Drifter: A Hazy Trip through Queer Berlin

Drifter’s protagonist, Moritz, moves to Berlin to join his boyfriend. The two soon discover that they have wildly different lifestyles – Moritz wants to go on nature walks, spend his nights in bed, and play clarinet, whilst his boyfriend covets the fast-paced Berlin lifestyle – so they break up. Initially devastated, but swiftly proactive, Moritz then embarks on a dazzling journey made up of sex, drugs, chance encounters and, of course, techno clubs. Aside from offering a thrilling snapshot into the sought-after queer Berlin lifestyle, Drifter is often quiet, introspective. Finding the balance between entertainment, and meditations of change, dreams, and self-perception, and queer suffering, Drifter encapsulates with great depth the experience of a small-town queer man being thrust into the open realm of possibility of big-city-life.

Lorenz Hochhuth, Aviran Edri, Rabea Egg, Karim Alexandre Howard in Drifter by Hannes Hirsch © Salzgeber

The film is largely made up of vignettes and sketches taken from the writers’ experiences of life in Berlin over the last 15 years, forming a video journal of modern-day queer Berlin reminiscent of the flaneur camerawork of Cabaret. Characters walk in and out of the shot as quickly as they float through Moritz’ life – it is rare for a character to come back later in the film. This episodic structure weaves together a near-complete portrait of queer Berlin, focusing on the every day, and steering clear of Berlin’s touristic landmarks in favour of underground, more private spaces around the city. It is a celebration of Berlin’s queer cultures contained in its nightlife, with music-video attention to soundscapes taken almost entirely from Berlin-based queer music artists, that prioritise a portrayal of its dizzying atmosphere. It is a film which rarely tells, opting instead for showing. The audience is plunged headfirst into this sensorial experience. We feel part of each vignette, whether in a techno bunker or a club’s queue and truly feel the queer community as it forms onscreen.

Hirsch chooses to mirror, and not contrast, his portrait of Berlin’s nightlife and daytime scenes. The overwhelming strobe lights and deep purple hues, punctuated by a delicious techno soundtrack, which characterise Moritz’ night-time escapades, bleed into his daily life. For one, the techno music wafts out of clubs, subtly seeping into scenes of morning bike rides, or a walk in the woods. The sombre lighting which washes over Moritz’ sweaty skin as he dances with his friends emerges the morning after, becoming a purple t-shirt, or a new bleached buzzcut. Hirsch similarly parallels Berlin’s stereotypic drug-induced techno-haze and the addictive, pulsating rhythm of the city itself, which transcends night-time scenes into daily lives. Moritz experiences these Berlin trips even when he is out of nightclubs; he is equally a ‘drifter’ as he floats between a chance encounter with a previous hook-up, movie nights with friends, or a walk through Berlin’s beaming streets in broad daylight. A city like Berlin ‘never sleeps’, as they say, but neither do its young inhabitants. Always looking for his next ‘hit’ in an impromptu art gallery viewing or swimming in a lake, Moritz constantly chases these experiences. As a young queer person who grew up far away from the Garden of Eden promised in an image of Berlin that we all hold in our imagination, Moritz feels the need to constantly make the most of this world of eternal possibility which offers him a new way to feel alive.

The film’s protagonist, Moritz, is quickly enveloped into this atmosphere. At first a shy, quiet, nerdy type, he soon absorbs the colours and soundscapes of Berlin. We watch as he discovers non-monogamy, kink culture, and refreshing takes at the fluidity of modern gender identity. Where the film begins with a close-up of a mechanical blowjob – the most unsexual of sex scenes – it soon dives into this exciting exploration of how deep the realm of pleasure can be. Moritz’ appearance changes drastically from one scene to the next – he shaves and bleaches his hair and starts wearing mesh tops which he swiftly takes off as soon as he enters a club. By doing so, he literally takes off the heteronormative skin he had been carrying in the film’s first act. By exposing himself now, showing his skin and head and body parts, Moritz announces his newfound comfort both with the widening scope of his queer sexuality as well as with the act of being perceived consensually – in other words, with his own vulnerability. Power comes to Moritz through what he initially perceived as weakness.

The film does not, however, settle into these simplistic visual markers of change. It never stops posing the question: Does change happen on the outside or on the inside? Face-to-face with his first experience of overdose with a friend, Moritz suddenly loses his newfound confidence. Mumbling, confused, and awkward, he draws back to the Moritz we see early on. Later, in his element – amidst sweaty, ethereal bodies dancing in a basement – Moritz experiences derealization. Whether change is an internal or external experience, or rather a mix of both, Hirsch points towards its mutability. Change is not an achieved state. It does not end when Moritz has lived in Berlin for long enough, or found his community, or even discovered what art he likes. The film’s last scene halts the energy of this Berliner odyssey, turning back into the past for the first time. Memories of the film’s first moments come back here, with the reappearance of Moritz’ ex-boyfriend and his friends, as well as a photo he took during a trip to the lake back when they were still together, now framed as part of an art exhibition. This trip to the past forces Moritz to stop and confront the change he has undergone, all whilst recognising that he will continue changing moving on. Despite being so radically different to this past self, Moritz does not yet feel completely liberated. These closing moments feel like the beginning of a new, off-screen period of discovery for Moritz. The lack of a resolution is freeing. Change cannot be controlled. And so Moritz drifts on, and the end credits roll.

Drifter was shown at this year’s Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival), and was also selected for the BFI Flare: London LGBT+ Film Festival. Watch the trailer here, and look out for screenings around the world in the coming months!

Review by Miruna Tiberiu.

Miruna Tiberiu is the managing editor of GAY45. She is a student at Cambridge University. Tiberiu has written for numerous publications, including The Cambridge Review of Books, and the Cambridge Language Collective. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Cambridge’s first all-queer magazine, Screeve. Tiberiu is currently in Paris carrying out her dissertation research on Franco-Romanian cinema and intends to continue this work as a postgraduate at Cambridge.

 

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