Friday, October 27, 2017

"People like that" don't always kill themselves

Nachtcafé guests - Oct. 22, 2017
I spend a lot of time watching German television, especially the talk shows. My top three used to be the political talks-in-the-round, hosted by women: Anne Will, Sandra Maischberger, and Maybritt Illner. A fourth, Hart Aber Fair (Tough, but Fair), also political, is hosted by Frank Plasberg. Then there’s Phoenix, which is a bit more academic, and also political. Then there are two which are not political at all, but a pot pourri of all kinds of topics dealing with society, sports, and the world of entertainment and culture, where the goal is primarily entertainment, not current events. They can get political when the guests are politicians, but mostly the focus is on simply tossing around ideas and revealing the lives of people with interesting stories to tell. The discourse is at a higher level than American shows like “Ellen” or “Oprah” or "The View" and more "German" somehow, in that there is less of a need to have a laugh a minute and a feel-good conclusion every time.  One of these is the powerful and fast-paced Markus Lanz Talkshow. The other, the one I want to talk about here, is the more leisurely and laid back Nachtcafé (Night Café). It’s a theme-oriented program with a very congenial host named Michael Steinbrecher. Steinbrecher has a talent for keeping the conversation going on a broad array of topics having to do with family, personal identity and relationships, social relations, art and theater and public life. Often the topics (death, divorce, failure in life) are sensitive and the guests include an expert to contextualize and expand the topic being discussed. Nachtcafé airs on Friday nights at 10 p.m., and becomes immediately available online. 

Last Friday’s program was entitled: “Von Macken und Marotten: Leben leicht verrückt” (Quirks and Idiosyncracies: Living a bit crazy). The guests included a TV comedian noted for her loud mouth and brash interactional style, Hella Kemper, who goes by the name “Hella von Sinnen (Hella out of her mind).” Hella is married to the daughter of a former President of Germany, and the two authored a book which apparently gave the program its title. Another guest collects and sells insects. A third is obsessed with the Swedish royal family. A fourth appears in public nude to bring home the feminist insistence that a woman has the right not to be abused, even if she’s stark naked. A fourth spends her life entering (and winning) contests. The guest that really captured my attention, though, was the final guest of the evening, a man named Oliver Sechting.

Rosa, right, in New York
First, a brief digression here. LGBT people familiar with Germany will know who Rosa von Praunheim is. He’s one of my gay liberation heroes, along with Harvey Milk, Dan Savage, Barney Frank, Ellen, and many others. He was born to a prisoner in German-occupied Latvia, adopted and given the name Holger Bernhard Bruno Waldemar Mischwitzky, but decided at some point that he would go by the name of Rosa von Praunheim. Rosa is German for pink, the color of the triangular tag that homosexual prisoners had to wear in Nazi concentration camps. Praunheim is a district of Frankfurt/Main I’m assuming he feels a particular affinity for. He is a filmmaker with more than seventy documentary and feature films under his belt, an in-your-face AIDS activist who, like Larry Kramer, alienated many gay people by hounding them on the topic of safe sex. Subtle he is not. One of his early films (1971) carries the title, It is not the homosexual who is perverse, but the society in which he lives.

Another of the many times he caught my attention was when he appeared on the Anne Will show (she’s one of the political talk show hosts I mentioned above, whom I still watch regularly) back in 2010 along with the catholic Bishop of Essen, Franz-Josef Overbeck. Overbeck made the mistake of claiming that homosexuality was a sin. Since the official church position is that it’s not “being homosexual” that is sinful, but “doing homosexual,” Overbeck made a fool of himself and Rosa von Praunheim called him out on it.

Bishop Overbeck, Rosa von Praunheim on Anne Will in 2010
Rosa von Praunheim: Homosexuality isn’t a sin.

Bishop Overbeck: It is a sin. We know with absolute certainty that it is a sin. It goes against nature. The nature of man is based on a man and a woman being together.

RvP: Bullshit. You don’t even believe that yourself.

Forgive me for going out on a tangent to the tangent I’m already on, but I have to mention in passing that it was this encounter that Catholic theologian David Berger claims prompted him to come out and to write his book, Der heilige Schein (Sacred Illusion), which I reviewed on this blog soon after it appeared. And which put me in touch with people who have since become very good friends.

But let me get back to the topic. I was talking about the last guest of the evening, Oliver Sechting.  For a while there it appeared as if the producers of this edition of Nachtcafé had made a terrible mistake – all of the eccentricities the guests displayed were harmless, and quite entertaining. There was little for the guest psychiatrist to talk about except to say, “If it doesn’t hurt anyone, why not?” But when it came to Oliver, the mood suddenly changed. Oliver has a severe form of OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder. Most people, when they hear OCD think of behavior compulsions - people who have to wash their hands until they become raw, or wipe doorknobs with bleach before touching them, or people with tics like head or shoulder jerking. But some OCD sufferers, like Oliver, have “thought disorders” that are not immediately evident to strangers. As a result, they often suffer in silence or have trouble getting people to take them seriously. Oliver can be traumatized when he comes across the number 58. And when he sees the color red on a black background.

Fortunately, over time, he has developed strategies for coming to terms with these behaviors. He has come up with numbers (7 and 34) to “neutralize” the “bad” number 58. And if he can spot something white after seeing red on black, he can ease the tension to some degree. Life can still be hell – imagine what it’s like for him to walk the streets at night and come across a red “do not walk” signal on a street lamp, where the background appears black. Struggling with this OCD has hospitalized him with depression at times.

Rosa von Praunheim; Oliver Sechting
The Nachtcafé program ended with the question, “Well, Oliver, how are you doing these days?” You could hear the silence, as everybody waited for the answer. I thought we were going to end on a very sour note. Instead, however, Oliver smiled, and began telling the story of having met a wonderful man who has turned his life around. A much older man, somebody with “loads of life experience” who seems to know how to deal with his hangups just right, he says – not patronizingly, not overdoing it, but by being understanding and a terrific listener. That man, it turns out, is Rosa von Praunheim.

Oliver became Rosa’s assistant at some point, worked as his assistant on the prize-winning Die Jungs vom Bahnhof Zoo (The Boys of Bahnhof Zoo - English title: Rent Boys) (2011) and more recently has even directed some of his films. Since the two began working together they have become life partners and now live together in Berlin.

I’m such a sucker for happy endings.

Photo credits:

Oliver with face covered with numbers is taken from his book, Der Zahlendieb: Mein Leben mit Zwangsstörungen (The Number Thief: My Life with OCD) Posted on his blog page:

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