CITY OF LOST SOULS

Rosa von Praunheim 1983 Germany 1h 31m Musical/Comedy​

 

The New Woman

 

As a young underground German filmmaker and staunch gay rights activist, Rosa Von Praunheim took his name from the pink triangles that queer prisoners were made to wear in Nazi concentration camps. While pseudonyms are often employed by women or racially profiled creatives in order to pass as white and male, thus ensuring an unbiased treatment and their potential success, Rosa Von Praunheim’s subversion of this trend in order to instead centre the queer and feminine aspects of his identity and those of his community is typical of his filmic vision. To uphold this new name is not only an act of remembrance for the pains and struggles of queer survival, but simultaneously a message of hope for the future in the face of a society that refuses to accept those who are different: one of queer joy, exuberance, performativity, and, above all, an infinitely playful approach to gender expression. Trans survival is, in itself, often characterised by modes of performance, fictioning and a playfulness of expression in order to adapt to a given environment or situation. As we move through public space we continuously tread the line between becoming invisible and projecting a confident sense of belonging, whether performed or not. Understanding this, the potential of mediums such as cinema, performance, satire and drag to convey the complexities of navigating a hostile normative world as trans become clearer. Rosa Von Praunheim understood the power of cinema in shifting societal perspectives away from a Normal hegemonic positionality and opening up the possibilities of a queer (and especially transfeminine) gaze from the extremities. His film It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives (1971) profoundly impacted and in some cases instigated gay civil rights movements in Germany, Austria and Switzerland while also becoming a cult film in the USA. 

 

City of Lost Souls (1983) was created amidst the emergent AIDS/HIV epidemic, the developing War on Drugs in the USA and tensions mounting along the iron curtain in a divided and torn Berlin. Filmed during 6 weeks, mostly in Rosa Von Praunheim’s basement, the film tells the tales of a raggle-taggle group of societal misfits from the US—Black trans women, trans sex workers, strippers, performers, for the most part playing themselves—each of whom has moved to Berlin to follow their dreams. They have all found work in Hamburger Königen (Burger Queen), a 50s style burger joint run by a Black trans woman and performer from Harlem, Angie Stardust. Living in the apartment building Pension Stardust, also owned by Angie, the cast of characters attempt to carve a space for themselves and their creative expression in the city: not merely to survive—although this is of course a primary concern for trans QTIBIPOC (queer, trans, intersex, Black, Indigenous people of colour) and sex workers—but to thrive. This is presented by Rosa Von Praunheim in the worlds that these characters create, from the campy, musical atmosphere of Burger Queen (which serves as their primary space for communal care and economic survival) to the surreal, erotic and somewhat otherworldly spaces of their individual homes. It is through all of these aspects of home-building and community-building—with an emphasis on performance, humour, dance and imagination—that Rosa Von Praunheim manifests the strength of queer hope that underscores queer and Black survival in the margins and underbellies of a hegemonic, and still largely racist, society. As the first cases of AIDS/HIV emerged in North America in 1981 and quickly spread to become an international epidemic, the War on Drugs—spearheaded by US President Richard Nixon (1969 to 1974) and escalated by US President Ronald Reagan (1981 to 1989)—served to systemically profile, target and imprison large numbers of Black folk across the US. This fact was admitted retroactively by Nixon’s aide John Ehrlichman, who, in a 26 year old interview first published by Harper’s magazine in 2016, said:

 

"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. [...] You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. [...] We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."1 

 

Under Reagan—who was in office during the making of City of Lost Souls and who’s America its cast had fled from—the War on Drugs was drastically intensified. During the 1980s the privatisation of prisons for profit—i.e. the birth of the prison-industrial complex—increased the demand for inmates, with arrests for all crimes rising 28% and arrests for drug-related crimes rising 126%.2 Reagan weaponised the War on Drugs against Black communities, exaggerating the harmful effects of ‘crack’ cocaine—which, through Reagan, became heavily associated with Black communities—in contrast to powder cocaine (predominantly used by middle-class whites), and running vilifying and fear-mongering smear campaigns about “crack whores” and “crack babies” in the media. Human Rights Watch statistics from 1998 show that Black folk were imprisoned thirteen times more than other races for drug-related offences, in spite of only comprising around 13% of the nation’s regular drug users.3 This resulted in the profiling, targeting and raiding of inner-city neighbourhoods predominantly occupied by Black communities by the police, such as Harlem in New York, which is Angie’s home. She sings:

 

“I come from a land,

Of many different races.

As dumb as it is,

They’ll always hate each other.

That’s why I had to leave the land I love.”

 

This sense of exile—of fleeing social, political and cultural suppression and violence at the hands of a hegemonic state—bleeds from the film’s pores. While Berlin is framed as a land of opportunity and comparative freedom, where they can embody and express a multitude of identities, the cast are confronted by the stark and grating reality of xenophobia (both in public as well as in bureaucratic spaces) on a day-to-day basis. The existence, and perseverance, of racism, transphobia and xenophobia in Germany is palpable in the film: on the one hand, they—as societal castaways—have spaces and opportunities to survive and thrive communally that were previously unobtainable, but always they move against the grain of a persistent Normative order perpetuated by an intolerant hegemonic class (whether it be political, economic or social). 

