Saturday, 29 June 2013

The talented Mr Ripploh

I thought I must have seen Frank Ripploh's Taxi Zum Kloh during my closeted but curious student days in the early 1980s, so talked about was it at the time. But if I had, I would have remembered at least the scenes which made it notorious then and which still had us sometimes squirming and looking away last night*: non-simulated sex which makes the grubby rendezvous of Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox in Patrice Chéreau's  Intimacy - and what a surprise we got stumbling into that one out of the heat of a Paris July - seem tame, a shock through a lavatory glory-hole (I'm too prudish online to show you what happens next below, as our hero sits on the bog casually marking school work),

a golden shower, a graphic clinical inspection for STD and a surprising take on child abuse. That last is thankfully moral: two of the gay characters waspishly comment on what would seem to be a genuine German film-warning to children to beware paedophiles with the same repugnance we feel, while Frank fends off an over-frisky pupil who's there for home tuition in the kitchen.

None of the extremes, the censors decided at the time, could be thought of as pornographic because all support, if sometimes contradict, the tender love story at the heart of the film.

There are no drums and trumpets for any of the things that just happen to the characters, as they do in life (Ripploh, playing himself, claimed that most of the incidents were autobiographical). Still surprising is how natural and funny it remains as an, ahem, warts and all picture of one type of gay life - or maybe two running parallel - lacking the gym-worked bodies and soft centres of later movies as director, writer and protagonist Ripploh tells us how it was for him in 1980s Berlin.

The anti-hero is a good teacher and the classroom scenes delight through the smart responses of the kids. One wonders how much they were told about the film they were in. But then this was West Berlin in the early 1980s, where, we're told, everyone took such things in their remarkably tolerant stride.

Frank is unapologetically promiscuous, and frankly the kind of shit who wouldn't have hesitated to pass on a deadlier virus in the AIDS era then to come (hospitalised for six weeks, he's off to the nearest Herren Klo, which of course is men's toilet, at the first opportunity). His lover Bernd is sweet, homeloving, dreams of a retreat to a farm; it ain't going to work. Or is it? I said to J halfway through, 'I'm going to love this film if no-one has to die at the end'**. So I love this film.

It was a huge hit in the astonishingly direct-speaking Germany of the period. Heterosexuals went in droves to see what the gay life might be like. Sympathetic as the UK censor seems to have been in 1981, there was no way he could give any kind of certificate to the more outlandish scenes. The director of London's ICA at the time agreed with him that cutting would deprive the film of its balance, and ran it under film-club conditions with black pen scrawled over one sequence which could have been against the law.

Police and councillors up in Edinburgh threatened to seize the reels and destroy them. As the print happened to be the only one with English subtitles, done at the cost of thousands, each reel was bagged the minute it finished, plonked into a car at the back door of the cinema and driven off to a secret Morningside address. The threatened impounding, in any case, failed to happen, though a wild party to celebrate resulted in several arrests.

Success seems to have gone to Ripploh's head. That made his mentor Rosa von Praunheim, pictured above in 2008, very sad. Von Praunheim and other friends who remember Ripploh in an accompanying documentary on the DVD testify to a man who was funny, spontaneous and enthusiastic, but fundamentally as unreliable as his screen self. The next couple of films were by all accounts (and to judge from the handful of clips shown) absolutely terrible. But as von Praunheim records without rancour, Taxi Zum Klo remains infinitely more popular than any of his own more earnest this-is-what-it's-like-to-be-gay-in-today's-society homilies.

Ripploh died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 52 , but his masterpiece lives on with a vitality missing in all gay-themed movies I've seen of late (anything by Ferzan Özpetek before the recent disappointment of Magnifica presenza, in which the gay element is in any case a given, honorourably excepted). On Pride Day, when it turns out that there's still more to fight for than we thought ten years ago and much of the bigotry which had gone underground has now popped up, especially in France, to try and beat up the marriage issue, we need a film as insouciant and in-your-face as this more than ever. And who's making them now? German trailer follows.

*The evening had begun with an attempt to watch Written on Skin again, this time as televised on BBC Four, and maybe write about it for The Arts Desk. But only minutes in, I confirmed my existing opinion by finding it every bit as frigid and pointless, magnificent performances notwithstanding, as I had when I went to see it at the Royal Opera. So there was nothing more to say, and I switched off after 20 minutes. All the human interest missing therein was to be found abundantly in Taxi Zum Klo.

**At least in Behind the Candelabra it isn't the victim who dies. I enjoyed its quiet coda as well, of course, as impeccable performances by Matt Damon, Michael Douglas and Rob Lowe.


