Rosa von Praunheim’s Documentary About Berlin Rent Boys
For years, railway station Bahnhof Zoo in Berlin has been a meeting point for prostitutes and drug addicts. “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” (1981, directed by Uli Edel), the movie in which David Bowie also participated, gave a good and shocking picture of this at the time. Thirty years later, “Die Jungs vom Bahnhof Zoo” is released, a documentary by Rosa von Praunheim, in which Berlin’s central station area again plays an important part.
The documentary starts with a television clip from 1965 (“Abendschau”), in which a reporter informs the viewer that Bahnhof Zoo is a meeting point for gays and male prostitutes. Nowadays, that still is the case. Rosa von Praunheim portraits five male prostitutes, three of them from Romania. Lives that are characterized by broken family ties, relationship issues, abuse, neglect, material need, and the desperate search for attention, money, and love.
Romanian Nazif arrived in Germany at the age of eleven, where his parents made him go out and steal. When his father found out he was working as a prostitute, he smeared Nazif’s ass with gasoline and set fire to it. Nowadays, Nazif is a broken man, and leads a humble life in Vienna. In between is a life full of abuse and heavy drug usage.
His memories of those days were recorded by him in a diary. It was published in German under the title “Fluchtversuche” (Attempted Escapes) by publishing firm Männerschwarm Verlag.
As a small boy, Daniel could not cope living with his sadistic mother and ended up in a shelter at his own initiative. There, he met other youngsters who urged him to collective theft. Another way to make money fast was prostitution. His life as a rent boy started at Bahnhof Zoo. Daniel has left prostitution behind him now, and is at a turning point in his life.
Ionel is Romanian as well and is from a small village. He gave a film crew permission to join him visiting his parents. There, the crew found severe (material) poverty, which forced Ionel and many other boys into prostitution, even though homosexuality is taboo in Romanian culture.
Romica is a married Romanian, who quickly discovered prostitution on the street, and was making enough money to bring his wife to Germany. He started a family with her. A wife and child are important manifestations of masculinity and prove that they are heterosexual, despite their work. Romica’s wife says she has no problem with his line of work, but you can see she is not comfortable with it. At the end of the movie you see Romica working as a cleaner, but realizing how little money they make, it is understandable why so many boys continue to work as a rent boy.
From the age of six, Daniel Rene was abused by the janitor of his school. Through him, he came into contact with other pedophiles, who initially abused him, but sent him out to work as a prostitute when he became too old. Daniel is still suffering from the consequences of the abuse. A normal life does not seem possible for him anymore.
Besides the stories of the boys, social workers of “Hilfe für Jungs,” some clients, and the owners of the Blue Boy Bar and Tabasco, places near Bahnhof Zoo where boys and customers can meet, also tell their story.
Some of their clients are celebrities, such as Austrian actor and director Peter Kern. (61 years old.) He gives his vision on the relationship between prostitute and client: “I have loved many, but no one has ever loved me.” Peter claims to like boys in the age group sixteen to twenty-two. To meet them, he visits the clubs. (
Peter Kern is the director of the movie “Gossenkind” a.k.a. “Street Kid” (1992), which deals with incest, rape, and paid sex with youngsters, as well as “Knutschen, Kuscheln, Jubilieren” from 1998, a documentary about five older homosexuals and their association with prostitutes.)
Sergiu Grimalschi Speaks About His Work
“I was a social worker/interpreter at SUB/WAY Berlin from 1994 to 2010. I have a command of all Slavic and Romanian languages, and because of this, I became the contact for Eastern European boys. I was born and raised in Romania, but left the country for political reasons. In Berlin, I quickly found work as an interpreter. I have aided and advised refugees, learning a lot about immigration. Because of my job, I got into contact with the boys on the street. In the beginning, the rent boys were mostly German, Turkish and Polish, but the number of Romanians quickly increased.”
“Compared to other Southern and Easter Europeans, the group of Romanians is particularly discriminated against when it comes to human dignity and equal opportunities, because of their precarious situation as a fringe group.
The standard of living of Romanians, the largest minority in Europe, can be compared to that of developing countries, both in their homeland, and in their host countries. Often, they cannot read or write, and live in extreme poverty in their home country. When they arrive in Germany, they get a job as street sweeper, cleaner, or musician. In the evening, they get together as one family. The most attractive ones are encouraged by other Romanians to work at Bahnhof Zoo. The German boys have left the street and now make use of the Internet.”
“The possibilities to make a living as a prostitute are very limited. At the age of twenty-five, it is usually over, after which they need to find other ways to make a living. The best case scenario is in construction, where some find work.”
“During my work at SUB/WAY I have tried to help my clients in all situations. First of all by providing information about the health risks of working on the street (HIV and STDs), acting as a mediator for free medical treatments, looking for apartments, but also with finding a job when they want to leave prostitution behind them. I would also help them with psychological and addiction problems. I would help them get a residence permit for Germany, and other red tape, related to the government and other institutions.”
“While making the movie, we went to a village in Romania, where two thirds of the rent boys at Bahnhof Zoo come from. It is a very Romanian village, rural and isolated in the east of Romania. Traditionally, Romanians are musicians. But their music is not very popular and in little demand, so that industry does not provide much work.”
