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German writer Martin Arz recently initiated a project to memorialize Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Freddie Mercury with a decorated pissoir on Holzplatz in the Glockenbachviertel of Munich, a queer area of town. This is a historic pissoir that Fassbinder and Mercury apparently used – maybe even at the same time.[1] The idea of commemorating Fassbinder with a urinal of his own is not such a misguided or isolated gesture.

In 2008 the Swedish techno DJ and producer, Jesper Dahlbäck collaborated with Canadian DJ/producer, The Dove (aka Tiga Sontag) on the music project called Rainer Werner Bassfinder. Stills from Fassbinder’s Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends, 1975) adorned the record covers. In an interview in 2007, actor and Fassbinder’s former wife, Ingrid Caven was asked to recount the time when the two of them decided to get married. “Oh, it was really moving. He always went to the tearoom and afterwards we walked around the neighborhood. Then one evening we slept together.”[2]

Cover of Rainer Werner Bassfinder LP (2008)

Image from Fox and His Friends (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975)

(Cover 2)

Image from Fox and His Friends (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975)

Klappensex, tearoom sex or cottaging – call it what you will – was obviously a part of Fassbinder’s life and, as I will suggest here, a continuous presence in his films as well. And why shouldn’t it have been? Men have been having sex in public comfort stations since the first pissoirs were installed in Paris in the mid-19th century. But the indisputable fact of men seeking sex with other men in public toilets has long been a thorn in the side of a gay political movement and gay and lesbian organizations seeking social acceptance and political rights. Aside from its questionable legality, the promiscuous pursuit of sexual pleasure with a variety of nameless men in the seedy spaces of public toilets hasn’t seemed to jell with the ideals of a movement that privileges a proud assertion of sexual identity and the restriction of sexual acts to the privatized – preferably state certified – form of the couple. The operative strategy of the lesbian and gay liberation movements, in Germany as elsewhere, was coming out , a belief in the positive psychological, social and political effects of assuming and proudly asserting a public, visible identity as gay or lesbian. Facilitating this act of coming out was a narrative of leaving behind the spaces and practices thought to be associated with shame and compulsion, the spaces, which collected together, form the so-called closet. If we take Rosa von Praunheim’s seminal film Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation in der er lebt (It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives, 1971) as a reference, it would appear that the key physical space associated with the metaphorical closet was the public toilet.

It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives

(Rosa von Praunheim, 1971)

Praunheim’s film concludes with two title cards, “Out of the Toilets, Into the Streets,” and “Freedom for Gays.” An accompanying voice over states: “We have to organize ourselves! We need better bars! We need good doctors! We need employment protection! Become proud of your homosexuality! Out of the toilets, into the streets! Freedom for Gays!” Although there is some indication that the “toilet” merely functions here as a kind of synecdoche for all of non-politicized gay culture, it also takes on a specific meaning within the context of the film as the emblematic site for the emotional, psychological, sexual and political problems of so-called closeted gay culture. Earlier in the film, we hear a group of men referring to the Pissbudenschwulen (the piss shack gays) as the most despised within the subculture. Shame-ridden, lonely, compulsive, and marked by a guilty conscience, “they reduce being gay to sex,” as one voice in the film puts it.

Not everyone who engages in sex in men’s public toilets, however, necessarily does or should view such activity as expressive of a sexual identity. In fact, one might argue that the visibility and identity politics of the gay movement reduces having homosexual sex to being gay. While I recognize the historical importance of organizing political action around the assumption of a public gay or lesbian identity, it seems equally important to work at insuring that such an act of coming out doesn’t further marginalize homosexual sexual activity. What I’d suggest then is that we turn to the tearoom as a synecdoche as well, but not for all that is “wrong” with gay culture. Instead, we can recognize the tearoom as a passageway to a broader queer critique of identity and visibility politics and the cinematic aesthetics typically associated with them.

