Wolfgang Theis, curator. Rosa geht in Rente: Hommage zu Rosa von Praunheims 65. Geburtstag. Berlin: Schwules Museum, November 25, 2007 - March 31, 2008. Funded by the Deutsche Klassenlotterie and the Schwules Museum.
Reviewed by Bradley Boovy (Department of Germanic Studies, University of Texas at Austin)
Published on H-German (June, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Many Germans--and particularly those living in Berlin--will likely have heard the name Rosa von Praunheim, although many may not realize that Rosa is a man. Some might recall the release of his most famous film, Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt (1971). The film's premier at the 1971 Berlinale led to much debate, particularly among gay West Germans who felt attacked by Praunheim's call to political action: "Raus aus den Toiletten, rein in die Straßen." Yet, a number of activist groups were also founded in the wake of the film, and Praunheim quickly took center stage as the most visible spokesperson of gay liberation in 1970s West Germany. While none of his later films received as much attention, Praunheim has remained in the public eye through activism; through his more than seventy documentary, polemical, short, and feature films, as well as through provocative media spots and television appearances. In 1991, for instance, he caused a media uproar when he outed talk-show host Alfred Biolek, comedian and author Hape Kerkeling, and actor Götz George (the last of these, incorrectly) on the RTL program Explosiv--Der heiße Stuhl. In short, Praunheim has time and again demonstrated his eagerness to provoke public debate and thereby remain a topic of discussion in German media.
To mark the director's sixty-fifth birthday and commemorate his prolific artistic production, the Schwules Museum hosted an exhibition from November 25, 2007 through March 31, 2008. Conceived and organized by curator Wolfgang Theis, one of the co-founders of the Museum in the 1980s, Rosa geht in Rente is the most recent in a series of homages to individuals who have played significant roles in the constitution of gay culture and history in Germany. Previous exhibitions have been dedicated to Michel Foucault, Hildegard Knef, Thomas Mann, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, among others. This exhibition, funded by the Deutsche Klassenlotterie and the Schwules Museum, was given wide publicity in Berlin in magazines, posters, and postcards around the city and even on the Federal Republic's official tourism website. A retrospective of sixty-five of Praunheim's films at Berlin's Babylon Cinema in November and December 2007 helped to generate enough buzz around Praunheim and his work to ensure a steady flow of visitors to the exhibit. Mr. Theis commented that this was one of the best-visited homages to date in the series; indeed, the closing date was eventually extended by more than a month.
Rosa geht in Rente was conceived as a thematic installation in three rooms. Portrayed on the walls were different aspects of Praunheim's work or glimpses into his biography. Most of the space in the two larger rooms was dedicated to topics that Praunheim has addressed in his films, writings, and paintings: Magnus Hirschfeld's struggle to have Paragraph 175 removed from the penal code; gay liberation in the 1970s; HIV/AIDS; the Berlin Tunten (queen, drag queen) scene. A smaller, third room focused more explicitly on the intersections of Praunheim's private life and his work. On display were photographs with friends and partners, excerpts from his diaries, and copies of his most autobiographical publications--including the memoirs he published in 1993 on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, 50 Jahre Pervers: Die Sentimentalen Memoiren des Rosa von Praunheim. The exhibition did not follow a particular chronological order. Rather, visitors were guided through the space by partitions and free-standing exhibition pieces and more or less encouraged to wander around and encounter different moments from Praunheim's career through photographs, film stills, movie posters, props, books, and notes. As might be expected, visitors could also view excerpts from some of his films, including Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, Armee der Liebenden oder Aufstand der Perversen (1979), Pfui Rosa! (2002); watch his appearance on Explosiv; or listen to his radio play "Adonis in New York" (1987). Articles in the exhibition were on loan from the Sammlung von Praunheim of the Deutsche Kinemathek, the collection of the Schwules Museum, or in many cases were lent by Praunheim himself.
Upon entering the exhibition space, one first encountered a wall covered with photographs of some thirty artists, writers, filmmakers, and politicians including Ulrike Ottinger, Fassbinder, and Praunheim himself. Each photograph was accompanied by a quotation about the director taken from interviews with the respective figures. Indeed, quotes were spread throughout the exhibition and served in lieu of explanations to illuminate the topics at hand or provoke reflection. For example, a series of stills from Praunheim's films was accompanied by a quote from a letter by Mario Wirz: "Zum Teufel mit deinem Amerikasubjektivismus, finde dich damit ab, dass du nicht Andy Warhol bist." The line is in part a jab at Praunheim, who often seems at least as interested in cultivating his public personality as he is in activism and filmmaking. More importantly, however, the quote hints at issues that repeatedly emerge in discussions of Praunheim's work--namely, how it should be categorized. Interest in American film and pop culture was characteristic of the New German Cinema that Praunheim's early films are associated with. He was especially influenced by American Underground filmmakers, in particular Gregory Markopoulos. Markopoulos, with whom Praunheim worked in the late 1960s, is known for his use of erotic imagery and "magical" editing effects in films such as The Illiac Passion (1967). Such elements, along with the ability to make interesting films on a small budget and with few resources, characterize many of Praunheim's films as well. Yet, the influence of and fascination with America extended beyond an interest in the Underground film scene. He also continually referenced and lauded the American gay rights movement--much to the frustration of German activists, who experienced gay liberation, the AIDS epidemic, and debates over partnership and spousal rights differently from their American counterparts.
