You Are Mutzenbacher To Me | Cinéma du Réel 2022

18 March, 2022

Ever since the streets have gone silent, suffocated by advertisements, the empty storage rooms used as a backdrop for casting sessions can be seen as a replacement window to the world. This is how I’m interpreting the fact that at least two recent documentaries, with a visible run in festivals, have given up on the age-old tactic – to walk up and down the streets, camera in hand, asking people about happiness, as Rouch or Pasolini did —, but that conserved its ambition: to sketch a human mosaic that is authorized to unveil itself at its own leisure, at a minimum cost. One could argue that fashions come back into style in documentary cinema as well, since the old-time ciné-vérité method was seemingly starting to sink lately, only for it to now return under an even more purified form. The casting session is the movie itself, and its skeleton, with its cameras and microphones, remains visible, the tell-tale sign of an age in which we once more feel the need to edify and to ask clear questions, that sort of smell like mothballs: “where are we at, now?”, “where are we headed to?”, and so on. Mutzenbacher, the grand winner of the Berlinale’s “Encounters” section, ties the knot once more with a documentary tradition that knows what it’s looking for and wants to arrive at some conclusions, to the detriment of more oblique conceptions, that construct meaning throughout, by using various formal pirouettes. It’s a well-known fact: when the political sphere is creaky, the social one reclaims its rights.

Let’s go back to the starting block, because this is where all the rest gets coagulated: Austrian veteran Ruth Beckermann organizes a casting call based on the pornographic novel Josefine Mutzenbacher or The Story of a Viennese Whore, a cult book of Germanic literature published anonymously in 1906 (even though it’s often attributed to Felix Salten, the author of Bambi). The open call in the film is a targeted one from the get-go, because Beckermann is seeking men – of all ages, class backgrounds, races – to read fragments from this tome that discuss the protagonist’s process of maturing, a maturing that is steeped in all sorts of revelatory sexual experiences. In other words, she’s looking for men that can voice this curious young woman. In the words of one of the men that show up at the casting session, the most common expression in the book is ‘“don’t tell anyone what happened”, and the words inevitably reference various sexual organs. Using this confrontation with a paradoxical object – the text was clandestine for the longest time, but then, in a back-handed way, became a canonical read —, the film sweeps across entire levels of masculinity, the one of today and of yesteryear alike. We see middle-aged men that accept the challenge with sneaky grins on their faces, and flustered young men entering contact with the text for the first time. We hear personal anecdotes from their pasts, or we share the opinion of a guy regarding the sexuality that nowadays – under the constant barrage of pornographic videos or dating websites – is increasingly assimilated to the idea of performance, of a trial by fire. 

Mutzenbacher
Mutzenbacher

It’s not quite clear in what direction the film positions itself, and the lion’s share of the fascination evoked by this lab experience is precisely its fantastic density, in which intimate stories and ideological responses ceaselessly intersect with one another, thus blocking any unilateral perspectives. If I may use a cliché, I’d say that the film invites one to ponder since it throws the hot potato of truth from hand to hand – young hands that are just now being initiated into the realm of fleshly pleasures, or wrinkled hands that have seen plenty of things along the years —, until it turns into a sticky, shapeless mush. This is what distinguishes Mutzenbacher from a film like Comizi d’amore, wherein Pasolini – unparalleled in his capacity to reconcile radical politics with an absolutely sensuous humanism – interviewed Italians on the topic of sexuality. But there, despite meeting all sorts of people – which is always an adventure —, the conclusion was never late to arrive, and it was monolithic in scope: Italy is a retrograde and homophobic land, prudish even in the very heart of the proletariat. Here, things are much more mixed – not that bourgeois hypocrisy would have melted away in the meantime, allowing for a unanimous orgasmic outlook, but because we have ended up co-existing with the camera’s lens, and so we can feint or trick it without fully betraying ourselves in the process of doing so. In fact, a secondary plotline traverses Beckermann’s film, beyond its sexuality debate, and that is the story that each of us entertains with cinema itself. It’s more than enough to compare the nonchalant histrionics of this red-faced man, a true cabaret icon that makes and breaks the relationship between the person wielding the camera and the person that is letting themselves be observed, and the young man that claims he decided to participate because he respects Beckermann as a director. But cinephilia might not be enough when it comes to passing the “test of the screen”.

Another interesting documentary – a Romanian one – banks on the same method of turning a casting call into a film that stands on its legs. In You Are Ceaușescu To Me (Sebastian Mihăilescu, 2021), the case study regards the relationship of Romanian you with the tutelary figure of Ceaușescu and, in a larger sense, with Romania’s murky national past. The similarities run dry pretty quickly, however, since this particular film, hesitates – and quite justly so – when it comes to its discoveries, overcompensating on the other hand, and washes up in the vanity of a mise-en-scène that is willing to show us that what we’re seeing is a serious thing: black-and-white cinematography, a 4:3 format, an entire parade of a work of art that is much too self-aware, that should act as a mask for the gaps in its contents. If Mutzenbacher does, indeed, win its wager, it’s because it goes much farther than that, as it develops directorial attention towards gestures – see the case of the man who slowly sinks into the bombastic casting couch and guesses that something spicy might be coming up – and for the form – the suffocating framing of this man’s anxious face, hesitantly speaking as he observes, with a tiny bit of fairness, that there is no such thing as the concept of “toxic femininity” nowadays, and that the novel is as such dated. The novel is, indeed, a fruitful and contradictory basis – in contrast, perhaps, to Ceaușescu’s personality —, because it encourages multiple vantage points, from the shock of the sexual abuse of a minor to an opposite sort of scandalousness, derived from the pleasure that the girl seems to extract from the act, a fact which in itself hints at a male author, that is hell-bent on justifying his behavior, and so on, and so forth.

As unclear as the film’s intentions might be – is it aiming to rehabilitate men or does it want to fault them even more —, the more stimulating this exploration of the territory of sexuality becomes, in which common sense and horsing around, virility, and indignation can cohabitate under the same roof, like in the old times. One leaves Mutzenbacher with a light, feel-good sensation, that is immediately contradicted by the memory of this authorless novel, which asks the same questions of us: is it an emancipatory text or is it an apologia of the abuser? Beckermann, a woman shielded by the pupil-less eye of the camera, orchestrates an almost electrifying field of forces, in which the film’s form is constructed effortlessly, in a dialogue with these men who, after a long time, we can listen to. It depends on what kind of listening is privileged: a nervous one, a polite one, or one tinged with admiration. What matters is that this experiment seems to offer, democratically so, both to spectators and the participants themselves, several keys of understanding.



Title

Director/ Screenwriter

Country

Year

Film critic and journalist; writes regularly for Dilema Veche and Scena9. Doing a MA film theory programme in Paris. At Films in Frame Victor presents Kinostalgia - a monthly column about repertoire cinema.