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Still flying the pink freak flag

An interview with original enfant terrible of Germany’s gay scene, filmmaker and activist Rosa von Praunheim: the outspoken director's upcoming retrospective at Lichtblick Kino kicks off with EXBlicks: City of Lost Souls on Apr 28.

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Photo by Jason Harrell

An interview with original enfant terrible of Germany’s gay scene, filmmaker, activist and Berliner Rosa von Praunheim.

Without Von Praunheim’s game-changing films and controversial media interventions, gay life today might be very different. His body of work spans nearly five decades and countless genres, including camp satire of bourgeois morals (Die Bettwurst), gay liberation manifestos (1971’s landmark It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives), activist films (the “AIDS Trilogy”) and a collection of documentaries and fictionalised biographies about superstar cartoonist Ralf König (King of Comics), transgender expats in 1980s West Berlin (City of Lost Souls), pioneering sexologist and Nazi victim Magnus Hirschfeld (The Einstein of Sex) and more. At 72, Von Praunheim is still going strong. Recently awarded the Federal Merit Cross, he teaches at Potsdam’s Konrad Wolf University of Film and Television while still making relevant and engaging films. His latest, Tough Love (Härte), was presented at this year’s Berlinale and opens at the end of the month, accompanied by a 10-film retrospective at Lichtblick Kino.

As a film set in the ‘straight’ world, Tough Love seems to be a departure for you. What drew you to such a macho character as Andreas Marquardt, a former pimp turned karate master?

Yes, Andreas is macho. He took up karate, which is a tough sport, and is very successful at it. He’s a legend in the world of sports. He’s lived his whole life with incredible toughness. And now it’s hard to make him understand how his machismo affects those around him… Somehow his whole life was determined by his hatred of women, which resulted from being sexually abused by his mother.

What about Marion Erdmann, his longtime partner? Does she represent the traditional female role model?

While he was in jail, she did take care of the gym and manage his whole livelihood. But she did it all for him. I think today it’s still the case that the lives of many women centre around doing everything for their men. One psychiatrist said that Tough Love is an instructional film for women who still make themselves entirely dependent on men. Marion and Andreas don’t have any children; with women who do it’s even more tragic. It’s still a part of women’s traditional role to behave masochistically towards men, despite tragedy, difficulties and humiliation.

And what about alternatives to traditional role models – like gay marriage, for example?

I personally don’t believe in marriage. I will never marry my boyfriend. I see the tragedy of many heterosexual couples when they get divorced, for both women and men. Everyone should be warned.

Do you see gay marriage and adoption as assimilation into middle class values?

Adapting to middle class values is inevitable. Whether it’s gays becoming religious, joining the army or adopting children, it’s not my bag. As for children, those who want to have them – I think it’s mostly lesbian couples – I think it’s wonderful. I have nothing against children. I think it’s good for stable gay couples. But I personally don’t have such a connection to family…

Has the desire for that kind of assimilation into dominant culture dulled the edge of LGBT activism?

I think it belongs to the general climate. My heterosexual students are also not so politically or socially active. Once you’ve reached a certain level of wealth and comfort, egoism and individual goals come to the foreground.

Are you saying there are no more issues in the LGBT community – that there’s nothing more to fight for?

There is – take the difficulties young people continue to experience when coming out. Especially in puberty, they just want to belong and be like everyone else. So asserting yourself as ‘different’ remains a very difficult thing to do, especially when your classmates come from backgrounds where homophobia is very dominant. That’s a big problem.

How can this be changed?

It should start at kindergarten. There should be textbooks openly discussing homophobia and racism, as the two are related, and also what it means to be different. That’s a very important part of education. It’s also important that students come in contact with openly gay and lesbian teachers, and this should be supported officially. Of course it’s difficult.  Especially when Muslim students in the class replicate the homophobia of their families.

Could you imagine a sort of solidarity or coalition among those marginalised groups – gays and Muslims fighting intolerance together?

I can’t imagine that devout Muslims would appreciate any solidarity coming from homosexuals. Various marginalised groups can only express solidarity with others insofar as they are themselves emancipated. But as long as women are still oppressed in Islam, there won’t be any solidarity.

Speaking of sexism… the discussion about a female director quota in Germany has put the issue of gender inequality in the media front and centre. How do you see it?

I’m all for women to receive support and get more visible. But art has something to do with talent. Not everyone has it. It’s not a democratic medium. I can’t say I’m an artist and have painted a picture, so I’m entitled to be exhibited or have my book published. You need talent, hard work, and the ability to achieve your goals. Most people are lazy. I know it’s provocative, but this unfortunately also applies to lesbians.

Lesbians in particular, or women as a whole…?

Non-lesbian women might experience less discrimination; nevertheless I think the timidity on the part of lesbian women is related to the oppression of women in general, which by the way is not just the result of men’s discrimination. I’m a member of the Academy of Arts, a somewhat elitist artists’ association. The governing board is made up of women, but there aren’t many female members. And even women don’t elect other women as new members. And the same with the film business – there are actresses who say, “I don’t want to work with a female director.” It’s tragic that women are often very anti-woman. Then I believe that women are somehow less ambitious.

Why is that?

One female filmmaker told me that women have more multifaceted interests than just filmmaking and career advancement. They are more versatile and less single-minded. Men are more goal-oriented; when they want something, they think they’re the greatest and try to push it through. You need lots of energy. If you don’t have it then it won’t work. And in general, women are still too private and very timid about being in the public sphere. I can’t generalise, but I wish women would become more self-confident and really use their talent. But things are changing.

Is this specifically a German problem?

I think that women in America have a more emancipated upbringing. At least in middle-class families, children are told more often that they’re great and that they can achieve what they want to, both male and female. In Europe, children are told “You can’t do anything,” or “You’re stupid.” Only if you work really, really hard will you become successful. And this is especially the case for women.

Originally published in issue #137, April 2015.