"Rent Boys," or "Die Jungs vom Bahnhof Zoo," tells the story of five young male prostitutes in Berlin and shows how the streets of the German capital have changed over the last three decades. The documentary by director Rosa von Praunheim was well received when it premiered at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, which has long been committed to showcasing the best of queer film.
Some of the men are gay, some straight. Three are Roma, two are German, but the only real common denominator is that they grew up in disadvantaged circumstances -- and wound up working the neighborhood around Berlin's Zoo Station, long the main focal point for male prostitution in the city.
Lonel and Romica, from Romania, have taken up sex work to escape poverty back home. Meanwhile Nazif, who came to Germany as a refugee from the war in Bosnia, was very young when he started taking hard drugs and working the so-called "Strich," or streetwalkers' district. He learned to read and write while in prison, and he penned an account of his life on the streets of Berlin.
Praunheim also accompanies Lonel back to Romania, to a village that has seen many of its young men make the journey to Germany to enter into prostitution. But the film's main protagonist is Daniel, a tough young West Berliner who became a rent boy at 16 after a difficult childhood in foster homes, orphanages and a detention center.
The other German subject, Daniel-René, grew up in East Berlin and was sexually abused as a boy. He was then exploited by a series of pimps for many years and is now in therapy trying to recover.
The film features social workers and a doctor who drives around Berlin at night to provide the rent boys with medical care and information about HIV. It tells the men's stories without resorting to judgment or sensationalism. SPIEGEL ONLINE caught up with Praunheim during the Berlinale.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why did you decide to make a film about rent boys in Berlin?
Rosa von Praunheim: I was interested in making a film about these famous murders of johns by rent boys -- Versace, Pasolini, Rudolph Moshammer, the famous German fashion designer. But when I started researching, the normal people were simply more interesting than these celebrities, and what really interested me was the way they pursued their own personal destiny.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did you find the five young men?
Praunheim: I worked with an outreach organization in Berlin called "Subway -- Hilfe für Jungs," that works with rent boys. Today, around 70 percent of them are from Eastern Europe, and I worked with Sergiu Grimalschi, a Romanian social worker who speaks 10 Eastern European languages. So I was able to get access to the young men through him.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Three of the five subjects in the film are Roma. Are there really so many Roma on the scene?
Praunheim: Yes, 70 percent are from Eastern Europe, and the majority of them are Roma. This is prostitution due to poverty, and that is why we also travelled to a Roma village in Romania where many of the young men from the village have gone to Germany to work as prostitutes.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it a political film?
Praunheim: Yes, everything is political in a way. And, naturally, the Romas' situation is somewhat political because they are a very oppressed minority. In their own countries, such as Romania, both gay people and the Roma are all treated like the underclass. They don't have a good reputation here, either, and many who come to Western Europe have few chances to find work because they have little education. So they busk, steal or work as prostitutes.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nazif, the Bosnian Roma who is gay, is brutally abused by his father when he finds out that he is working as a prostitute. Do the Roma, who have a very traditional culture, find this hard to accept?
Praunheim: Well, homosexuality is discriminated against in most countries and, of course, that is also true within the Roma communities. Most Roma young men who work as rent boys say they are heterosexual, and they probably are. So they split off their personality and don't have much sympathy for homosexuality. It can be very difficult for a Roma to come out as gay.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Many of these young men had already suffered difficult childhoods. Daniel grew up in foster homes and orphanages. Are they damaged in some way before they start working as prostitutes?
Praunheim: I think that most of them have had a very difficult life, but that is not just true of people who go on the game. Many don't find their feet in society, and that always has something to do with the fact that they don't have a good education and that no one took much interest in them. A social worker told me that when you have just one person in a family who treats you positively, then you have a chance in life. But when there is no one, then you are lost.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the film, you don't judge these men; you just tell their stories. Did you deliberately choose to not take a moral stance?
Praunheim: Yes, that is very important. And this organization, Subway, also tries to stay very neutral and to see them as people and to help them. Prostitutes are just very despised in society and get very little help, so it is important that they get protection. This organization does this. It helps them when they have nowhere to live or have no medical care, and they are also there to show that there are perhaps other alternatives for work. But that is not their main concern. The main thing is not to be moralistic but, rather, to make sure they are treated as humanely as possible and helped to get by.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How difficult is it to escape this kind of life?
Praunheim: It is very difficult to get out of prostitution when you have no money or no apartment and when you are not used to saving. For them, it is dirty money, so when they make money from sex, they spend it immediately. They are addicted to gambling or drugs, or they buy new clothes; so, the next day, they have nothing and have to go back to work. It is difficult to rehabilitate them and say: "Go work for €3.50 an hour washing dishes." That is not very attractive when there are other possibilities.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The name of "Rent Boys" in German, "Wir Jungs vom Bahnhof Zoo," is reminiscent of the 1981 film "Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo" the story of teenage prostitute Christiane F. Was that deliberate?
Praunheim: Yes, that was a very well-known film and book and, perversely, many young people came to Berlin and to Zoo Station because of the book and film to experience adventure. They weren't turned off, even though they are tragic stories. It was interesting that it was like an advertisement to those living in the boring provinces. They came to experience the big city -- and then got stuck.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: One of the men in your film is a junkie, but do drugs still play the same role in prostitution today that they did in the Christiane F. story?
Praunheim: Yes, of course drugs play a role. Daniel says he tried heroin and didn't like it, but he tried other drugs. The tragic thing about heroin is that we know the story never ends well. Such is the case with Nazif, who has to spend his life fighting this addiction.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Has the scene changed much at Zoo Station?
Praunheim: It hadn't changed much until the mid-'90s, but now there isn't much going on there. The station hasn't been the city's main station for a few years, and a lot has moved to the sex cinemas near Zoo Station or to the gay scene in Schöneberg.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Prostitution is now effectively legal in Germany. Are things better for sex workers now that they aren't criminalized?
Praunheim: Of course, but -- as with female prostitution -- they could establish themselves as self-employed, but unfortunately not many of them do so. It is really a shame. There is the possibility to get official insurance, to register as a professional, but then one has to pay taxes, and most people don't do it. One has to create more awareness that it is a legal profession.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Berlinale, where your film premiered, has always had a strong program of gay-themed film. Is it important for a broader public to see these films?
Praunheim: In general, when it comes to political or art films, there is only ever a certain public for them. That is why festivals are so important in general -- so you can show films that otherwise wouldn't have a chance of attracting a big audience.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does your film have a message?
Praunheim: The only message is that one should not work with prejudice and cliché and sensationalism because these are human beings. And when you get to know the fate and the background of these people, you learn that every person has value, no matter what they do.