“MY WONDERFUL WEST BERLIN”— The Queer Safe Haven of West Berlin

“My Wonderful West Berlin” (“Mein wunderbares West-Berlin”)

The Queer Safe Haven of West Berlin

Amos Lassen

Berlin seems to always have had vibrant and subversive subcultures and we see here that the queer scene played a major role in creating that subculture. Yet gays in West Berlin suffered greatly under the infamous “Paragraph 175” that made homosexual acts between men a crime up until its reform in 1969. Raids and arrests in bars were common, but was unable to challenge gay life and the city turned into a gay capital. The late seventies brought great sexual and political freedoms to Berlin thus allowing for an intense social intermingling between the gay-, hetero-, and transsexual …

In West Berlin in the 1960s it was possible to find bars where men could be left to themselves and this made Berlin a magnet for young gay men. We meets some of them in this documentary and see that they are still active members of the community today,. They share those early years in the city with us. Their memories are of a community that fought steadily for its existence. They had to deal with considerable social repression in the 1970s and a collective gay identity began to emerge that was known as the “West Berlin homosexual campaign”. They fought for the abolition of paragraph 175 and the overthrow of patriarchy. Ruined buildings become the venues for new ways of living together such as all-male communes or the ‘queer house’. A decade later, AIDS hit Berlin. Director Jochen Hick explores queer lifestyles in the West of the city and the roots of a fascination that the metropolis still holds as a refuge.

Today’s hip image of Berlin is based on the city’s vibrant and subversive subcultures, which originally emerged within the grey walls surrounding West Berlin. The queer scene played a major role in creating that subculture, with its sexual diversity and its wild and unconstrained party culture, ranging from notorious clubs to CSD. Many of the scene’s actors, such as the Gay Museum, the Teddy Award, AIDS help organizations, and the queer magazine Siegessäule originated before 1989.

Yet gays in West Berlin suffered greatly under an incongruous provision in German law – the infamous “Paragraph 175” – that made homosexual acts between men a crime up until its reform in 1969. Raids and arrests in bars were common, yet ultimately failed in suppressing gay life in West Berlin. Instead, the city turned into a gay capital. The late seventies in particular were a period of great sexual and political freedoms and more intense social intermingling between the gay-, hetero-, and transsexual worlds. Then AIDS struck, wrecking greater havoc in Berlin than in any other German city.

The film covers the period from the end of WWII to the fall of the Berlin Wall. We get a picture of the gay scene from political activists, partygoers, hedonists, club owners, musicians, fashion designers, a DJ, and a make-up artist. Never before seen archival film footage completes the picture by allowing viewers to travel through time to a hitherto unknown West Berlin.

Homophobia was an integral part of the West German constitution. Even with the Article 175 criminalization of gay sex in the West Germany, the activists paved the way for gay liberation. Through the use of talking heads and archival footage we learn a great deal here. Many icons of German gay life appear here including publisher Egmont Fassbinder, Salome the artist and filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim among others. We see these icons both in historical footage and in the present day and this gives a remarkable depth of perspective.

The film celebrates drag clubs, cruising spots, pick-up bars, radical bookshops and infamous nightclubs (with darkrooms) and we see the role that these played in laying the groundwork not only for Berlin’s radical left-wing spirit but also musical genres such as techno, disco and even punk rock. We also see the hardcore elements.

We see the sadder aspects of Berlin’s gay life as well especially the anti- AIDS movement and learn that government and the church simply didn’t do enough to help those who were dying in the tens of thousands. The freedoms of today were built on the backbone of struggles made by many who either died of AIDS or were simply murdered for who they were. 140,000 men who were wrongfully arrested haven’t been pardoned, and Germany still hasn’t allowed gay marriage.

There were disagreements as well, such as whether capitalism was better for gays than socialism, or if the city has lost its charm because of gentrification.

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