PLEASURES OF THE TEXT
AT THE START of Ruth Beckermann’s MUTZENBACHER (2022), text appears over an image of the repurposed industrial space that will serve as the film’s sole setting. It announces a casting call: The director seeks men in Vienna between the ages of sixteen and ninety-nine to participate in a film about Josefine Mutzenbacher, no previous acting experience required.
But who is Josefine Mutzenbacher? In the anglophone world, the name is not widely known. For many German speakers, however, it is loaded with cultural significance. Josefine Mutzenbacher, or The Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself is a best-selling pornographic novel from 1906 in which a woman who is “along in years” recalls myriad sexual experiences from her childhood and adolescence, leading up to her entry into sex work in her teens. In the 1970s, the book was adapted into popular filmic spin-offs like Josefine Mutzenbacher: The Way She Really Was and The Confession of Josefine Mutzenbacher, cementing its place in the erotic imagination. The title character of these works is curious and promiscuous, underage and up for anything, a male fantasy brought to life on the page and then on the screen.
Brimming with colorfully filthy Viennese dialect, her “autobiography” was anonymously published; at one point, it was suspected to have been written by Arthur Schnitzler, whose 1926 novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story) was the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but it is now usually attributed to Felix Salten, the author of Bambi. The book was banned between 1913 and 1971 in Austria and until 1968 in Germany, where it was the basis of a 1990 federal-court decision concerning the balance between freedom of expression and the protection of youth. It has spawned an array of derivative works of literature and film and even lends its name to a schnitzel restaurant in Berlin. It is, in short, a classic in the German-speaking world—and also a work of child pornography. Incest, intercourse between seven-year-olds, sex between children and adults: The book describes many acts that constitute abuse. And it does so with ebullient humor, from the perspective of a narrator who affirms on the very first page that she has no regrets. No kind of victim, she credits her juvenile adventures with allowing her to avoid a life of poverty and boredom. Notions of agency and consent, emancipation and harm swirl around this text, to say nothing of the questions it raises about how best to approach such historical objects in the present.
All of this is likely what led Beckermann to take the book as the motor of her latest film. MUTZENBACHER premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, where it was the deserving winner of the “Encounters” section, a competitive program, now in its third year, devoted to “aesthetically and structurally daring works from independent, innovative filmmakers.” The seventy-year-old Beckermann has been creating documentaries since the late ’70s, grappling with subjects including leftist activism, the history of Austrian Jews, and journey narratives. Sexual explicitness has never been her beat. With 2016’s The Dreamed Ones, a deeply moving work in which two actors read aloud the correspondence of the poets Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, she made a foray into anchoring a film in the performance of an existing literary text; she carries that strategy forward here, albeit very differently.
The conceit of MUTZENBACHER is simple: It is a carefully crafted presentation of the results of the casting call. The auditions for a film are the film. Throughout, Beckermann is vividly present but out of sight. From behind the camera, she instructs a wide array of men seated on a pink-and-gold brocade couch—one participant describes it as a “former erotic sofa”—to read passages from the novel or to act them out, playing both male and female roles. Some have come out of interest in the text, others out of interest in her. She probes them about their attitudes toward the book and its relation to their own sexual experiences; she assembles them into a chorus to chant quotations like “Banging, screwing, reaming, shagging, poking, pounding”; she refuses to let them off the hook. MUTZENBACHER, in other words, is not only a documentary about the way a historic work of pornography resonates in the present. It is also a film about directing and performing, one that inverts how this interaction is habitually gendered so as to make sex public in an unconventional way. With the help of a novel written by a man about a woman, a woman makes a film about contemporary Viennese masculinity.
A film in which people extensively read aloud is inevitably a peculiar thing. Like The Dreamed Ones, MUTZENBACHER is animated by the gap between the written words of an author and their spoken performance by readers at a different historical moment, who imbue them with an embodied expressivity that paints a new layer of significance onto the source material. A fissure exists, too, between the image seen on-screen and the mental image generated by the spoken text, throwing into relief the specificity of each medium’s mode of representation and their respective relationships to reality and fantasy—especially pertinent here given the subject matter. Beckermann pits the concreteness of the casting session against the imagined world of the text, dragging any flight into erotic reverie back into the here and now, holding the book at a distance even as it is made present. This is not to say that she quashes titillation entirely: Her engagement with the participants is marked by a carnal charge of its own. In her hands, Josefine Mutzenbacher ceases to be an escapist romp and becomes a mediator of real sociosexual relations that elicits intense disclosures, voluntary and involuntary, from dozens of men.
Beckermann is direct in her queries. “Does this remind you of anything? Something you experienced yourself?” she asks after a somewhat bashful man finishes his performance of an episode in which Josefine watches her twelve-year-old friend Alois fuck his nanny. Many speak candidly about their own pasts. When one participant deems the book “too vulgar,” Beckermann asks him to be precise about which parts he finds objectionable and reads one back to him with the camera unwaveringly trained on his reaction. He then agrees to perform a passage, doing so with evident relish. Often, Beckermann positions two men together on the sofa or gathers the participants into small groups, and is thus able to track the affective currents that course among them, from complicity to indifference to discomfort. It is a mise-en-scène that mimics the novel, in which encounters frequently occur among more than two parties or with onlookers present.
MUTZENBACHER arrives at a moment when sexual mores are subject to metamorphosis and heated debate. Unsurprisingly, some of the interviewees are quick to express nostalgia. “We live in a time that is hostile toward men,” says one man seemingly pushing seventy. He laments the death of flirting and praises the book’s depiction of women who know how to “have fun”—something he claims is now lost, eliciting disagreement from the younger man who sits beside him. Meanwhile, another sixty-something participant criticizes the book, venturing that its emphasis on female pleasure could be little more than the author’s attempt to make apologies for the exercise of male power. Nothing like consensus ever emerges in MUTZENBACHER, which instead assembles a full gamut of conflicting positions that cannot be broken down along generational lines.
One participant, an avowed admirer of Beckermann’s, rightly remarks that from all the material she has shot, she could “practically edit anything out of it.” What she chose to create from her footage is a film in which the monolith of “the patriarchy” shatters into a multiplicity of masculinities. More than figuring as a salvo in the post-#MeToo culture wars, however, Beckermann’s orchestration of this collision of perspectives feels driven by her enthrallment with the complexity of sexuality and its ties to the most vulnerable, irrational, and intimate parts of ourselves. That said, as much as MUTZENBACHER emphasizes particularity and contradiction, the crushing weight of the sex-gender system and the need to disrupt its brutal functioning are never far out of sight. They are, after all, what motivates the film’s strategic inversion of roles in the first place. It is not for nothing that Beckermann ends with the same words that conclude the novel: “They pound us and we get pounded. That is the whole difference.”
Erika Balsom is a reader in film studies at King’s College, London.