'I Am My Own Woman' is unsettling but fascinating

BALTIMORE FILM FESTIVAL

April 08, 1995|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,Sun Staff Writer

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf has had to work at being a woman a little more than some of us.

Charlotte, born Lothar Berfelde, is the transvestite at the center of the odd little German film "I Am My Own Woman," being shown as part of the Baltimore International Film Festival. A "female being in a man's body," as he calls himself, Charlotte has had an extraordinary life, which this movie rather awkwardly captures.

Jens Taschner plays the young Lothar/Charlotte, who finds early on that he likes to wear dresses and play with dolls. As an example of his early feminine tendencies -- those of us who forget what our vacuum cleaners look like may not get it -- Charlotte says, "Even as a child, I liked to dust and clean." That's the real Charlotte talking. In fact, the real Charlotte walks into the re-enactments and tells his story to the actors portraying him. It's unsettling and kind of fun.

While his cleaning was appreciated as a child, his effeminate nature was not, especially by his Nazi father. A lesbian aunt taught Charlotte about transvestitism, and as Charlotte discovered his sexual identity, his father became more abusive. Fearing for the safety of his family and himself, young Charlotte beat his father to death.

Directed by gay-film veteran Rosa von Praunheim, the movie explores Charlotte's childhood, his love of turn-of-the-century antiques (he owns a museum full of them), his survival of World War II and his sexual life afterward.

Ichgola Androgyn takes over the role of the adult Charlotte, who, among other things, becomes an erotic serving maid to a gay man and finds love in the public toilets of Berlin. The film's badly acted re-enactments become absurdly droll, especially when the real Charlotte steps into the scene to demonstrate the proper way to take a spanking. Yes, you read that right.

Charlotte's life is fascinating, no doubt about it. A quiet force of individuality, especially in East Germany after the Berlin Wall went up, he provided an example of courage to gays and resisted the government by maintaining the only privately owned museum in the country.

With an eerily serene smile, the balding Charlotte walks through the contemporary streets of Berlin in out-of-date dresses, taking the stares as they come. No makeup or fishnet stockings for Charlotte: "I've always preferred to dress simply," he says.

The movie loses its way when it starts to become a history of the gay-rights movement in Berlin; its lack of focus and slow pace drag it down. It might have worked better as a simple documentary. Still, its peculiar structure gives it some of its flavor, and its message of tolerance in the face of skinhead attacks is admirable. If you're ready for an offbeat mix of documentary, campy sketches and sexual switcheroos, you're ready for "I Am My Own Woman."

"I Am My Own Woman" is playing at 7 tonight in the Baltimore International Film Festival.

Other films showing this weekend are "Picture Bride," at 9 tonight, and "The Buddha of Suburbia," at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow. All are at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Tickets are $6.50 general admission, $5 for Baltimore Film Forum and museum members. For information, call (410) 889-1993.

MOVIE REVIEW

"I Am My Own Woman"

in German with English subtitles

Directed by Rosa von Praunheim

Starring Lothar Berfelde (Charlotte von Mahlsdorf), Ichgola Androgyn and Jens Taschner

Unrated (nudity, sexual situations)

... **

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