Sunday, 25 October 2009

Gay Male Cinema In Europe Since The 1970s: From Critique To Consensus

The purpose of this essay is to examine European gay male cinema in the late 1970s with regard to the development and the changes gay cinema has undergone since then. I will start by looking at two films in particular from that era, Frank Ripploh’s Taxi zum Klo (Germany 1980), and Ron Peck’s Nighthawks (UK 1978). In the first part of this essay I intend to compare the two films while in the second part I will take a look at more recent gay cinema by forging a link with the developments and changes in gay culture and the gay community.

Both films, Taxi zum Klo and Nighthawks, were made roughly ten years after homosexuality had been legalized in both countries, Germany and the UK. In the UK this happened in 1967 and in West Germany in 1969. East Germany, unlike West Germany, did not have any laws in regards to homosexuality, which, of course, did not mean that is was widely accepted. The matter of homosexuality was simply swept under the carpet as if it did not exist. But in spite of its legalization - which by the early 70s had taken place in much across Europe - and despite Sexual Liberation, the topic of homosexuality was largely ignored by film-makers. In fact, it would take another twenty years until the term queer cinema was coined or until a substantial amount of gay films produced actually justified to speak of the emergence of a gay cinema.
However, there were exceptions such as Rosa von Praunheim’s Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers sondern die Situation in der er lebt (Germany 1971), Sunday, Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, UK 1971), Die Konsequenz (Wolfgang Petersen,Germany 1977) and many of the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, most notably Faustrecht der Freiheit (Germany 1975). It is thus no surprise that both, Nighthawks and Taxi zum Klo caused a considerable stir in their countries when they were first released, even though both films were shot on a shoestring budget and did not reach a very wide audience. But what made those two films different was the fact that they did not (only) focus on the repressions homosexuals had to endure at the hands of an oppressive society, dominated by heterosexuals, but revolved around gay life itself, depicting a truthful picture of the life of a gay man with no holds barred. That their view of a gay man’s life included realities that were unfavourable in the eyes of a few, earned them the praise of some and the outrage of many members of the gay community. This is particularly true in the case of Taxi zum Klo.
In his film Frank Ripploh himself plays the leading role, a character called Frank,
which leads us to assume that his film is to a large degree autobiographical, an assumption that is underscored by the fact that prior to becoming a film-maker he was a schoolteacher, just like the character in his film. Out to his parents, we learn that Frank is nicknamed Peggy by his pals, has a female colleague whom he is friends with and that he joins his colleagues in a weekly bowling-game. He appears to fit right into the free-wheeling spirit of 1970s Berlin, when the city was a haven for any German who considered West-Germany too small-town and too conservative. Berlin, then a divided city, attracted draft-dodgers, left-wingers and of course gays in large numbers. Berlin, unlike West Germany, was anything-goes-territory: liberal, open-minded and, boasted the biggest gay community in Western Europe next to Amsterdam. A wall of photos in Frank’s apartment at the film’s beginning shows a picture of a leather man, obviously by well known gay artist Tom of Finland, next to a sticker that says Gays for Socialism. We also learn that Frank has a constant preoccupation with sex. And in scenes that are at times hilarious and at times shocking we see that he goes to considerable lengths to satisfy his sexual urges, as for instance when he corrects his pupils’ tests in a public toilet while cottaging. And yet although it was precisely the blatant - and honest - depiction of Frank’s obsession with sex that provoked harsh reactions from the gay community, the film remains entirely non-judgemental about it and neither accuses nor exposes him. The film never points the finger at him or makes fun of him and if anything, we sympathise with him for his inability to suppress his sexual urges, for I am convinced that most every man - homo or heterosexual – has experienced phases like this where one’s whole self seems to be controlled by the lower part of one’s body. And although there might or might not be more opportunities for gay men to satisfy these urges, sex - or the hunger for it - can never be just a matter of homosexual men, but of men in general. This is underlined by a quote by Richard Isay:

Human males in general are more promiscuous than females if they
are left to their own devices and if there is the opportunity (Isay 1993:84).