Gloria said...

On the subject of taboos covered by the film, don't forget the doped-up victim of domestic abuse and the cunnilingus. Nor the 'let's adopt a mongol and put a 'beware of the dog' sign on the door'. A masterpiece, all the same.

David said...

How could I, Gloria, much as I'd been prepared to wipe those from my mind.

But tell me, did this film not chime with any of your youths, many of you older regulars? Or have I frightened the horses?

jondrytay said...

I didn't see it until last year- hadn't heard of it before then.

David said...

That's because you're so young... But what did you make of it? Were you amazed? Charmed? Repelled? All three? Do tell.

Susan Scheid said...

I think I'm a bit too squeamish for this one . . . but no question it's good it's "out" there (so to speak). Is Behind the Candelabra worth a watch?

PS: Back to pride day this side of the pond, Edie Windsor is not simply, as I wrote in a comment on the Monreale post, "one of the ones" who is leading the NYC parade today, she's one of its three Grand Marshals. Isn't that grand?

David said...

I don't blame you - and it's not exactly your sphere of interest, though the human story is universal, as usual.

Great to hear about Edie takng the lead - how could she not, woman of the moment? How disgusting about the Pennsylvania lawgiver silenced from even commenting on the ruling because an opponent claimed it was 'against God's law'. And he only wanted to observe it, not push his own agenda.

On the plus side, I love the Bert and Ernie cartoon on the New Yorker cover, inspired. I'll buy a copy to keep.

Behind the Candelabra's rather fine, if a familiar trajectory (showbiz ego crushes outsider-lover). Some have objected to the script, can't see why. Worth seeing in the cinema because the cinematography's good. The dramatic symmetries are pleasing and the performances, as I suggested, absolutely terrific (even if they have 'Oscar' written all over them, something I'd usually resist).

wanderer said...

I wonder if it made it here, under or above ground, because it's not been seen in this house, by neither of us, and as you well know, it's not because of youth!

So I've just ordered Derek Jarman's Garden ("Paradise haunts gardens and it haunts mine'), and now this, and on the first day home when belt-tightening is (was) de rigueur. These horses can't be frightened. I've just seen the Pasolini retro in Barcelona, not to mention the 60's 70s and 80s and ...

We are safe and with dog again, and content within after one of the most satisfying little trips ever, on so many levels. And not the least of it all, our time with you and J. Bis spater.

David said...

Welcome home, and all's well, I hope, with garden and dog (ah, the two things that would improve quality of life here. One day). Diplo-mate and I are both Bernds rather than Franks and probably always have been.

That was quick on both but you won't regret either. The book is so beautifully produced; the first-ever DVD release of the film has some compelling extras from which I cribbed most of my information.

Off to teach Capriccio now. Sheer bliss.

David Damant said...

I am not at all sure that censors are ever right to say that a work is not pornographic or is acceptably so because it includes any material which could be seen in that way in a valid context. First, it will be read as pornography regardless of the plot. I am not in favour of most censorship of pornography anyway, but if one sets out to control it this is the not a useful argument. I remember "Last Exit to Brooklyn" - where I agreed with Robert Frost that it was "a profound vision of Hell", but it was circulatiung rapidly for the sex scenes regardless of context. And, as a second point, once a book is published on the grounds that the sex is in a valid context the flood gates open - as with Lady Chatterley. Then books with no valid context flood out. I would agree with opening the gates, but the arguments of the censors were really nonsensically for both these reasons

David said...

It seems to me a very wise censor who takes each case on its individual merits. Would there ever be progress in art or anything else if one were to say, better not encourage that or a thousand poorer examples might follow? It will be ever thus.

Anyway, on its own merits, this film speaks to your primary criterion: that a 'work of art' says something important about the human condition.

wanderer said...

One too many negatives in the first sentence of my previous comment I think, but put it down to alliteration.

All's well, yes, and the sun shining on a bright cold morning although there is much to be done in the big garden after huge storms and heavy rain. And all but instantly the dog is back where we left off; their 'nowness' is something I often, if not always, envy.

Bernds and Franks: I wonder how much of the Franks' innate tendencies are just that - innate - or a response to a rejecting accusative society where/when love and sex in the ghetto are transposed by the rejected and in promiscuity, as in war, and death, self hate and self destruction consume.

I do love the London Pride logo : Love Who You Are. The times have changed, been changed, by the virus, the internet, but most of all by the busting open of the ghetto, and while I agree that the everlasting (I'm afraid) bigotry of judgement and difference (fear as the root cause) is still festering just under the surface, the degree of tolerance, by education and/or imposition, has shifted, and the self esteem needed to be a Brend and not a Frank is given nurture, at last. The unloved can't love.