“Nowadays, I only work for the Berliner Aids Hilfe and continue my work on HIV prevention with other risk groups.”
Rosa von Praunheim About Making The Movie
Wasn’t it difficult to find boys willing to appear in front of the camera?
“It was harder to find clients who were willing to appear in front of the camera than rent boys. It was very brave of director Peter Kern to have such an open discussion. I do admire him for that. He was telling about his loneliness and desire for tenderness, and he thinks that the rent boys do not have a problem with his hideous body. (Peter Kern weighs 160 kilograms.) Clients can be fat or handicapped. It is more important that the boys are treated with respect and are paid without a fuss.”
How did the contact with the Romanian boys go?
“In the beginning it was impossible, as their family officially does not know what they are up to in Germany. Homosexuality is such a taboo in Romania and is still a disgrace. My friend Oliver introduced me to his colleague, social worker Sergiu Grimalschi. A man who speaks many languages, and knows almost all Eastern European rent boys in Berlin. He told me that many boys come from the same Romanian village.
Sergiu introduced me to the very attractive Ionel, one of the boys from that village. Together with Ionel (and the camera), we traveled to that village. Everything went well, we had a warm reception. Ionel’s mother was so happy to see her son again.
We saw a lot of boys we know from their GayRomeo profile, but it was impossible to speak to them about that in the village. The subject really is taboo. And in light of the immense poverty there, you know which hardship those boys need to undergo.”
“Most Romanian boys are straight. Gay sex is a disgrace in their community, and particularly penetration is despised. The boys indicate that they will always take a masculine role, and are active when having anal intercourse. In the end, that rule is determined by money.”
What is it like for a straight man to have sex with a gay man?
“For the boys, it is a contact without emotion or love. During sex, they try to think of something else. After a couple of times, some quit as they are too filled with disgust, while others seem to like having sex like that.”
What about under-aged boys?
“In the movie, I show Daniel Rene, who was molested by the janitor of his school from the age of six onwards. In such an environment, he met several pedophiles who manipulated him and passed him on.
When he was fourteen, he was forced by one of them to work at Bahnhof Zoo. He had to hand over seventy percent of his earnings. At the age of eighteen, they lost interest and dropped him. He felt betrayed.
Some years later, the circle of pedophiles he was in was raided and the men were arrested. After that, he became aware of what had been done to him.
Now he is thirty and mentally broken. With SUB/WAY Berlin’s help, he is trying to deal with it all and give back meaning to his life.”
“I especially want to thank social worker Sergiu Grimalschi. Because of his help, I was able to go deeper into this world, and got into contact with the foreign boys. German rent boys are only found in solitude, as they feel they are being pushed out by foreigners, and seek their contacts mostly via the Internet. For foreign boys this is much trickier, as they often do not speak German.”
What did you learn from this movie?
“A statement from Sergiu really struck a cord. He said that he had a lot of respect for Eastern European rent boys in particular, as they come from extremely poor backgrounds and had to overcome a lot to travel to Germany. Here as well, they live huddled together in small apartments, and do work that is despised in their homeland. We should realize that before passing judgement on those boys.”
SUB/WAY – Help For Boys
All the boys in the movie are in contact with the SUB/WAY Berlin foundation, now called “Hilfe für Jungs.” SUB/WAY Berlin was founded in 2004 by Luz Volkwein and Wolfgang Werner. They worked as social workers in and around Bahnhof Zoo and wanted to do something for the boys that were working as a prostitute, a group no one was looking after.
Hilfe für Jungs offers important services to rent boys, such as a walk-in in the district of Schöneberg, free medical consultation, and advice and HIV prevention. The work of the foundation is a connecting thread in the movie.
SUB/WAY – Hilfe für Jungs, Nollendorfstrasse 32, 10777 Berlin, www. subway-berlin.de
Rosa von Praunheim’s Impressive Career
Rosa von Praunheim (1942) has left his mark when it comes to making gay movies. Back in 1971, he caused a stir with the movie “Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt” (Not the Homosexual is Perverse, But the Situation in which he lives). The movie, which was commissioned by German TV channel WDR, did not address the general viewer, but directly addressed homosexuals. The bad situation in which they (the homosexuals) were finding themselves, had been created by themselves. That was the proposition of the movie. The television broadcast turned into a scandal. Rosa von Praunheim was perhaps controversial, but that he was at the cradle of the current German gay movement, cannot be denied.
For more than forty years, transvestites, transsexuals, prostitutes, gays, and the gay movement are reoccurring themes in Rosa’s movies. Since the 1980s, HIV and AIDS were added as subjects. In 1985 he made “Ein Virus kennt keine Moral” a kind of satire on the hysterics that surrounded AIDS at the time, and in 1990 the AIDS Trilogy; “Positiv,” “Schweigen = Tod (Silence = Death) and “Feuer unterm Arsch.”
His most recent work is the documentary “König des Comics.” The film was shown at the Berlinale 2012, and is a portrait of comic book artist Ralf König, the designer of the Teddy Award.
The DVD (in German), released by basisdvd, can be purchased at Amazon.de and bookstore Vrolijk in Amsterdam