Interview with Rosa von Praunheim

     |    Monday July 4th, 2016

An edited version of this interview appeared in Exberliner Magazine (April 2015) to coincide with the theatrical release of his most recent film TOUGH LOVE and an accompanying ten film homage at Berlin’s Lichtblick cinema.

Without filmmaker and (recent Bundesverdienstkreuz recipient) Rosa von Praunheim’s gamechanging films and controversial media interventions – he practically invented the outing of public figures as a response to the stigmatization of homosexuals in the 1980s and 90s due to the Aids crisis – gay life today might be very different. His important body of work over nearly five decades includes everything from camp satire of bourgeois morals (“Die Bettwurst”), gay liberation manifestos (“Not the Homosexual Is Perverse, But the Society He Lives In”), activist films (“The AIDS Trilogy”) and a collection documentaries and fictionalized biographies about famous and everyday people embodying various aspects of gay identities: from superstar cartoonist Ralf König (“King of Comics”), expat trannies in 80s West Berlin (“City of Lost Souls”), pioneering sexologist and Nazi victim Magnus Hirschfeld (“The Einstein of Sex”) and East German queer icon Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, later discredited as a Stasi informer (“I Am My Own Woman”) to “Rent Boys of Bahnhof Zoo” and gay concentration camp survivors (“A Life in Vain – Walter Schwarze”). At 72, von Praunheim is still going strong – he teaches film at Potsdam’s Media University “Konrad Wolf” – one of his prize students is Axel Ranisch – while maintaining a very regular output, still making relevant and engaging films while ever raising the bar for himself. Von Praunheim speaks about different forms of capturing real life stories on film, what issues he feels are relevant to the LGBT community and his take on gender relations (though he might not use that term…).

Von Praunheim’s most recent film, TOUGH LOVE is a docudrama about former Berlin pimp Andreas Marquardt, a particularly rough customer who was the victim of physical and sexual abuse from his father and mother. After a stint in Tegel Prison and some psychotherapy he opened a martial arts school and teaches karate to underprivileged Neukölln kids. Marquardt later published his memoirs, co-written with psychotherapist Jürgen Lemke. As it fate has it, Lemke is a good friend of Praunheim’s, and that’s how he came to tell this particular story.

Hanno Kofler and Andreas Marquardt

The film features interviews with Marquardt and fictional sequences with him played by actor Hanno Koffler. How did Praunheim come to choose the mixture of fact and fiction? “It’s more believable if you see the real person, to underline that it’s a true story and not fictional.” Praunheim didn’t want to do a straight documentary about Marquardt “because there already were documentaries about Andreas Marquardt after the book about him came out. I was interested in a fiction film with documentary elements.” Marquardt was easily won over, as he feels comfortable with opening up, but Marquardt’s longtime companion, Marion Erdmann (played by Luise Heyer in the film), another major character in the story, “was more shy and anxious. She doesn’t push herself into the limelight. But she did it for his sake,” Praunheim explains. Erdmann was one of Marquardt’s underage prostitutes and yet stuck with Marquardt through thick and thin.

TOUGH LOVE: Marion Erdmann and her fictional counterpart, Luise Heyer

TOUGH LOVE is a departure thematically for Praunheim, and yet like his earlier work, it illuminates gender relations, just from a different angle. How does this all fit together? “Andreas Marquardt is a macho, “ Praunheim starts to elaborate. “He took up karate which is a tough sport and is very successful at it. He’s a legend in the world of sports. So he’s lived his whole life with incredible toughness. And now it’s hard to make him understand what this machismo means. It’s his life. And his life is determined by his hatred of women which resulted from the sexual abuse by his mother.” But Marquardt was able at some point to admit weakness and seek help. “That has to with his being in jail. He didn’t want to stay there forever and needed to talk about himself. And that worked out very well.”
And what about Marion, who on the surface seems incredibly docile but also displays flashes of strength? Praunheim is not so convinced. “While he as in jail, she did take care of the gym and managed his whole livelihood. But she did it all for him. I think today it’s still the case that the lives of many women center around doing everything for their men. One psychiatrist said that ‘Tough Love’ is an instructional film for women who still make themselves entirely dependent on men. Marion and Andreas don’t have any children, with women who do it’s even more tragic. It’s still a part of women’s traditional role to behave masochistically towards the man, despite tragedy, difficulties and humiliation.”

And what about alternatives to traditional role models. Like gay marriage, for example? “I personally don’t believe in gay marriage”, says Praunheim. “I will never marry my boyfriend. I see the tragedy of many heterosexual couples when they get divorced, for both women and men. Everyone should be warned.” Is gay marriage just assimilation into middle class values? “Adapting to middle class values is [inevitable], whether it’s gays becoming religious, joining the army or adopting children, it’s not my bag. As for children, those who want to have them – I think it’s mostly lesbian couples – I think it’s wonderful. I have nothing against children. I also think it’s good for stable gay couples. But I personally don’t have such a connection to family so I can’t really say anything.”

