Pride and Prejudice

Berlin
05.29.08

Left: A still from the monument's film. Right: (From left to right) Bernd Neumann, Germany's minister of culture; Klaus Wowereit, mayor of Berlin; Linda Freimane, representative for the International Lesbian and Gay Association; Günter Dworek, representative for the LSVD; and Albert Eckert, member of the initiative for the memorial. (Photo: Daniel Boese)


Even in the hubbub of Berlin’s political life, such a queer mixture is seldom to be seen: Last Tuesday, the conservative minister of cultural affairs, Bernd Neumann, stood amid hundreds of gay men of all stripes. There were guys in bomber jackets and skinny jeans, in suits and kippahs, in brogues and a bow tie—even one with a neon-red Mohawk. A few lesbians were among the crowd. A special occasion, to be sure, for the culture minister that day had the honor and duty to inaugurate Germany’s national memorial for homosexual victims of National Socialism—a monument, it should be noted, that his party had frequently opposed, as it also does gay marriage. But other high-profile politicians, among them Berlin’s lively mayor (and gay icon), Klaus Wowereit, were on hand.

The memorial sits on the edge of Berlin’s biggest park, Tiergarten, within view of the Brandenburg Gate, Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the new, terror-proof American Embassy. It consists of a concrete stele, thirteen feet high, with a small window through which viewer’s can watch a looped video, shot by Robby Müller (Wim Wenders’s cinematographer) and directed by Dogme 95 cofounder Thomas Vinterberg, of two men kissing. The memorial was designed by Elmgreen and Dragset, who submitted their proposal to two consecutive competitions (the first open, the second invite only) and beat out fellow artists like Wolfgang Tillmans for the commission.

The unveiling was not without its tensions. The ministry of culture’s invitations to the unveiling did not depict the kiss, which angered the artists, who voiced their frustration a week earlier in an interview (which, full disclosure, I published in Zitty). “The kiss is central to the memorial,” Michael Elmgreen said. “We would have liked to show it on the invitation. But the minister made clear that this was not desirable.” His partner, Ingar Dragset, added, “So the memorial is more relevant than ever, when the kiss poses a problem even for the minister. Not to show the kiss was his personal decision.” At Tuesday’s ceremony, however, Neumann praised the work, saying, “This memorial is a sign against intolerance. It has sparked important debates and marks Germany’s mature culture of remembrance.” He even praised the video itself, which “directly links the memory of victims with the situation of gays and lesbians today.” But when Neumann approached the stele to be the first person to see the kiss, the artists did not accompany him. Neither did they pose for pictures with the politicians. “Politicians come and go. We stay,” Elmgreen joked from the sidelines.

So why all the fuss? Elmgreen elaborated: “You can grant us homosexuals all rights: marriage, adoption, inheritance. But as long as people are grossed out when they see us kiss, something is missing.” In his frustration, Elmgreen overlooked that it was Neumann who made the memorial possible: A year ago, the minister negotiated an agreement after the artists’ initial proposal had met with criticism. “Women have been forgotten once more,” said Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s most notorious feminist and publisher of the magazine Emma. She called Elmgreen and Dragset’s work kitschy and phallic, and her protestations led to many discussions and petitions. With Neumann’s help and blessing, the artists decided to change the video every two years, with an open call for submissions for other depictions of homosexual love.

Left: Artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Right: Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit (left). (Photo: Daniel Boese)


Mayor Wowereit’s first words were directed toward representatives of the Jewish community and of the Sinti and Roma, reminding the assembled, “There can be no hierarchy of victims.” But this particular memorial has arrived too late, he added. No gay survivors of the concentration camps were present at the ceremony; the last-known survivor, Pierre Seel, died in 2005. Günter Dworek, representative of LSVD, the German lesbian and gay association, read excerpts of Seel’s testimonials. As a seventeen-year-old boy, Seel was arrested in Alsace and tortured by the Gestapo. In a camp he was forced to witness the execution of his boyfriend. All early-summer festivity and political banter came to a halt as Seel related the horrendous details: “Music was playing . . . Wagner and some military tunes. They stripped him and placed a bucket on his head, then let loose the German shepherds, who tore him to pieces in front of our eyes.”

Dworek’s testimony also reminded us that the gay victims were sent back to prison after being liberated from the camps, to serve the remainder of their sentences for committing “homosexual acts.” The Nazi law criminalizing homosexual love remained in place until 1969 in West Germany, and fifty thousand men were sentenced during the four decades it was in place. One of them was at the ceremony; he hassled Wowereit for a picture and an autograph.

Finally, Albert Eckert, who fought for the memorial for sixteen years, performed the dedication: “It is for all the people who find us scandalous and repulsive. If they are bothered by the memorial, all the better!” Neumann watched the video for two minutes.

Later that night, the artists celebrated with friends and Eckert at Basso, a bar in Kreuzberg. The party was laid-back, and one could see immediately why the Danish-Norwegian duo call Berlin’s gay scene the best in the world. Let’s hope that their monument to a traumatic past helps affirm that gay people today no longer have to live up to others’ expectations. And if anyone’s bothered, all the better.