A Fascinating Film

Amos Lassen

Paragraph 175 which made homosexual behavior punish able by law was abolished in the German Democratic Republic in 1968. Homosexuality was once considered, in Germany, to be a negligible issue in ‘real existing socialism’. The nuclear family constituted the center of social society. “Out in East Berlin” tells the various, impressive-to-absurd personal histories of gay men and lesbians during socialistic GDR until the fall of the Berlin Wall.  At that time they were watched carefully by the Ministry of State Security (Stasi) and even their actions in the bedroom were recorded in innumerable personal files. Based on the homosexual perspective, filmmakers Jochen Hick and Andreas Strohfeldt elucidate the political picture of the GDR, in which citizens are monitored, spied upon and whose movements are restrained. In addition, they are called upon to betray one’s own cause: homosexual emancipation. Coming out in East Berlin was concerned with politics, passion and personal toll. This film captures that as we watch an amazing documentary about love and identity in the Communist world.

 Filmmakers Jochen Hick and Andreas Strohfeldt focus on the fascinating and powerful stories of thirteen East Berliners who came to terms with their sexuality in a country strictly controlled by a single-party Marxist-Leninist government. We must understand that East Berlin was a country where spying was a part of daily life and an attempt to escape could be deadly. In the GDR’s strict ideological world, dedicated in theory to equality for all, homophobia is just under the surface of mainstream society, adding a level of complexity for gays and lesbians searching for connection and happiness. 
Through provocative, emotionally charged interviews and amazing archival discoveries and newsreel footage, “Out in East Berlin” gives us a full picture of an era, a place, and the people who lived through an emotional roller coaster of life-changing politics, sexual and otherwise. Even with the intensity of the subject here, the film captures the inspirational energy that comes when marginalized people are motivated to create a movement that matters. Each voice brings a unique and sometimes contradictory perspective. Yet the people that we hear from are bound together by the desire to be free and therefore they create an amazing film about the dangers of love in an authoritarian state, and how to find a place in the world against all odds.

out in east berlin

The focus is on gay men and women in the German Democratic Republic. We learn of the individual fates of several concerned as they visit places with a special meaning to them and give interviews to summarize the way they loved and were subsequently targeted by the government. The film unites the strange bedfellows of tragedy and humor  It’s really a good mix of tragedy and humor and the characters that we meet here are interesting and indeed have something to say.

This is so much more than a film with a gay theme—it looks at humanity and freedom and the characters who just happen to be gay lead us into territory we have, until now, known little about. The documentary brings together personal stories with what was once considered a workers’ paradise.

“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”. We see the thin lines between victims and villains and we see veteran British campaigner Peter Tatchell 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.

This is a film for anyone with an interest in European political and social history, particularly the failed utopia of Soviet Communism. The stories we see and hear are punctuated by archive photos and newsreel footage of life in the old East Germany and this helps us through some of the more mundane parts of the film.

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