So has the desire for a certain assimilation into dominant culture dulled the edge of LGBT activism? “The moment you have become more integrated into society and you experience less repression, then there’s less reason to fight or be active politically. But I think that’s the general climate. My heterosexual students are also not politically or socially active because there is a certain level of wealth. Egoism and individual goals are in the foreground.” One issue that Praunheim thinks is high priority is the difficulties young people continue to experience when coming out. ”Especially in puberty, they just want to belong and be like everyone else,“ Praunheim explains. “If you belong to minority it’s difficult especially where their classmates who come from backgrounds where homophobia is very dominant. That’s a big problem.” How can this be changed? “It already starts in kindergarten. There should be schoolbooks openly discussing homophobia and racism as the two are related, and also what it means to be different. That’s a very important part of education. Accepting difference and starting early on to discuss these gender roles. It’s important that students come in contact with openly gay and lesbian teachers and this is supported officially. Of course it’s difficult. If there are Muslim students in class who replicate the homophobia of their families.” I ask if he thinks that a certain solidarity or coalition among marginalized groups, which gays and Muslims both are, has eroded or if this solidarity was a pipe dream to begin with. “Devout Muslims would not appreciate it if homosexuals would express solidarity. Can’t imagine it. Various marginalized groups can only express solidarity with others when they are themselves emancipated. But as long as women are still oppressed in Islam there won’t be any solidarity.”

As for female equality here in Germany, exemplified by the recent discussion at the Berlinale about a female directors quota, Praunheim believes, “I hope that the female director quota will encourage women to become more ambitious if they receive the support. I’m all for it.” But he doesn’t see women’s disadvantages as being entirely the fault of structural inequality. “Art has something to with talent. Not everyone is. It’s not a democratic medium. I can’t say I’m an artist and have painted a picture, so I’m entitled to be exhibited or have my book published. You need talent, hard work, great interest and the ability to achieve your goals. Most people are lazy. I know it’s provocative, but this unfortunately also applies for lesbians. Unfortunately, women are less ambitious. One female filmmaker told me that women have more multi-faceted interests than just filmmaking and career advancement. They are more versatile and less singleminded. Men are more goal-oriented; when they want something, they think they’re the greatest and try to push it through. You need lots of energy. If you don’t have it then it won’t work.” He candidly continues, “Women are still too private and very timid about being in the public sphere. Non-lesbian women experience less discrimination, nevertheless I think the timidity on the part of lesbian women is related to the oppression of women in general. Women grow up in more fear.” Is this specifically a German problem? Praunheim answers, “I think that women in America have a more emancipated upbringing. At least in middle-class families, children are told more often that they’re great and that they achieve what they want to, both male and female children. More confidence is placed in individuals that they can achieve their goals. In Europe children are told you can’t do anything or you’re stupid. Only if you work really, really hard will you become successful. And this is especially the case for women, that they don’t think they’re up to certain challenges.” He shares this experience, “I’m a member of the Academy of Arts, a somewhat elitist artists association. The governing board is made up of women, but there aren’t many female members. And even women don’t elect other women as new members. And the same with the film business – there are hundreds of female producers, writers and script consultants, but very few female directors. There are actresses who say ‘I don’t want to work with a female director.’ It’s tragic that women are often very anti-woman.” He nevertheless ends this line of questioning on a somewhat hopeful note: “I can’t generalize, but I wish women would become more self-confident and really use their talent. But things are changing.”

"City of Lost Souls" (1983) featuring Angie Stardust and Jayne County

Beyond the bipolar model, what is von Praunheim’s take on gender identity? “Gender studies is the domain of lesbian women and feminists. There are hardly any men in that field. I’ve read about and discussed it, but I’m not a theoretician,“ he says. “Of course I’m against any discrimination of people who don’t conform to the gender mainstream, man-woman, and tolerance and acceptance should be encouraged early on. In my film “New York Memories”, there is a 12 year old born as a girl, who posts on YouTube that he wants to be a boy. It turns out that lots of young people already know when they’re five or so that they don’t belong to to the gender they were born as. I think it’s good that are platforms on the internet where these kids can get mutual encouragement.” He sums up with concern and admiration, “But it will always be difficult to place oneself outside the norm, a martyrium. It’s not like a drag queen putting on a dress and dancing at the carnival. It takes a lot of inner strength.”

Praunheim has lived and worked in Berlin since the mid-1960s, experienced the full spectrum of changes throughout the years. Has he ever considered leaving? “Between 1971 and 1995 I lived a lot of the time in New York, made many films there,” he remembers. But Berlin will always be his homebase. “We’ve become more international. There are very interesting and creative subcultures of all kinds. The rents are still relatively low and the quality of life very high in comparison to other European capitals. Berlin is very appreciated. It’s the most creative metropolis and has surpassed New York because the rents are so high and no one can afford to live there. Berlin is better than ever.”

Interview: Natalie Gravenor