Taxi zum Klo Review
A groundbreaking film that deals with male homosexuality through the eyes of a schoolteacher, it’s tempting to compare 1980’s Taxi zum Klo with Nighthawks, the British film Ron Peck and Paul Hallam had made two years earlier. Both approach the subject matter with a certain seriousness and sincerity, their ultimate aim being to demonstrate the normality of homosexual relationships. Yet whereas Peck and Hallam opted for an almost documentary-like stance complete with non-professional actors and semi-improvised scenes, Taxi zum Klo’s director Frank Ripploh opts for something a little more rough and ready. As well as directing Ripploh also serves as co-producer, writer, lead actor and, given the film’s semi-autobiographical nature, inspiration; in other words, it’s an entirely personal work (his character is even called Frank Ripploh) and one which we can only assume gets this loose nature from its creator. I’m not accusing Nighthawks, or Peck and Hallam for that matter, of being uptight, but Taxi zum Klo is considerably freer in its approach and more receptive to both the outré and the humorous. His is a film that, whilst as frank and honest as Peck and Hallam’s, dances along with an infectious energy.
Ripploh, as seen onscreen, is a ragged type: acid-dropping, beardy, more likely than not to indulge in a night of excess before teaching in the morning. This erratic demeanour comes through in his writing and direction too, meaning that Taxi zum Klo is far from being an expertly structured or paced film, but rather takes a few unnecessary diversions (such as the encounter with the domestic abuse victim) and has a tendency to jump around. There is no plot as such, although the relationship between Ripploh and Bernd Broaderup is central, simply a character study and a haphazard guided tour of Berlin’s gay subculture, whether it be in the bathhouses and public toilets (the title translates, somewhat crudely, as Taxi to the Loo) or the nightclubs and cabarets. In many respects this is more than enough: Ripploh is an extremely charismatic figure and more than able to sustain the film’s brisk running time, whilst the frank means with which Taxi zum Klo documents its environment - and the explicitness that comes with it - is undoubtedly an eye-opener, even for a film now past its 30th year.
Furthermore, if we were to focus too heavily on the rough edges and their occasional ill-effects then this would arguably make us ignorant of the many pleasures. There’s a wealth of charm and warm humour present, signalled by the bubblegum pop that occasionally interrupts the soundtrack. There’s the raw honesty on display, not simply in the sexually explicit material that has caused various censorship headaches over the years, but also in the more personal and emotional content as Ripploh presents himself (or at least a variation on himself) in not always the most flattering of lights. Indeed, there’s also the love story which feeds of this honesty and is ultimately rather touching. Ripploh and especially Broaderup downplay the drama but up the wealth of observational detail. You also sense some exposure on Ripploh’s part; not only in a physical way given the various sex acts and his more occasional states of undress, but also in the manner in which he presents himself sleeping around with barely a thought for anyone else - is this more autobiography or a narrative conceit to enhance his storyline?
Of course, the promiscuity on display speaks of another era, one before the Aids epidemic. As with Nighthawks, Taxi zum Klo therefore also exists as a kind of unrepeatable time capsule. When Ron Peck returned to his film for its companion-cum-sequel Strip Jack Naked he addressed Aids and its impact full-on. When Ripploh made his own sequel, the barely seen Taxi nach Kairo, the epidemic barely registered. Indeed, the later film was pretty much an entire disavowal of Taxi zum Klo, stripping the film clean of any autobiographical detail and replacing it with an overtly comic ménage a trois, although Ripploh did appear in the lead role once more, ostensibly playing the same character. His only other film as director came in the shape of 1986’s Miko - aus der Gosse zu den Sternen, a look at the German music industry as seen through the eyes of a young female singer. Needless to say, it was once again at some remove from Taxi zum Klo, which only seems to encapsulate the earlier film’s one-off status. Similarly, Ripploh would also act for and appear alongside Rainer Werner Fassbinder - in the director’s Querelle; in a supporting role to Fassbinder’s lead in Wolf Gremm’s Kamikaze 1989 - yet any influence seems negligible. Taxi zum Klo remains not only its director’s finest work but also a film that is uniquely his own. It fully deserves a place in pantheon of queer cinema’s standalone classics, alongside the likes of Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’amour or James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus, a situation this new DVD release can surely only help to cement.
