When the Nazis seized control of Germany, they mercilessly expanded Paragraph 175, the 1871 law criminalising homosexuality. Capturing thousands of gay men, they were sentenced to death in the concentration camps alongside Jewish people, other ethnic minorities, and those with disabilities.
The draconian law remained in place long after the allies liberated Berlin. Of those liberated from the death camps, many were sent straight to jail. If no longer a death sentence, it continued to be abused to persecute queer men, even after the fall of the infamous wall that divided the city.
Eventually struck from German law in 1994, Nazi-era convictions were scrubbed from the record in 2001, but it wasn’t until last year that all men prosecuted under it were fully pardoned, including compensation for survivors.
Berlin-based filmmaker Jochen Hick explores the long shadow left by Paragraph 175 in his fascinating documentary My Wonderful West Berlin (Mein Wunderbares West-Berlin), a highlight of the Mardi Gras Film Festival.
“Many victims died before the rehabilitation process started,” Hicks notes. “That is a very sad feeling, that Germany waited until most of them had passed away.”
Drawing on rare archival footage predominantly focusing on West Berlin’s gay male community from the 50s until the late 80s, the film illuminates a vibrant socio-political network that thrived despite police and political harassment.
After the devastation of 1945, a flourishing creative scene resurfaced, inspiring filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Rosa von Praunheim, as well as attracting international musicians like David Bowie and Iggy Pop.
“A rich and heterogeneous LGBTIQ community had its roots back in the 19th century and was very strong before the Nazi era, so there were of course memories to follow on,” Hicks says. “After 1945, Berlin had a very special demography, mainly old people or students. Many who wanted to work, make money or raise a family left.”
Major change came in 1969 with the first modification of Paragraph 175. “After that you could be somehow openly gay, just the age of consent was different to straight people.”
Hicks says this allowed West Berlin’s many subcultures to form and co-exist, something he says the city is losing today. “Back then West Germany did not really care about what was happening in West Berlin by night, it was an island within the Communist block.”
Politics play a big part of the doco, identifying a considerable overlap between socialism and the city’s gay liberation groups.
“Hand in hand with the students movement, many gay men wanted to contribute to that political change,” Hicks says. “They were leftists, but wanted to make a point that sexuality is not just the minor ‘side contradiction’ as many Marxist would argue. However, they were mainly put at the end of protest marches, because the ‘straight’ left was just as homophobic as the general public.”
Communes sprung up in the city’s many squats, with great swathes of Berlin still lying in ruins. Hicks notes that they weren’t as sexually liberated as you might expect. “Sex happened outside of the communes, in bars, parks, toilets or still mainly in relationships, whereas political discussion and activism took place within the communes.”
There were also ructions with the city’s lesbian communities and their push for women’s rights. “Gays could have tried to team up more with the women, but they chose not to,” Hicks says. “And of course there were women who did not want them around, since for them gay men also represented patriarchy.”
The latter point is colourfully demonstrated when footage is shown of the walls of a meeting room covered in hundreds of drawings of penises. For his part, Hicks says this separation suggested the focus on gay men in this film, as well as a firm belief that the alternate story is for lesbian filmmakers to tell themselves.
Of course, Berlin’s club scene thrived, spawning punk icons like Nina Hagen and artist Salomé of Geile Tiere (Horny Animals). “Bowie and Iggy Pop were probably drawn by the weirdness of Berlin during the mid 70s, a city full of drugs where nobody cared and everything seemed to go,” Hicks says.
My Wonderful West Berlin also spends some time with pioneering trans woman and Bowie muse Romy Haag, with her eponymously named club Chez Romy Haag offering something of a sanctuary not only to trans people, but also the broader LGBTIQ community.
Punk mutated into techno, championed by DJ and producer WestBam first at the Metropol club before the new sound found its spiritual home at Ostgut club, which in turn spun out of gay sex party Snax. When Ostgut closed, it was later reborn as the world-famous Berghain.
Heady days and even headier nights were cruelly curbed by the onset of the HIV/AIDs crisis, but even this catastrophe brought a very Berlin response, Hicks notes. “There was a strong movement to create a sex-positive approach to the epidemic and the bathhouses of Berlin were never closed.”
Framed by contemporary interviews with several of the men featured in the archival material, My Wonderful West Berlin allows both recollections of the past and also a sense of how much has changed in the intervening years.
“The fashion designer Klaus Schumann, with his weird family story and the drama about the illness of his lover was touching to me,” Hicks says, “As was René Koch, who arrived in the early 60s. There are quite a few moments I am still moved by after seeing it numerous times, all these different life paths.”