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Baldiga – Unlocked Heart (Baldiga – Entsichertes Herz)

Queer photographer from Germany openly exposed his life in a bid to remove HIV stigma from generations to come - from the Panorama Dokumente section of the Berlinale


I first came across Jurgen Baldiga in a short film by experimental filmmaker Michael Brynntrup. The short was filmed in the early ’90s, seemingly just before Baldiga’s death in 1993. Brynntrup is filming a conversation between them in Baldiga’s flat; appearing bubbly despite his declining health, with his signature shaved head and pierced sticking out ears. Baldiga is candidly divulging about his sexual pursuits as well as his HIV- related health issues. Throughout their chat there is a constant barrage of shouting from the outside; a bigoted neighbour standing in the courtyard, yelling unfiltered homophobic rants. Both appear more amused by her, observing her as a pestering caricature rather than take her words seriously. Yet this troubling figure is symbolic of the violent reactions towards gay people and more so for those living with HIV/Aids at the time.

Baldiga arrived in Berlin in 1979 and decided to become an artist. Initially working odd jobs as a rent boy and a cook, simultaneously writing poems, making art, immersing himself in the queer night life of West Berlin and chronicling it all in his diary. From 1985, a year after his HIV diagnosis, Baldiga turned his attention to photography and spent his remaining time documenting about what would be gone after his passing. In his own words the medium allowed him “to stop time and capture reality”.

Baldiga – Unlocked Heart curates this photographic output piecing it together in an autobiographical assemblage, accompanied by an intermittent voice-over which reads from his journal entries, video footage and a commentary of talking heads of people close to him. It sketches a creative life that oscillates between misery and desire, consumed by its bodily decline and eminent end but also a wanting to not go, a wish to extend his corporeal existence.

Very much in the style of Diane Arbus – mentioned in the documentary as a reference – his pictures are exceedingly personal, unguarded, with a grunge aesthetic, perfectly capturing moments of intimacy. But also, in the similar vein of other contemporaries such as Nan Goldin, his work was immersed in the subcultures of queer West Berlin, the club and subsequent drug cultures as well as documenting the HIV/ AIDS crisis. Baldiga tended to inject himself into his work explicitly, offering unfettered access; from exhibiting all parts of his body, his sexual partners to his slow physical deterioration. There is a lot of sex in his work, which at moments is a tad tongue in cheek, such as the amusing photographs of male penetration with various types of dildos. It all gestures to Baldiga’s own uninhibited views and voracious sexual appetitive; a telling excerpt from his diary quotes: ‘I don’t know why your libido can make you a different person’.

Like in many documentaries of late there is an attempt to deviate from linearity and chooses to alternate between time periods, whilst retaining some semblance of a sequential order. Yet there is a formulaicness that derives from the use of tried-and tested documentary tools, such as voice-over and talking heads, as well as the piecing together images of the artist’s work and video footage to sketch a visual narrative. The approach feels rather soft and well-trodden, which granted works in conveying an intimate portrait of Baldiga and articulately show he emotiveness his physical demise, but one that doesn’t particularly parallel the punk spirit of Baldiga, his work and activism.

This is not to say this not a praiseworthy ode to Baldiga, who gets a deserved, if not long-overdue spotlight. An artist who exposed his life so openly in a bid to remove stigmas for generations to come. A body work that is so bold, so emblematic of the artist themselves that he will carry on living through it, even if it’s in world that while he was alive rejected him.

Baldiga – Locked Heart premiered in the Panorama Dokumente section of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival.

By Daniel Theophanous - 26-02-2024

Daniel has contributed to publications such as Little White Lies, BFI, Tape Collective, Hyperallergic, DMovies and many others. A lot of Daniel’s work is focused on LGBTQI+ cinema and hosts a podcas...

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