The principle behind director Ruth Beckermann’s documentary sounds novel, and even a little thought-provoking: a succession of men from all walks of life sit on a (luxuriously upholstered) sofa while reciting passages from a notorious 1906 piece of erotica. By engaging with the text, the men are forced to reflect upon their own relationship with sex, theoretically giving the audience some specific insights into contemporary male sexuality, in all its colourful forms.
The text in question is the exotically named, anonymously authored Josephine Mutzenbacher or the Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself, first published in Austria. The film makes a point of (accurately) telling its audience just how contentious the book was (and remains). It’s essentially the narrator ticking all the boxes as she works her way through every conceivable taboo, most controversially when she was still a child (and already a sex worker), as well as incest. Interestingly, the most plausible true identity of the writer is Felix Salten, who also wrote Bambi (funny how Disney never adapted Salten’s other work).
The documentary is structured as the subjects auditioning for a project based upon the novel, and there’s something irritatingly inauthentic about this approach. Many of the men seem to believe that they’re there to audition, without realising that they’re already involved in the project. Some of them seem so wide-eyed and enthusiastic about the prospect that it feels a little, well, mean. There are few reservations when an offscreen voice (presumably Beckermann herself) enquires about the men’s reactions to the text, guiding (and occasionally goading) them into discussing their own sexuality. Of course they’re going to be agreeable if they think they’re in the process of auditioning, even if some of them probably thought they’d wandered into a Harvey Weinstein-style situation. Yes, the very fact that Beckermann is coaxing the men to acquiesce her whims subverts the tiresomely well-established power dynamic between the sexes, but this is about as revolutionary as going to a foreign country and seeing how different the McDonald’s menu is.
It works as an occasionally moderately interesting exercise, but the question is whether an audience wants to watch a feature-length, occasionally moderately interesting exercise. Any alleged insights seem tremendously manipulated, and it remains unclear just what the documentary was hoping to achieve. Thoughts remain very much unprovoked.
Mutzenbacher does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2022 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.