Lesbian Traces in Film


The Seventies


BambuleVampyros LesbosIt’s not the Homosexual who is perverted, but the situation, in which he livesThe bitter Tears of Petra von KantAdele SpitzederHarlisZärtlichkeit und RebellionUnd wir nehmen uns unser RechtAnna und EdithErika's PassionEnde der BeherrschungConsequenceMadame XDie beiden Freundinnen


After that again there was a huge time jump until a German film with a clearly lesbian content was made. The “Oberhausener Manifest”1 that was supposed to draw an end to the production of sentimental film in idealised regional setting (German: “Heimatfilm”) in 1962 for a long time did not have a noticeable influence on the heterosexual dominance of subjects.


In 1970 Eberhard Itzenplitz produced an accusing portrait “Bambule” on the conditions in correction institutes after a play and the script of Ulrike Meinhof. Since Ulrike Meinhof got into the headlines as an RAF member (red army fraction: a terrorist cell in Germany) the TV production was not aired as planned on May 24th 1970 in the ARD but only on May 24th 1994 in Südwestfunk.2 In her play Ulrike Meinhof wanted to point out the inhuman structure in those institutions. Irene, telling her story to a tutor, fails in the outside world and also cannot come over the fact that the girl she loves works as a hooker. With resignation she voluntarily turns back into safekeeping since she feels that the living conditions outside do not give her a choice. After she running away from the institute she lives with the two friends Heidi and Jynette which have also been at the institution until they were of age. But also Heidi is working as a prostitute. In a WDR feature from August 12th 1969 Meinhof describes the economical Situation of the two women and brings the bad payment and discrimination with the example of Jynette down to the point: “Men’s work because Jynette is a lesbian. Women’s payment – she is a woman”.3

In 1970 with the direction of Jess Franco a French German Spanish co-produced sex film was made “Vampiros Lesbos [Vampyros Lesbos]”, that places the attraction between two women into a mysterious erotic frame of seduction in which the seduced eventually seems to be the one to which the seducing woman is left. What here sounds interesting is not as trashy put into scene as would be expected regarding the genre.4

At the Berlinale 1971 “Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt [It’s not the Homosexual who is perverted, but the situation, in which he lives]5by Rosa von Praunheim was shown. For the first time the situation of gay men was shown in a documentary. A short time later Praunheim toured through different western German cities. There also came a lot of women to the showings and to the TV-discussions afterwards. When on January 15th 1973 the documentary was supposed to run in ARD censoring the Bayerische Rundfunk split from the ARD and did not show the documentary in Bavaria.6

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant [The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant]” (1971) shows the failure of a lesbian relationship in cool and harsh pictures. The fashion designer Petra cannot keep the freedom loving Karin in the relationship and breaks apart because of the separation. It is not being a lesbian that is in the focus of the story but the loneliness and Isolation of Petra von Kant who tries to keep her lover bound to her and makes demands on her life. Films like this do not put into scene the lesbian protagonists as victims of a discriminating surrounding but start with the structures of the relationship, with them being together and how it fails because of loneliness, demands and claim of power. Margit Carstensen (Petra von Kant) and Eva Mattes acting as her daughter in 1973, were awarded the Bundesfilmpreis for best actresses,7 although a critic found Carstensen would declaim in highly supernatural and theatrical speech. “In important parts she really speaks in iambus. (...) And again Fassbinder took the so called good taste for a ride.”8


Around Fassbinder in 1972 Peer Raben’s biographic illustrated broadsheet “Adele Spitzeder” was made, portraying the clever strategies of a female alternative banker in the end of the 19th century. First Spitzeder tricks the furious banks and lives her live however she pleases. Certainly a lesbian love life belongs to such a life style. She falls but her sexuality is not the subject of the accusations. In a completely different way in the same year Robert van Ackeren shows a lesbian couple. A man pushes into the relationship of the night club dancers “Harlis” and Pera and stirrs up jealousy, drama and heterosexual bed scenes, that seem to be more sexual than the lesbian counterpart half-heartedly put into scene. For a while we watch an eternal triangle but the film cannot hide its heterosexual dominance. It is not untypical that male directors made / make films on women and lesbian love.9

The first lesbian TV fictional film productions were preceded by two documentaries.10 In 1973 Eva Müthel produced a portray of a handful of women with the title “Zärtlichkeit und Rebellion – Zur Situation der homosexuellen Frau11 for the ZDF. In front of a camera Lesbians talk about their relationships, their politically feminist demands and their experience with their surrounding. Shortly after that women of the Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin (HAW) initiated another very much more critical documentary with WDR, that was directed by a man but determined by a radical women group: “...Und wir nehmen uns unser Recht! Lesbierinnen in Deutschland12 (1974). With these two portraits the foundation stone for a public discussion about lesbian life in the broadcasting companies under public law was laid.

