Sunday, January 29, 2017

Coming Out In East Berlin

 

Every so often I am fortunate enough to come across some obscure film that turns out to be a gem. I'm always on the lookout to find some film that few know about and often times these are foreign films or films from decades ago. I was lucky enough to find a film that was both foreign and from the past, Coming Out. The film is East German and was released in 1989.

I will admit that I have this fascination with Berlin in the 1980s and especially East Berlin. A city divided by an armed wall that separated two worlds so vastly different in most every way compels my mind to want to know more. The stark contrasts between the vibrant west versus the drab east of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) were images that I saw quite often on American television news growing up. Visually the east appeared gray and cold and those are two attributes that I find appealing. Though I know life was more difficult in the east at least from a purely aesthetic perspective I found it attractive and have romanticized the isolation.

Scenes of gay life in East Berlin.

Coming Out gives a rare look over the other side of the Berlin Wall into a not very well documented part of what life must have been like being gay in East Berlin. The film shows us the gay bars and the colorful and lively environment inside that was a shelter against the outward grayness of the city. There were the drag shows and bar staff in drag which reminded me greatly of where I live in Atlanta where drag or cabaret as some would call it, is very popular. You see doormen standing behind a sliding window in a door inspecting customers before allowing them inside to make sure they weren't there to cause trouble. American gay life wasn't so different as this tactic was often used to stop or delay police from raiding and arresting patrons. In the film there is the park cruising that would go on and that too was common in the United States during that time. So there were similarities between gay life in East Berlin and in the United States in how underground the scene was back then. There might not have been Gay Pride parades but you find out that gay life in East Berlin in the 1980s wasn't all that different from gay life in America and that is surprising.


The plot of the movie is that of a twenty-something high school teacher named Philipp that begins a relationship with a fellow teacher (Tanja) that had had a crush on him for years. Soon after they begin dating he meets a friend of his girlfriend that turns out to be his gay lover from his adolescence. This chance encounter reawakens his own gay feelings and he is soon out in the East Berlin gay bars exploring his homosexual desires. This is where he meets Matthias and they quickly fall in love. Philipp begins to lead an unhappy double life deciding between breaking it off with his girlfriend or to follow his true love with Matthias.

Matthias


Matthias is somewhat younger at nineteen and soon to be twenty he says and for him Philipp is his first love and he's like a puppy with big eyes following Philipp around. Matthias falls head over heels in love with Philipp and eagerly wants to start a serious relationship with him. Matthias is an innocent character and though he's spent some time in the gay nightlife of East Berlin he isn't jaded like someone with more experience would be. He's very much a refreshing character and you are cheering for him not to have his heart broken. Matthias is the sweet, charming and curious character that I adore.

Philipp

Philipp just coming to terms with his sexuality is the character that is coming out as the title implies. Though he had had adolescent love with another boy he is attempting in his adult life to suppress his true identity and live as a heterosexual man. His family is pressuring him in many ways from family household obligations even though he no lives at home to settling down with a woman. Once he does move in with his girlfriend the pressure weighs more heavily on him that he isn't happy and that he is living a lie.

Through the film we watch as Philipp struggles with his identity in his career and in his personal life. The writing captures well what it is like to first enter the gay scene and how one must find their way into being embraced by your community. It also depicts well how the community can be very accepting and at the same time very shallow and harsh. One of the better scenes in the movie is when Philipp is confronted by an older gentlemen that helps guide him onto the path of self acceptance and beginning to live life in a more healthy way. By the end of the movie, which takes a few unexpected turns to get there, you see Philipp making progress to finding his own path to personal freedom.

One piece of trivia about this film is that on the night the movie premiered in the theatre it was the same night that began the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989. GDR officials announced as the film was playing that the gates to the west were open and residents of the east could freely travel. The announcement on the news that night was cause for a huge celebration and so people rushed to the wall and overwhelmed the guards and police on duty. The crowds were so large that finally officials gave up on checking the documents of everyone that wanted to cross and this lead to the fall of the wall. So on the same night that a film about a gay man finding his own personal freedom premiered it was also the same night an entire country found its freedom.