To me it is exactly this honest and frank depiction of a (gay) man consumed by his sexual desires that makes Taxi zum Klo such an important film and one of the reasons why it has stood the test of time. Nevertheless, upon doing research for this essay among a group of gay men in their early twenties I was not only surprised to learn that of eleven men interviewed only one was familiar with this film, but also that this one man “did not know what its point was” nor “what to make of it”(interviewee chose to remain anonymous). Although Frank’s pursuit of sex permeates the film, the main topic of Taxi zum Klo is actually how they stand in the way of finding and forming a functioning relationship. The man he eventually ends up with (Ripploh’s real-life partner Bernd Broaderup) does not share Frank’s incessant preoccupation with sex and has a hard time accepting his boyfriend’s constant unfaithfulness. To Bernd, a relationship has precedence over the thrill of a promiscuous life-style, which although temporarily exciting is ultimately empty and meaningless. Towards the end, after the two lovers had an awful quarrel which leads to their (temporary) separation, the film takes an almost woeful turn when Frank, mumbling to himself, says “can we do more than repeat ourselves ?”, obviously asking himself if it is
possible to change, deploring the fact that in life one can almost never have both - the constant kicks his promiscuous sex-life affords him and the comfort of a lasting and loving relationship - and in order to have the former Frank must do without the latter. - Or does he? That is just one of the questions the film raises. Is it maybe possible to separate physical and emotional love? Do we, as gays, have to emulate the patterns of a straight society or are there perhaps other, more modern or realistic ways, to lead a relationship. Isn’t there more than just one way, the film seems to say, of going about it; a way that allows us to keep the emotional side of the relationship afloat without having to abandon the notion of a stimulating sex-life, which, it must be said, is bound to wear thin in any relationship - homo or
heterosexual - after a number of years.

Frank Ripploh (1949 - 2002)

But to anyone who might be tempted to point their fingers at the gritty and promiscuous life-style of (some?, most?) gay men, Ripploh shows that the heterosexual world is not beyond reproach, either. A woman, physically abused by her husband, knocks at their door one night. Let in by Frank, Bernd contacts a woman’s shelter where she may seek refuge until she is ready to file for divorce.
Furthermore, in another example of juxtaposing the heterosexual and homosexual world we see Frank at the doctor’s evidently suffering from some venereal disease he had caught during one of his ex-marital escapades. Sitting in the waiting lounge he is addressed by a hooker who appears to have a similar condition and in gross and elaborate detail she goes on to tell him about not only her illness but also about
the scruffy and grubby men she has to put up with in her profession. Yes, the film seems to say, promiscuity can lead to a venereal disease, but while gay men give it to each other, heterosexual men give it to hookers. Although Frank is no doubt a man driven by his sexual urges, the film also shows how much he loves his job as a teacher, correcting his pupils’ tests in a public toilet notwithstanding. When he arrives late for class one morning we see him turning an awkward situation into a lesson in pantomime. Similarly, having partied all night at Berlin’s fabled Tuntenball, he arrives at school in full drag, coming out to his pupils with considerable chutzpah and aplomb by explaining to them in a matter-of-fact way that he is a gay man.

As stated above, Taxi zum Klo marked a clear departure from the few films
depicting gay life made until its release in 1980. By having the courage to show gay
life in all its facets and all its ups and downs, Ripploh not only held out the mirror to the gay community, but he did so with honesty and a sense of humour. Taxi zum Klo received the Max Ophüls Award at the Saarbrücken film festival in 1981 and subsequently enjoyed a highly successful run in New York. Having since become a classic, what is also notable about the film is the fact that in spite of its sexual explicitness it was released with a 16 certificate in Germany (meaning audiences sixteen years and older were allowed to see the film), a fact that was previously unheard of (

