Mardi Gras Film Festival
Sexual freedom, warts and all: Taxi zum Klo
Nearly four decades after it first wowed the world with its honest and freewheeling depiction of gay life in Berlin in the early 1980s, Frank Ripploh’s Taxi zum Klo remains just as impactful. This groundbreaking film is due to run at this year's Mardi Gras Film Festival.
By Sarah Ward
Its title translates as Taxi to the Toilet and, at one stage during this pioneering 1981 film, that’s exactly the type of ride that Taxi zum Klo writer, director and star Frank Ripploh catches. Restless and libidinous after spending six weeks in hospital for an unspecified illness - and particularly agitated after a scolding visit from his long-term live-in lover Bernd (Bernd Broaderup) - the on-screen version of Frank slips out of the ward in his gown, hails a cab and directs the driver to a public bathroom. Alas, his adventure doesn’t bring the relief he visibly craves. Discovering some restrooms empty and the remainder locked, he’s forced to revise his plans, searching for a connection beneath the towering, gleaming, unmistakably phallic Berlin Victory Column instead. A leather-clad, mustachioed man awaits, leaning against a tree in the snow. But, as the taxi driver awaits as well - with the meter running - Frank’s Tiergarten encounter doesn’t end up fulfilling his needs either.
Illustrative not only of Berlin’s thriving early-80s cruising scene, but of Frank’s irrepressible desires, it’s easy to see why Ripploh named his groundbreaking queer feature after this sequence. Arriving two-thirds of the way through the episodic slice-of-life movie, after Frank’s eagerness to indulge his urges has been well-established, it clearly conveys the lengths he’ll go to in the pursuit of lust during West Germany’s sexually liberated, pre-AIDS phase; the element of chance that’s so often involved; and the sometimes unsatisfying end result. Shot on location with many characters appearing as themselves, Taxi zum Klo celebrates 30-year-old Frank, a barely fictionalised version of Ripploh himself - “a normal, tired, neurotic, polymorphous-perverse teacher”, as per his own in-dialogue description - but it firmly does so in a warts-and-all fashion. That means recognising not just the enthusiastic sexual escapades that frequently litter Frank’s life, but the disappointments, mistakes and worries as well. And, during a vivid, unvarnished visit to the doctors, it means talking about literal warts also.
Cheekiness and candourShowing Frank reclining with his legs spread, his nether regions on full display as his doctor performs the most intimate of inspections, that medical visit ranks among Taxi zum Klo’s most memorable moments. Sparing no visual detail (“nurse, give me the proctoscope”, the doctor asks), Ripploh films his own rectal exam. You could call it cheeky, like much of the movie’s equally satirical and confrontational tone. This is a feature that watches as its protagonist marks his students’ papers while sitting in a toilet stall, peering through a glory hole and being greeted by a penis popping through, after all. It’s also one that begins with the sight of Frank’s rear cheeks as he wakes up with his alarm, then establishes his risk-taking, carefree attitude by having him steal his neighbour’s newspaper, subsequently get locked out of his apartment while stark naked, then climb back into his home via the same neighbour’s balcony. Later that morning, Frank acts out the incident to his primary school class as well.
Irreverence lingers in all of the above scenarios, as it does in Frank’s taxi ride. As he navigates the conflict between his love of following his libido and his love for the monogamous Bernd, humour still lurks - usually of the knowing, winking kind. Still, while Ripploh starts the film by asking the audience “do you want to come cruising with me?” and ends it by pondering whether, no matter how he tries otherwise, Frank might just be doomed to repeat himself, Taxi zum Klo’s biggest aim is simple depiction. This isn’t a simplistic film by any means, but by being so forthright and honest about normalising a gay man’s life at the time, it has a clear, straightforward purpose. Of course, portraying the ins and outs of Frank’s existence with such candour was trailblazing and subversive at the time, and still remains just as impactful now.
A landmark movieThe feature’s playful tone aside, Ripploh took his task seriously - and graphically. His willingness to depict himself receiving a delicate procedure comprises just one of Taxi zum Klo’s explicit sights, with the film’s hardcore sex scenes (including its infamous golden shower) sparking controversy with the British Board of Film Classification upon its initial release. To juxtapose Frank’s professional and private lives without being so candid would defeat the film’s point, though. Indeed, it would hide a part of the character, something that the open, upbeat figure is never willing to do within the feature’s narrative - even when it causes problems with Bernd. Ripploh doesn’t ever resort to overtly voicing the idea that Frank’s life is what it is, but that idiom rings true in a movie that’s committed to presenting the specifics, embracing everything that shapes and makes its protagonist’s identity, and never looking away.
It’s little wonder that, for nearly four decades now, Taxi zum Klo has been held up as a landmark of both queer cinema in Germany and queer cinema in general. Teeming with honesty, taking a matter-of-fact approach, and serving up naturalistic visuals and performances to match, it’s a portrait of its subject in the purest sense of the word. While never purporting to present strict non-fiction, the autobiographical Taxi zum Klo documents the truth of Frank’s existence in a way that can only feel real. That remains the case when Ripploh is splicing shots of genitals into Frank’s regular bowling nights with his teacher colleagues, when he’s arguing with Bernd about their differing visions for their future, and when he turns up to class in drag after a late night out a drag ball. Many nations have a counterpart, a standout film that delves into a queer character’s life and essence in a frank, insightful and revealing manner - Australia’s Head On springs to mind - but Taxi zum Klo will forever remain the yardstick.