Saturday, 23 April 2011

Otherwise engaged: "Taxi zum Klo"

Thirty years ago, writer-director-star Frank Ripploh broke new ground and won plaudits and brickbats alike for Taxi zum Klo, his semi-autobiographical, thoroughly deromanticised portrait of a gay lifestyle. From its introductory shots of Vaseline on a nightstand and the slovenly protagonist's hairy arse to the endless cruising on and around drizzly, freezing-looking streets, Ripploh's film makes a concerted effort to get at the drab realities of what it was to be gay in a Berlin far removed from Christopher Isherwood's time: contemporary audiences will have to get over their giggles at the prominence accorded to dungarees, bulky 80s cash dispensers, drag queens who sashay round for tea and cakes, and the characters' facial hair. Here, hearts are drawn with piss in the snow - an act that in context assumes a kind of sweetness, and appears positively swooning by the time we get to the film's various rectal examinations.

Ripploh's most provocative touch lay in making his lead a schoolteacher - a former of tiny minds! - who's shown as just as capable as anybody else of separating their work from their sometimes chaotic personal life; that said, one early cut whisking Herr Ripploh directly from the classroom to the cubicle now appears to have been left in specifically to cause Fox News viewers and Daily Mail readers alike to explode in fury. (As it is, even when their teacher enters the room hungover and dressed as an Arabian princess, the kids seem to intuit exactly where he's coming from - they're perhaps representative of a new generation, the class of a soon-to-be-united Berlin, who'll turn out more accepting than their forefathers.)

What follows is a tragicomedy with porno inserts. Herr Ripploh tries to get some marking done in the loo when somebody rudely shoves their erect penis through an adjacent gloryhole, a situation I don't believe is covered in the current set of Ofsted guidelines. After a bout of unprotected sex, our man is obliged to enter into a gruesomely matter-of-fact conversation with a prostitute in the waiting room of an STD clinic. Flashframes of early erotica during a staff meeting suggest a hero with his mind very firmly on other things. The film's period tattiness occasionally gets in the way, yet it's just about possible to make out a very modern study (and critique) of the media; how its images come to change, and in certain cases, corrupt the way we come to look at ourselves and others.

These characters are enthusiastic consumers of television, radio and the press, bolstering their insecurities and whipping up their anxieties: the drag queen brings round an educational film warning of the dangers of pederasts, and Herr Ripploh takes up with a cinema manager, who has his own, rigidly framed set of ideas as to how their relationship should proceed. Taxi zum Klo's own images, rough-hewn and close to, well, the bone, offer a sort of corrective to what had previously been the norm: those deodorised, made up love stories that proceeded blithely unaware of their own sexual health. The film stood alone for a long while - that other gay German Fassbinder was too poetic, where Taxi is unapologetically all prose; Ripploh's other work (including a 1987 sequel, Taxi nach Cairo) never travelled outside of Germany - and only 25 years later did it find its perfect double-bill partner, in John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus: another polysexual romp worrying away, in its own genial fashion, at the subject of intimacy, and how we get over the hang-ups we have to get to where we want to be in the bedroom - or, indeed, in the bathroom.

Taxi zum Klo is on selected release.

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