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Rex Gildo – Der letzte Tanz

Director; Rosa von Praunheim (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

TV land. It’s hard to guess the date. A smiling singer with glossy hair invites us to join his Mexican feast. The audience gets over-excited. This is the story of how Ludwig Franz Hirtreiter, born in a Bavarian village, became Germany’s leading Schlager star, Rex Gildo. Gildo’s first number one was Speedy Gonzalez – yes, that one – with a video full of towel-clad stereotypes. His rise coincided with that of the package holiday, when Germans started expecting something more exotic.

Schlager is incredibly bad music which widely popular among many Germans. If you’ve been to the Oktoberfest, or indeed any event in a German village hall, you’ve heard Schlager. When I was new in the country, I was taken to such an event by excited friends who should have known better. In 1998, ironic Schlager Star Guildo Horn was the German entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. He reached place 7, but the hype around him made you think that he’d won.

This is two films competing for our attention. On the one side there is an impressively political look at how Schlager became the sound of Germany’s post-war boom – so insistently perky that it dared you not to smile. On the other it is a drama “loosely based on real events”, as the opening titles tell us, of Rex Gildo’s glittering career.

We start with actors playing Rex and a female workmate in a clothes shop, discussing the customer who was eyeing Gildo up and was about to change his life. Gildo’s manager, Fred Miekley shared his bed, while creating his image as a wholesome Latin lover. Miekley financed Gildo’s lessons – singing in the morning, acting in the afternoon, dance in the evening, which resulted in 40 films and countless records and tv appearances.

The press were fed stories about how Gildo was seeing his female co-stars, like the Danish singer Gitte Hänning. When Hänning left to pursue a “legitimate” career, a marriage was arranged with Gildo’s cousin, Marion. Marion, who was buried in the same grave as her husband and his lover, but whose opinion is never solicited, went along with this arrangement with no obvious protest.

By 1969, when homosexuality was legalized in Germany, Gildo was in his thirties and a sex idol. We see how legalisation was the result of the same movement which protested against the Vietnam war and denounced their parents for being Nazis. And yet Miekley and Gildo refused to come out. Miekley in particular was convinced that homophobia was inevitable, that recognition of gay people as equal was as likely as a Black US-American president.

The final statement raised a laugh from part of today’s audience. For me, it was the part of the problem I had with a film which is too knowing, too manufactured. Actors play their part, tripping past on-stage cameras. Yes, I know, this is all part of the Brechtian alienation effect, there to make us question what we’re watching. But I’m not really sure how much it helps to question why we need to think too hard about a re-enactment of a shiny teethed over-tanned, toupéed singer.

For most of the time, this archness is only slightly irritating and doesn’t get in the way of a good story. And yet there are a few scenes of old women dressed in mourning black, who refuse to believe all those scurrilous rumours of their hero being gay. At one time, they come on stage to insult director Rosa von Praunheim (playing himself), Maybe this is biting satire, or something to protect the film from an inevitable backlash. But when you’re in the cinema, it’s just tiresome.

I say all this not because this is a bad film – for most of the time, it’s a great film, but because it’s all so very unnecessary. The story of Gildo’s battle with his own sexuality, the strangeness of his relationship with his much older manager, his eternal search for a parent figure (his mother died young, he felt abandoned by his father, and even Miekley eventually died), his obvious charm, all make for a fascinating story which doesn’t need any embellishment.

And this is before Gildo throws himself out of a high window. By this time, he was addicted to painkillers and was a barely functioning alcoholic. One night, he insisted that his driver take him across the country. The driver refused, and – when Gildo got hysterical – called the local hospital. As guards arrived to take Gildo away, he barricaded himself into his toilet, and when they tried to break down the door, jumped to his death.

There are many unknowns in this story, as there are in many aspects of Gildo’s closeted life. Many of the main characters are dead and others have good reasons to lie. A good documentary would acknowledge this and offer different possibilities. But this film is transfixed with the act of story telling, even when it is winking at us that it knows it is lying through its teeth. The result, for me at least, is a dissatisfying combination of conjecture and arrogant pretence.

Rex Gildo – Der letzte Tanz does its best to entertain. For a lot of the time, the story it has to tell is entertaining enough for it not to need any enhancement. This puts us in the contradictory position of enjoying (most of) what we see, while wanting von Praunheim to give it a rest and reel it in a bit. The film is at its best when interviewing ageing actors who knew Gildo and just letting them speak. Many of the other scenes are just extraneous fluff.

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