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Returning to the City of Lost Souls

By Juliet Jacques.


City of Lost Souls does not have a strong reputation, even within the uneven oeuvre of controversial German director Rosa von Praunheim. It warrants no description even in his website’s biography, eclipsed by works such as It is Not the Homosexual Who is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives, which mobilised the German gay rights movement with its portrayal of social homophobia, and I am My Own Woman, a semi-documentary about German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. In Queer German Cinema, Alice A. Kuzniar – one of few to retrospectively address the film – dismisses it as “self-indulgent … silliness.”

Covering the film before its UK release, Guardian reviewer Chris Auty was even less impressed. “The latest and junkiest outing from the travelling opportunist of gay cinema, Rosa von Praunheim … [is] as much calculated to upset a heterosexual audience as to flatter the complicity of a (male) gay one,” Auty wrote on 12 April 1984. Four days earlier, The Observer‘s brief synopsis was equally scathing, but came closer to accurately describing its ensemble cast, at least realising that this was not (or at least not primarily) a gay film: “A sort of transvestite/transsexual cabaret, it looks dispiritingly like amateur night on an off-day.”

A week before his colleague damned the film (when a broadsheet would offer three different takes on an underground queer musical) Guardian critic Derek Malcolm provided a more even handed assessment, appreciating its spirit more intuitively than Auty or Kuzniar. “The film is a fairly comprehensive mess” wrote Malcolm, “as if it were put together by a reanimated and manic Andy Warhol” (curiously, as Warhol was still alive). “But for every exhibitionist there’s a quite ordinary human screaming to get out, and von Praunheim’s sympathy with this idea render the film less boring and more fun than you might think.”

Story-wise, the film is a mess: Kuzniar writes it off as “little more than a vehicle for a group of transvestites [sic] to parade themselves through dance and song within a loosely concocted narrative about the employees at a Burger Queen restaurant.” Kuzniar’s synopsis is more accurate than her terminology, but misses the point: making scant pretence to narrative logic, City of Lost Souls is driven by its cast, and by theme rather than plot: its non-judgemental handling of alienation and self-realisation, and especially its anticipation of transgender identities which create space within the established ‘transvestite’/’transsexual’ dichotomy are what make it a (minor) cult classic.

It is no surprise that Malcolm mentions Warhol. The influence of Chelsea Girls, and the Paul Morrissey films Flesh, Trash and (particularly) Women in Revolt, to which Warhol put his name, is clearly visible. Like Warhol and Morrissey, von Praunheim allowed his actors to improvise freely, often incorporating the results into the script, lending City of Lost Souls a similar feel to the films of Warhol, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger and other pioneers of queer American underground cinema.

According to Man Enough to be a Woman, the autobiography of City of Lost Souls‘ star, Factory actor, Stonewall riots veteran and punk singer Jayne County, von Praunheim was ‘looking for eccentric Americans to be his film’s Warholesque cast of outsiders. County was living in Berlin, performing her stage musical U-Bahn to Memory Lane – her co-star, Tron von Hollywood, introduced her to von Praunheim. After he offered County an 800 Mark advance, she agreed to feature (with Tron), giving the film its title and writing all of her own material, some of which came from U-Bahn to Memory Lane.

Like his New German Cinema contemporary Werner Herzog, von Praunheim liked to blur the lines between fact and fiction, saying that his output was “almost all documentary … Even the feature films are with real people – strong personalities that I build in documentary fashion into my films.” Shot in six weeks, mostly in von Praunheim’s basement, City of Lost Souls works best when he allows his cast to freely express their personalities.

The ‘lost souls’ orbit around Angie Stardust, who owns Burger Queen and runs the Pension Stardust boarding house. Her actual personal history is aired: after her father tried to beat her youthful femininity out of her, she became “the first black transsexual” to perform in New York, at the 82 Club (New York’s biggest pre-Stonewall drag revue and later host to County and other punk pioneers), having initially been turned away because of her colour. After moving to Berlin, Angie finds that she has not escaped racism, with some who provided votes and soldiers for the Nazis surviving and passing their prejudices to their grandchildren; the generation between, she feels, were too busy enjoying West Germany’s ‘economic miracle’ to teach their offspring to entirely reject Nazi ideology.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder‘s Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), which cynically explores the after-effects of the American liberation of Berlin through one woman’s life after her fling with a US soldier, contrasts its protagonist’s lonely death with Herbert Zimmermann’s famous radio commentary on West Germany’s shock 1954 World Cup triumph, a famous symbol of post-war recovery. Typically, von Praunheim’s depiction of everyday Fascism is more direct than that of his main rival in the New German Cinema group, juxtaposing a child singing a racist song and a white man telling the audience, in Brechtian fashion, that “I love Berlin! My grandmother used to say ‘Arbeit macht frei!'” with Angie’s lament that “People here don’t consider the past.”

