Homophobia used to be enshrined in the (West) German constitution. Article 175 criminalised gay sex in the West Germany all the way from 1871 until 1995. Yet within the country, nestled in the eastern block, was a small city that would pave the way for gay liberation: West Berlin. My Wonderful West Berlin depicts the queer era from the late 60s until the early 90s as the LGBT community used the relatively more lax space of Berlin as a battlefront to fight for queer lives. Here is why you should see it.
It Celebrates A City Of Hedonism
It makes use of talking heads and archival footage to excellent effect. Many legends of the scene participate, including publisher Egmont Fassbinder, artist Salomé and filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim. Cleverly they are shown both in historical footage and in the present day, giving the film a remarkable depth of perspective. With such a topic there is a wealth of archival material. Yet, director Jochen Hick swathes through all of this with ease, creating a story that is concise as it is bittersweet.
It celebrates the drag clubs, cruising spots, pick-up bars, radical bookshops and infamous nightclubs (with attendant darkrooms) that laid the groundwork not only for Berlin’s radical left-wing spirit but also musical genres such as techno, disco and even punk rock. There is no shying away from the more hardcore elements either, celebrating the pornographic and criticising the rest of the world for still being relatively sexually repressed.
It Acknowledges The Pain
There are more sombre elements throughout, reaching a crisis with the AIDS movement, in which the government and the church simply didn’t do enough to help those who were dying in the tens of thousands. One cannot but help draw a parallel between the indifference of the 80s towards gay people and the current demonisation of refugees. That Berlin has become a safe space to both is no coincidence. It shows the need for remembering history in order to move forward.
The freedoms of today were built on the backbone of struggles made by many who either died of AIDS or were simply murdered for who they were. Like with larger political events, history provides a compass with which to navigate the struggle to come. After all, the 140,000 men who were wrongfully arrested haven’t been pardoned, and Germany still hasn’t allowed gay marriage.
It Has Its Criticisms Of The Movement Too
It is no mere puff piece for the city. Many disagreements run throughout — such as whether capitalism was better for gays than socialism, or if due to gentrification the city has lost its charm and become worse for gay sexuality. It also rightly acknowledges the phallocentricity of the gay movement, stressing that in the future gay men and lesbians need to work together in order to improve their stature in the world. The film itself doesn’t do enough to include women in their narrative — although the almighty Romy Haag provides many great anecdotes — and people of colour are also reduced to cameo roles.
Nevertheless, coming at a time of intense political upheaval, the lessons to be learned from My Wonderful West Berlin still seem as relevant as ever. This film feels like it has been a long time coming — reflected in the way the crowd laughed and whooped cathartically throughout the premier (I have no doubt some of them were subjects in the film.) That the movie is as aesthetically pleasing as it is politically incisive is no small achievement. It deserves to be seen everywhere.