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Berlin mon amour: Wieland Speck

INTERVIEW. This Saturday, Jan 7, catch a special EXBlicks screening of "Escape to Life", the Erika and Klaus Mann story, co-directed by Panorama director and Teddy founder Speck, at Lichtblick Kino at 20:30. First, here's his fascinating backstory.

Image for Berlin mon amour: Wieland Speck

The man behind the Panorama and Teddy Award, maverick Berlinale apparatchik Wieland Speck, is also co-director of our next EXBlicks, Escape to Life, at Lichtblick Kino on January 7, 8:30pm. Before catching the story of Thomas Mann’s bohemian, freedom-fighting kids Klaus and Erika, read the backstory of Speck himself in a classic interview and then pick his brain in a special Q&A after the screening.

Image for Berlin mon amour: Wieland Speck
Wieland Speck and Andrea Weiss’ “Escape to Life: The Erika and Klaus Mann Story”, screening Sat, Jan 7, 20:30 at Lichtblick Kino

Wieland Speck is not your average International Film Festival bureaucrat. A wannabe actor swept away by the intoxicating air of 1970s Berlin, revolution, drugs and his de facto rebellious condition as a gay man, a video activist who ran his own art-house theatre into the ground, a filmmaker (Freak Orlando, Westler, Escape to Life) turned movie curator and finally director of the most exciting section of the Berlinale, founder of the groundbreaking Teddy gay and lesbian film prize – Speck radiates the charisma of someone who’s lived his life wild and aplenty. Whether smoking a joint on a Friedrichshain street corner or presiding over the fate of thousands of films from his Berlinale office, you feel this guy knows his stuff. Add to that he’s a tall handsome man with engaging simplicity and you get it all: Wieland Speck’s lifework is there to remind you that the story of the Berlinale is not a dull one, linked as it is to the city’s cutting-edge politics and Berlin’s intrinsically tempestuous yet creative nature.

You were 21 when you moved to Berlin in 1972. Ten years later, you started working for the Panorama, which you now direct. How did you get involved in the Berlinale in the first place?

It basically took me ten years in Berlin to finally make it into the Berlinale. My first film, a 16mm, I made in the San Francisco Art Institute’s film department. I showed this to the Berlinale people and they chose to show it in 1981, the second year of the Panorama section, which was called InfoSchau at that time. When, the next year, I applied for a job, its director, Manfred Salzgeber, who picked my film the year before, took me on. And all of a sudden I got stuck with the Berlinale. I’ve been doing this for so many years now. I never expected I would ever do something for such a long time!

Back then, Manfred Salzgeber was already a legend among rebellious film buffs and art house-cinema-goers, right?

He had created lots of cinemas in the 1970s, and was one of the fathers of what we call Off-Kino, or Programmkino, what is today called art house. He would walk around the city looking at old cinemas which at that time were dying out. Old people were running those cinemas, and they were just showing whatever films they could get. And not many people went, and then the owners became too old to run them, and then supermarket chains would jump in and make supermarkets out of them. I ran a theatre in Kreuzberg that he founded – rather, he “found” – and passed on to me in the late 1970s.

So you took over the Tali Kino, today’s Moviemento?

That’s right. Basically around the time the Rocky Horror Picture Show came out, because we were the theatre that made that film big in Germany. It was called Tali Kino, Tageslichtspiele – which meant “daylight playhouse” – that was its old name from the 1910s when the theatre was founded. At that time, it was the oldest theatre in Berlin to have survived the war. Back then, it was quite interesting: you had only one hall but two cinemas with a mirror in between. The cheapest seats were behind the screen, and behind the seats was a big mirror, so people could watch the film in the reflection. Left was right and right was left. People watched the film reversed again in the mirror, but they could watch both images. The cinema became very successful, especially with the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Then we would just show our favourite films with an audience who knew exactly what they were going to see, and there was a very close link between the audience and the people who ran that cinema.

You came to Berlin fresh from Freiburg in the beginning of the 1970s. Those were very political, exciting times, weren’t they? Is that what attracted you to Berlin?

Berlin was attractive to me for many reasons, political, even erotic reasons. It’s a sexy city in the minds of many people, including myself. The gay movement was very strong here. Of course it already existed in places like Freiburg, which is a university city so things were happening there and we were already pretty militant early on. When I was 17, I was already blocking the streetcars in the street, fighting for whatever we fought for in 1968. But Berlin was this huge magnet where all the energies seemed to culminate. I was already famous in Freiburg from an early age, but then I came here and nobody knew who I was and that was great. I could start over again!

