My Wonderful West Berlin premiered at this year’s Berlinale to rapturous applause and critical acclaim. Taking a look at the gay movements of West Berlin in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, it celebrates a place that was both hedonistic and revolutionary, paving the way for many freedoms that Germany enjoys today. We sat down with director Jochen Hick to talk about how the film was made, how Berlin has changed and why gay spaces are still necessary in today’s day and age.
Every minority should look around and preserve its own history in order to understand that not everything fell from the sky.
You use a lot of archival footage in the movie. How much did you have to choose from, and how did you go about finding it?
There’s not that much you can choose from to be honest. I was surprised by how little private footage there was of the Fifties and Sixties. Compared to the United States where people have always been inclined to film at-home videos, this was a lot tougher in Germany. There was the Gay Museum, which were very helpful. We also had access to the RBB’s (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, a German public broadcasting system) archive and they had some really nice stuff. But in the end, seeing how many decades we were looking for, I was shocked how little they filmed about gay life. It’s really shocking. What we wanted to see a lot in the early years was footage or photographs within the bars. But because of paragraph 175 people just didn’t photograph it. Everything could be used for the police against people who were either visiting or running these places.
What I found interesting was how it reclaimed history in order to tell the story of people who had been neglected. Do you think that a lot of people today forget just how much culture has been built upon queer lives?
There are two things: one is that every minority should look around and preserve its own history in order to understand that not everything fell from the sky. They should just give a little bit of merit to the prior generation. For example, the ’70s generation – the student generation – didn’t give any credit to those who were there before. They were always unsuccessful, but in the end it was their effort, in a way, that paved the way to the first reform of paragraph 175, and without that reform all those student gay movements wouldn’t have occurred.
Gay history is oral history.
I feel that you try and look for contradictions in the film. The archival footage and the talking heads from the present day both create a specific type of dialogue. Was it important to make it a mixed-bag of different emotions and feelings?
I did a lot of gay oral history throughout the past years. I think mainly, gay history is oral history. Sometimes it’s not even oral history because people are dead and no one really did any research. This happens wherever you go. When I made films in Russia, Memorial, which is like this Gulag Organisation, wouldn’t have asked people if they were also gay. So there is no data, no nothing. So I found it important to show that its oral history. You have to see it from different points of view and how it changes.
We couldn’t only do a film with archival material because there were wasn’t enough. And then we knew we would have to include the people as they are now. We wanted to see the effect of what they did and what they still might do. But there are also contradictions from people who were maybe very leftish then and very bourgeois today. We also wanted to show what happened with the sexual energy of these people when they are older: are they all in relationships, do they still go out, how do they deal with it? We wanted to make kind of a mixed bag: how did things change, what did they really preserve from there, are they still taking part in the movement today? What is their part now?
Despite how much I enjoyed the film, there were very few female voices from the ’70s and ’80s. Romy Haag was there but there weren’t any lesbian characters. Where they not around? How come they weren’t involved?
There were, of course lesbian characters. But it was different to (his previous film) Out In East Berlin where lesbians and gays were much closer together in their fight because of the political situation. We have almost fourteen different persons on the poster who are telling the gay history. How superficial would it have been if I had fourteen gays and fourteen lesbians? They were really not in the same boat after a certain time. Even in the footage before the ’70s there were already gay and lesbian bars.
The women of the Homosexual Aktuell West-Berlin split from the men because they found them to be as patriarchal as straight men. They were fed up and wanted their own movement. In the 80s at the Christopher Street demonstrations there was a real separation. The women said, we don’t want any man in the women’s block, please stay apart, like ten metres. I fully respect that. One should not always put everything in the same box and think that the problems of women are the same as the problems of men. That would be extremely superficial.
The second point is that I don’t want to have a gay man talk about lesbian history. The material of lesbians is so precious, because even less has been filmed. I think they should use this material for themselves. As the American women says in this film: “Please gay men, leave Lesbians alone!” I end the movie with the Dyke March. It was funny because they came to Schöneberg. And they were singing “Where are the lesbians?” because there aren’t any lesbian bars in Schöneberg any more. The last lesbian discotheque was closed in 2016.
One should not always put everything in the same box and think that the problems of women are the same as the problems of men.
Do you think that this is a double-edged sword of equality? That as freedoms grow, gay and lesbian spaces are not seen as necessary anymore?
I think I can only talk about gay people a little bit, and not representatively. There are still a lot of gay places in Berlin. I don’t know the reason why there are so few lesbian places. I still hear from lesbian friends there are a lot of sex parties. But they work and function as a different thing. Right now there is a lot of discussion from the lesbian community about this. There are big discussions about visibility of lesbians and trans people. But what I found in these discussions is that they are much more intense than the gay discussions, because they stay closer together and go into more depth. They don’t run away when they don’t like something, they really stay and discuss it and even fight. I was really impressed by the intensity of these discussions.
Do you think Berlin has lost some of the anarchic thrill you document in the ’70s and ’80s?
Yes of course. Berlin uses it as a touristic image. They say that Berlin has all these sub-levels, it has all this sub-culture, it has all these anarchistic things, come here and you will also get this, even though you are already in conservative high-paid jobs. You see it in Kreuzberg. There are these people in these very expensive apartments. They want to have this next to them. Maybe the loudest bridge shouldn’t be fifty metres from their home, but at least one hundred metres. They still want to live from it, but they don’t realise they’re expelling it from the city.
I think its more and more gone, and of course, it gets more expensive and more commercial. But at the same time, there are interesting things happening now. One has to see what really comes out of this. You still find these places and people who are trying out this non-commercial, anarchistic Berlin way. Yet, at the same time there are a couple of things about this old West-Berlin that’s sometimes taken ironically in the film. You almost cannot breathe because they are preserving their old West-Berlin style so much. Its unbearable.
“Gay people will be the first to be expelled from straight places whenever the political situation changes.”
Is there still a need for queer havens today, even in Berlin?
Of course. I think there are many people who always say: “There’s no need for gay places, because we can go to the straight places.” But I think gay people will be the first to be expelled from straight places whenever the political situation changes. So if they don’t have their gay places anymore, where should they go? I’m also a little bit annoyed when people don’t understand that there has to be something like gay film. Because gay people have this need for something advanced which is not always explaining itself to the rest of the world. I think gay havens or gay resorts will become maybe much more important in the next years, because it doesn’t look like they will be easy.