“FRIENDSHIP OF MEN”— Intimate Relationships


Intimate Relationships

Amos Lassen

Rosa von Praunheim’s “Friendship of Men” makes all kinds of assumptions about which works and correspondence from Goethe and his contemporaries.

 The film is a mix of documentation, historical digression and cheerful and silly re-enactments. Based on the study “Warm Brothers – Queer Theory and the Age of Goethe” by US Germanist Robert Tobin, Praunheim allows all kinds of scientific expertise to be heard. The 18th century was a time in which men fell verbally around their neck without explicitly attaching erotic importance to it.

Rosa von Praunheim and his co-author Valentina Schütz look at a range of people that may be a little too broad to deal more closely with individual relationships: by Duke August von Sachsen-Gotha-Altenburg, who liked to show himself in women’s clothes, via Heinrich von Kleist to Alexander von Humboldt, who also went to distant countries to be able to live out his homosexuality without sanction. The lesbian love between Adele Schopenhauer, the philosopher’s sister, and Sibylle Mertens, who maintained a “Rhenish salon,” is mentioned. It remains to be seen whether Heinrich Heine’s public disparagement of the poet August von Platen as a pederast, who “flirted with his buttocks”, actually gave the go-ahead for the criminalization and pathologizing of homosexuality that began in the mid-19th century.

Praunheim’s has a workshop character. Hearty game scenes in Weimar Park on the Ilm in front of amused throngs of schoolchildren and passers-by are loosely cut together with the scientific excursions. All contributors introduce themselves to the audience before speaking as experts or actors. This may seem foolish at times, but it reminds us of times when TV documentaries were not yet musical spectacles.

The German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim wears a white wig from Goethe’s time in his new documentary. He takes the audience back to the era of Weimar classicism with game scenes and gives imaginative expression to the way that educated men from art and aristocratic circles used to interact. Goethe and Schiller were emotionally very involved and conducted a warm exchange of letters. But can it be concluded that the two poets have a homoerotic tendency, even practice? The director interviewed various scientists and authors. The speculative film turns out to be entertaining and informative. Because he makes the audience aware that in Goethe’s time it was quite common for men to cultivate intimate friendships.

In the 18th century, people from better circles maintained penpals and Goethe wrote diligently, for example to his friend Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. Some of these correspondences read like love letters, but the researchers interviewed distinguish between expressions of emotion that were socially accepted and physical love. If Goethe and his friends insured themselves with affection, it was probably not meant sexually. The kisses that they sent to each other symbolized a closer feeling. Nevertheless, it is quite appealing to read passages from Goethe’s work and private letters from a homoerotic point of view and let the thoughts wander, as Rosa von Praunheim and his actors do here.

Some of the experts interviewed consider it possible that Goethe had sexual contact with men during his trip to Italy. Exciting is also the excursus to Johann Winckelmann, the founder of classical archeology, who decisively shaped Goethe’s love of classical music. He not only praised the beauty of Greek male statues, but was also known to be gay. However, the amusing film derives its special charm mainly from the fact that it shows how much more passionately heterosexual men insured their friendship than today.


Conclusion: The filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim delves into amusing speculations about the sexual orientation of Goethe, Schiller and some of her contemporaries. He immersed himself in the atmosphere of the Weimar classic with game scenes when men wrote glowing letters of friendship. The scientists he interviewed consider homoerotic tendencies to be possible with Goethe, but also point out that the expression of emotional love that was common at the time was usually not meant sexually. Speculations develop their special charm in coloring an era with other, sometimes surprisingly liberal, social customs.