Ever since it opened a year and a half ago, Metrograph has provided me with countless hours — surely several days’ worth — of ecstasy. In the past month alone, the Lower East Side theater has been essential for cinephiles and homophiles: Its programming has included such gay rarities as Stan Lopresto’s Sticks and Stones (1970), which played as part of Metrograph’s “On Fire Island” series, and better-known but still underseen titles like Stephen Frears’s shrewd Joe Orton biopic, Prick Up Your Ears (1987). But the cinema’s commitment to reviving queer artifacts reaches its highest point this Friday through Sunday, when it screens, in 35mm, Frank Ripploh’s scabrously titled, West Berlin–set Taxi zum Klo — “Taxi to the Toilet” — a 1980 film I first learned about in my ancient copy of Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet but had little hope of ever seeing projected.
Largely autobiographical, Ripploh’s debut film, in which he also stars as a character named Frank, was hailed by Stuart Byron in the Voice as “the first masterpiece about the mainstream of gay male life.” (Taxi zum Klo, which was presented at the 1981 New York Film Festival, premiered the same year as William Friedkin’s still irreconcilable, if generatively so, leather-and-lube thriller, Cruising.) The film begins with Ripploh’s candid voiceover, inviting spectators to be both witnesses and co-conspirators: “Do you want to come with me on my adventures? Don’t be afraid if I take you along to the public restrooms or the baths. You see, I like men, I’m thirty and a teacher by profession.… I radically separate my job from my private life and pleasures.” (Before he became a filmmaker, Ripploh reportedly lost his schoolteaching job after he came out in the German weekly news magazine Stern.)
One line in that preamble is only partially true. In Taxi zum Klo’s funniest scene, Frank multitasks, mixing work and play: Sitting on a commode as he waits for some glory-hole action, the instructor assiduously corrects his students’ dictation exercises. As an educator, Frank is kind and empathetic toward his pre-adolescent charges, assigning them essays on when they’ve been lucky and unlucky in their lives or asking them to list the six things they’d most like to do. (Not all the lesson plans are so touchy-feely: Frank also teaches the kids the basics of human anatomy.) In his pedagogical style, Frank recalls the quietly out geography teacher in Ron Peck’s contemporaneous London-based Nighthawks (1978), another film that centers on the personal rituals and professional activities of its gay protagonist.
As for Frank’s “private life and pleasures,” Taxi zum Klo unsparingly depicts the teacher’s sexual encounters. These scenes range from the tender bathtub fun Frank shares with Bernd (Bernd Broaderup, Ripploh’s real-life boyfriend), a porn-theater manager who becomes his live-in lover, to the belt-whipping and water sports enjoyed during a one-night stand with a gas-station attendant. And the title isn’t a figure of speech: Checking himself out of the hospital, his johnny gown tucked into his Levi’s, Frank hails a cab to take him to various public restrooms, his quest for tearoom trade growing more frantic and desperate with each stop.
Ripploh films this carnal urge with a sense of humor — when Frank finally comes across a leather-chapped stud he deems worthy, the butch guy, while they’re deep in a kiss, walks away after glimpsing that hospital garment. Taxi zum Klo treats sex seriously without sacralizing it; throughout the film, Ripploh reveals a wry intelligence about the eternal dilemma of monogamy versus promiscuity. Bernd prefers quiet nights at home assembling jigsaw puzzles and roasting chicken. He dreams of finding a nice plot of farmland with Frank, who savagely upbraids him for his jealousy. In one of his cruelest retorts, Frank asks Bernd, “Can’t you for once do something constructive?” — in other words, find other lovers, anonymous or not. Frank may crow to Bernd that “a walk on the street is always an adventure” for him, but his voiceover evinces anxiety: “I’m afraid I’ll become some old fag who hangs around urinals.”
Writing during the same decade that Ripploh’s film was released in, Russo notes in The Celluloid Closet that “Taxi zum Klo was revolutionary in the sense that it ignored politically correct questions about the ‘positive gay image’ some gay activists want projected to the public.” It remains revolutionary nearly forty years later, largely for following the mandate of Ripploh’s fellow German queer filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim, who insisted, in his 1979 documentary Army of Lovers or Revolt of the Perverts, on “making the private public.” This decree is most astonishingly on display when Frank, his feet in stirrups, undergoes a proctoscopy, a procedure shown in extreme close-up. I can think of few other scenes that so starkly depict a gay man’s body in such a vulnerable state — a vulnerability heightened by the knowledge that this segment appears in a film that premiered in the final year of the pre-AIDS era.
Taxi zum Klo (Taxi to the Toilet)
Written and directed by Frank Ripploh
Metrograph, September 8–10