 

The fictional, almost speculative, elements of the film also convey much of these realities. For Rosa Von Praunheim, it seems as though filmmaking is very much a limb of his queer activism: a tool for change. The playful, performative and fictional visual modes to which filmmaking lends itself so well embody, and thus can so brilliantly convey, many aspects of trans lived experience that other mediums fail to achieve so gracefully. This is what trans historian, filmmaker and activist Susan Stryker terms the “cinematic logic of transsexual embodiment”. This—explains Stryker, talking of mid-20th Century trans icon Christine Jorgensen—refers to the relationship between the cutting and splicing of celluloid film strips that Jorgensen engaged with when she worked in the cutting room of RKO studios prior to her global celebrity, and the cutting and suturing of her own flesh as she underwent gender affirmation surgery. Subjecting herself to the transformative power of the cut, Stryker poses, Jorgensen was able to shift from “one side of the camera to the other”, exploding the boundaries between image and image-maker, material and immaterial, fiction and reality, human and machine.4 While this term emerges from Stryker’s research on Jorgensen, the relationships between filmmaking—as a process as well as a form—and trans embodiment go far beyond the materiality of flesh or celluloid film strips. Rosa Von Praunheim’s ability to craft a vision of a world—tense with turmoil—through Black, trans and sex worker eyes is an invaluable tool in the ongoing fight against racial, gendered and sexual oppression, both then and now. 

 

Something to highlight is the film’s discussion of trans terminology. The incredibly tender dialogue between Angie and Tara O’Hara—a self-identifying transvestite (or third sex) performer and sex worker—illustrates Rosa Von Praunheim’s desire to bring these conversations to light. Angie, who identifies as a transsexual woman, speaks of the surgeries she desires, and needs. The younger Tara, branding Angie as belonging to the “old school”, explains that this “isn’t necessary any more”, claiming that “we belong to the third sex”. Angie, reminding Tara and the viewers that the freedom we have to be who we are now is because of the ‘old school’, counters by explaining how the Stonewall-era Black trans women had to “act over-feminine” in order to be taken seriously and survive. The embodied nature of transsexual existence—to be able to prove, within a bioessentialist hegemonic system, that they were women—was made necessary by laws criminalising ‘transvestite’ behaviour (seen from a hegemonic perspective as ‘men’ wearing ‘women’s’ clothing). Tara’s perspective, representative of larger generational shifts taking place in the 1980s, seeks to reclaim the label of transvestite, or third sex, in an attempt to step away from the belief that surgery, or one’s physiology, defines one’s identity: “do you think a sex change will make you a woman?” Today, these two perspectives—and many more—are typically considered to reside under the larger trans umbrella (of course, dependent on how one chooses to self-identify). What Angie and Tara demonstrate above all else is the multitude of experiences, identities and labels that populate trans life. There is no single defining characteristic or set of requirements that make someone trans, and whilst there is often disagreement—such as with Angie and Tara—over how to define trans existence, they are united in a rejection of—and desire to transform—the normative politics and ways-of-being that engender their suppression. Attempting to bridge this gap, Angie offers a resolution: “let’s say we’re the new women”. 

 

This film feels just as poignant and necessary today as it was in 1983. With the wave of Black Lives Matter protests erupting across the world in grievance of decades of enslavement, incarceration, police violence and racial violence—sparked and marked by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and trans women Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem'Mie” Fells, among many others—the abolition of systems of racial injustice (such as the prison-industrial complex and the police) is, on some levels, a truly tangible goal. The pain that infuses these protests is matched only by the hope that fuels them onwards. It is no coincidence that they are paralleled by draconian attempts to scale back protections and health care for trans people across the USA and the UK. The centering of Black trans voices is as necessary as ever in the continued fight for abolition and the shared hope of a future rid of violence and segregation. What we need now is not a New Normal, but a complete and total rejection of and abolition of the Normal in favour of new forms of communal and mutual care. And it is the New Women—the black trans women who fought for our freedom in the 1960s and 70s united with the younger generations of QTIBIPOC—whose voices must be heard the loudest if we are to ensure that this future is no longer solely on the horizon, but one that we can touch, build and inhabit collectively. 

 

By Ged Ribas Goody

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Researching trans ethics of care, mobilities justice, queer knowledge production and pedagogies

MA Research Architecture

@half.bird

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 https://edition.cnn.com/2016/03/23/politics/john-ehrlichman-richard-nixon-drug-war-blacks-

hippie/index.html

 

2 Austin J, McVey AD. 1989. “The 1989 NCCD prison population forecast: the impact of the war on drugs”. San

Francisco: National Council on Crime and Delinquency

 

3 Human Rights Watch. 1998. "Key Findings at a Glance", Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs

 

4 Stryker, S. 2013. Christine in the Cutting Room: Cinema, Surgery and Celebrity in the Career of Christine

Jorgensen [lecture], MMCCS Public Lecture Series Macquarie: Macquarie University, available at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XlqJ8B9dKCs [accessed: 24/06/2020]

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