Devastating memorial of a Berlin ravaged by AIDS and the late photogapher who captured it

Rescue The Fire

Source: Munich Film Festival

‘Rescue The Fire’

Dir: Jasco Viefhues. Germany. 2019. 82mins

The personal is also the political in debut filmmaker Jasco Viefhues’s intimate documentary Rescue The Fire. Ostensibly a portrait of late German photographer and artist Jürgen Baldiga, it’s also a poignant snapshot of Berlin’s LGBTQ+ scene during the 1980s and 90s; a time when the AIDS epidemic appeared to be an unstoppable force. It’s also something of a celebration, both of the way in which artists are shaped by the world around them, and of the ties that bind us even after death.

Baldiga’s work wasn’t just art, it was visceral protest.

Receiving its premiere in Munich’s New German Cinema strand, this is a film likely to appeal to those audiences and festivals interested in LGBTQ+ history; particularly in this 50th anniversary year of the Pride movement. Beyond that, wider play may be limited to Baldiga devotees, who will most appreciate its somewhat reverential tone.

There is, however, little evidence, that Viefhues had a large audience in mind when he made his film. Coming across as something of a passion project, there’s nothing in the way of any context or explanation for the uninitiated. Instead, we learn who Baldiga was through the affectionate recollections of his friends, extensive diary entries which are narrated throughout the film and the archive of his work that is kept, lovingly, by Baldiga’s friend and fellow photographer Aron Neubert at Berlin’s Gay Museum.

We come to see is that Baldiga was an anarchic, playful and proud gay man — he’s reminiscent of Alexander McQueen in both his look and his wilfully subversive approach to his art — who turned his love for photography into a profession which was much celebrated by Berlin’s Queer community during the mid 1980s and early 1990s. With many of his friends succumbing to AIDS, and with so little being done to help or even acknowledge sufferers of the disease, Baldiga made the decision to chronicle the procession of illness and death. And when he contracted the disease himself in 1989, Baldiga did not hesitate to turn his camera inwards. This was not just a confrontation of mortality but also of vanity; he had always been aware of his good looks and, as he wrote during treatment for AIDS-related skin cancer, “the prospect of turning into a monster reared its head.”

This candid approach resulted in some truly striking (and often difficult) images, which have lost none of their power in the intervening years. Baldiga’s dying friend Ikarus stares straight into the camera, his body covered with sores; later, an emaciated Baldiga himself, sunken eyes peering out from behind a giant clown’s nose, appears on a death notice card stating, simply, ‘I Am Dead’. (Baldiga committed suicide in December 1993, aged just 34; a last act of defiance against the illness that had already robbed him of so much).

Rescue The Fire rarely widens out past Baldiga and his friends, aside from a few archive headlines — “Less money for AIDS victims’ shouts one — and photographs of various gay rights marches and demonstrations. But perhaps that’s the point. Baldiga’s work wasn’t just art, it was visceral protest. His often-explicit black and white photographs capture the remarkable vibrancy of those around him, making those which document the effect of AIDS even more devastating in contrast. They are images which speak entirely for themselves.

Production company: Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB)

Contact: Salzgeber & Co. Medien GmbH

Producer: Jasco Viefhues

Editing: Reinaldo P Almeida

Cinematography: Hendrik Reichel

Music: Pionier Serios

Features: Aron Neubert, Michael Brynntrup, Melitta Poppe, Mignon, Ulf Reimer, Axel Wippermann, Paula Sau, Renate Wanda de la Gosse