Ron Peck’s Nighthawks, made two years earlier, shares more than a few similarities
with Taxi zum Klo. To begin with, Nighthawks is equally unknown among young gay guys as Taxi zum Klo. Among the eleven participants in my research there was not one who had ever seen Nighthawks. Like Frank, Jim also works as a teacher and is close friends with one of his female colleagues. And like Frank, he comes out to his pupils at the end of the film. Jim, too, claims to be desperate for a relationship but has comparable difficulties discarding his promiscuous habits for a steady partner. However, it is there that Nighthawks slightly differs from Taxi zum Klo: While Frank actually finds himself a boyfriend, albeit one on whom he cheats all the time, Jim is incapable of striking up any relationship at all. Whenever a guy whom he had met on one of his frequent nocturnal escapades suggests to meet again, Jim
backs out and never returns his calls. The same goes for the guys Jim himself is keen on: each time he fancies somebody and is eager to pursue the guy – nothing comes of it. Unlike Frank, who found somebody but is unwilling or unable to keep his sexual urges in check, Jim appears to suffer from a different but related dilemma: the always-wanting-what-one-cannot-get-syndrome, a vague and wistful hope that there might be something (or rather: somebody) better for him round the corner. Like a child, the minute Jim has succeeded in his conquests, has obtained what he was after, the object of his previous desire loses its interest for him. He needs to move on to someone new. This delusion, that the right man just hasn’t come along yet, this yearning for Prince Charming, although certainly not only prevalent among gays, appears to be wide-spread in the gay community. This inability to commit oneself may have various reasons, one of which is quoted here by Richard Isay:

Gay men may have particular difficulty with intimate relationships,
which often evoke an unconscious recollection of the rejection and
injury that they may have experienced during their childhood (Isay 1993: 85).

And for Peck to address this uneasy topic at a time when gays themselves were still in the process of liberating themselves from the shackles of society was no mean feat. Although doubtless equally admirable, insightful and courageous as Ripploh, in hindsight it seems almost strange that in a time when gays were seeking the acceptance of their heterosexual oppressors, both film-makers would come up with films which in their frankness and criticism of gay-life confirmed the prejudices of society against gays. Almost as if Peck and Ripploh were playing gays off against main-stream society so as to find acceptance by blatant self-criticism. In other words, knocking themselves down before anybody else does. That approach stands diametrically opposed to that of another minority some thirty years earlier: the Jews of Hollywood’s film community in the 1930s and 40s whose fear of anti-Semitism
was so great that they not only assimilated to a degree that they effaced nearly all traces of their Jewish identity, prompting them to be heavily self-conscious about their Jewish origins, but they were also anxious to avoid Jewish subjects in their films. For instance, when RKO’s Adrian Scott intended to produce a film attacking anti-Semitism called Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk, USA 1947), it was “actually the Jewish Community outside Hollywood that was lobbying to stop the picture” (Gabler 1988: 349). Unlike Peck and Ripploh, who were blatant, flamboyant and unabashedly frank in their approach, Hollywood’s Jewish community of those days were anxious to keep a low profile.To be sure, while Peck’s film is certainly distrustful of a hedonistic gay life-style and thus may also be holding out the mirror to the gay community before heterosexuals get a chance to do it themselves, Ripploh’s film was certainly a strong dose for a straight audience to take, especially in those days when explicit sexuality had not yet entered main-stream cinema. Thus I wonder if Ripploh’s intention, more so than Peck’s, actually was to shock people, so as if to say, “yes, I want you to accept me, but all of me - ugly or beautiful - with all my faults and shortcomings!”. Nighthawks on the other hand, although it does contain
some scenes of nudity, is more subdued - some would say more subtle - than Taxi zum Klo. Ripploh’s film features stark images of erect penises and sado-masochistic sex, things Peck avoided in his film. This might either be due to the fact that Nighthwaks was made two years earlier, and in those days two years was a long time in terms of changes in society’s approach to homosexuality and how far one could go in its depiction. Or else, it might simply be a cultural phenomenon and a result of the fact that Germany has always had a reputation for being less uptight about sexuality and the depiction of it than their British counterparts. Even today Great Britain has still very strict pornography laws, “…ancient and draconian besides most other countries in the world” ( In Germany, by the time Taxi zum Klo was made, images of male nudity had already been
seen in various Fassbinder films, not to mention the consequences of sexual liberation, which certainly left their mark on the German media, where images of male nudity were, although not common, were nothing unusual, as I remember from my childhood. But even so, we must never forget that Taxi zum Klo, like Nighthawks, was a low-budget film and entirely privately financed. And I doubt that any high-flying German producer of the time would have cared to fund a project as unpopular as Taxi zum Klo, let alone stood for the amount of explicit male nudity.

