The Artist and the Pervert directors Behn and René Gebhardt on making a documentary that doesn’t other BDSM, but treats it with good humour and respect.
The marriage between avant-garde classical composer Georg Frederick Haas and his wife, Mollena Williams-Haas, a storyteller and kink educator, is the basis of Beatrice Behn and René Gebhardt’s funny, intimate, and daring documentary, The Artist and the Pervert. The filmmakers travel around the world with this pair of internationally renowned artists, exploring who they are as individuals, as well as their master/slave BDSM relationship. Both artists have suffered from trauma, which now fuels their artistic collaboration; Georg was physically abused as a child by his Nazi parents (his mother isn’t thrilled he married a black woman), and Mollena struggles with alcoholism.
While The Artist and the Pervert includes a few formal interviews, it is mainly a verité documentary, which captures intimate moments in the bedroom between the couple. However, the directors never make the audience feel uncomfortable; this is a far cry from the Fifty Shades of Grey version of whips-and-leather kink. In fact, a lot of the BDSM moments are surprisingly tender. I spoke with directors Behn and Gebhardt about how consent is essential — both to Georg and Mollena’s relationship and to the filmmaking process.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you approach Georg and Mollena about making a documentary?
Beatrice Behn (BB): I saw the New York Times article [from 2016, profiling their relationship] in my Facebook timeline. I wanted to know more: what does [this relationship] look like on a day-to-day basis? They are both on Facebook and Fetlife, which is like Facebook for BDSM. We approached Georg on Fetlife figuring that he is a white dominant guy who wouldn’t get that many messages because there are so many [dominant men]. We messaged him, and he replied right back.
7R: Do you have a connection to BDSM or classical music?
BB: No. We weren’t filmmakers either. We’re from Berlin, Germany and are connected to the queer and body positive community, which involves the kink community. We are a bunch of idiots about the classical music world. After two months of filming, we still didn’t quite grasp how important Georg is until we went to concerts with him. He gets approached by others like a demigod. Then, we started Googling him a little bit more thoroughly, and we realized this guy is really famous. It helped the approach of the film, because we’re documenting this human-being, not this weird genius.'After two months of filming, we still didn’t quite grasp how important Georg is until we went to concerts with him. He gets approached by others like a demigod.'Click To Tweet
7R: What conversations did you have with the subjects before you started filming?
René Gebhardt (RG): We met once in Munich to have a two-hour conversation about how we would try to make a documentary about their lives. Two weeks later, we started filming. We followed them for one year. We wanted to make it comfortable for everyone. We got their schedule, and we said, “We’ll meet you here and there.”
BB: We just stayed with them as a couple. They’re so multi-layered. There was no negotiation or anything. Just getting the consent, which you are supposed to do in BDSM. They just opened the door to their New York apartment.
7R: You introduce each subject by having them look directly into the camera and present fun captioned facts about them, written on screen. Why did you feel that was the best introduction?
BB: Quite a few people will watch this film because of voyeuristic interest. We’re playing with that with the title, [The Artist and the Pervert], as well. The first thing we do in the film is have Mollenna break the fourth wall and stare back at the audience.
She really breaks your interest in voyeurism because you’re now the one who’s [being] watched. They’re trying to figure out who you are as an audience. We didn’t want this to be one of those freak show films where you can look at them, but they cannot look back at you. We wanted to have some sort of a dialogue, even if it’s a silent dialogue.'We didn’t want this to be one of those freak show films where you can look at them, but they cannot look back at you.'Click To Tweet
7R: When they met, how much did Molenna know about Georg’s composing or his music?
RG: Not much. They met on OkCupid, and he wrote to her. He had a profile without a picture, because he was unsure how open he could be as a public figure. He said that he was within the top ten percent of [avant-garde classical] music. She said, “Okay, can you send me some music?” She thought, if it’s shit, then she couldn’t date him. He sent her one or two pieces. She found it very strange but it did something to her.
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BB: His music was basically good enough for a first date. His avant-garde classical music is for music nerds. She’s gotten into that because she’s his muse now. She’s following him and getting quite a good education.
At the end of the film, she [says] she would like to write his next libretto because she’s tired that all opera is about white people screaming about death. He has the leverage and the network, and she has the [words].
Hyena, [the piece] performed at the end of the film, [was presented at] the Opera House in Vienna. It’s possible that she’s the first black person to be on stage in that house. It’s high time for opera to open themselves out. I want to see black opera, Indigenous opera, queer opera. It’s a great artform but it’s so white. That needs to change.'She says she would like to write his next libretto because she’s tired that all opera is about white people screaming about death.'Click To Tweet
7R: There is a lot of subtle humor within the film. Was this an intentional choice?
BB: There was one fun spanking [moment] that we put right after the Nazi abuse scene, since it was such a heavy scene which we, as Germans, reacted to very heavily. We put fun spanking in there for our own therapy. That is the only time we used humour to lighten people up.
Everything else came really naturally because they are really funny people. The great thing is they don’t take life so seriously. They both have histories of trauma. They use humour to lighten themselves up and keep going.
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7R: You show the mother standing outside her Austrian home in the countryside, sweetly welcoming the audience in, yet when she speaks, she shares horrible reflections. What was important to you in her portrayal?
BB: The way we framed her outside of her house happened naturally. We wanted to take a couple photos and have her standing there quickly. We realized she loved that and wouldn’t move for 20 minutes. We kept filming because it was such an awkward situation. Yet it was a prime example of how everything was so green and beautiful that it was actually disgusting. Her portraying herself in this weird way was such a symbolic moment. That says it all before she even starts talking.
RG: It’s also a huge contrast from the Austrian countryside and landscape.
BB: The Sound of Music popped up in our head, in a distorted way. We just had to show that strange juxtaposition.'Practicing BDSM is a much more conscious way of living.'Click To Tweet
7R: What aspects of kink did you want to portray in this film, and why did you think it was important to include them?
BB: It was the other way around: what [aspects of kink] did we not want to portray in film anymore: the Fifty Shades of Grey version, which [turns] people into freaks and “others” them. What do we have in common, instead of why are they so freaky?
Every relationship has a power exchange in it. This is something that I really had to sit down and think about. We realized that the [biggest difference between] their relationship and the relationships of people who don’t practice BDSM is people who do practice are much more into consent. People who don’t practice [may] submit to certain rules of gender and expectations of society. Practicing BDSM is a much more conscious way of living.'If you don’t accept that she consents and wants to do it, and you criticize her from a feminist perspective, you’re getting your feminism wrong.'Click To Tweet
She’s a housewife, and she’s getting erotic pleasure out of doing that. At the same time, she is consciously asking, “Do I want to still do this?” When you look at that relationship, you think, “They cannot possibly be feminist.” When you start thinking about it, you come to the point where you re-examine your own ideas of feminism. If you don’t accept that she consents and wants to do it, and you criticize her from a feminist perspective, you’re getting your feminism wrong. It was hard for me in the beginning. I thought, “How could you possibly be feminists?” Then I realized I’m judging her in weird terms and I really need to take a step back.
Although Fifty Shades of Grey is a problematic depiction of BDSM, the first film, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, is actually a thoughtful exploration of consent. At the other end of the spectrum is Jennifer Fox’s marvelous film, The Tale, about a middle-aged woman who discovers she wasn’t actually able to give consent as a young teenager in a relationship with an older man. In You Were Never Really Here, a film we loved so much we dedicated an entire Special Issue to it, Joaquin Phoenix plays an avenging hitman who rescues girls from sexual slavery.