Berlinale Blog – My Wonderful West Berlin

     |    Saturday, der 18. February 2017

By Andrew Horn

Having seen and enjoyed Jochen Hick’s 2013 film on gay life in pre-Wall East Berlin, “Out In East Berlin”, I was definitely up for finding out what he had to say about the western half of that parallel world in “Mein Wunderbares West Berlin” (My Wonderful West Berlin, 2017 Germany).

Post-war West Berlin had a had a big minus and a big plus going for it. The minus was obviously being cut off from the rest of West Germany by the surrounding Russian Sector. And then once the Berlin Wall went up, being, not just politically, but now, physically walled in and emotionally isolated. Because of that, most people didn’t want to live there. But the good part was, that in order to counteract this, the government began offering prospective Berliners all kinds of subsidies to make life cheaper and more desirable. And add to that, any young men who lived there would be exempt from military service. As a result, West Berlin was THE place in Germany for all the misfits and lunatics who didn’t belong, didn’t give a shit, didn’t want to go into the army, and needed a cheap place to live.

Berlin always had a homosexual community, but in the 50s and 60s, it was laying low. Homosexuality was illegal under the notorious Paragraph 175, a holdover from pre-War times, and homosexuals were ripe for arrest as well as blackmail. Then, in 1969, fate took a hand with the confluence of two geographically disparate events: a) Stonewall in the US, and b) the defanging of Paragraph 175. And this is where Hick’s story begins.

Romy Haag

The film shows us a coming together of diverse characters who arrived in Berlin from the 60s onward, intent on discovering a life and themselves. It was “Work, love, living – we shared everything, no couples,” says one. Beginning with the club, Why Not in the mid 60s, which you would enter through a still ruined building, other places to get together now started to emerge, Eldorado, Metropol, Kleist Casino – where Klaus Nomi first performed in public, and the Dschungel – a nexus of West Berlin night life, where the likes of Bowie and Iggy were frequent guests – and the first openly gay café, Anderes Ufer, “the first place where the blinds were raised and you could see inside from the street.”

They formed the Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin (HAW) and out of that came the Schwuz, an alternative club, performance and art space. They founded a Gay Museum, still active today. It was “out of the toilets and into the streets!” and people were trying to define themselves not just sexually but politically – which turned out not to be as easy as it sounded. The Left thought they were too frivolous, while gays from other countries thought they were too serious. The older generation thought they were too out there and would blow everyone’s cover, and the parallel woman’s movement found them too “male” oriented, saying “if this is going to be all about dicks, we’re not interested.”

But of course the one place they did belong was with each other. And that’s the real essence of the story that Hick conveys – that sense of community and family which sustained them in the journey from their so-called “island of happiness” to the dark days of the “dark rooms” and finally to AIDS. It all plays out through the individual and collective stories of a wide cast of characters of various backgrounds, disciplines and even generations. A coming out story to be sure, but a coming out story of a city.

Addendum – the extent to which Berlin’s gay culture is plainly acknowledged as integral aspect of city life, the local transit authority was recently using this poster to promote public transportation. For those non-German speakers the text is a play on words, literally “bring yourself to another shore”, meaning on the one hand somewhere new and exotic, but also that same café, Anders Ufer, mentioned above, very much still there today.