Taxi zum Klo never received a certificate from the BBFC for a theatrical showing, but instead was shown unclassified under cinema club conditions. It emerged on VHS in the mid-nineties albeit in cut form (a total of one minute and 34 seconds had to be excised) and so didn’t properly surface until Film4 took the step of submitting an uncut print to the Board for the purposes of a television screening. The film was passed without a single snip meaning the various erections, ejaculate, golden showers and genuine sex acts all remained. As Mark Kermode noted in his introduction to the TV showing, the golden shower in particular was the kind of material that wouldn’t even secure a pass in an R18 hardcore pornographic film, although - as a number of features have taught us over the past few years - context is everything. For Peccadillo’s recent brief theatrical run and now this DVD release, Taxi zum Klo has been passed uncut once more, making it the first such UK appearance in a home movie format. (Palace issued a pre-cert VHS in August of 1982, which was the slightly trimmed cinema club cut of the film.)
An uncensored print would be enough to make this particular disc of Taxi zum Klo a noteworthy release, yet pleasingly Peccadillo have decided to go the extra mile and compile a collection of worthwhile extras and a pleasing transfer. The film itself has been restored and is largely damage free and without flaw. Certainly, the budget and circumstances of its making may come through in some of the rougher edges, though of course this is to be expected. For review purposes Peccadillo supplied only a single-layered DVD-R which prompted some heavy pixilation during moments of extreme movement (rapid panning shots and the like) and so one would hope that the finished product has at least upgraded this to a dual-layered disc and thus done away with any compression issues. Otherwise we get the fine-looking print in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, anamorphically enhanced, and the original mono soundtrack with optional English subtitles.
The extras are a nicely diverse bunch each approaching Taxi zum Klo from a slightly different stance. The Mark Kermode piece for Film4, totalling six minutes, is present and correct, serving as a general introduction to both the film itself and its various bouts with the censor. This latter aspect is dealt with in a more detailed manner courtesy of the 30-minute featurette entitled ‘A Short History of Taxi Zum Klo UK Release’. Two talking heads, firstly Archie Tate, who was the manager of the ICA Cinema between 1979 and 1988, and secondly Jim MacSweeney of the Gay’s the Word Bookshop, take us on a thorough guide through the film’s initial appearances in the UK, offering both personal reminiscences and a more objective account of the BBFC’s handling of this particular title, noting the problem areas and then-chief censor James Ferman’s own reaction. Of course, Taxi zum Klo’s history with the censor is now an integral part of the film’s reputation in the UK and as such every detail is inherently fascinating, not to mention all the more satisfying when watched in conjunction with an uncut print.
Elsewhere the disc offers up a brief 19-minute German documentary on the Taxi zum Klo’s making as seen, retrospectively, by those who were involved. Ripploh died of cancer in 2002 and so is understandably absent, although the presence of a Q&A session from a film festival circa 1987 makes up for this. This particular piece was done in aid of promoting Taxi nach Kairo and as such doesn’t focus exclusively on the 1980 feature. However, it nonetheless offers up plenty of intelligent responses from Ripploh and is also interesting for his reaction to the earlier film from a seven-year distance. Note that the 19-minute running time is made up, to some degree, by various translations as Ripploh fields questions in French and English, speaks in German and occasional English, whilst all languages are then translated again to ensure everyone in the audience understands. Arguably Peccadillo could have edited the piece in such a way so as to cut these various passages, though it still makes for a fascinating piece from the archive.
The disc also comes with a booklet and a reproduction of the UK poster, though neither was supplied for review purposes and so I will refrain from comment.