Out in East Berlin: Lesbians and Gays in the GDR: Berlin Review
Engaging documentary weaves together bittersweet personal stories of homosexuality in the workers’ paradise.
BERLIN – Former citizens of East Germany recall growing up gay under Communism in this feature-length documentary, which received its world premiere last week at – where else? – the Berlin film festival. Homophobia existed on both sides of the Iron Curtain, of course, but homosexuality presented a distinct set of problems in a totalitarian regime anxious about appearing to uphold its notional principles of equality for all.
This could have been a dry and worthy subject, but co-directors Jochen Hick and Andreas Strohfeldt weave together these very human then-and-now stories with a sly wit and a sharp eye. Out In East Berlin is as much about first love, youthful idealism and unreliable memory as it is about sexual politics. After the Berlinale a warm welcome awaits at further festivals dedicated to human rights and queer themes, although television will most likely prove to be the film’s most natural platform.
The East German state may have officially decriminalized homosexuality in 1968, ahead of their western neighbors, but the regime remained systematically homophobic. By ordering compulsory check-ups at sexual disease clinics, they sought to monitor and control this “bourgeois perversion”. They coerced gay citizens into spying for the Stasi security services, and even sent undercover “romeo” officers to seduce them. As late as the mid 1980s, when a group of lesbian activists applied for official permission to commemorate LGBT victims of the Nazi concentration camp at Ravensbrueck, they were arrested for “disrespecting” the dead and branded "terror lesbians." There is no greater compliment.
The moral shading between victims and villains in the film is pleasingly subtle. One interviewee remembers her idyllic childhood in the elite youth wing of the Communist party, only waking up to the bitter truth when Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968. Another defends the memory of his long-lost brother, murdered by border guards while fleeing East Berlin, then later denounced for his alleged homosexuality. The veteran British campaigner Peter Tatchell also makes a cameo appearance, recalling how he staged the Eastern Bloc’s first ever gay-rights protest almost by accident. For his troubles, he was physically attacked by both the police and his fellow left-wing Brits.
Out In East Berlin is not targeted exclusively at LGBT audiences. Anyone with an interest in European political and social history, particularly the failed utopia of Soviet Communism, will find rich pickings here. These stories are punctuated by archive photos and newsreel footage of life in the old East Germany, serving as a kitschy counterpoint to the mundane and often painful reality. Likewise the background sound-bed of rousing folk songs and marching anthems, expressing both cheery contempt and bittersweet nostalgia for a lost socialist paradise that never even existed.
Venue: Berlin Panorama screening, February 13
Production company: Galeria Alaska Productions, Hamburg
Producer: Jochen Hick
Cast: Peter Bausdorf, Bettina Dziggel, Michael Eggert, Marina Krug, Marinka Korzendorfer
Directors: Jochen Hick, Andreas Strohfeldt
Screenwriters: Jochen Hick, Andreas Strohfeldt
Cinematographers: Directors: Jochen Hick, Thomas Zahn
Editors: Jorg Theil, Michael Kaczmarek
Music: Matthias Koninger
Sales company: Galeria Alaska Productions, Hamburg
Rating TBC, 94 minutes