The Consequence
(Die Konsequenz)

Water Bearer Films, 1977

Wolfgang Petersen

Wolfgang Petersen,
Alexander Ziegler

Starring: Jurgen Prochnow, Ernst Hannawald, Werner Schwuchow, Walo Luond, Alexis von Hagemeister, Alexander Ziegler

Unrated, 100 minutes

Another From The Vaults
by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, November, 2006

Queer cinema history is littered with many unexpected pleasures. Some might be surprised to know just how many groundbreaking gay films were made during that decade of tumultuous cinema rebirth, the 1970s. Not surprising is the fact that almost all of them were made on the other side of the Atlantic.

One of these is a film that I have wanted to see for almost thirty years. This is another one from Germany and it's called The Consequence. Filmed in 1977, this is the first film by out director Wolfgang Petersen. Yes, this is the same Petersen who earned international fame with the submarine epic, Das Boot, in 1981 and went on to direct such Hollywood blockbusters as In The Line Of Fire, The Perfect Storm and Troy. (He also toyed with gender-bending science fiction in Enemy Mine.) This is The Consequence's first appearance on American home video, filling a huge gap in my firsthand knowledge of our cinematic past.

Based on an acclaimed, autobiographical novel by Alexander Ziegler, (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Petersen), it is a love story that fuses melodrama ala Douglas Sirk with a little Jean Genet to give it an edge. Petersen's frequent leading man, Jurgen Prochnow, stars as Martin Kurath - a 30-ish actor who has just been arrested for corrupting a (willing) minor. Sentenced to two and a half years, Martin is about to find prison to be more life changing than he'd ever foreseen.

Martin agrees to stage a fellow prisoner's play and it is here that he meets Thomas, the warden's teen-aged son. The warden is about to be sorry that he grudgingly allowed his son to appear in the play. One exchanged look between Martin and the younger Thomas sets the tragedy in motion. An old stagemaster, who seems to relish being a snitch, warns Thomas to stay away from Martin because "he's queer." His dire warning produces the opposite effect. Think high school senior Justin going after Brian in the first episodes of Queer as Folk.

The next day at rehearsal, Thomas sits next to Martin and takes the cigarette out of the actor's mouth and starts smoking it himself. "You're just a kid," Martin says. "The hell I am," Thomas replies. Martin tries to avoid the kid's glances but it is obvious that he feels the same attraction. On the night the play is performed, Martin finds Thomas hiding in his cell and they are locked in together for the night. Slowly, and tentatively, they become intimate. The next morning Thomas promises Martin that he will wait for him to be released from prison.

Thomas is true to his word and they are reunited but their idyllic love affair is doomed almost from the start. Thomas' parents react predictably and have the boy arrested and sent to reform school when he runs away with Martin. In one of the film's few comic moments, Martin poses as a psychologist to help Thomas escape from the reformatory only to hit more hurdles later. It is a foregone conclusion that things aren't going to end happily because the audience already knows from the film's opening shot that Thomas will eventually attempt suicide.

In today's politically correct climate, this film would probably not get made. Problematic for some viewers will be Thomas' age. Though he becomes an adult before the filmÕs end, he is 15 when he first meets Martin. (The actor, Ernst Hannawald, was 18.) Before anyone screams pedaphile, it should be noted that the age of consent in most European countries is lower than here in the States. Does this condone Martin's behavior? Of course not, but remember that it was Thomas, and not Martin, who initiated the seduction. And no one complains that Jack Nicholson's R.P McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest was arrested for statutory rape.

Petersen's film neither apologizes for, or condones, Martin's indiscretion. In fact, this taboo theme has often been explored in literature, from Thomas Mann's Death in Venice to Nabokov's Lolita. For now, let's leave any moral judgments on the backburner and simply discuss its merits as cinema... Petersen often exposes the hypocrisy of the society our two lovers are forced to endure. A sadistic guard at the reformatory, for example, warns Thomas against acts of buggery but tells his other boys to bring "the little faggot" the next time they visit Babbette. In one of the most unsettling scenes I have ever witnessed on film, the reform school boys gang rape Babbette, a very willing yet mentally retarded teen-aged girl, and try to force Thomas to join in. Score one for heterosexual values.

The Consequence, though sometimes melodramatic to the max, is a powerful film. Yes, it's another movie where the gays are victims but it is an honest portrayal that was, of course, quite daring for its day. Filmed in black & white and originally shown on West German television (except for one TV station in Bavaria that famously blocked the transmission), The Consequence holds up pretty well after all these years. The script manages to avoid cliches while presenting beautifully acted, three-dimensional characters. I am unaware of their sexuality, but both actors had no problem being intimate with each other for the camera.

Its cinematography is striking. The use of bars as a visual motif symbolizes the prisons both men inhabit physically and metaphorically. Stark contrasts of black and white predominate, and we are often invited to be voyeurs as many dramatic images are photographed through a peephole as if in homage to Genet's 1950 erotic prison movie, Un Chant D'Amour. It is a worthy addition to the equally queer films of his fellow countrymen Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Rosa Von Praunheim, all made within a few years of each other.

Gratuitous trivia: The author of the book, Alexander Ziegler, has a small part as one of Martin's fellow prisoners. He plays opposite Martin in the prison play and he also gets to play with Martin too during a brief sexual tryst in a prison cell.

Finally, as a public service I must comment on the DVD itself. Apparently a pristine German print of the film to re-subtitle was unavailable and the embedded subtitles are sometimes impossible to read. To solve this, they placed an opaque white box with new subtitles across the bottom which obliterates almost a quarter of the image. This is the way I first watched it and these new subtitles almost drove me insane. There was no option in the menu to turn them off but I discovered, by accident, that choosing the first chapter in the Scene Selections made these annoying subtitles disappear. The old ones are difficult to read but this is definitely the preferred viewing option because at least you can see the whole image. Another public service: has this for rent if you can't find it at Blockbuster.