Were you one of those leftwing intellectuals who wanted to make the revolution?

Clearly, our movement was in the grip of very leftist groups. I was of course leftist and intellectual, but not so leftist that I was dogmatic, and we founded new groups that were “non-dogmatic” – “Die Spontis,” the spontaneous-ists. That was more my world. Closer to anarchy than to a party. From that I actually got into becoming an actor, which was one thing that was natural for me, and I thought that was a life I would like to have. The other thing was: video came up. And I started to work with video on a political level. Shooting films and showing them in bars in Kreuzberg, not necessarily to just an alternative crowd but also to normal people. There was this idea that video could become a medium for the political because nobody could control what we did, while film was always more expensive and you needed more people around to make it happen.

So you were into video Agit Prop?

Of course! Then video was brand new and we thought we were going to change the world – which of course eventually sort of happened, but at the same time, didn’t.

What kind of issues did your videos deal with?

They ranged from big street theatre performances to things like landlords treating their buildings badly and sucking people dry, and that kind of stuff. We called it Stadtteilarbeit – work happening in the city quarters. That was my introduction to video. We had our own video shop where we could edit ourselves, and then it started to get more erotic and aesthetic. So I first did kind of installation-type videos. We showed at a gay café with open windows – for the first time you could look inside from the street. So that was my introduction to the moving image. So when I was working to become an actor I was also doing camerawork, and then I finally went to San Francisco.

How did you decide to go there?

I don’t know. It happened. Many things just happen and you support them because it’s about yourself.

Were you bored with Berlin?

If you want to go that deep into it, at one point I fucked up two big things that were my most important things in the city, and I felt that I had to leave town.

Professional things?

We opened a shop, a Queens’ shop kind of place with all kinds of make-up and homemade clothes and crazy decoration stuff, but only two people could live off of it, so I ran the Tali. Then the Rocky Horror Picture Show started to attract people from all over Germany, busloads of people pouring into our cinema! And we really made a lot of money all of a sudden, which we had never had before in our lives. It was also the time when cocaine was really big and was the drug, how shall I put it, for creative people and crazy people and nightlife people. I belonged to this crowd. For some reason this whole making money thing and this drug business didn’t work together, so the whole cinema more or less blew up. Of course, the audience was wild. They were spraying water and rice and all the hullabaloo that Rocky Horror brings with it. The cinema was basically rocked to the bones. The seats were falling apart. At one point everything was such a catastrophe, the whole thing blew up.

And what was the second “fuck-up”?

The other thing was that I had a leading role in the Rosa von Praunheim film Rote Liebe – but I’m not in the film. So I got very cross with Rosa von Praunheim, we couldn’t deal with each other anymore, so that career also came to a halt. Everything at the same time, more or less. I had just set foot on American soil – New York, where Rote Liebe was partially shot – and I found it inspiring. So it was the right time to leave. And I wanted to study acting in San Francisco.

Why San Francisco?

San Francisco at that time was definitely a calmer choice than New York. I was more at home in New York, but I thought that I would just do the same thing there as I did in Berlin. San Francisco was my “wise choice”: I wasn’t that familiar with the city and thought it would be a better place for learning. San Francisco was much more exciting back then than it is right now, but this might apply to quite a few cities!

You changed your plans and finally decided to study filmmaking – and ended up making videos – with Nina Hagen!

When I arrived there, the acting school was bankrupt! I took this as a sign: I should forget about acting. Instead I went to film school and then to Los Angeles, where Nina Hagen was, at that time, a very famous star. She was living in this house in Malibu Colony. We were good friends. We used to hang out a lot in my film house in Berlin. We also had theatre performances there, all kinds of punk and post-punk, gay and flamboyant stuff. We knew each other from that time and she lived in LA and I hung out with her for a while. We made a video together (David, Montgomery und ich, 1980). And when I got back to Berlin, the film found its way onto the programme. This is how I got into the Berlinale.

Your work with the Berlinale is strongly associated with the figure of Manfred Salzgeber. He took your film in, he took you in. How would you describe your 10-year collaboration?

We were not at all alike. I’m a very spiritual, spacey person. And he was totally rational. When you’re dead you’re dead, basta! And the way he saw politics was the same: one has to work on issues to get something out of them. You just stick with things. But he believed you can, and should, think with your heart, and I found that fantastic, for such a very rational person. I just adored him. That’s why I could do the Berlinale for so many years. What I wanted to do in life, what I wanted to create, to achieve, it matched perfectly. It was Manfred. It was two things, they were his ways: being very strong inside, and reaching out and developing things. And what we developed was exactly what I wanted to see happening.

