Between the over-the-top caricatures of Christopher Guest comedies, the alarmist naturesploitation horror of The Hellstrom Chronicle, and the vile oil industry propaganda of Louisiana Story, I’ve seen the mockumentary format used for a wide range of tones & purposes. As disparate as those movies are, though, they’re all decidedly insincere. They imitate the methods and intellectual authority of documentary films to say things they do not really mean, whether for amusement or for profit. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a fully sincere mockumentary before recently checking out the 1971 political bombthrower It is Not the Homosexual Who is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives, which made it difficult to pinpoint the film’s intent in its early scenes. It is so militant and inflammatory in its political rhetoric that I initially assumed the film was being flippantly ironic, contrasting its narrator’s attacks on the middle-class gays of 1970s Berlin against images that celebrated their lives & fashion. By the time the film concludes on a lengthy, didactic call-to-action, however, there is no question that it is 100% serious in its seething distaste for queer ambitions to assimilate into “normal” society instead of radically reforming it. It’s surprisingly convincing in its arguments too, even if its politics and its imagery feel self-contradictory.
It is Not the Homosexual is an explicitly Marxist call-to-arms that ridicules Berlin gays for wanting to assimilate into the bourgeoisie instead of organizing to tear it down. It is incendiary enough to wildly overstep its bounds, frequently coming across as outright homophobic (and transphobic to boot) despite obviously being rooted in the community it’s critiquing. True activism is often ugly & combative, though, and there’s something admirable about its willingness to throw punches for the sake of gay liberation even when they hit the wrong targets. It’s easy to cringe at the narrator’s assertion that gay marriage is a “ridiculous imitation” of a heterosexual institution. It’s even easier roll your eyes at the hardline stance that all art must be outright rejected by queer radicals, as it is a leisure activity of the wealth class (a stance that is in direct conflict with director Rosa von Praunheim’s background in fringe avant-garde cinema). Getting indignant over those deliberate provocations would have you overlook legitimate calls for the gay men of Berlin to come out of the closet, or to establish political solidarity with the Black Panthers and the Women’s Lib movement. In its broadest strokes, it’s making the same righteously leftist political maneuvers that Tongues Untied made nearly two decades later, or that modern Twitter activists make against the liberal assimilation politics of Mayo Pete in the 2020s. It’s just willing to jab its own potential comrades in an attempt to wake them up and get them pissed.
The film also doubles as a genuine documentary of early-70s gay culture in Berlin, despite its intent to radically overhaul it. Even while the narrator is deriding the over-the-top fashion, tea-room cruising, and drag bar pageantry of the scene, you’re constantly aware that the footage that illustrates those bullet points is invaluable documentation of gay culture at that exact place & time. The flat, inflectionless delivery of the narration compounds the tension between image & intent, explaining how to live a more virtuous gay life in the style of a vintage 1950s hygiene reel. It’s often been referred to as a “camp” film as a result, but I believe its political intent is sincere. It was so sincere, in fact, that it’s credited for igniting the modern gay liberation movement in Germany, becoming a legitimate part of history beyond just being an incidental historical document. So, here we have a mockumentary that is both a genuine documentary and a sincere political manifesto. It’s too firmly tethered to a fictional narrative to be understood as an essay film—structuring its tour of Berlin gay life through the assimilation of a fictional character named Daniel—and yet it operates like no other mockumentary I can name. Even if it weren’t for its record, rejection, and alteration of German queer culture a half-century ago, the film would still be highly significant for the way it toys with tone & form. Rosa von Praunheim’s political convictions are just so furious & clearly defined that you have to confront the ideas before you can scrutinize how they’re delivered.