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A man looks into a mirror and holds his hair back.
Matthias Freihof played lead character Philipp in ‘Coming Out.’ (DEFA-Stiftung/Wolfgang Fritsche)

‘Coming Out,’ the East German film that premiered when the Berlin Wall fell, is still relevant today

Coming Out, the first and only feature film about homosexuality made in East Germany, premiered on Nov. 9, 1989 — the day the Berlin Wall fell. Now, 32 years later, the film, which appears this year on DVD in a newly restored version, still has great relevance for viewers.

Coming Out is first and foremost about the experiences of LGBTQ people in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Its primary focus is gay men, centred on the young and enthusiastic teacher Philipp (Matthias Freihof), a white German man. But the film also reveals a society with more challenges than were publicly discussed, like racism and xenophobia, that persist in Germany today.

Through narrative and cinematographic means, the film presents an affirmative message for positive inclusive social change, while also highlighting the dissonance between socialist utopian rhetoric and who is excluded from its mainstream norms. Coming Out tests the limits of socialist utopia by documenting the different ways marginalization is manifest in this society.

Rights, responsibilities of citizens

Watching and thinking about Coming Out today can be a reminder that the legacy of both the film and the country in which it was produced fluctuates and continues to be shaped by current events.

The GDR can conjure thoughts of communism, repression and scarcity. In the decades since its collapse, East Germany has also been a metaphor for Germans to think about their past as well as their present. For example, the hit film The Lives of Others (2006, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) — which won the 2007 Oscar for best foreign language film — leads audiences to think about privacy, surveillance and the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

An image of a portion of spraypainted wall.
‘Coming Out’ premiered on Nov. 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell. (Luis Diego Hernandez/Unsplash)

Struggle against state censorship

In Coming Out, Philipp enters a relationship with a colleague, Tanja (Dagmar Manzel), who eventually gets pregnant. An unexpected visit by Tanja’s gay friend Jakob (Axel Wandtke) sends Philipp into a tailspin of doubt, which leads him to explore his identity in the gay bars of East Berlin.

This exploration of the bars leads to his short-lived relationship with Matthias (Dirk Kummer), whose suicide attempt opens the film, and who moves on from Philipp to pursue another relationship. Although Philipp’s personal and professional lives crumble into disarray because of his struggles with his sexuality, leaving him alone at the end of the film, he is shown to be content and assured in his own identity.

East German films were produced in the state-run studios called DEFA, an abbreviation for German Film Company (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft). By the late 1980s, some of the customary restrictions and censorship that were present in DEFA had eased somewhat.

The film’s acclaimed East German director Heiner Carow (1929–97) was vice-president of the GDR Academy of Arts and made the hit cult film The Legend of Paul and Paula in 1972. For years he struggled against state censorship and the ingrained prejudice in DEFA before he received approval to make Coming Out.

In East Germany, male homosexuality was decriminalized in 1968, but it remained largely a taboo in public life.

‘Coming Out’ trailer.

In 1988, the year before Coming Out premiered, a short documentary called The Other Love was released. This documentary featured interviews with lesbians, gay men and their family members who talked about their lives and the challenges they faced. The documentary encouraged positive acceptance of lesbians and gay men, but was limited in its focus on urban life.

The focus in Coming Out is on homosexuality in East Germany, but Carow also wanted to illustrate issues of marginalization more broadly.

No tolerance for ‘deviation’

The filmmaker’s goal was to show how what was considered normal in East German society could create an oppressive and sometimes violent context for what deviated from that norm. Another way the film shows this is to highlight other forms of discrimination: racism and xenophobia.

In one scene, Philipp and his students witness three neo-Nazis assaulting a Black man (Pierre Sanoussi-Bliss) in a subway car while the passengers ignore what is happening. Philipp breaks up the attack and becomes the skinheads’ new target, leading his students to get involved, pushing and yelling at the attackers.

In Coming Out, the inclusion of the neo-Nazis’ assault and Philipp’s intervention both reminds (or informs) the audience of this racialized violence in the GDR and shows the importance of resistance even if only through disruption. Since its founding in 1949, East Germany had considered itself to be an anti-fascist country.

True successor?

The GDR saw itself as the true successor to Germany’s pre-Nazi cultural history, not its capitalist counterpart to the west, the Federal Republic of Germany.

The country’s anti-fascist policies, however, did not eliminate far-right ideologies. Reports of far-right violence do not appear in East German newspapers until 1988, although there were incidents long before then. Racist attacks intensified in the years following unification.

The worst attacks took place in Hoyerswerda in 1991, Rostock in 1992, Mölln in 1992 and Solingen in 1993, and became symbols of the terrorism perpetrated in the early 1990s.

Even in more recent years, extremist violence continues to be a source of concern in Germany. Terrorism increased once more after Germany accepted many refugees and asylum-seekers starting in 2015. German Chancellor Angela Merkel remarked that it was the nature of Germany as a nation to welcome those in need.

An election campaign sign has been defaced with a Hitler moustache.
A vandalized election campaign poster for the far-right Alternative for Germany party stands on a road in Magdeburg, Germany, in June 2021. Magdeburg was part of the GDR. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Rights of minority populations

Despite many welcoming gestures, there were many attacks that mirrored the violence in the years following German unification. Another geographic connection to the xenophobic sentiments is the far-right political party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered Germany’s parliament for the first time following elections in 2017. The AfD’s most reliable voters have been found in the east, as seen in recent German elections.

East Germany’s dissolution wasn’t certain when Coming Out premiered, but there had been serious upheaval and demands for change.

Coming Out serves as a reminder that it’s the responsibility of every society to protect the rights of minority populations.

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