You’ve been working with the Berlinale for so many years now. Aren’t you running out of steam?

I never expected I would work here for such a long time. And year after year, it’s always the same. It culminates in a short time and then it’s totally finished. So you have this curve all the time, like an orgasm curve or like a film production curve. I’m the first one surprised to see that I can still do it … but it keeps me totally fresh in the brain. Because all the films I am dealing with now, they are new films and these films express the societies where they come from, the minds of the artists that make them, so it’s brand new every year and fascinating. I’m very thankful for that.

You were an activist who wanted to be an actor, and you made films until recently. Is it difficult to combine these? How do you see yourself? More as an artist, as an organizer, or as an activist?

You’ve got all the triggers right here! Of course, the first 15 years, I was a filmmaker who was also doing a film programme. I wanted it like that. But at some point I had to acknowledge that things had changed and had somehow turned around, and now I’m a programmer – of whom a big chunk is an artist and a filmmaker.

How does this influence your curatorial style?

I always see the whole process from the filmmaker’s side, which is very helpful because one thing the Panorama is famous for is its style, which is not the usual film curator style. It is not arrogant, it is not proposing, it is much closer to the filmmakers – exactly where we come from – Margaret, my major right hand, is also a filmmaker. It has that kind of non-arrogant vibe, which I’m very proud of. Because as a filmmaker of course I’ve experienced some other situations, where curators were pretty arrogant, and I always hated that. How unnecessary, I thought.

How many films does a Panorama director have to view every year?

I cannot watch more than I used to 10 years ago, when I already watched as much as I could, and this is around 1000 films a year. The difference is that back then it guaranteed me total oversight of what was happening. Today the number of new movies made each year has risen so tremendously, that I physically can’t keep up alone anymore. So I watch about 1000 a year, while in the meantime about 4,000 are submitted. We use pre-selection groups to narrow down the films I have to see.

For many people it’s hard to differentiate between the Forum and the Panorama. Somehow, I always have the feeling that the big movies go to the Competition, the medium ones to the Panorama and the small movies to the Forum …

There is some truth to that. But when you look at the details, it’s often very contradictory. The Panorama has some very small films, but sometimes also quite a few big films. Films that appeal to the art house market would rather come to the Panorama, while films that need more of a film-club audience might rather go to the Forum, which also looks at aspects like developments in the filmic language, or films from an area where films have never been made before. So they have a more eclectic view. Then there’s the personal taste of the programmers. Since I used to run a cinema, I look for films that distributors could actually use in the coming weeks and months, so as to bring them to a bigger audience. This can overlap in both directions. Panorama means a 360-degree view, and this is the open concept that we have always had. We can basically do what we want. In the end it has to have an impact.

How would you define a Panorama movie?

It’s totally connected to the city. Berlin, as I know it, has always been a place for rather challenging stuff. People don’t want the soft stuff. They’d rather have something to chew on. People enjoy thinking about things that can create something or develop something or are part of the political process. These are the margins I have worked with for years. I’m really thinking about what the audience would want to see, from all the things that I see from around the world. What they would take on.

Looking back, audiences’ tastes must have evolved along with the zeitgeist of the city. How has the Panorama recorded those changes?

I guess it has, it’s a natural thing and the Panorama will continue to change. I’m not dogmatic. But you can also trace it to non-change. The basics remain the same: political processes and aesthetic challenges. With these two, you can get very far in Berlin. Entertainment is also in there, but it must also celebrate the special-ness of a daring figure, have something more. These days, films have so much music, and the credits come and the music is so overpowering – it tries to manipulate you to feel whatever. This is not good for the Berlin audience.

Berlin has become the capital of queer films: here they have found an audience and, thanks to the Berlinale, international exposure and even an award. How have gay and lesbian films evolved throughout the years?

This has changed a lot over the years, as a reflection of the changes in society. The films that we showed in the beginning were often really subculture, militant films, very aggressive, fighter films. Those type of films have sort of disappeared. There was, of course, a flashback in the late 1980s, when AIDS forced everyone to become political again even though the time wasn’t very political. Everybody wanted to enjoy themselves. But then came this threat, and political injustice became very clear, and it became another political fight that again has pretty much vanished. For me, this fight was a very important reason to first come to Berlin, then to become a filmmaker and to work for the Berlinale. Now we are at the point where you hear the word schwullesbisch on television on the Tagesschau [evening news]. This is part of what we created. But now we want them to say schwullesbischtransidentisch which is a little bit more than they can process.

