The life and struggles of Florian Burkhardt, a Swiss model turned Internet whiz turned mental patient turned agoraphobic party organizer, is the nominal focus of writer-director Marcel Gisler’s documentary Electroboy. But this fascinating story is so tuned into both the zeitgeist and Burkhardt’s specific personal and family dynamics that the film frequently transcends its narrow subject matter. This largely German-language Locarno Critics’ Week title is a shoo-in for some serious love on the queer film circuit, where Gisler’s last fiction film, the touching Rosie, was on heavy rotation, and will also appeal to documentary events and distributors.
Electroboy, titled after Burkhardt’s moniker as an electronic musician and party organizer, is Gisler’s first non-fiction feature, though one would never be able to tell from the sophisticated way in which he brings all his material together. The backbone of the film consists of several long interview sessions with Burkhardt himself, now 40 and with his square-jawed yet fresh-faced good looks still discernible underneath the more severe traits caused by early middle-age and an extremely eventful life.
Gisler also interviews several key people in what could loosely be described as Burkhardt’s often fawning entourage over years: Urs Keller, nicknamed Fidji, who now lives on an ashram in India where he’s interviewed, but who first took Burckhardt to Los Angeles as an aspiring actor some 20 years ago; Gregory David Mayo, his erstwhile agent in L.A.; Urs Althaus, his Swiss booker as a model and Theophil Butz, at whose advertising agency Burkhardt developed several major websites when the web was still in its infancy. Also frequently onscreen, though in a much more sober key, are the protagonist’s older brother, Claudius, and his conservative parents.
Through Gisler and cutter Thomas Bachmann’s judicious editing choices, a semi-chronological idea of Burkhardt’s career and evolving personality emerges rather organically from the material. When, in an early segment, Florian’s prim mother asks Gisler (who’s offscreen) how her son is doing, it’s a bit of a shock. However, it quickly becomes clear that the young man’s strict and extremely sheltered Catholic upbringing was one of the main reasons, besides the obvious idea to get rich and famous fast, to move to Los Angeles, as far away from his old folks as possible. “I’m simply incompatible with my parents,” Burkhardt states at one point, though the film perceptively pinpoints more exact causes for their issues with each other.
The fact that Burkhardt realized he was gay as a teen didn’t help matters at home and his very religious father still struggles with the fact today, as evidenced by a revealing moment in which he takes the blame for his son’s sexuality because he was an “emotionally distant father.” Gisler, a queer filmmaker himself, then wonders out loud why, if it could indeed be blamed on him, Burkhardt’s older brother turned out to be straight?
Another important reason for Burkhardt to want to desperately leave is because his mother’s smothering love emerges about halfway through the material and actually predates his birth. This tragic event seems to not so much have shaped as warped the entire family’s way of dealing with their emotions and still seems to have an unhealthy influence on the way they have connected (or rather, not connected) since. This becomes especially clear in the film’s closing scenes, in which the earlier dynamics between his father and mother radically shift.
Gisler’s film thus offers a look at many different things, including how parents deal with their children and each other, how children try to escape from turning into their parents and how the past keeps influencing the present. It also concretely chronicles how a young man in the early 1990s managed to turn his good looks into a career, getting Keller to sponsor his stay in L.A. even though he’d never seen him act — Keller says he was “bewitched by his creativity” but denies every having been in love or physical with Burkhardt — and how, when acting didn’t work out, he became a successful model for brands such as Gucci, Prada and photographers including David LaChapelle. Tellingly, his parents have never even seen the photos of his modeling days.
Burkhardt finally returned to Switzerland but not home. Instead, his desire to shack up with an idyllic-sounding boyfriend ended his modeling career and, after that relationship ended, he finally settled in the German city of Bochum, in the industrial Ruhr area. This seemingly odd choice is motivated by the fact that everything Burkhardt needs is within walking distance from his apartment there. This is a necessity since a panic attack on a train has made taking public transport for him practically impossible. During a subsequent, voluntary stay in a Swiss mental clinic he was diagnosed with “generalized anxiety disorder, narcissistic personality structure with self-worth and identity problems along with indications of social phobia.” Not much later, he would reinvent himself as an electro musician and party organizer, though his condition keeps him from attending his own events, which are wildly popular in Switzerland.
Instead of becoming a long list of occurrences, accomplishments, reinventions and psychological challenges and transformations, the film naturally brings all these elements together to paint a picture of an extremely complex human being who paid a high price for leaving the parental nest — though it was an absolutely necessity — and who had to try and find out the hard way who he was and what he wanted out of life. The man formerly celebrated for his good looks now lives practically like a hermit with his dog, occasionally flirting with others over the Internet, which makes him feel safe because “there are no erotic expectations.” But this documentary suggests he has no problems with being emotionally naked.
Production company: Langfilm
Writer-Director: Marcel Gisler
Producers: Anne-Catherine Lang, Olivier Zobrist
Director of photography: Peter Indergand
Editor: Thomas Bachmann
No rating, 113 minutes