City of Lost Souls is more nuanced when exploring the alienation that comes with gender or sexual minority. Tara O’Hara, who keeps bringing men back to Pension Stardust, ostensibly to “teach them English”, identifies as ‘transvestite’ – which had a less narrow meaning in 80s Germany than in contemporary Britain.

Whilst ‘transgender’ had been used in several contexts by 1982, it does not appear in City of Lost Souls. (Zagria offers an interesting historiography here.) Before this term came into common use, ‘transvestite’ – coined by German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in The Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress (1910) – offered more scope than ‘transsexual’ for people to find space between male and female or reject the gender identity assigned at birth without pursuing medical intervention. (The modern meaning, primarily referring to those who cross-dress for sexual pleasure, is clearly signified by Hirschfeld, on whom von Praunheim later made The Einstein of Sex, but was only fixed after ‘transgender’ and other terms assumed this wider function.)

The tensions that developed within the ‘transgender’ alliance, which never quite healed the transvestite/transsexual division, are anticipated by Angie and Tara O’Hara – as are the passionate debates over terminology and semantics held in autonomous spaces as transgender theory evolved in the 90s. Despite his clear sympathy with Angie and Tara’s difficulties in externalising their genders in a transphobic (and xenophobic) society, and his realisation that doing so has necessarily taken both Angie and Tara nearer its fringes despite supposedly being the first step towards a more settled life, aspects of von Praunheim’s framing feel problematic. A shot of Angie topless momentarily punctuates her explanation that seeing ‘transvestites … with breasts’ made her want to transition, giving some visual sense that she has achieved self-realisation, but whether or not this is empowering or exploitative remains open to debate, as no other context is given.


In a scene that looks improvised – County recalls that von Praunheim had a Warhol-style aloofness, preferring to ‘[take] a back seat and [let] people do their own thing’ than provide strong direction or even script every scene – Angie has a heated discussion with Tara O’Hara about their divergent gender identities. The voiceover sets up the conflict: Tara is “a transvestite and wears women’s clothes but wants to remain a man” whilst Angie “is a transsexual … her only problem is that she has a penis that she wants to have removed.”

Here, von Praunheim again walks an ambiguous line between sympathy and sensationalism, but the film handles its subjects intelligently enough for this focus on Angie’s physicality to convey the socio-economic stresses that come with transsexual living, rather than being simply voyeuristic. This effect is achieved when its characters speak for themselves, as Tara asks Angie: “Do you think a sex change will make you a woman?” before asserting that physical transition “is not necessary any more”. Drawing on post-war antagonism between certain transvestite and transsexual activists, Tara’s arguments overlap with those of the early 80s’ most vocal critics of gender reassignment: a subset of ‘radical’ feminists who attacked transsexual people for apparently reiterating patriarchal stereotypes of femininity, an opinion that found its most aggressive and sustained expression in Janice Raymond’s rabid tract The Transsexual Empire (1979).

Whilst transsexual responses to Raymond were published almost immediately (by writers such as Roz Kaveney and Carol Riddell), it was not until the end of the Eighties (after AIDS had seismically altered LGBT culture, and become the focus of von Praunheim’s films) that gender-variant people organised politically. Written in 1987, Sandy Stone’s essay The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto, became transgender theory’s founding text, encouraging transsexual people to move beyond ‘passing’ (thus silencing themselves) and be open about their pasts, reasoning that a confident, honest assertion of a transsexual identity would undermine Raymond’s critique, which relied heavily on stereotype.

The transgender alliance that arose did not always mask tensions (explored here by Julia Serano) between transsexual people who moved across the gender binary and transgender or genderqueer individuals who aimed to finds space beyond male and female. Tara O’Hara’s ‘transvestite’ ideal instinctively anticipates the latter position, but Angie angrily tells her that it is “because of the old school that you can be what you are … We pumped the hormones, we put up with people calling us ‘faggot’ and ‘drag queen’ … Now it’s easy for you, you get tits, your hair grows, you’re a woman. It was harder for us, we had to act over-feminine …”

And she’s right: the post-war Gender Identity Clinics administered hormones or surgery only to those who met their tough criteria on physical and mental health and in particular on gender presentation and sexuality. The transsexual women who met this obligation to dress in hyper-feminine methods and deny an attraction to other women, being unable to criticise for fear of jeopardising their treatment, all the while facing verbal and physical attacks from various quarters, often having their identities invalidated or ignored, opened space for those such as Tara O’Hara with more playful attitudes to gender.

Eventually, they reach an awkward compromise. Angie absolutely refuses Tara’s suggestion to “accept yourself as a transvestite”; Tara tells her that “we’re the third sex” but Angie prefers to “agree that we’re the New Women”. (Both of these phrases have Victorian connotations, reflecting von Praunheim’s interest in fin-de-siècle sexology: ‘the third sex’ was Edward Carpenter’s term for effeminate homosexuals or ‘inverts’, a concept that Hirschfeld and others later unpicked, while ‘New Women’ was a nineteenth century feminist ideal inspired by the emancipated females in Ibsen‘s plays.)

