BY Cole Collins in Film , Opinion | 09 APR 24

On Jürgen Baldiga: ‘Queens, Beautiful Young Men and Ravaged Bodies’

BALDIGA – Unlocked Heart, a new documentary on the Berlin photographer, provides fresh insight but underplays the epicurean experiences that shaped his art

BY Cole Collins in Film , Opinion | 09 APR 24

I first encountered Jürgen Baldiga’s work in 2018. After moving to Berlin, I took myself to the city’s Schwules Museum, where I was stopped by a photograph of a face I’d never seen before. The sultry, pursed lip, ‘fuck-you’ expression of performer Melitta Sundström (1988) fascinated me. I jotted down the name of the artist and subject and continued around the exhibition. On my way home on the bus that afternoon, I began trying to unearth everything I could about Baldiga: two small and (then) dormant Twitter accounts, an entry on the Visual AIDS website and a couple of articles about him in German from the late 1980s and early ’90s were all I found. 

Jürgen Baldiga
Markus Stein and Ringo Rösener, BALDIGA – Entsichertes Herz (BALDIGA – Unlocked Heart), 2024. Courtesy: Markus Stein, Ringo Rösener and Salzgeber 

A year later, Jasco Viefhues released his documentary Rettet das Feuer (Rescue the Fire, 2019). Drawing on Baldiga’s diary entries, the film explored its protagonist as a photographer of Berlin’s queer scene. What emerged most vividly from Viefhues’s biography was Baldiga’s connectedness with his community. Fast-forward to October 2023 at the Halle für Kunst, Lüneburg, where curator Elisa R. Linn and Baldiga’s estate manager, Aron Neubert, staged an exhibition of the artist’s work, ‘Wie die Hölle, so die Erde. Wo die Hölle, da die Erde’ (Like Hell, Like Earth. Where There Is Hell, There Is Earth). It was curated so that you saw Baldiga’s subjects in context with one another – portraits of sex workers, rough sleepers, Tunten (queens), beautiful young men, beat-up boys, bodies visibly ravaged by AIDS – a family album of outsiders, social oddities, ‘those on the edge of society, who had found their core’ (Baldiga’s diary, 29 July 1992). The show celebrated his skills as a self-taught photographer but also explored and made visible the human quality of his work: interactions, connections, relationships and entanglements – both fleeting and long-lasting. 

Jürgen Baldiga, Jürgen with Ulf, c.1992/3. Courtesy: © Schwules Museum, Berlin – on loan from Aron Neubert

This year, premiering at the Berlinale, and also appearing in the British Film Institute’s Flare Festival programme, a new film about the artist was released. BALDIGA – Entsichertes Herz (BALDIGA – Unlocked Heart, 2024), directed by Markus Stein and written by Ringo Rösener, opens with an imagined reconstruction of one of the artist’s homages to Caravaggio, such as Saint Jerome Writing (c.1605–06), in which Franziskus Klaus, portraying Baldiga, is seen only from the neck down. A re-creation of a re-creation, it is accompanied by a reading from Baldiga’s diary recounting a dream he had about digging up the Italian painter’s grave, holding his ‘small’ skull in his hands and wondering how big his cock would have been. The film foregrounds itself in Baldiga’s apparent obsession with sex.

Disembodied voices tell us that the artist wanted to set himself apart from others – that he had ‘a self-confident kind of egotism’. His sister, Birgit, recounts that he was hustling as young as 15 years old and that he told her this when she was just 14 years old, but she didn’t believe it. Baldiga is, in these early recollections, a hedonist.  

Jürgen Baldiga
Jürgen Baldiga, c.1984. Courtesy: © Schwules Museum, Berlin – on loan from Aron Neubert

Overall, the film has a frenetic energy. It moves between standard, formal documentary techniques to reconstructions of narratives, to re-imaginings of situations and encounters collagistically spliced together to form a chaotic, at times uneasy, perspective. The discomfort of seeing Baldiga’s life unlocked through personal stories is heightened by the soundscape. Original compositions are interspersed with some of the artist’s music. We hear his raw, electro-punk songs, such as ‘Treiben’ (Libido, 1981) and ‘Der Beste’ (The Best, 1981), played over photographs or Super-8 film of him performing, fucking and sucking, or wandering around the atelier of Berlin-based artist Salomé. Baldiga penetrates this film in every sense.  

As the narrative draws nearer to the end of Baldiga’s life, there is a singular theme which dominates the last two-thirds of the movie: AIDS. In this section of the film, Baldiga becomes an avatar for those living with the disease – and, more so, for those who did not survive. The notion of Baldiga ‘giving AIDS a face’ inflects the film to such an extent that it reduces the artist to the illness. In filtering all his experiences through this lens, BALDIGA – Entsichertes Herz misses the vast complexity of his messy yet brilliant life. 

Jürgen Baldiga, c.1987/8. Courtesy: © Schwules Museum, Berlin – on loan from Aron Neubert

Broadening exposure to the artist and his work, Stein and Rösener’s film crucially includes interviews from previously unheard protagonists, in both the artist’s life and the Berlin queer scene of the 1980s, while also offering an enticing and enjoyable score that mixes Baldiga’s oeuvre, musical and visual, with his diary entries. Ultimately, however, in its turn towards the AIDS crisis, the film often seems to decentre Baldiga and the epicurean life experiences that fundamentally shaped his position as an artist. 

BALDIGA – Unlocked Heart, 2024 will appear in the programme of the 64th Krakow Film Festival in May 2024

Courtesy: Jürgen Baldiga, Self-Portrait, 1985/6. Courtesy: © Schwules Museum, Berlin – on loan from Aron Neubert

Cole Collins is a Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Art History at Edinburgh College of Art, The University of Edinburgh. He is currently working on a project exploring the Jürgen Baldiga's photography and an accompanying exhibition of the artist's work — the first in the UK.