This week, the Quad Cinema is showing Queer Kino, German queer cinema from the 1970s and ’80s. These delicious, campy critiques of good taste, bourgeois society, and the restraints of middle-class life come at a crucial moment. What does it mean to assimilate marginal groups into popular culture? How can camp serve us today? Is it possible to live in the perimeters of society and be respected by culture at large but not devoured by it?
Coming Out (Heiner Carow, 1975)
Beyond a story as such (as the title suggests), this is a sensitive portrait of refusal — refusal of otherness by a predominantly white heteronormative society; refusal of the state’s normalizing, shame-making rumor machine by the intergenerational underground queer male community in East Germany. “Don’t we all have a right to live as nature intended?” the main character, Phillip, says at one point to his mother. Everyday scenes abound, as the film questions the commonplace by imbuing it with shame and positing alternative models of mentoring by queer elders. The last production by DEFA, an East German State-run film studio in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Coming Out possesses an acutely politicized tenderness between queer men, perhaps subtly suggesting that the possibility of different futures (even a future Germany) has far greater potential in homosexual relationships than it does in the hands of the film’s clumsy, rule-abiding heterosexuals.
Madame X: The Absolute Ruler (Ulrike Ottinger and Tabea Blumenschein, 1977)
Among the women who’ve been summoned by Madame X to escape the “corset of civilization” is a roller-skating artist who’s “bored to death by her surrounding academic culture.” Rolling away down an open highway, she bumps into a man in a car who pulls over and conveniently hands her a microphone, giving her a platform to express her dissatisfaction “I wish to escape from a crystallized identity, from a canny maturity that tells me to make the right moves at the right time.” The exquisite campiness of this moment is only the beginning in this lesbian pirate art film (need I say more?). A forester, an Italian model, a pilot, a housewife from Oberlin, Ohio, a psychoanalyst, a woman named Noa Noa from an unnamed island … these characters all receive the same recruitment message: “Chinese Orlando — stop — gold — stop — love — stop — call Chinese Orlando.” It calls them to join the ranks of Madame X’s all-women pirate ship, absconding from the well-behaved heterosexual society confining them. The rundown, ambling ship is host to the stoic, power-hungry Madame X, for whom the new crew all perform rituals of various sorts — extensive pomp and ceremony involving weapons, extravagant costumes, food, and incredible hats. One can see how this might be an early forerunner to works ranging from Matthew Barney’s Cremaster to A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner’s Community Action Center.
Querelle (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)
There’s nothing quite like Fassbinder’s final film. Querelle coats us in spit, sex, glitz, glare, lush light, sweaty muscles, mirrored surfaces, synthetic sounds, melodrama, and shadows. It is refreshingly gaudy, full of pageantry, and willfully disjointed. It’s chimeric: a meditation on the construction of masculinity, masochism, the psychology of desire, queerness, as well as the simultaneous erasure and development of the feminine in men loving and desiring each other; it also meditates on the fine lines between love, being loved, fucking, and being fucked. If this alone weren’t enough, Fassbinder does something remarkable by making an art film that’s a high-wire genre act fusing elements of porn, B movies, noir, and even a bit of science fiction. The soundtrack hints at Vangelis’s Blade Runner, the dialogue at Dragnet and porn with a dash of cultural theory. The film both revels in and issues a harsh critique against the pure artifice of tacky Hollywood cinematic sets, sleazy lighting, and awkward operatic backdrops. We could all learn from this kind of affect (I keep wishing that Katy Perry had watched this before making her 2013 video for “Dark Horse” but I doubt that’s the case).
Fox and His Friends (R.W. Fassbinder, 1975)
“Learn, learn, learn” is what Eugen tells Fox he’ll do. Learn that you don’t pick up sugar cubes without sugar tongs. Learn that you don’t tear up baguette and dump it into your cream of lobster soup. Learn that you prefer Mozart to Stravinsky. Learn manners, French, where to buy, how to buy. Learn, above all, taste, erasing proletariat working class ways. Tracking the relationship between “posh and prissy” Eugen (as Fox describes him to his bar friends) and the rough-around-the-edges, “dumbo” Fox, who just so happens to have elevated his social status by winning half a million dollars in the lottery, the film plunges viewers into the demoralizing acculturation of Fox by his new darling Eugen (who, incidentally, wouldn’t have survived a minute in Querelle). Cars populate the film, reminding us of how much social-sexual power is associated with everyday luxuries like automatic windows, ’80s-style headlights that pop-up, and cassette players. The film feels especially pressing in this global moment of populist politics, the absorption of Pride Month into every business (at least across New York), and over-identification. No one is exempt from falling prey to bourgeois materialism and the “correct” taste.
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Is the world more accepting than it was 50 years ago, or is it that we are all more similar than ever before because we share a common regulation by technology, media, and a global flow of work? Did we all just “learn, learn, learn” like Eugen instructed Fox? Learn to assimilate to proper tastes; learn to superficially show support by means of an emoji, a like, or a profile picture change; learn to feign knowledge in hopes of social ascendency or love. Were Fassbinder with us today (he’d be 74) to witness worldwide gentrification, 24-7 capitalism, and all of our bourgeois self-betterment apps, consumer data-harvesting, and prosthetic devices helping us fulfill our perfectly picturesque surrogate identities, one can only imagine what kind of scorching commentary he’d issue. See these films and others at the Quad before it’s too late. Their urgent disruptions keep things troubled even now.
Queer Kino runs at the Quad Cinema (34 W 13th St, New York, NY) through June 27. The film selection was co-presented with the Goethe-Institut as part of their Queer as German Folk event series, in collaboration with Wieland Speck.