Anna und Edith” (Gerrit Neuhaus), made in 1975, is regarded as the first German TV production featuring the love of women. According to Perincioli the script by Cristina Perincioli was too radical for the ZDF (second German television) so that she as the director was substituted by a man.13 As the editor in charge Alexandra von Grote14 signed this intervention. As far as she remembers Perincioli was lacking an appropriate directing concept. The fear Perincioli could not complete the project in due time had been the reason for this decision.15 Co-writer Cillie Rentmeister assimilated this experience of deprivation of power with the song “Für Frau Dr. A16, published on the LP of the “Flying Lesbians”17, the first lesbian German women’s rock-band. “Anna and Edith” in the first place is a political agitative film. Anna splits up with her carping husband, who absolutely wants a child and she moves in with her colleague and superior Edith, who rather classical has a secret affair with her boss that is actually known by everyone. The self-confident Edith is put under pressure by the women at the office because their working conditions become worse and worse. The employees demand more staff. During this industrial action Anna and Edith start a relationship that will not be secret for long and is used by their boss as a means against their industrial action. But the women see through this and with the help of their colleagues fight back. “Anna und Edith” can be read as a political address, almost every dialogue contains a political matter of concern.


Here the lesbian content rather is a further coup against prevailing restrictive women’s roles and images. Rather unspectacular during a day out the two women kiss which leads to more but that we will not see.


At the beginning of the seventies more and more women turn to directing. Ula Stöckl’s “Erikas Leidenschaften18 [Erika’s Passion]” (1976) is an encounter of two friend in a sort of a dramatic play for a studio theatre. After four years Franziska comes back and congratulates Erika for her birthday in their former apartment. During the following hours they remember and discuss their differences, their expectations and wishes. Despite the heterosexual relationships they both had during all the times the women are very fond of each other. Without being explicitly mentioned a very deep friendship takes room that from time to time manifest itself laughing or crying together. At dinner they think about how it would have been if one of them, Franziska would have been a man. “I would have loved you”, Franziska says. “I would have, too”, Erika answers – and they both bend their heads to come a bit closer to each other. “As a man? Or as a woman?”, Franziska wants to know. “As a man”, Erika replies. Later Franziska recapitulates that Erika could not love women because she still loved “him” – and “him” does not mean a certain man, but a man that she has made herself of a man.


In 1976/77 Gaby Kubach’s ARD production “Ende der Beherrschung” was made. Again, this film shows the friendship between two very different women. Elisabeth accompanies the non-conformist Carmen to Holland for an abortion and brings her back to her own home. Carmen’s craving for attention and care brings up conflicts in Elisabeth, who lives in a heterosexual relationship. Eventually it comes to a row between Elisabeth, Carmen and her boyfriend. Here again the friendship between women is pictured as being very intense and thus their relationship gets into a “lesbian light”, but which could quite easily explained differently. The visibility of lesbians in cinema and TV at the beginning of this decade just on its way to come to life just a few years later was threatened to seep away in ambiguity.


Although in the seventies the results of the cultural revolution of the students and women/lesbian movement in this country could be felt as well as the movements in the USA the new liberal system did not only lead to more permissive productions but also to stereotyped trashy sex-films. With this wave of films a lot of lesbian women turned up that either only turned to a woman until a man appeared, or were subject to a lesbian sexual harassment or did harass themselves. Especially films presenting secluded surroundings of living as you can already take from their titles were very popular: Frauengefängnis [Caged Women]” (1975), Frauen im Liebeslager [Love Camp]”, Greta – Haus ohne Männer [Greta the torturer]”, Liebesbriefe einer portugiesischen Nonne [Love letters from a Portuguese nun]” (all from 1976) by Jess Franco to only mention a few out of the many. Before Michael Thomas (i.e. Erwin C. Dietrich) Jess Franco was one of the most studious “sexploitation” directors in German film. Prisons, correction camps, convents and boarding schools being the sets for different sexual realisations.