Another remarkable difference between the two films is the mood in which they are
told. Nighthawks, regardless of its frequent use of disco music, is suffused with a moody, if not poignant, undercurrent. In contrast, Taxi zum Klo, even if it is equally tinged by a grim undertone, is often downright hilarious. And more often than not, the viewer is choking on his laughs, on the fence between pitying Frank and laughing with him (i.e. the scene when he sneaks out of the hospital, his sex-drive once again getting better of him, and makes out with a guy in a park, until the guy discovers Frank is actually wearing a nightshirt and runs off!). Although Ripploh’s sense of humour might be gross, at times even stark and unsubtle, given
the wit and funniness the British are generally associated with it strikes me as notable that in this case it is the German film and not its British counterpart that sees the comical side of the story. Having said that, Ripploh himself stated that

“in spite of all the hilarity, (his) film is actually a sad film, about the longing for a relationship and its failure”

And this surely is what both films have in common. Taxi zum Klo as well as Nighthawks were both very innovative, daring films for their time, and could even be considered daring and innovative by today’s standards. Not simply because of the candour and freshness with which they approached their subject-matter but also because their topics (promiscuity, the search for “Prince Charming”, how to combine sexual urge and the longing for a relationship) are still central to a gay man’s life. Something which has not changed since the advent of AIDS in 1983. If anything, with the arrival of the Internet - with its promises and temptations just a click away - it got worse. In fact, it would be interesting to see how, if Ripploh and Peck were to make the same film again, the dire reality of AIDS, the emergence of the gym cult and the omnipresence of the Internet would alter their approach. Both films never wag their finger and remain entirely non-judgmental about their main characters, which, along with their subject-matter, contributes to their timelessness. Also, both films offer an alternative to Frank’s and, respectively, Jim’s, promiscuous life-styles, and it is never claimed that all gay men are like that. In Taxi zum Klo this is exemplified in the character of Bernd, who is keen of sharing his life exclusively with Frank. And in Nighthawks Jim himself tells us that he had had a previous relationship which lasted three years. Ron Peck underscores this in an interview, given more than twenty years after the film was made and which is featured on the film’s DVD, when he declares that “this is not a gay film, but a film about a gay character”, implying that yes, Jim is gay and incapable of committing himself, but that does not mean that all gay people are like that. But
then, you could argue that he felt compelled to add that to appease members of the gay community who do not take lightly to having a mirror held out to them.