The City Tramp

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1966)

The City Tramp

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1966)

Indeed, in an account of the queer German 1970s as told through the cinematic lens of the tearoom, Fassbinder would certainly be a key figure.[3] This decade would begin, however, in 1966 with Fassbinder’s first film appearance, a brief cruising scene in his short film Der Stadtstreicher (The City Tramp). If we jump ahead to Fox and his Friends, we find the social and sexual space of the tearoom playing a more central role in the narrative, arguably the central role, in terms of its function in providing a space that facilitates interclass contact. It is by cruising the tearooms that Fox meets Eugen and his scummy bourgeois gay friends who cheat him out of his lottery winnings.

Fox (Fassbinder) in front of tearoom in Fox and His Friends

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975)

For The Third Generation (1979), one of Fassbinder’s biting critiques of the blind actionism of bourgeois wanna-be revolutionaries, he asked his regular collaborator, the great actor Volker Spengler, to collect graffiti from Berlin tearooms to use as intertitles. These texts appear as epigrams for each section of his political fairy tale. Fassbinder thus turns to the crude and, at times, racist and sexist expressions of sexual fantasy and desire within queer culture to structure his critique of misguided activism. The tearoom as political playing field.

The Third Generation (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978)

,,You always pull the short straw.“
Scribbled above the 2nd urinal from the left in the public pissoir, Kudamm/Corner
Schlüterstraße, West Berlin

The Third Generation (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978)

“Have big dick. Do everything. No s/m Te. 822 17 05. Hurry. Very horny.“
Inscription from 11.2.1978, feltpen, in the middle stall of the public toilets at the
Volkspark, West Berlin

Finally, in his last film, Querelle (1982), Lt. Seblon hangs out in surreal expressive blue tearooms as he reflects on his homosexual desire for the eponymous sailor (played by hot Brad Davis). The tearoom as psychotherapist.

Lt. Seblon (Franco Nero) in Querelle

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)

Since this key decade in the development of the German gay and lesbian liberation movement is also the very decade or so of Fassbinder’s filmmaking career, a critique of visibility politics that is attentive to the dynamic and multivalent role of the tearoom in queer culture might well use his work as a touchstone. However, the greatest memorial to the German tearoom of the 1970s was created, of course, by Frank Ripploh. His film Taxi zum Klo (Taxi to the Toilet, 1980) provides us with a non-moralistic view of the significance of cruising and tearoom sex in the life of one Berlin schoolteacher and, by extension, a broader queer culture. The autobiographical film comedy focuses on Frank (known to his friends as Peggy) who gets together with Bernd and, eventually, develops relationship issues when Bernd prefers monogamy and a private home life in the country over promiscuity and urban tearoom sex. The film thematizes the difficulties of negotiating issues like monogamy in a queer context, without relegating tearoom sex and cruising (and SM and watersports) to the shameful gutter of closeted gay life.

Frank Ripploh in Taxi zum Klo

(Frank Ripploh, 1980)

Ripploh is a fascinating figure who was intricately involved in the queer film scene in the 1970s and certainly deserves greater attention. He was indeed a schoolteacher in a Berlin-Neukölln Gesamtschule (high school). He taught German and social studies. In the gay scene, he was known as Peggy von Schnottgenberg. Ripploh appeared in Ulrike Ottinger and Tabea Blumenschein’s 1975 film Betörung der blauen Matrosen (The Enchantment of the Blue Sailors) as well as in Ottinger’s classic lesbian pirate film Madame X. Eine absolute Herrscherin (Madame X: An Absolute Ruler, 1977). He was also close to Rosa von Praunheim, appeared in some of his films, and collaborated with him on some provocative live performances, including one that reportedly involved anal sex at the Brühwarm festival in Hamburg in 1976. Ripploh was close to Fassbinder as well and played a small role in Querelle. Additionally, he appeared in Execution: A Study of Mary (1979), a short film by Elfi Mikesch, the filmmaker, photographer and cinematographer who worked with Praunheim, Werner Schroeter and, later in the 1980s, Monika Treut. In 1977, Ripploh was travelling around West Germany presenting a live, slideshow diary called Blutsturz oder wie ein Stern in die Nacht (Sudden Hemmorhage or Like a Star in the Night), which included music and noise and functioned, in Ripploh’s own words, as “a kind of sexual coming out, in which I made public my experiences with sadomasochism and these typical rituals of a gay subculture.”[4] After this project, Ripploh created a multi-media, six projector slideshow called Kindermund und Herzenschwund und die Angst des Lehrers Mensch zu sein (The Child’s Mouth and Atrophy of the Heart and the Teacher’s Fear of Being Human) in which ten teachers speak about their private life, their work, sexuality and sex education. He later turned Kindermund into a radio play.