Wolfgang Petersen – now being internationally known through films like “Air Force One” (1997)19 or “Troja” (2004)20 – together with the Swiss author Alexander Ziegler brought his novel “Die Konsequenz [Consequence]21 to the screens in 1977. An actor imprisoned because of the seduction of a minor produces a play and starts a relationship with the young leading man coming from outside. The parents of the latter enforce the accommodation in a correction institute where because of his homosexuality the young Thomas is subject to permanent humiliation. This TV production is a constant accusation and ends very disillusioning.


This broadcast also gained a lot of interest among lesbians that hardly saw anything like it. Since the Bayerische Rundfunk again did split from program of the ARD the film got more attention than Bavaria could prevent.22

Madame X – die absolute Herrscherin [Madame X – an absolute Ruler]” in 1977 was one of the first long films of film maker Ulrike Ottinger. The ruler Madame X by telegram calls all women to her on her junk to give up their former life and sail the seas as pirates. Nine women follow her call. About Madame X a lot of discourses on feminism and relationship structures are executed. Although the pirate and her ship and entourage is slyly treated ironically but at the same time she is put into scene in an experimental way. Therefore up to today the film is approachable to a rather small circle of people but among experts it is held as a classic in feminist film that forward-looking turned away from patriarchal narrative structures and developed its own style.23 Thus for instance the unconventionally displayed approach between Madame X and her new playmate as a denial of classical narrative patterns: instead of groaning common to mainstream productions this scene is attributed with the sound of a purring cat. The main means of communication of the ruler is an animal roar.24 Those patterns are not accessible to everyone. Monika Treut tells from a split in the audience at the show in 1981. Either they reacted fascinated or openly aggressive.25


The ZDF brought the Döblin production “Die beiden Feundinnen und ihr Giftmord (1978) onto the screen. The authentic report shows the impossibility of self-determination in Berlin in the twenties.26 Brutality and egocentricity of her husband drives Elli Link to rid herself from him by repeated doses of arsenic. She finds compassion and warmth with her also married friend Grete Bende. Soon she is passionately fond of her. The production offers very much space to the depiction of every day life in a marriage and suggests that the two women would not have started an affair if their marriage life would have been differently.


© Ingeborg Boxhammer (Bonn 2005)
Anke Sauerbrey (Translation, Bonn 2005)


Suggested citation:
Boxhammer, Ingeborg: Lesbian Traces in Film - The Seventies [online]. Bonn 2005 Available from: Online-Projekt Lesbengeschichte. Boxhammer, Ingeborg/Leidinger, Christiane. URL <https://www.lesbengeschichte.org/Englisch/film_die_70_e.html> [cited DATE].


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[1] In 1962 26 filmmakers (exclusively men) signed a statement in Oberhausen at the Western German Short film festival which among other things said: “(...) We declare that we claim to create the new German film. This film needs new freedom. Freedom from conventions usual in the film industry. Freedom from the influence of commercial partners (...).” Cited after Ulrich Gregor, Geschichte des Films ab 1960. Munich 1978, p. 122f.
[2] Compare: Lexikon des internationalen Films, Reinbek near Hamburg 1995; also see https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bambule, 2005
[3] Clips from the feature “Jynette, Irene, Monika – Fürsorgeerziehung aus der Sicht von drei ehemaligen Berliner Heimmädchen” by and with Ulrike Meinhof. Date of broadcast: 8-12-1969 WDR, on: Frauenstimmen. Stimmen des 20. Jahrhunderts. Deutsches Historisches Museum / Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv / Süddeutscher Rundfunk (Ed.) CD 1997.

[4] Although the film was made in a co-production with Spain and France, I included it in this research since it was shot in German and therefore it matched the criteria mentioned above. Beside this one in the seventies Jess Franco shot a number of other sex films in which almost ever a lesbian hint occured. Here “Vampyros Lesbos” shall stand for all the other productions.
[5] Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt. D & B: Rosa von Praunheim. Date of first showing Berlinale 1971.
[6] https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexualit%C3%A4t im Fersehen, 2005. This is also confirmed by Rosa von Praunheim in his email from 2005-04-20.
[7] Also see https://www.deutscherfilmpreis.de, 2005.