A lot has happened since the time ever since Nighthawks and Taxi zum Klo were
made. Being gay has become widely accepted across Europe and, at least in the big cities, is not an issue anymore. Even gay marriage has now - to various degrees - been legalised in a lot of European countries such as Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden. AIDS sent shockwaves through the gay community when it first appeared in the early 1980s, but with tri-therapy available since the mid 1990s, AIDS has now turned into a chronic, albeit not curable, rather than terminal disease. British pop-stars like Elton John and George Michael have not only publicly come out, but they also married their respective spouses in ceremonies that were reported across the continent. With so many topics at the film-makers disposal, and with all these astonishing developments, which Ron Peck and Frank Ripploh certainly did not even think possible at the time, one is led to believe that the quality of gay films has, if anything, improved. Yet, by looking at the recent output of films with a gay topic one is beginning to realise that the viewer is treated to the same topic over and over again, with crowd-pleasing coming-out films dominating the screens above all else (i.e. Coming Out, Heiner Carow, GDR 1988; Beautiful Thing, Hettie Macdonald, UK 1996; Ma vie en rose, Alain Berliner, France 1997 ; Ma vraie vie à Rouen, O. Ducastel./ J. Martineau, France 2002 ; Sommersturm, Marco Kreuzpaintner, Germany 2004 ; etc.). These coming-out films not only have very little to do with the actual reality of coming-out, but film-makers are also depriving their audiences of very relevant topics that need to be told. Why has the subject of AIDS disappeared entirely from the screen, so as if it did not exist anymore? Or why is the significant topic of so-called bareback sex (= unprotected sex) ignored entirely? A topic which in my opinion more than merits being dealt with as a whole new generation of young gays is
deluding themselves of either being immune to the HIV virus or else, do not care; I am not sure which one is worse. With gay marriage now legal across Europe, why has it not been turned into a film about, for instance about a gay couple from different cultural backgrounds, etc. And I have yet to see a film about gay-bashing, which, with the recent incident in London’s Clapham Common, strikes me as a more than relevant issue, for with gay marriage now legalised across Europe, it is easy to forget that intolerance towards gays is still part of our reality. And because we do live in an age where youth is adored and people of a certain age are relegated to the back-burner, I deem it important and necessary to see a film about a gay man in his thirties or forties and the problems he faces in his life. However, the actors in gay films are getting ever younger and ever more beautiful and brawny as if this was how all gay men of today looked like – or are supposed to look like. But if it has to be a coming-out film, then why not at least one that tackles the pain, shame and loneliness that more often than not, precede it? Or the pain, shame and loneliness that almost inevitably follow? Restricting themselves to almost one single topic would be excusable if the respective film-makers treated the topic of coming-out adequately and with the respect it deserves. Or at least with a sense of humour. Taking Kreuzpaintner’s Sommersturm as an example, the film deals with the subject of coming-out as little more than a passing episode in a young man’s life. None of the aggravation, depression and sadness that tend to be part of it is even hinted at.

A feel-good movie, Sommersturm entirely lacks bite and is not the least bit provocative, raising practically no questions or problems whatsoever. That the actors in the film are as young and cute as the narrative is conventional, and that Sommersturm has the inevitable happy-end that seems to characterise all films of this peculiar genre – all that goes without saying. Even if the process of coming-out were as smooth and easy as this film leads us to believe, Sommersturm never
dares to go further, exploring, for example, the -most probably uncomfortable- territory of what lies beyond the coming-out. What happens next? How about his parents? How do they react? His classmates? His future love-life? I personally find it hard to believe that society should have changed to such a degree that all these things weren’t an issue anymore. There can be no doubt that gay cinema has taken a deplorable turn to the main-stream that makes Ripploh’s and Peck’s films look as fresh and provocative as they were when they were first released. However, I could even live with the fact that gay films have gotten worse over the years. What I find truly worrisome is the fact that gay communities around the globe are raving about Sommersturm in unison. Is this, in this day and age, the kind of film we need to represent gay men?
But the developments in gay cinema are paralleled by the changes within the gay
community itself. Political and organised in the 1960s and 70s, gays of today are too busy going to the gym or going shopping. To quote Paul Burston:

Study them closely, and you’ll be forced to agree that our booming
‘Gay’ scene has spawned a generation of Stepford Boys – sorry, ‘Boyz’
(Burston, 1995:99).