This broader history and the conditioning historical factors behind Praunheim's artistic production remained obscure in the exhibition, however, a disadvantage of relying strictly on quotes to convey background information. It is questionable just how familiar younger Germans, let alone international visitors, might be with Praunheim's work and the complex histories from which it emerged: for example, the student movement, New German Cinema, gay liberation. More in-depth analysis of the changing discourses of gender and sexuality that accompanied Praunheim's work, as well as some explanatory material on German social history over the last four decades, would have added greatly to the depth and quality of the exhibition without detracting from its commemorative intention. It can only be hoped that future exhibitions and retrospectives will offer a more nuanced glimpse into Praunheim's complex and far-reaching oeuvre. It should be pointed out, however, that while Rosa geht in Rente was better funded than previous homages in the series, staying within the limits of a relatively small budget was a concern.
By far the most exciting aspect of the exhibition was the weekly discussion series led by Praunheim at the museum. Each week a brief film clip relevant to the topic was shown, followed by a panel discussion with invited guests and Praunheim--who, in characteristic style, asked probing questions of the discussants and occasionally of audience members. Topics included early gay liberation in Germany and the group Homosexuelle Aktion West-Berlin (co-founded by Praunheim in 1971), AIDS, trans movements, and Praunheim's involvement with students and novice filmmakers. Perhaps the most interesting discussion concerned Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (1928-2002). Born Lothar Berfelde, Charlotte founded the Gründerzeit Museum in Berlin-Mahlsdorf (formerly East Berlin), where she collected and displayed furniture pieces and everyday items from the Imperial period. In 1992, Praunheim made Ich bin meine eigene Frau, a biographical film about Mahlsdorf that has become, after Nicht der Homosexuelle ist Pervers, one of his most successful and internationally best-known works. Since the film and the publication of her autobiography in 1995, Mahlsdorf has gained attention outside of Germany, for example in Doug Wright's Broadway drama I Am My Own Wife (2003). In Berlin, however, she had long been something of a cult figure, as became apparent during the discussion of her life. While much of what was said tended toward myth building, the exchange was nevertheless stimulating and exposed many significant issues surrounding the experience of sexual minorities in East and West Germany. For example, what began as a question about Mahlsdorf's Stasi file quickly expanded into a discussion of the divergent experiences of homosexuals in the GDR and FRG. Although gay history has made great advances in both popular and scholarly discourse in the decades since Praunheim began making his films, such local discussions are a reminder of the central role that oral exchange of memories plays in constituting communities.
Despite the exhibition's title, Praunheim is not, in fact, going into retirement: he is working on three new film projects at the moment. Furthermore, his most recent documentary, Meine Mutter--Spuren aus Riga (2007), was pre-selected for nomination for the Deutscher Filmpreis. The next step, outright nomination, would have surely enhanced Praunheim's visibility both within Germany and abroad. Though it eluded him this time, Praunheim will assuredly not stop making films or relent in his pursuit to remain in German public consciousness.
. Much of the information used in this review comes from an interview I conducted with Mr. Theis at the Deutsche Kinemathek on January 10, 2008. Praunheim studied as a painter at the Berlin Hochschule für Bildende Künste in the early 1960s before adopting film as his primary medium.
. Their correspondence has been published as Rosa von Praunheim and Mario Wirz, Folge dem Fieber und tanze (Berlin: Aufbau, 1995). Wirz is best known as the author of poetry, prose, and theatrical works that take as their theme the experience of living with HIV/AIDS.
. Sabine Hake, German National Cinema (London: Routledge, 2002), 150.
. Rosa von Praunheim, 50 Jahre Pervers (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1995), 79, 86-92.
. Parker Tyler, Underground Film: A Critical History (New York: Da Capo, 1995), 215.
. Rosa von Praunheim, "Gay Film Culture," West German Filmmakers on Film: Visions and Voices, ed. Eric Rentschler (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1988), 71.
. For a complete list of topics I direct the reader to the website of the Schwules Museum: http://www.schwulesmuseum.de/
. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Ich bin meine eigene Frau (Munich: DTV, 1995).
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Bradley Boovy. Review of Theis, Wolfgang; curator, Rosa geht in Rente: Hommage zu Rosa von Praunheims 65. Geburtstag.
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