Author: Selma Asotić
The story of the Austrian documentary film MUTZENBACHER (2022) starts with a newspaper ad published by the director Ruth Beckermann, seeking men from 16 to 99 years of age to audition for her newest film project based on the pornographic novel Josephine Mutzenbacher or The Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself. Many men who decided to audition, about a hundred of them, were not aware that this audition will be the focus of the film and that this would be a documentary film to be in the official selection of the Pravo Ljudski Film Festival, 17th edition.
Minimalist, low-budget scenography is placed within the abandoned factory setting. RAUCHEN VERBOTEN – smoking not allowed, written in big black letters on one of the brick walls painted white, serves as a catchphrase under subjects of prohibition, tabu, and transgression. Among the scarce furniture, one worn-out pink sofa looking like it was just transported from some Vienesse fin-de-siècle brothel, stands out. The meaning of the sofa goes two ways. On one hand, it functions as a symbol of the infamous casting couch which has become a sexual abuse metaphor in the film industry. This sofa will be used by men, some of them professional actors, some amateurs, reading excerpts from the novel, all prepared by the director. On the other hand, it evokes the most famous couch of the twentieth century – the psychoanalysis couch on which the patient reveals their unconscious self.
The text appearing in the first frames reveals that the novel Josephine Mutzenbacher has been published anonymously in 1906 and that the authorship is usually attributed to Felix Salten, known by Bambi. It has also been claimed to be a „liberating“ and „enlightening“ reading for a generation of readers. The novel has been banned in Germany up until 1968 and was on the list of books deeemed harmful to young people up to 2017. Most of the protagonists in the documentary have been familiarized with the novel. Its notoriety and content were the primary motivation for their applications. However, a handful of them comes to the set unaware of the circumstances. On account of the excerpts read by men, as well as their discussions, we find out that the novel is written in the first-person, from the perspective of an underage prostitute, a girl used by many men, including her father. Hence, this is a pornographic novel on prostitution and pedophilia. Women-hating jackpot.
MUTZENBACHER is a static film. Frame by frame, we see men reading novel excerpts, alone or in pairs, sitting on the tacky sofa, or standing. Several times they try to reenact erotically suggestive flirting. That which moves the plot is confronting their styles of performance, reactions, and different approaches to the material. Some men are uncomfortable. Others are passionately invested in the role. The real plot is what transpires in the reading material: explicit, pornographic descriptions of sexual abuse. The span of reactions to the text goes from complete affirmation (after reading on incest, one of the participants, being asked „What do you think“ by the director, answers: „Fierce. Nice. Incest. Normal. And, above all, well written.“) to shame, critique on the topic and ways of approaching. Even when they are able to articulate the audaciousness and perfidy of the pornographic tropes (such as the representation of women and girls, as in the case of Josephine, as willing and enthusiastic participants in their own rape), even when they recognize the violence of the text, to men in this film, violence is always something happening in some other time or place, and other men are to be blamed. Never them, God forbid.
In some of the online reactions to the film, the ironic subversiveness is recognized in men reading the first-person narration and are able to adopt the position of the female subject. However, this position is only seemingly female. There is no authentic female point of view in the text authored most certainly by a man, nor is the female protagonist ever a subject. She is being objectivized in all scenes read, reduced to an object. The subjects are men who use her in the text, as well as the ones who read the text in front of the camera and comment on it as a phantasy, although pornography is never a phantasy, but a product and correlation of reality. This is why the men’s ventriloquy of the female experience becomes tragic and destructive due to disproportion in the revealed positions of power. When watching the film, I started getting envious – envious of all these men that are able to chat on pornography as an abstract, shielded from its consequences which are all too real for women.
Beckermann opts for a real and unusual director’s choice seeing as the female authors across all forms of art are expected – tacitly or not – to deliver female stories or/and clearly defined female perspectives. Beckermann, however, focuses her camera on the male protagonists. Her presence is unobtrusive. She does not appear on the screen; we just hear her voice asking questions to the participants, commenting on their reading, or conducting a choir-like reciting of novel segments in several group shots that are equally comic and slightly terrifying. By showing various reactions and interpretations of the protagonist being mutually confronted and reflected, Beckermann has made a film that is essentially trying to stay neutral on questions of masculinity, male desire, violence, power, and intertwining of all these elements, all through her laissez-faire approach. This ambiguity subverts the film whose format is quickly becoming tiresome and repetitive. The most obvious oversight is the lack of a more detailed perspective on pornography itself, the ways through which it conditions and forms our notion of sexuality, and our behavior. By wanting to say everything and nothing and at the same time, in the very moment of worst forms of female exploitation are deemed emancipatory, and their critique moralizing or puritan, MUTZENBACHER remains a silent accessory.