Austrian filmmaker Ruth Beckermann's documentary explores notions of sex by drawing one hundred men into an old factory
The venerable Austrian filmmaker Ruth Beckermann is hardly known for her comedic talents, but Mutzenbacher finds humour in sex, trauma, and notions of masculinity. Shot in an abandoned coffin factory, history can be felt in the atmosphere pillowing around the walls. Her crew carry in an antique sofa. Pinkish, frayed, it will be the setting for one hundred men to audition for Ruth Beckermann’s new film, which doesn't exist. Placing an advert in a Vienna newspaper, they file in to read one of the canonical texts of erotic literature.
Josephine Mutzenbacher or The Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself is an anonymously published pornographic novel that is commonly attributed to Bambi author Felix Salten. It details the sexual encounters of a teenage girl in turn of the century Austria. Beckermann’s adaptation isn’t a simple staging. Instead, she asks the auditioning men to read selected passages from the book, and talks to them about the feelings and memories that it brings up.
Talking head documentaries can be dry to the non-believer. The limited visual range of such films pushes the viewer’s focus onto the words being said – cue exhaustion. For the likes of The Fog of War or Dead Souls, this is a way to document oral history. Mutzenbacher’s deconstructivist approach, always reminding you of its own process, pulls together past and present.
Two young men in their twenties, both shy, awkward and slightly giggly, throw themselves into acting out a seduction scene. It’s the setup of a softcore porn – “whoops the lights have gone out!” And so on. Their awkward movements and performed glances expose the silliness of gender performance. For Beckermann, language is the binding construct around which humans can learn from one another. A teenager describes climax as an “ecstasy of happiness,” which his friend won’t let him live down.
One older man with brilliant blue eyes says he’s auditioning to turn the tables, and show the world that contrary to the evidence, men face more oppression than women. The fear in his trembling face as he tries to explain this to Beckermann is fascinating. Her role as the only woman on set, and as a respected filmmaker, doesn’t go uncommented on, as she includes footage of one nervous participant saying he doesn’t understand the project but he has faith in her ability to make it work. That isn’t self-aggrandising, but a a way to emphasise the power structures at work: on the film set, in the novel, and in the outside world.
Some memories that the participants bring up are unhappy, even traumatic. First experiences with sex can be. These men end up plumbing the depths of their psyche. In our so-called sexually liberated world, frank discussions like these are rare. That’s what makes this refreshing honesty so funny. As Beckermann cuts between men of different generations, we see the shifting mores and expectations of desire meld into one awkward, impulsive, and terribly human mass. It lands at a punchline that is emotionally and comedically explosive. What else would you expect from a climax?
Mutzenbacher was screened as part of Berlinale Film Festival 2022. It is available to stream on MUBI from 17 February.Where to watch