Coming Out

Icestorm Video &
First Run Features

Heiner Carow

Wolfram Witt

Starring: Matthias Freihof, Dagmar Manzel, Dirk Kummer, Michael Gwisdek

Unrated, 113 minutes

Queer and Loathing in East Berlin
by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, October, 2000


When I started writing this column, one of my aims was to introduce readers to gay films that they might not read about elsewhere. Last year, I reviewed Fire, which was historically significant for being the first lesbian film ever made in India. This month's choice was made on similar grounds. The film is called Coming Out and it was the first and only gay movie to have been filmed in East Berlin.

By pure chance, Coming Out happened to premiere on November 9, 1989 - the night the Berlin Wall came down. It was directed by the late Heiner Carow, who was both a gay man and one of the leading filmmakers at Berlin's DEFA Studios. Striking a chord with European audiences who were sympathetic to the plight of minorities, it was awarded the Silver Bear prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. Regretfully, Coming Out was never released to theaters in the United States. But now, thanks to Icestorm Video, which has just acquired the rights to decades worth of films in DEFA's vaults, American audiences can finally see this groundbreaking motion picture.

Coming Out examines the trials of Philipp Klahrmann (Mathias Freihof), a young high school teacher who is just learning the truth about himself. While comedic situations abound, the director's intentions are serious. Coming Out opens with a lengthy, and uncomfortable scene in which a young man named Mathias (Dirk Kummer) is rushed into a hospital ER to get his stomach pumped. When a nurse asks him why he tried to kill himself, his answer is simple: "Because I'm queer." Later, he and Phillip will meet but he vanishes from view for the interim while the audience is introduced to Philipp.

Philipp is first seen riding his bicycle to work, and then teaching his homeroom class. His sexuality is broadcasted (to gay male viewers at least) by the tightness of his jeans and his flannel shirt. The early scenes detail his relationship with Tanja (Dagmar Manzel), a fellow teacher who loves him. When she makes a pass at him, he responds to her, they make love, and begin to date. He is awkward with her but he also seems desperate to make this relationship work. Problems emerge when her old friend Jacob visits and it is immediately apparent that he and Philipp know one another. Jacob and Philipp had experimented as adolescents and his appearance awakens old feelings. He realizes that he is kidding himself by trying to be straight. The truth, however, terrifies him. While walking through a train station, he panics when he hears someone yell "fag!" He sees a group of skinheads beating up an effeminate man and runs in terror.

Nonetheless, Philipp finally makes his first foray, nervously, into a gay bar. He is welcomed enthusiastically by the bar's patrons and drinks to excess. He sees another man eyeing him from across the bar and it is Mathias, the suicidal young man from the opening scene. Later, the two men sleep together and Philipp is at peace and thinks that he has found what he wants... until Tanja announces that she might be pregnant. Feeling responsible, he returns to her and the consequences are disastrous for both of his lovers.

To a modern American gay audience, much of Coming Out's plot might seem familiar but this was radical stuff for a movie that was being filmed in East Berlin while still under Communist rule. The movie is a bit rambling and episodic in nature, (like real life), but the situations are real and honest. During his coming out process, both to himself and to others, Philipp errs at every crossroad. Once Philipp sets forth on his road to self-discovery, he realizes that he has to be true to himself. His journey is painful and nothing is wrapped up in a neat bundle by the denouement, as is the case with most American films.

Director Carow obviously understands his subject matter and is probably working from real life experiences. He clearly grasps the effects that living a lie can have on both the closeted gay man and the people around him. Philipp, like many gay men just coming out, lives under the delusion that he can change himself. He makes the attempt and fails. In the process he destroys the two people who love him. He also obsesses about people learning his secret. When he finds himself attracted to a man, he tries unsuccessfully to reject his true feelings. He is both noble and pathetic, allowing for the audience to sympathize with him totally, especially when he screws everything up.

Coming Out doesn't shy away from showing male love. The love scene between Philipp and Mathias is both tender and loving, yet filled with the awkwardness of it being Philipp's first time. Mathias Freihof, as Philipp, beautifully conveys with his facial expressions both the joy and the confusion he undergoes during his first real adventure with a man. Coming Out also doesn't indulge in stereotypes, however I had a big problem with the first gay bar scene on my first viewing because all of its patrons where dressed in some form of drag. When subsequent scenes in the bar were populated by men in more subdued dress, I realized that some holiday must have been depicted earlier because a number of drag queens were blowing off fireworks outside when Philipp first enters. This being a foreign film, certain matters of culture would be taken for granted by its native audience... just as an American gay audience needs no one to explain Stonewall or Ellen Degeneres.

For me, the key moment of the film (see sidebar for quote) was when an elderly bar queen sits Phillip down and tells him about being arrested by the Nazis fifty years ago for being gay. It is a beautiful example of an elder imparting his wisdom to youth, while also placing all the events we just watched into a historical perspective.

I have seen better queer films than this one but, when Coming Out is placed in its cultural and historical milieus, it has to be recognized as a landmark for the genre. It features an attractive and likable lead character in situations that are both believable and dramatic. The storyline is engaging and doesn't attempt to unrealistically provide a cliched happy ending. Coming Out will be available on video in late September, and hopefully some of our more adventurous video venues will carry it.


(Reviewer's note, 2007: Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, profiled in Rosa Von Praunheim's I Am My Own Woman, made a brief appearance in this film)


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Phillip has just pushed away an old gay man, misinterpreting his gesture of help as a pick up. Walter, the old man, quiets the bouncer and buys Phillip a drink:

Walter: "You think we always make a pass at every man we approach just because we're gay? Can't we just be trying to help? And be kind like other people? Stop crying."

Philipp: "I'm afraid. I'm terrified. I'm a high school teacher. Know what that means? A queer high school teacher?"

Walter: "It could be worse. I don't mind your insulting me. But I can't take brutality...I already paid my price to be able to sit here and wait... like everyone else here... for a man to smile... Once I met the love of my life. 50 years back. His name was Karl. I was 20, he was 28. We had worked out a good way to conceal it. One night... I don't know who reported us... we were dragged out of our tent, disciplined and taken away. They took us to Gestapo HQ in Berlin... They sent me to a concentration camp. I wore a pink triangle. I was dirt to them... then I became a member of the Communist party. The comrades saved me. I was an activist from the first hour after the war... We stopped mankind's exploitation by mankind. Now it doesn't matter if the person you work for is a Jew or whatever. Except gays. They were forgotten somehow."