Interestingly, Ripploh’s slideshows about sexuality and pedagogy caught the attention of reporter Niels Kummer, who then proposed a “coming out”  article for Stern magazine. Ripploh agreed to participate and come out on this grand national stage if the journalist was able to recruit at least ten other teachers to do the same. Inspired by Stern‘s feminist campaign “Wir haben abgetrieben” (We aborted”) from 1971, Kummer enlisted assistance from Cornelius Littman of the Brühwarm theater group in Hamburg, who travelled throughout Germany to collect signatories.[5] They eventually got 682 gay men from all walks of life to sign on, and Ripploh and his slideshow were featured prominently in Stern‘s 1978 Ich bin Schwul (“I am Gay”)  article, a key contribution to the mainstream recognition of homosexuality in Germany in the 1970s.

Aside from a specific interest in tearooms and a desire to inspire more research into Ripploh’s work – for instance, are his slideshows archived? What did they look like? Did he narrate the shows? Which music did he use? Were there other slide shows in the queer scene? Did he narrate a straightforward coming out story? How were SM practices incorporated into a public assertion of sexual identity? – I’m singling out Ripploh so as to indicate how intertwined the aesthetic and political scenes were at the time. It would be great to see more research that goes beyond Praunheim and Fassbinder, the two filmmakers who have received the most attention, to shed light on the specific contributions of many less acknowledged figures, who both aesthetically and politically forged a broader German queer cinema scene that emerged in the 1970s, figures such as Ripploh, Schroeter, Ottinger, Mikesch, Blumenschein, Magdalena Montezuma, Carla Aulaulu, Alf Bold, Heinz Emigholz, and certainly many others.

 


 

Marc Siegel is currently Professor of Film Studies at the Freie Universität in Berlin and a Senior Researcher in the Research Training Program “Configurations of Film” at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. He is the author of numerous articles in the areas of queer studies and experimental film. His book A Gossip of Images is forthcoming from Duke University Press.

This essay has been commissioned in partnership with Cruising the Seventies: Unearthing Pre-HIV/AIDS Queer Sexual Cultures (CRUSEV), in the context of CRUISING GROUND.

 


Footnotes

[1] Mercury lived in Munich from 1979-1985. For a number of years, he lived with actress Barbara Valentin, who appeared in numerous Fassbinder films. For the Fassbinder/Mercury pissoir plan, see https://www.ris-muenchen.de/RII/RII/DOK/BAANTRAG/4540487.pdf (last accessed Aug. 9, 2017)

[2] Caven, Ingrid. Interview with Katja Nicodemus, “Man kann uns nicht einfach ausradieren,” Die Zeit 24. Mai 2007, http://www.zeit.de/2007/22/Caven-Interview/komplettansicht (last accessed Aug. 9, 2017, my translation).

[3] I cover some of the following material in my article “jewboy bottom wants bavarian daddy, thick cock, heavy balls, meet here weekday afternoons,” Little Joe 4 (2013): 53-61.

[4] “Back to the Toilet: An Interview with Frank Ripploh,” trans. Christopher Duncan, Little Joe 2 (2011): 43.

[5] Littman also played an important role in the German tearoom history of the 1970s. In the 1960s, Hamburg police placed one-way mirrors in select public toilets in the hopes of catching men engaging in sexual activity. When they caught someone, they issued a warning and a Toilettenschein, a ticket forbidding use of any of fourteen public restrooms listed by address. (Apparently there were at least twenty-four other ones!) In the summer of 1980, Littmann took a photographer and a hammer to a public toilet, destroyed its mirror and made a public spectacle of the inhumane policing of public toilets. This caused a public and political scandal that eventually led to the end of the discriminatory, voyeuristic practice. See, for example, “‘Rosa Listen’ in der Hansestadt?” Die Zeit 18. Juli 1980, http://www.zeit.de/1980/30/rosa-listen-in-der-hansestadt/komplettansicht (last accessed Aug. 14, 2017).