Feb 14, 2014

Yearning for Sodom

Unquestionably, German actor, screenwriter, playwright, and production designer Kurt Raab was one of the most important and talented members of German New Cinema master auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s incestuous circle as a man who collaborated on no less than 31 films with the filmmaker between 1969 and 1977 until the kraut comrades had an nasty ‘break up.’ Among other things, Fassbinder converted Raab to homosexuality in 1970 and would later get his friend hooked on cocaine while the two were working on their last film together, Bolwieser (1977) aka The Stationmaster’s Wife. Like Fassbinder, Raab would also die prematurely as a result of his vices in 1988 at the age of 46 as a result of AIDS related complications. In the posthumously released and sensationally titled documentary Sehnsucht nach Sodom (1989) aka Yearning For Sodom aka Yearning for Sodom or Projections in Front of an Empty Screen on a Dazzling Futile Wonderful and Wasted Life with a Thankless Medium co-directed by Raab, the viewer gets an uncomfortably close look at the actor as he stoically stares death in the face whilst succumbing to AIDS in rather inhuman quarantine conditions after facing abject rejection from scared family members. Not long before he died, Raab was commissioned by the West German government to write a book on German New Cinema, but later decided to shelf the book idea and create a video art doc on the same subject with Hanno Baethe. Co-directed by Baethe and fellow Fassbinder superstar Hans Hirschmüller (The Merchant of Four Seasons, Eight Hours are Not a Day), Yearning for Sodom was originally intended as a documentary directed solely by Raab about German New Cinema, Fassbinder, and his life’s work, but after discovering he had AIDS after only creating 6 of the 33 sketches he dreamed up, the actor decided to make a sort of poetic video art obituary where it seems as if the dead man is speaking from the grave while confined to a sterile Hamburg hospital bed. Neither a pathetic pity party nor a superficially sentimental self-tribute, Yearning for Sodom is nothing short of a macabre window into the deteriorating yet still sharp mind of a charismatic yet sometimes creepy man who in the past portrayed cannibalistic cocksucking serial killers and heterosexual Stefan George wannabes, but has taken on the morbid non-identity of a virtual corpse who literally takes a wheelchair ride in the very same cemetery that he will be buried in only months later. Indeed, the man responsible for the mystifying Bavarian Catholic iconography and rooms of mirrors that make Fassbinder’s films from 1969-1977 so memorable, Raab was no less a flamboyant production designer when it came to his own funeral, even choosing his coffin to the last detail as depicted in Yearning for Sodom

 In his essay book on all-things-sodom, The Book of Sodom (1995), author Paul Hallam wrote, “A small room off the main Sodom season should house a video monitor for viewing the 1988 Sehnsucht nach Sodom (A Yearning for Sodom), a record of the dying days of the German actor Kurt Raab. This fierce and moving video demands viewing intimacy. Though it is short, the pace is slow, the rhythm dictated by the restrictions of Raab's illness. The actor remembers a melancholic all-night drinking bout in Berlin/Sodom, long before his HIV diagnosis, and smiles as he remarks, 'the sun shining into a gay bar is something terrible.' The dawn was, however, to bring a lover.” That lover, a young twink that was no less than two decades the actor’s junior, would end his own life ‘poetically’ (or at least that is how he apparently described suicide) by taking an overdose of sleeping pills and drowning in a bathtub, but not before assumedly giving Raab the death sentence known as ‘gay cancer,’ thus demonstrating that Fassbinder was on to something when he decided to title his first feature ‘Love is Colder Than Death.’ Beginning the documentary eerily singing, “Yearning… Yearning for Sodom. Yearning… Yearning for Sodom” and less fondly remarking, “Who will be next? To fade away in the twilight? Our beloved friends are dying. Dying like flies. I shed fervent tears for I know…Gone. Forgotten. Over. Thanks,” the almost zombie-like Kurt Raab featured in Yearning for Sodom certainly does not resemble the hysterical incestuous homo brother he played in The American Soldier (1970), nor the cuckolded civil servant of The Stationmaster’s Wife, as his face is emaciated to the point where it resembles a weary skull and his corpse-like body is covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma spots. As to how Raab copes with the fact that he is about to have a date with the Grim Reaper, he remarks, “We were making films almost all the time. I made 31 with Fassbinder between 1969 and 1977, the year I broke up with him. That was very hard for me. It was my best, wildest, most chaotic and most creative time ever. So when this illness gets me down, I say: ‘Who has been so lucky as to work with a Fassbinder? Who is world famous, and whose films are still seen?…And that for 10 or 11 years. You’ve always been lucky, despite some bad times. You always had work. So it’s not as if I never lived when I die here of Aids because I have lived my life’,” thus appreciating the fact he has lived a fuller life than most. 

