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IT’S A WOUND-ERFUL LIFE

ROSA VON PRAUNHEIM’S NEW MOVIE, I Am My Own Woman, made the rounds last year in Europe, showing up in just about every international festival and winning the Rotterdam film critics’ award. Scheduled to open officially next month in New York, it’s a docudrama about the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, whose bio von Praunheim narrates in the following interview. Let me highlight or anticipate two omissions. First off, von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), while still an adolescent son in Nazi Germany, murdered her “militaristic, choleric, insane” father. Second, the antiques she has collected since childhood are from the Gründerzeit, the period roughly analogous to the Victorian period. The word itself means “foundation time,” and refers to the countdown of the upward mobilization and establishment of the German Reich following unification in 1871.
 
This life story is another von Praunheim discovery, another forced entry into history’s forward march, one that gives pause for lasting documentation and testimony of countless facts or fantasies otherwise scheduled to disappear. Her life is a wound-erful readymade—a distillate of camp—washing up out of the unconscious of German monumentalism. It’s an other history or a history of the other that resists the standard forgettogether that today is German history in the making. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s claim to being her own woman or true to herself addresses and dresses up a unity or unification that still plays a big part in this history-in-progress. It is precisely the past she claims for or as herself that exceeds the whole: it’s the near-miss reunification.
 
Rosa von Praunheim and Sergei Eisénstein were both born in Riga on the same day (but 50 years apart). This bio-rhyme across time zones forces a rereading of both sides of its mix and match (no dialectics, please). But von Praunheim also shares with the subject of I Am My Own Woman all the numbers and dotted lines you need to paint “one” self-portrait. Both came out with their own monikers in adolescence: they replaced their first names with feminine ones and their patronymics with place names, and bound together the new names, family-romance style, with the particle of nobility.
 
In the following interview, held in New York on October 4, 1993, a composite picture of von Praunheim’s film oeuvre and the double history it lets roll is sketched out. You two can witness his full output this spring during the major retrospective (cosponsored by the Goethe Institute) that will be traveling to a series of U.S. cities. But in the meantime New Yorkers have access to von Praunheim’s films through the Donnell Library, and through First Run Features.
 
—LR
 
Laurence A. Rickels is professor of German and Film studies at the Univeristy of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Aberrations of Mourning: Writing on German Crypts (Wayne State University Press, 1988) and The Case of California (John Hopkins University Press, 1991). He is currently completing a study of psychotherapy under the Third Reich.

LAURENCE A. RICKELS: Could you fill us in on the history of your new film I Am My Own Woman—how you came to make it, and, in particular, the background story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s life?

ROSA VON PRAUNHEIM: If there is such a thing as a unique individual, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is one. That’s why it is difficult to lay claim to her as representative of German history (East, West, or reunified). Perhaps she can be compared to Quentin Crisp: a queen, a transvestite, who fought for her identity with a great deal of charm, gentility, courage, and endurance. And it’s wonderful to see Charlotte become a mascot of the gay liberation movement in Germany, especially in West Germany, where envy and intimate intrigue have forever impeded solidarity. In 1992 she even received the Federal Order of Merit Cross in recognition of her art-historical work, and was thus the first transvestite to be

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