[8] Compare the quotation with Robert Fischer/Joe Hembus, Der neue deutsche Film 1960 – 1980. Preface Douglas Sirk. Munich 1981, p. 76f.
[9] Further look at Julia Knight, Frauen und der Neue Deutsche Film. Aus dem Engl. von Fabienne Quennet. Marburg 1995 (= Aufblende. Schriften zum Film, Bd. 8), p. 84.
[10] For Comparison: The first documentary on gay men “Die Homosexuellen – Paragraph 175 [the homosexuals – section 175]” by Peter von Zahn was already broadcasted for the first time on May 24th 1965 in WDR. In Law school class in Cologne one (!) gay man lay himself open to the questions of the students – there were a few single women among them.
[11] Zärtlichkeit und Rebellion – Zur Situation der homosexuellen Frau. West Germany 1973. D: Eva Müthel. First broadcast: August 1973, ZDF.
[12] ...Und wir nehmen uns unser Recht! Lesbierinnen in Deutschland. West Germany 1974. D: Claus Ferdinand Sigfried. First broadcast: 1974-01-14, WDR. The film was aimed to mobilise lesbian women. During the program the address of the HAW was shown.

[13] Compare Stefanie Hetze, Happy-end für wen?, op.cit., p. 149.
[14] That is the later director of “Weggehen um anzukommen [Depart to Arrive]” (1981) and “Novembermond [Novembermoon]” (1984).
[15] According to a telephone call between Alexandra von Grote and me on December 3th 2005.
[16] According to a telephone call between Cristina Perincioli, Cillie Rentmeister and me on August 30th 2004.
[17] The “Flying Lesbians” were probably founded as the first lesbian German rock-band in Berlin in 1973. Also see https://www.sterneck.net/cybertribe/musik/flying-lesbians/index.php, 2005. Their founding year is controversial.
[18] Already in 1968 Ula Stöckl made “Neun Leben hat die Katze [The Cat has nine Lives]”, a feminist film which was – among heterosexual discourses – about friendship between women. Katharina and Anne treat each other “tenderly like sisters” (compare Claudia Lenssen, “When love goes right, nothing goes wrong ...”. “Neun Leben hat die Katze”, “Ein ganz perfektes Ehepaar”, “Erikas Leidenschaften”, in: Frauen und Film 12/1977, pp. 12-18, p. 12.); the film maker Alf Brustllin warned, the “next step would already be slightly lesbian”. Quoted after Renate Möhrmann, Die Frau mit der Kamera. Filmemacherinnen in der Bundesrepublik Deuschland. Situation, Perspektiven, zehn exemplarische Lebensläufe. Munich Vienna 1980, p. 54.
[19] Air Force One. USA 1997. D: Wolfgang Petersen. B: Andrew W. Marlowe. On board of an airplane Harrison Ford as President of the United States fights terrorists.
[20] Troy. USA 2004. D: Wolfgang Petersen, B: Homer, David Benioff. Hollywood adaption of Homer.
[21] Die Konsequenz. BRD 1977. D: Wolfgang Petersen B: Alexander Ziegler, Wolfgang Petersen..
[22] Concerning this film go to Hermann J. Huber, Gewalt & Leidenschaft. Das Lexikon Homosexualität in Film und Video. Berlin 19892, p. 98f and compare Axel Schock, Manuela Kay, Out im Kino, op.cit., p. 200.
[23] Compare Karola Gramann and Heide Schlüpmann, Frauenbewegung und Film – die letzten zwanzig Jahre, in: Der Frauenfilm. Filme von und für Frauen. By Gudrun Lukasz-Aden, Christel Strobel. Munich 1985. pp. 251-266, p. 253 + 265.
[24] Also see Andrea Weiss, Vampires & Violets. Lexbians in Film. New York 1993 (1992), pp. 128-132.
[25] Compare: Monika Treut, Ein Nachtrag zu Ulrike Ottingers Film “Madame X”, in: fuf 28/1981, pp. 15-21, p. 15.
[26] “The basis of Döblins study was the case of Ella Klein / Margarethe Nebbe that was heard at Berlin district court in March 1923. It stirred major attention not the least through the more than 600, in parts very drastic letters of those women that were submitted as evidence.” Compare Ira Lorf, Ein massives Stück Leben. Zur Neuausgabe von Alfred Döblins “Die beiden Freundinnen und ihr Giftmord”, March 2002, at www.literaturkritik.de.