Monday, July 26, 2010

Coming Out - A review

Ever notice how so many of the wonderful adjectives in the English language having to do with bad style and ugly aesthetics are Germanic words? Words that sound German, even if they’re not? Words that function almost as onomatopoeia - like clunky, for example. Or klutzy. Nerd. Geek. OK, so German culture can boast of philosophers and composers capable of exquisite subtlety. In the world of popular culture, at least in the eyes of the English-speaking world, where others have chaos, the Germans manage a stodgy orderliness. India has the Taj Mahal. Germany has Bauhaus. Italy makes the Ferrari, Germany the VW bug.

Until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the German Democratic Republic took this German trait and made it almost into a religion. If soul killing were a sport, East Germany would have won year after year in the Olympics.

At Number 1 Karl-Liebknechtstrasse in the now united Berlin is a museum of DDR (German for GDR) artifacts. Just inside the door is a Trabant, usually called by its affectionate name, Trabi. The Trabi was the pride and joy of the East Germans. A total clunker of a car produced by the socialist state, it smoked and crapped out and people waited fifteen years to get one. The clunkiness was not just in the car, in other words; it was in the ability to manufacture and distribute enough to meet the demand. To many, the Trabi is a perfect symbol of all that was wrong with this mess of a country, now fast disappearing into history with few people shedding tears.

But with a few notable exceptions – the fact that it was a ruthless police state that polluted the environment with a vengeance, for example – the GDR was, to Westerners, more a product of the anti-communist imagination than a real place. It was easy to forget that like any nation state, it contained all manner of folk facing all manner of life’s challenges.

I came across a fascinating illustration of that last night in a movie titled, Coming Out. I don’t know how it escaped my radar. Possibly it escaped most people’s radar because it was a movie released in the GDR just as the wall was coming down. Who would possibly be paying attention?

Coming Out – note the clumsy title of this gay coming out movie – is about a twenty-eight year old high school teacher coming to terms with being gay. The plot is both trite and totally engrossing. The characters are real. The acting is superb. The movie is a treasure.

The quality of this film lies in the fact it is layered. On the most superficial level, it is a gay coming out story totally lacking in subtlety. It’s a message movie, hopelessly didactic, works through crude stereotypes with all the stops pulled out as if you could possibly miss the aggressive homophobic context of these people’s lives, and it’s predictable. A film script any amateur could throw together, in other words.

A quick run through the Netflix reviews and you will see how many people stopped here and missed the film’s import as a groundbreaker, an East German analogue to Brokeback Mountain. Never before had homosexuality been put so openly before the general public, and never before such a clear reminder that the same animus that put gays in concentration camps was alive and well in the DDR today.

Twenty years later, the film is remembered as part of “the change.” Matthias Freihof, now twenty years older, has since made a name for himself as an actor, singer and dancer in the new Germany. (So has his love interest in the film Dirk Kummer, who is now a film director.) Many will argue, though, that his most memorable role was his first one in Coming Out. See an interview with Freihof (also, unfortunately, without English subtitles) here.

One should not be expected to like a movie that fails to live up to one’s aesthetic standards. But one can reframe one’s references. The DDR, for all our McCarthy-on-down loathing of communism and for all our legitimate complaints of its failures on the human rights level, was a noble experiment. We can argue till the cows come home over why it flopped. It had as its goal the creation of the perfect society, and we are now, twenty years after the “Wende” (the “change,” i.e., the fall of the wall and reunification), free to look with greater generosity at its virtues and its accomplishments. To a large degree it was decay and corruption within that led to collapse. But to some degree it was simply the evolution of society that made the timing right. The DDR, at least in some ways, outgrew itself and public consciousness overpowered even the police and other instruments of control.

Two scenes illustrate the fact that the old system no longer has the clout it once had. The hero meets his lover while standing in a line for theater tickets. People have been in that line for two days. How they got that past the censors is a mystery. Similarly, there are muggings in the S-Bahn, and the place is identified as Marx-Engels Platz. In all my experience with the DDR, such implied criticism of the perfect state was simply unthinkable. Those two scenes are plot devices, of course. But even more, they signal changes in the social order. Where criticism is permitted, changes are afoot.

But more significant, possibly, are three scenes which do not serve as plot devices. They are the scenes which hit you hardest with their stodginess, stereotyping or lack of subtlety. But the way to make sense of them, I would argue, is to see them as tableaux, framed not by the plot but as individual separate pieces. The first of these is the gay bar where the hero first finds himself still pretending to have dropped in for no other reason than to buy cigarettes. The scene is almost totally unreal. Something from the Weimar Republic era, a set that belongs in Cabaret, where the music is Kurt Weill, the singer is Lotte Lenya, and homosexuality is reduced to smoke, prostitution and pure cynicism. The only “normal” non-costumed people are our hero and the old man who becomes the voice of the gay community. The picture works where words are inadequate in setting the innocent against the alien heterosexual world outside and the alienated world within. That scene (unfortunately without English subtitles) is available on YouTube: And a quick aside – some of you may spot Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the famous/notorious heroine of “I am My Own Wife” as the grand lady behind the bar.

The second tableau is the scene where the old man tells his story of love gained and lost, of his pink triangle years in Sachsenhausen concentration camp followed by what looked like a way to happiness. He joins the Communist Party and works to build a new society. A society, it turns out, which got rid of racism, fascism, class distinctions and sexism, but has left homophobia untouched. In the end, this new society has not worked for him.

The final tableau is the closing scene where the hero is confronted by the authorities. His school principle enters his classroom with a committee to judge his performance. It appears that after losing out in love he is about to lose his livelihood as well. This is his chance to repent, to straighten up.

Instead, he stares out the window until his silence becomes unbearable and the principle speaks up and insists he say something.

“Yes,” he says.

Nothing more. Just the apparent non sequitur “yes.”

If you are a viewer looking for a gay love story with a happy ending, this ending will almost certainly drive you around the bend.

But if you see this as a story of a citizen of the socialist republic that was the GDR brought to the point of destruction by the pressure to meet other people’s impossible expectations – his mother tells him his homosexuality is the source of all her unhappiness, the bullies routinely savage gays who fail to hide their sexuality, his school is about to fire him for his inability to be normal – you see the story of a survivor. Like the country he belongs to, he is still battling severe growing pains.

After all he has been through, you might worry about the outcome.

But only if you miss the film's last line.

“Yes,” he says. "Yes."

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