It seems to me that the average gay man of today is unconcerned with issues such as AIDS, equal rights, bareback sex, etc. After all, the bulk of the work is done - done by a previous generation of gay men, I might add - and so with little left fighting for (so they seem to reason) they are opting for a purely hedonistic lifestyle. John Weir puts it this

The gay community is not moving towards legal rights. It’s not
focused on mourning its dead, or insisting self-preservingly on safer
sex, or on finding a cure for breast cancer or AIDS. The collective
impulse of the chic lesbians and the brave young gay Republicans
who captivate the media today and titillate each other is shopping
(Weir in Simpson, 1996:27).

Although Burston and Weir are quite polemical in their judgment, as a gay man who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, who had a hard time coming out to his parents and having seen a whole bunch of friends dying from AIDS, I do share some of their anger, finding the complacency prevailing in today’s gay community nauseating.
Coming back to films, what I find startling is the fact that today, with the tolerance level of the heterosexual society considerably higher than it was 26 years ago, gay cinema in turn has become a lame and tame imitation of what is offered by the mainstream. One should think that film-makers would regard the progress and changes in society as a challenge to deal with new, exciting and relevant topics. And yet, the opposite is the case. In fact, that the string of coming-out films should follow rather than precede Ripploh’s and Peck’s ultimately bolder and more audacious films strikes me as rather ironic, considering that both, Taxi zum Klo and Nighthawks, were bona fide milestones -trailblazers- of gay cinema at the time of their release. The same, though, can not be said of the coming-out films. They might have been daring and relevant thirty years ago, but with all the developments in society in general and in the gay community in particular, they are little more than a footnote in today’s cinematic landscape.

In summary, with their unabashed frankness and criticism, Taxi zum Klo and Nighthawks are more modern, more daring and more of-the-moment than the majority of
contemporary gay films, which tend to mainly revolve around the subject of coming-out. Although a potentially intriguing topic, it is generally treated with a total lack of zest and originality as exemplified by Marco Kreuzpaintner’s Sommersturm, which in its glib portrayal of a young man’s coming-out process, entirely disregards the darker sides that are inevitably part of it. Unlike Taxi zum Klo and Nighthawks, which both had the audacity to tackle uncomfortable but crucial subjects of a gay man’s life and treated them with a sense of humour and with the honesty they deserve, Sommersturm displays a slickness which deprives its audience of a truthful depiction of what it means to come out, and thus betrays its subject and the people it is primarily targeted at: gay men. Compared to Ripploh’s and Peck’s films, gay films appear to have lost their edge and their bite and gone entirely mainstream, dealing only with crowd-pleasing subjects such as coming-out, making it easy for a straight audience to feel sorry or pity for the travails of a cute young man. This development is reflected in the changes of the gay community itself, which compared to the 1970s and 80s, also seems to have lost its edge and has shifted from the
radical-political to complete conformism, which by and by seems to erase all divergence between gay and straight at the expense of gay culture and gay identity.


Burston, Paul (1995): What Are You Looking At? , London: Cassell
Gabler, Neal (1989): An Empire Of Their Own, New York: Anchor Books
Isay, Richard (1989): Being Homosexual, London: Penguin
Simpson, Mark (1996): Antigay, London: Freedom Editions


Berliner, Alain, Ma vie en rose, France 1997
Carow, Heiner, Coming Out, East Germany 1988
Dmytryk, Edward, Crossfire, USA 1947
Ducastel, Olivier, Ma Vraie Vie A Rouen, France 2002
Fassbinder, Rainer Werner, Faustrecht der Freiheit, West Germany 1975
Kreuzpaintner, Marco, Sommersturm, Germany 2004
MacDonald, Hettie, Beautiful Thing, United Kingdom 1996
Peck, Ron, Nighthawks, United Kingdom 1978
Petersen, Wolfgang, Die Konsequenz, West Germany 1977
Praunheim, Rosa von, Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers sondern die Situation in der er lebt, West Germany 1971
Ripploh, Frank, Taxi zum Klo, West Germany 1980
Schlesinger, John, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, United Kingdom 1971