So you’re saying that despite the fact that “queerness” is acceptable on primetime TV, there are still more battles to be fought on the long road towards total acceptance?

Of course, you’ll always have this majority and minority. So there’s a dynamic, which is also valuable. But now an ’emancipatory’ goal is to develop that dynamic to the extent that its value is appreciated – not to make everyone equal. For instance, I was not so engaged in the gay marriage thing. Because I know that anyone, homo or hetero, is just as crazy as anyone else. It comes down to, that everyone’s the same, but of course, not everyone’s the same.

The relevance of a gay festival can’t be quite the same anymore. The fight from schwullesbisch acceptance on the evening news to the next schwullesbischtransidentisch stage … is not life or death, right?

At the same time our festival is not just a festival for Western countries. It’s an international festival. If you look at the globe you just have a few little dots where gay and lesbian people can more or less live happily. On the rest of the planet, for the vast majority, it is hardly possible. And so influences from all these areas are always present at the Berlinale. We look for films from all over the planet.

So for you the promotion of queer films has kept all its relevance?

Absolutely. Because I remember the way I grew up, becoming gay. If possible, I don’t want other people to go through that. I went through terrible phases. When you look at the statistics, young gay men have the highest suicide rate.

Here, still in Germany?

Yeah, it has become better, but it’s still bad. Poland is only 30 minutes from here by car and they have a president who spreads hatred against gay people. In the big Islamic countries, in Asia, it’s totally hidden. So its far from being where we sometimes think we are in a city like Berlin or New York or London.

The Berlinale is celebrating the 20 year anniversary of the first major queer film prize, the Teddy Award. For you, its founder, it’s a great personal success. How did it all happen?

Basically, I created it out of the blue in 1987. The first years we showed gay and lesbian films in Berlin and it was quickly understood all over the world that people who work in that field could come to Berlin because this is where it was happening. So we had a group that grew every year. Film professionals. We had meetings and watched films together. We had “Night Cafés” in the Prinz Eisenherz, the gay bookstore. That was a parallel thing. It happened in the Berlinale, but on the side it developed its own dynamic.

That was how you gave Pedro Almodovar and Gus van Sant their first international awards, right?

Yes, one year at the last meeting of this group at the end of the festival I just asked everyone, “What was your favourite film?” It turned out it was Pedro Almodovar’s (Law of Desire) and the short films of Gus van Sant. Nobody knew these people yet! So I just wrote to the filmmakers, “You’ve just won the Teddy Award” and sent them a little Teddy. Pedro was totally happy. Gus was already a friend because two years before we had shown his first full feature film, La Mala Noche, and actually at that time, with that film, we realized that we had enough good films so that we could actually create a prize.

Why did you need to create a special prize? Thanks to yours and Salzgeber’s work many gay films were already selected in the Panorama – wasn’t it enough?

From the beginning the idea of the Teddy was to make gay-lesbian film known and impossible for anyone to overlook.

In the beginning Teddy films were all from the Panorama …

Yes, because the Panorama was the only section that delivered them. Since then, Competition films have won the Teddy twice. Forum films have won the Teddy at least three times and now we have five sections to choose from. So it is much better! The awareness, too. l’ve just received an e-mail from a colleague from the Forum who says they still lack gay and lesbian titles. This shows an awareness that was unthinkable a few years ago, when the heterosexuals didn’t even know that they were heterosexuals. In other words, the major step was basically for the majority to understand that they are the majority. When I go to Japan and I ask the officials to look at their film list and I say, “Okay, where are the gay titles?” Some people are totally responsive, but others really don’t know what you’re talking about. So you create these situations where they have to face my question as a serious request, because it’s coming from the Berlinale.

How difficult is it to find these movies?

Often you don’t find the movies, because to make a film, you need money. And still today the gay and lesbian films are usually the cheapest-made films, so the production value is never that high. In the free West, where these films can actually be freely made, little money is put in because the expected audience is smaller. But then of course sometimes there is a big jump into mainstream media, and right now it’s happening with Brokeback Mountain.

What about the less free world? It must be an even bigger challenge for your nine jury members to find gay and lesbian movies from, say, Asia, Africa or the Middle East.

It’s very difficult. Take Africa. You have people who work in the field but they haven’t got there yet. But we strengthen the little scene that might be there, by bringing people here, by showing people what is possible. For example, I was in South Africa this year. And this very hidden gay guy told me, “It will never happen here.” Well, we also said that in Germany, 30, not to mention 60 years ago. But one has to do something, and eventually something will happen. I experienced it in my lifetime. Things actually do happen when you consistently keep working on them. So to bring some optimism, and some dynamic – the Teddy is very good for this. People come here and everything is open, and the Teddy is like a big celebration of gay cinema, and they say, “We never knew that something like this could exist.” And they become very strong. So this radiates a lot of energy.

