In the first of a series of texts commissioned on new films in this year’s Open City Documentary Festival programme, writer and researcher Laura Staab examines sexuality and morality in Ruth Beckermann’s Mutzenbacher.
In the turn of the century novel Josefine Mutzenbacher (1906), the 50-year-old narrator tells her reader that she took flight from working class drudgery by becoming “a Viennese whore”. Josefine Mutzenbacher did so early on in life, when she was still a child; still a girl, she “experienced everything a woman can … in every conceivable place possible”. And the book continues to chronicle it all. Given its extreme content, the book spent much of the twentieth century under lock and key: banned in Austria from 1913 to 1971 and banned to underage Germans from 1990 to 2017. As the documentary filmmaker Ruth Beckermann comments, in the case of Austria however, you could “find pirated editions in your parents’ nightstand” before it became available in the 1970s as a paperback, one which “fit right into the zeitgeist of the so-called sexual revolution” of the time. I like to imagine the teenage Beckermann tip-toeing across the threshold into her parents’ bedroom, pilfering the book with the turned around spine to hide under her pillow for later.
Beckermann returned to the book in April 2021, staging a casting call for men between the ages of 16 and 99 for a film about Josefine Mutzenbacher. The film, Mutzenbacher, documents this process: 100 men read aloud and reflect on the novel in a warehouse space that has white-painted brick walls. Most often, these men sit on a button-back chintzy pink sofa that recalls the boudoir and the brothel, the casting couch and, during discussion about the book, the chaise longue of the talking cure. If the sofa transports us back to the twentieth century – when Hollywood and Freud were at their height – then ‘RAUCHEN VERBOTEN’ (‘NO SMOKING’) written in black sans serif high up on the wall behind the sofa returns us to the present: the absence of cigarette smoke and the bright lighting takes us from boudoirs and brothels to more austere or sterile terrain.
While the novel fit right into the zeitgeist of the 1970s, it unsettles some of the moralising tendencies of popular discourse now. Yet as much as there is awkwardness and discomfort as Beckermann matter-of-factly shows us men of all ages giving voice to the erotic life of a girl, there is also laughter and lightness. Moreover, while the fictional life of Josefine Mutzenbacher arouses taboo desires, reading and reflecting on the novel is “not,” as one of the men remarks, “about executing the fantasy”. None of the acts in the novel are actualised. None of the acts become either an abusive reality or a pornographic shot.
Sympathetic to the difficulty of navigating sexuality today – when we might confuse the imagination for images without ambiguity or depth – Beckermann nonetheless ends the film with a few words from the novel that restate the struggle of women caught in a patriarchal structure. Using a magnifying glass – as if the text were fine print, easily overlooked – one of the men reads, “All men do the same. They lie on top, we lie on the bottom. They pound us and we get pounded. That is the whole difference.”
Laura Staab is a writer and researcher based in London. She has written on artists and filmmakers including Laida Lertxundi, Marie Menken, Kelly Reichardt, Barbara Rubin, Angela Schanelec, Larisa Shepitko and Helena Wittmann for Another Gaze, The Machine that Kills Bad People, RE:VOIR and Sight & Sound.