One of Germany's most unpredictable filmmakers, Rosa von Praunheim (A VIRUS HAS NO MORALS) again confounds those who would categorize his work with this atypically gentle biography of transvestite homosexual Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Combining documentary narration and interviews with
dramatizations of Charlotte's life, Praunheim offers a strikingly reflexive, politicized picture of German history and gay culture, and a vastly entertaining one at that.
Charlotte (nee Lothar Berfelde) introduces her museum, dedicated to the arts, crafts, and home furnishings of the Grunderzeit period (1880-1900). (Initially seen as herself, Charlotte/Lothar is played by different actors at various points in the film.) Charlotte is fond of cleaning house at an
early age, and a beloved granduncle tells her, "You should have been a girl." Charlotte's father, a Nazi, beats his wife and children, but the granduncle offers some protection until his death in 1942. Respite also comes from her lesbian Aunt Luise, with whom Lothar spends school breaks. In 1943,
Charlotte's mother uses the war as a pretext for fleeing her husband. When he threatens to murder her and the children, Lothar kills him and is sent to a psychiatric reformatory. The teenager is released in 1944 due to a turn in the war.
In 1946, Charlotte, now played by a young man, receives permission to restore Friedrichsfelde Castle, where actors, aristocrats, and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, among others, held drag balls in the 1890s. Later, Charlotte works as a "servant girl"--literally and sexually--for elderly Herbert
von Zitzenou. She next ventures to a gay bar, where she's employed as a barmaid when news of the Berlin Wall comes. In 1960 Charlotte meets Jochen, who becomes a partner of 27 years, at a public toilet. After an apprenticeship restoring antique clocks, Charlotte, now playing herself, realizes her
dream and opens her museum; her home is declared a historic monument in 1972. Two years later, however, the government threatens to auction off the museum's holdings because of unpaid taxes and Charlotte's status as an "undesirable." She gives away most of her precious objects to visitors and only
later begins collecting anew. During this time, she also lends period costumes to movie producers and acts in several films; later, she offers her basement as a cultural center for the nascent Homosexual Interest Group. Although a city senate tries to annex her museum, finances are difficult, and
skinheads threaten the cultural center, Charlotte receives her country's Order of Merit in 1992.
Praunheim's penetrating film exposes the contradictions at the nexus of history, narration, style, and sexuality. A documentary, I AM MY OWN WOMAN nonetheless frequently slips into historical dramatization, only to complicate things further as Charlotte herself enters the action to discuss how
well the actor playing her father is doing, to comfort the boy actor who faces a Nazi firing squad, or, most amusingly, to substitute for the actor playing Charlotte as Jochen begins an erotic spanking session.
The most provocative contradictions, though, exist in the figure of Charlotte herself. With offhand and mildly campy charm, Praunheim recreates 19th-century drag balls, Nazi and neo-Nazi cruelties, the art of the Grunderzeit period, Charlotte's importance to the gay community, and her casual
enjoyment of S&M role-playing. Although Charlotte confounds easy divisions among the sexes (the film forcefully if implicitly argues that there may be many), she herself is blissfully clear about the person she is: she considers herself a woman, even though she has never desired a sex change
operation. Wisely, Praunheim never raises the oft-heard charge that seeing gay men as women is misguided, or even homophobic. Rather, he calls on the audience to see the possibility and the wisdom of sexual self-determination. (Nudity, sexual situations)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: NR
- Review: One of Germany's most unpredictable filmmakers, Rosa von Praunheim (A VIRUS HAS NO MORALS) again confounds those who would categorize his work with this atypically gentle biography of transvestite homosexual Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Combining documentary n… (more)