In a spare industrial space, an audition is held for men between the ages of 16 and 99. Sometimes individually, sometimes in pairs or groups, the men take turns sitting on a pink couch, variously engaging with the erotic material they are presented with. Against all odds, this is not a description of a casting call for gay porn (or of a João Pedro Rodrigues film like The King’s Body, for that matter). Rather, it’s the logline of Ruth Beckermann’s latest feature, Mutzenbacher, named after the 1906 novel Josefine Mutzenbacher or The Story of a Viennese Whore. Published anonymously but often attributed to Felix Salten, the author of Bambi, the book is a world-renowned classic of pornographic literature — though it remains controversial for what the film’s opening text describes as “its salacious and abusive portrayal of child sexuality.” Banned in Germany until 1968 and featured on the list of Writings Harmful to Young Persons until 2017, it’s the focal point of the auditions, in which the men engage with the text in a variety of ways. Some simply read the extracts given to them. Others comment on the text and its relation to either contemporary mores or their own experiences, sexual or otherwise. Meanwhile, Beckermann provokes her subjects from behind the camera, prodding them with ironic questions or laconic follow-ups. Her editing remains largely unobtrusive throughout, though she also includes a few sequences where the hundred or so men auditioning line up in rows and, in a kind of call-and-response interlude, recite a brief exchange from the book. For instance, Q: “What does the prick do in the cunt?” A: “It fucks.”
Apart from the amusement of hearing a hundred grown men chanting “Banging, screwing, reaming, shagging, poking, pounding” in the manner of a nursery rhyme, these interludes have a linguistic dimension that is certainly lost on those who do not speak German. Mutzenbacher as a whole, though, may be said to conduct an investigation that is archaeological in the sense Foucault gave the term. Beckermann’s conception is certainly pedagogical and didactic, but hers is a pedagogy and didacticism geared toward excavating the gap between the film’s subjects and the original text. As the men comment on the novel, they are aware not just of their distance from the material, but also of how their own comments separate from their status as the film’s subjects. Their remarks do not stand as mere evidence for some thesis about contemporary sexuality, but continually refer back to a gap between the text and their commentary, between their commentary and themselves. And if Beckermann can use the barest of means to draw all this out, it’s partly because experiments such as those of Godard and Duras have given sound a distinct autonomy from the visible image — an autonomy that it did not have at the beginning of the cinema. (Indeed, this is also what makes possible the recent archival experiments of Sergei Loznitsa, with their controversial Foley manipulations.) In this way, Mutzenbacher functions as a kind of montage experiment without cutting, allowing Beckermann to demonstrate a fundamental lesson of the modern cinema: that if one only knows how to present them, it’s enough to let one’s subjects speak.
Published as part of NYFF 2022 — Dispatch 3.