Later, we see Tara O’Hara with one of the men she brings home. As they kiss, she tells him that “I’m a different kind of woman … An extraordinary woman”, trying to make her gender status clear before they become too intimate, knowing that revelation during sex carries the risk of a violent response (often justified by the ‘panic’ defence and the argument that the transgender woman has been deliberately deceptive, that often worked in transphobic courts). When he becomes suspicious, Tara says that she is “a transvestite’. His response reveals that instantly, his sexual identity is thrown into crisis: “I’m not gay – you should have told me that before.” Tara says “you’re not gay because you sleep with me”, explaining that she is “another kind of woman” and talking him into staying: just as von Praunheim does not let Tara undermine Angie’s hard-won identity, so he does not let this man reject Tara’s.

Tara tells her lover that she felt “feminine” as a child, before taking steps to match her body with her feelings, suggesting some intervention (perhaps hormone therapy) despite her rejection of sex reassignment surgery. Here we see the difference between scripted films of the 90s and 00s that used cisgender actors to play transgender characters – Transamerica, Boys Don’t Cry and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert for example – and the underground directors who cast transgender people as themselves, allowing them to create more honest portrayals of the experience of gender-variant life.

The presence of Jayne County, Angie, Tara and drag queen Joaquin in City of Lost Souls ensures nuanced representation rather than cliché – that it incorporates Angie’s real-life lesbian relationship with a white woman, without comment, feels especially progressive. In this context, they are not ciphers for ‘issues’, members of a ‘minority’ or the ‘freaks’ that Calpernia Addams complained that trans actors often end up playing, but simply people, with some of their challenges being gender-specific and others not.

Man Enough to be a Woman was one of few transsexual autobiographies not to be centred around surgery – which County ultimately declines – breaking with the genre’s convention by showing her gender identity’s evolution within a queer context rather than as a struggle to hide it in order to maintain a ‘respectable’ heterosexual life. (This, of course, was an honest representation of her personal history.)

In City of Lost Souls, she plays cisgender woman Lila, who goes from supporting Reagan – to the extent of singing ‘(I Want to Be the One to) Push the Button’ – to becoming pregnant by a Communist who promises to make her a People’s Artist of the German Democratic Republic. Which happens: Lila ends up on East German television singing ‘I Fell in Love with a Russian Soldier’ and declaring her love of Karl Marx – warmly appreciated by the American outsiders feeling oppressed in their anti-Communist homeland and West Berlin (and not entirely aware of the realities of life in the East).

Then, dancer Gary, due to be deported the next day, sets fire to his room: he and Tron are killed and, as angels, look down on the other characters, who obliviously continue dancing as the fire brigade arrive: there is a threat to their hard-won liberation as real, and fatal, as the HIV virus that began to ravage gay and transsexual communities as the film was conceived.

Tron von Hollywood fell to AIDS a few years before County’s book was published in 1995, but he was not the first cast member to die. Tara O’Hara’s ‘freedom’ proved chimerical: she too contracted HIV, according to Man Enough to be a Woman, but was not killed by it. In 1983, she was found severely beaten in a ladies’ room in Tiergarten and taken to hospital, lying in a coma for weeks until the doctors pulled the plug. (Charlotte Cooper’s tribute is particularly moving.)

I feel that City of Lost Souls has aged better than Kuzniar or Auty would have guessed: with gender-variant people slowly gaining mainstream media respect and representation, it’s fascinating to see the debates in which they worked out their gender identities staged before online communities, transgender-specific fanzines or Queer/Transgender Studies courses – all crucial to the development of organised transgender politics.

Lagging behind gay and lesbian history, a transgender cultural canon is still being defined. Rosa von Praunheim emerged at a time when ‘gay’ retained a function as shorthand for a range of gender identities and sexualities fighting shared oppression, and so became known as a ‘gay’ director. Which he was, but his output often explored gender as well as sexuality, better fitting more recent ideas of ‘queer’ filmmaking, and several would slot well into a historiography of transgender film, even after considering the problems in retrospectively transposing the concept onto people who preceded its contemporary usage.

Rather than being ‘self-indulgent’, its characters are trying to understand their identities in the face of prejudice – not just transphobia but also homophobia, xenophobia and racism – and far from trying to ‘upset a heterosexual audience’, or even ‘flatter the complicity’ of gay male viewers, its transsexual and transvestite characters were fighting for the freedom to be themselves. Consequently, they provide an inspiration to a culture that has had to prize this struggle above all others, and still has relatively few role models: in doing so, they raise City of Lost Souls far above the limitations of its plot.


Juliet Jacques is a freelance writer for The Guardian, The New Statesman and others, who writes about literature, film, art, gender and football. Her Transgender Journey blog for The Guardian – the first to serialise the gender reassignment process for a major British publication – was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 4th, 2012.