It would be interesting to know what the cancer was that killed Ripploh at 52. You know, the end is in the beginning, and all that.

David said...

Absolutely agree with all you say, wanderer, and couldn't have put it half as philosophically well. An opposing view is put by a German filmmaker in one of the DVD's accompanying documentaries, who says we especially need this film now that state and government have sanctioned and made straight gay relationships.

I suppose the excitement of having a lot of sex when it became available was another thing - perpetually celebrated by Jarman, too, and I imagine in his case (though FR is more doubtful) not tied to self-hate (and I'm with Betjeman, who when asked if he had any regrets, said he wished he'd had more sex, ie in his youth).

But one has to wonder what Frank in the film is up to, having had his cake and still eating it when he's found someone who truly loves him. And yes, I wondered about the final illness too but that's all I could find.

wanderer said...

I'm pretty sure I've ordered the DVD with the extras, and this is getting more and more interesting.

No anthropologist I (Debbie's friend Annie is an anthropologist, fascinating train trip back to Berlin, and we are much looking forward to catching up when they come down next January), I think males are programmed to be (more) promiscuous - the seeding drive - and to the extent that sex with males is/was without biological consequence, until the virus that is, other than the known STD's and syphilis was the slow killer there, there came the time - post WW2 - where a culmination of factors, noticeably easy transport, both local and long distance, and I mean the motor car especially, meant anyone could meet anyone anywhere anytime, something hardly possible in the horse and cart days. And so it happened - promiscuity in an unloved group seeking love and satisfaction, readily available (not since the blitz!), dreadfully unaware of the consequences.

Gosh, that was a long one.

Betjemen speaks for many or most I'd hazard a guess and that raises the question of why one didn't. Gore Vidal, on the other hand: "Never pass up a chance to have sex or appear on television".

David said...

Yes, you've almost written a Thomas Bernhard sentence in the longer paragraph there - boy, is my head spinning halfway through the 247-page paragraph that is Old Masters. I think we should comment as we think, without pausing to look back, and the results are unique.

Even so, didn't get the significance of the injected 'fascinating train trip back to Berlin' in that Debbie sentence. Dear Debs has disappeared off the radar: must try again.

David Damant said...

The statement that sex with males is without biological consequences raises again the old question......why do gay men and women keep being born? One would have thought that the gene(s) would die out, especially after thousands of generations. I have read some attempted explanations as to why gayness persists despite the usual evolutionary exclusions, but found all the arguments so lightweight that I have forgotten them

David said...

That's another interesting way of looking at it. Of course we are in a new age of gay reproduction and parenting now, which so happily gives the lie to unchanging 'family values'.

wanderer said...

The reference was to our train trip back to Berlin from Friedrichshagen with Annie and the conversation about her anthropological postings - Paris, London, Africa, UNESCO.

David D raises the gay gene, but, intentionally or not, all but discounts its existence, it being evolutionarily self-limiting. But there's genes, and then there's gene expressivity. Perhaps everyone has a gay gene (and a heterosexual gene), should there be such genes. The latest I read on 'gay theory' talked about a foetal imbalance of placental male / female hormones as a possible causative factor- an hypothesis which gives some credence to the posit (unconfirmed as far as I know) that gay men are often a late (in maternal years) offspring.

David said...

Oh, I see, I'd forgotten you all travelled back together. I do so love that photo of the three of us peering round the grubby old door.

Well, ain't that interesting about late maternal offspring. My parents waited 8 years after tying the knot for anything (ie me) to come along. My dad was my age when he had me; ma was 20 years younger but still not an average mum in those days. said...

18Well, I've come a bit late to the discussion, but I've just watched Taxi zum Klo on LoveFilm (that tells you how things have changed!). But I was also there on the evening the film was shown at the ICA. The audience, essentially gay, was holding its breath with astonishment until someone let out a howl when Ripploh is peed on. Laughter ran right through the audience.

Looking at the film yesterday, I am absolutely blown away by how frank it was, especially for that time and for someone like myself out in the suburbs and not 'out'.

It's a remarkable piece of film, far far ahead of its time, but who remembers and understands that now?

You've done a wonderful job of encapsulating all the issues attending the film, then and now.

Robert Knight.

David said...

I'm very glad you took the trouble, Robert, and it's reassuring to know that folk coming to the review aren't just the ones who've entered 'glory hole gay' in Google (that one always seems to pop up most in search terms).

Well, there are plenty of us who never saw it at the time who get the chance to appreciate the film's originality in the 2000s.