GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Am My Own Woman
Screenplay: Rosa Von Praunheim, Valentin Passoni
Starring: Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, Jens Taschner, Ichgola Androgyn, Beate Jung, Sylvia Seelow, Utz Krause
Unrated, 90 minutes
Wolfe Video, 2005
Director: Angelina Maccarone
Screenplay: Angelina Maccarone, Judith Kaufmann
Starring: Jasmin Tabatabai, Anneke Kim Sarnau, Navid Akhavan, Hinnerk Scho‘nemann, Jens Mźnchow, Jevgenij Sitochin
Unrated, 97 minutes
Up Like A Million Dollar Trooper
Two months ago I, along with many other Buffalo theatregoers, made the acquaintance of Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf on the BUA stage through Jimmy Janowski's delightful performance in I Am My Own Wife. For those who would like to meet the real Charlotte, may I suggest Rosa Von Praunheim's 1992 docu-drama, I Am My Own Woman.
Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf was a cross-dressing gay man who somehow survived both the Nazis and the Communists and lived to old age. Charlotte was born Lothar Berfelde in Mahlsdorf, Germany in 1928 to a loving mother and tyrannical father. Charlotte discovered, at an early age, a taste for women's clothing accompanied by the unsettling feeling that he should have born a girl.
To escape both the war, and his Nazi father, Lothar's mother took him to live with relatives on their farm in East Prussia. "Nature has played a joke on us," his butch lesbian aunt - who frequently dressed as a man - tells Lothar when she finds him wearing a dress. Encouraged by his aunt, Lothar reads a book about "his kind" by the early sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld. Lothar becomes Charlotte and a legend is born.
In addition to surviving decades of oppressive regimes, (it is a minor miracle that she wasn't dragged off to the death camps), Charlotte saved an East German palace from ruin and turned it into a museum, preserving a historic gay bar and priceless pre-World War II furniture and artifacts. Throughout her life she endured Nazis, Communist bureaucrats, Stasi agents, and finally violent skinheads in the re-unified Germany. Throughout it all, she retained a simple identity as a German hausfrau, eventually achieving celebrity status when she received the Cross of the Order of Merit, Germany's highest award.
And before you think that Charlotte is depicted as a saint, we also learn that she killed her goose-stepping father in order to protect her mother.
Von Praunheim's filmic portrait is unique in that it is part documentary, part interview and part re-enactment. Two actors play Charlotte at 17 and from ages 20-40 in dramatizations. Charlotte emerges as an uplifting figure who truly enjoys telling her story. Amongst the film's charms is seeing the real Charlotte coaching the two actors on how to play her as an iconoclastic youth, including one striking moment when she demonstrates the proper way to lay across a barrel to receive a lover's whip.
This is a Von Praunheim film, so don't expect a dry installment of Biography on A&E. Charlotte holds nothing back as she speaks of matters that would not be discussed in polite society. There is copious sex and frequent male nudity. The glue holding the film together is, of course, Charlotte herself. The film covers much of the same territory as the recent stage play but it is a pure joy to see the real person preserved on film. It is like spending a pleasant evening with a beloved aunt or grandmother, except that you get to hear about her sex life too.
Von Praunheim's decision to film Charlotte's life is not surprising. (In fact, like Charlotte, he took his name from a drag performer and combined it with his hometown.) Like his fellow countryman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Von Praunheim became notorious in the 1970s for cinema that explicitly dealt with queer themes. But, while Fassbinder's specialty was melodrama, Von Praunheim's forte was radical politics.
In 1971, his It Is Not The Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But The Situation In Which He Lives was so shocking that it outraged even gay audiences. Later, he turned his camera to document marginalized queer Germans, both living and dead - the two best known being this one and his profile of Magnus Hirschfeld, The Einstein of Sex.
The film lacks studio polish but this isn't a bad thing; its strength lies in its passion and honesty. It's a pity that films like this do not receive the same DVD treatment as Hollywood releases - this disc was obviously duped from a VHS tape. I doubt that you will find it at Blockbuster but Netflix.com carries this important title. The next time that you are angered by the rantings of this country's fanatical religious right and fascist family groups, put yourself in Charlotte's shoes. Hers is a story that must be preserved for the ages.
Another German film about GLBT oppression and crossdressing is 2005's Unveiled, directed by Angelina Maccarone. This one features an Iranian lesbian who assumes the identity of a man to gain asylum in Germany.
Fariba has fled Iran to avoid prosecution for loving another woman. Armed with forged papers, and fearing the same homophobia she faced in her native country, she tells an immigration official that she is fleeing for "political reasons." When her application is denied, fate deals her another hand. A man terrified of being sent back to Iran has committed suicide. Fariba hides his body, takes his clothes, cuts her hair, and takes his place. The ruse works and she is sent to a refuge camp in a small German village.
Fabira lives on the edge in cramped quarters where her disguise could be discovered at any moment. In order to pay for forged pasports, she takes an illegal job in a sauerkraut factory where she is attracted to a co-worker named Anne. Trouble brews on the horizen when Anne is attracted to Fabira as well - the problem of course being that Anne thinks Fabira is a man.
As anyone who has been following current events knows, the Middle East is not a good place to be gay; earlier this year two young men were hanged in Iran for the "crime" of homosexuality. Fabira knows that if she returns she will be killed by her family. But living in Germany is fraught with peril too. Fear of discovery is coupled with bigotry against foreigners. When she tries to avoid showering in the factory's locker room, one man sneers at her "Hey Ayatollah, afraid to get wet?" Later, two male co-workers take her to a strip club. Fabira is caught between terror and desire when the guys buy her a private room with a dancer.
Unveiled is profoundly political and a great story at once. It is also a richly drawn character study of a heroic yet desperate woman. Subtle touches abound; when we first see her she is on a plane wearing black sunglasses and a veil. Using the restroom, she stuffs her veil into the smoke detector, lets her hair down and lights a cigarette - establishing from the onset that she is her own woman and won't bow to convention.
Fabira's story is gripping and you are caught up in her plight without feeliing manipulated by obvious music cues and the like. Will Fabira get the girl and live happily ever after in Germany? This is a foreign film, unbound by Hollywood box office concessions, and anything can happen.
Von Mahlsdorf makes a brief appearance in
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