 To help his friend live the last couple months of his life in as comfortable a manner as possible considering his clearly terminal condition, German actor Hans Hirschmüller has become Raab’s own nurse, stating upon taking on the thankless job, “I was reluctant to get involved with Kurt and his illness. I knew: one hospital visit and there’d be no turning back. We’ve been acting together for 20 years. Our last engagement was at the Deutsche Schauspielhaus, where I had to take over Kurt’s role.” Hirschmüller, who is heterosexual, also goes on to detail the dirty job that is wiping a AIDS-addled sodomite’s ass, confessing regarding the entire experience, “I was far less involved in my mother’s death, with the process of dying. I’d never have nursed my mother. Or changed my kid’s diapers. I did Kurt Raab’s. I caught up on some things that I was silly enough to miss out on. But I have caught up. Then something happens to you. No disgust. Nothing. Not even sympathy. I was even cruel to him. I wanted to help him. Please him.” Unfortunately, Raab’s little sister is nowhere near as empathetic as she not only denies her dying brother a room in her home (thus forcing him to stay in a prison-like atmosphere in the hospital) because apparently local peasants think he is possessed by the devil, but also a plot in the family cemetery, claiming that there is not enough space for a despicable diseased fag corpse. During a more merry moment of the documentary, Raab reminisces about how he was once engaged to a woman, stating to Hirschmüller after he questions how a gay man can make love to a woman, “Homosexuals have horny cocks too…No. I really loved her.” After being carted around in a wheelchair at the somber graveyard in which his corpse is to be interred in a mere couple months, Raab disappears and Hirschmüller reads the actor’s specified plans for his funeral. Needless to say, Raab opts for a lavish old school German style casket, so as to leave this cruel world in classic style.  Yearning for Sodom concludes with Fassbinder's ex-wife Ingrid Caven singing a song in tribute to Raab, which fades to a shot of the actor's Kaposi's sarcoma spots dissolving into stars.

 Aside from co-directing Yearning for Sodom, Raab previously directed one other film, the rather redundant and bizarrely anti-erotic ‘women in prison’ (WiP) flick The Island of the Bloody Plantation (1983) aka Die Insel der blutigen Plantage starring Udo Kier and Barbara Valentin. Needless to say, while I can only recommend Island of the Bloody Plantation to Fass-bande completists and the most wayward of WiPhiles, Yearning for Sodom is mandatory viewing for Fassbinder fanatics and German New Cinema fans alike as a sort of entry from the historical necrology of German New Cinema. Indeed, in one of the sketches that appears in Yearning for Sodom that Raab made before contracting AIDS and totally changing the entire objective of the documentary, he hysterically shouts while sporting women’s lingerie, “Realism. Naturalism. Surrealism. Expressionism. Futurism. The German silent movie. The German talkie. Cinema in the Weimar era. Cinema in the Nazi era. The German film. The pan-Germanic film. The sex education film. The Reich propaganda film. The Reich film. The public enlightenment film. The war film. The post-war film. The German homeland film. The German film of fortune. The German tear-jerker. The German box-office draw. Grandpa’s cinema is dead. Daddy’s cinema is dead. Long live baby’s cinema. The New German Cinema. The young German cinema is dead,” thus giving an entire terminology-based history of Teutonic cinema in a matter of a minute or two thus ultimately reflecting the death of kraut cinema in general. While I would be lying if I did not admit that Yearning for Sodom is a daunting downer of a documentary, it also features Kurt Raab as his typically darkly humorous self, suckling on blut like he did in the serial killer masterpiece he penned and starred in, Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe (1973) aka The Tenderness of Wolves, as well as channeling William S. Burroughs in a self-denigrating scene where he plays his doctor and tells someone on the phone, “In my opinion, Mr. Raab is no longer completely sound of mind,” thereupon demonstrating his ability to keep his tongue placed firmly in cheek whilst physically and mentally deteriorating in a rather grotesque way.  Despite his rather pitiable fate, there is no ignoring the fact that he gave some of the most memorable and idiosyncratic lead performances of cinema history in such masterpieces as Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1971), The Tenderness of Wolves, Satan's Brew (1976), and The Stationmaster's Wife (1977), not to mention his similarly memorable supporting roles in The American Soldier, The Niklashausen Journey (1970), Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), World on a Wire (1973), and Adolf and Marlene (1977).  Indeed, rather than look back on Raab as a socially scorned victim of gay cancer, I will always remember him as the crazed bourgeois cuckold who run amok in sterile technocratic Deutschland, as well as the sodomite serial killer who was truly looking for Sodom, but instead opted for buggering and butchering young boys and feeding them to his charming kraut friends.

-Ty E

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