Effertz believes that the German film industry is lagging behind its international counterparts: “Germany has always been slower with major developments. We’re a diverse society, but German TV is still very male, white, and rather conservative.”

Effertz frequently comes across actors who fear they’ll be viewed as “difficult” or a “diva” if they request an intimacy coordinator. “In my initial coordination sessions, I often hear, ‘Well Julia, just to let you know I’m really relaxed, I have no problem with nudity.’ I mean neither do I, I go to the sauna naked, but that’s not the problem,” she argues. “It’s a totally different matter when you’re on set acting out passion with a person you’re not in an intimate relationship with; when there’s 20 people standing around you, you’re being lit, and there’s someone with a boom catching the sound. This is tough stuff, but I think there’s a blind spot.”

Even so, Effertz has seen momentum build around intimacy coordination and is confident that the industry is recognising the need for professionals like her. She was pleased to be hired so frequently in 2020 and 2021 in spite of the financial challenges of the pandemic, with budgets being a prime consideration for German production companies.

“Cultural change is gradual and we’re in the middle of it,” she says. “But it’s essential that we keep going. If intimacy coordination is good enough for Hollywood, it’s good enough for Germany as well.”