Michael R.

Interview by
Michael Ladner
Photography by
Georg Rohlfing


21 years ago today, on November 9th, 1989, two independent events occurred simultaneously. The one would affect the entire world — the fall of the Berlin Wall — and the other touched only a few in a country that has long since been absorbed into greater Germany: the release of Coming Out, the first East German film on homosexuality, in which a school teacher struggles with accepting that he’s gay. Michael R. was a 17-year-old high school student at the time when he became an extra in the film. For BUTT he shares how he was affected by both the movie and the unexpected end of the German Democratic Republic.

Michael Ladner: How did you get involved with the filming of Coming Out?
Michael R: The film crew came to my high school and chose it as a shooting location and then they told us that they were looking for extras to play students. So if you wanted to participate, you were told to go to a particular classroom. And there were 30 or 40 people there and they just spontaneously started choosing people. And I was one of the first they choose because I looked a bit older, and that was very exciting for me because at that time I wasn’t out of the closet.
So you knew it was a gay film?
Yes, they said it’s about a teacher who’s gay. And that was awe-inspiring and interesting because homosexuality wasn’t discussed at all in East Germany.
And how did you feel about the fact that DEFA, the state-run film studio, was now making a film about it?
I was really surprised that it was happening, and I was curious. And I was a little nervous.
Did you have sex in the East, before the wall came down?
Yeah, once. Maybe twice.
Did you go to any of the gay locations that are in the film?
I went to Burgfrieden — one of the locations in the film — one time and I met someone there.
What was it like there? In the film, the gay bar looks totally hopping: drag queens, drag kings, burlesque performances, etc…
It wasn’t like that at all. It was horrible. There was a line outside and everyone was over forty with mustaches and mullets. It was a little but funny but actually more sad. But I definitely wanted to do it, so I went in and ordered a red wine, and someone started chatting me up immediately. And the only reason I knew it existed was because kids at school said that there was a gay bar around the corner. There were no flyers. You either knew about it or you didn’t.
What about the Märchenbrunnen in Volkspark Friedrichshain — the cruising area in the film — did you ever check that out?
No. As I said, I wasn’t practicing.
Were gays persecuted in East Germany, or was the whole thing just on the down low?
People just rarely spoke about it but I wouldn’t say they were persecuted. Actually in the final years in the GDR, the politics got more liberal. There was even a gay association, which was always a sign that the government didn’t care whether you were gay or not — as long as you stayed in the country. At some point the laws in the East were even more liberal than those in the West.
So the irony is that the film premiered on November 9th 1989, the same night as the Berlin Wall came down.
Yes. The premiere was in the afternoon followed by the premiere party at Burgfrieden. More and more people came to the party, and then eventually people came who said, ‘Everyone’s on the streets, cars are everywhere; we think the wall is open.’ Then the party got emptier and emptier. I left with the two main actors and some other people. We walked to the bridge at Bornholmer Straße, and it was totally packed, and we inched forward more and more, until eventually I saw a huge billboard advertising beer (there weren’t any advertisements in the East). Then it was clear we were in the West.
What did you do then?
We took a bus to Kurfürstendamm. There were so many lights. I remember thinking it was like an open-air Intershop (the shop in East Germany where one could buy products from the West). It was all a bit exhausting. The next three months were very difficult for me. It was too much for me at first.
When was the first time you went out gay in the West?
It didn’t take long. I think the first time was at SchwuZ.
Were East Germans fetishized there?
At first maybe, but then again I think there were too many of us to really be fetishized.
What did you think of the gays in the West?
It was all a bit bizarre: the whole, ‘I’m gay, I have to go to gay parties thing.’ But the game was always, ‘Is he from the East or the West?’ Like, that guy has a healthy complexion, he must have gotten enough vitamins, he must be from the West. You could also tell by hairstyles and clothes and the way people spoke. The West Berliners were always a little too polite, in my opinion.
Do you think the sex was different between East and West Germans?
I don’t think so. Maybe in terms of accessories or using poppers — which the East Germans didn’t know. And I think fetishes were more defined in the West. The whole separation into different tastes and the coding that accompanies that didn’t exist in the East. There were two or three bars, and everyone went there.
Are you still in touch with any of the actors in the film?
No. I saw the teacher once. But he didn’t recognize me.

Published on 09 November 2010