Looking back, is there a movie that you’re especially happy or proud to have discovered or supported?

There are so many. There were films from Japan, from the Philippines, thi s amazing film from Iran that we had three years ago about a transsexual. (Juste une femme/Just a Woman, 2002, Directed by Mitra Farahani). We’re still in touch. Whenever something goes in a direction where we can jump in, we do. So these become relationships in a way.

What can such a movie gain from its exposure at the Berlinale? It won the Teddy Jury award, but it never got distributed …

No it wasn’t. But of course everyone saw it, because you have this parallel world. Especially in Iran, where once the door closes, they have a life like we do. When the door opens, it’s the veil. So in these circles everyone has seen it or heard about it. Hearing about it or talking about it is already a big step. Gay love was called “unspeakable” love, basically. At the beginning of the last century in Germany this term was used and this applies everywhere.

Would you say that the Teddy Award is a political award?

Absolutely. The politics would vanish if the world became a lovely place where everyone could live as he or she wanted to. This is not going to happen. So it’s going to remain a political award. It has to serve certain needs. It needs to serve a subcultural need. You need a subculture to develop the strength that comes out of a certain experience. Mutual experience. But then you need to communicate this experience to the outer world to create a communication dynamic. So the Teddy goes out for everyone. The audience at the Teddies is a melting pot, which is quite rare. You have all age groups. You have all races, of course, because it’s an international event, and you have all sexualities at the same time. Lots of heterosexuals want to go to the Teddies and enjoy themselves at a queer event without feeling kind of strange or something.

Don’t you think that’s a sign that there’s nothing political anymore, at least in the first sense of the word? Isn’t there a risk that it’s become just a trend, even trendy?

Yes, of course. But this was always the case. The gay thing was also a trend back in dangerous times. I remember when there were 300 of us on Ku’damm for a gay demonstration and left and right the curtains of hairdressers were closed. They didn’t want to be associated with this terrible, ugly bad hair that demonstrated with political shouting. And today those hairdressers open their curtains and think that they are part of it. So it embraces everyone but at the same time it never gets there. It’s like sexuality itself: it will never, ever be satisfied. There’s an implication that satisfaction is not possible. It’s the same thing with emancipation. It’s an ongoing fight which will change its face but never die.

Western gay filmmakers as well are much less political and tend to deal with queerness in a much lighter way. Take Marisco Beach – many queer films have become public, entertaining, even funny.

Oliver du Castelle and Jacque Martino are a good example. Even their first film, Jeanne et le garon formidable, was an AIDS musical. They approached one of the most difficult things in a light-hearted way. This is of course a quality that we didn’t see in the 1970s and before, when gays had to be dead by the end of a film. At the same time it shows that you still have to work on it very cleverly in order to gain the space to live, because it’s not granted. I just see that everything is happening at the same time. You still have political films and you still need political attitudes to get through every aspect of life. Being gay becomes one of many aspects of living in the Western world.

Then there are mavericks like Rosa von Praunheim, who still stand for subculture.

He was always a big critic of the “happy gay person” who doesn’t get politically engaged, because this is basically reactionary – which it is, of course. Not everybody is so politically alert, some people just want to have a good life and not ask any questions. And there are also gay people with that kind of attitude. He was always shaking up the Gemutllchkeit of the gay community. I always adored that, I must say. And he made many enemies, so he didn’t have a cosy life, he was always aggressive. His last film on cannibalisn, this case of gay cannibalism, was really, really interesting but it’s unfortunately not in the festival programme.

Your favourite Berlin spot?

Some street corner to smoke a little joint on a summer evening. I just stand there under a lantern and hang out.

On which street corner can people find you?

On Karl-Marx-Allee, at Frankfurter Tor. But it can also be Kranzler Eck. Any corner. I just love Berlin street corners.

A turning point in your life?

I was 16-17: when I realized that my big love at the time was actually straight!

Your favourite food?

My major comfort food is Spätzle which can easily be accompanied by sauerkraut, and a slightly smoked shoulder of pork, called Schäufele, from Baden. That’s where I come from. In terms of sunshine and food, I’m still badisch. The rest is totally global.

Your favourite film?

My head is filled with so many. Let’s take today, one that totally deserves it: Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

A life slogan?

What goes around comes around.