The Consequence

The Consequence
Die Konsequenz

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen — 1977, Germany — 100 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama

IN BRIEF, heartfelt emotion and striking cinematography highlight this tale of the love between an inmate and a prison official’s son; a landmark of German LGBTQ cinema, and the feature-film debut of director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot).


The Consequence made an indelible impression, when I first saw it years ago. It was even more powerful seeing it again. This is not only a great LGBTQ-Themed film but one of the most riveting films of its time. Although the plot is melodramatic (how many inmates have love affairs with the handsome and eager sons of prison officials?), the gifted actors bring out all of the tale’s real, and raw, emotion, even as director Wolfgang Petersen creates his stylistic masterpiece.

The Consequence is set in 1970s Switzerland, where the actor Martin Kurath (Jürgen Prochnow) is sent to jail for his involvement with a willing but underage youth. While serving a two and a half year sentence, he meets Thomas (Ernst Hannawald), the son of prison staffer Giorgio Manzoni (Waldo Luond). During rehearsals for a convict’s play, Thomas quickly falls in love with Martin. After hiding in Martin’s cell, Thomas breaks down Martin’s resistance, with little difficulty, and the two share their mutual love behind locked doors. Once released, they move in together and try to start a new life. But they are harassed at every turn: Martin is fired from jobs, and Thomas’s parents send him to reform school, where he comes up against the sadistic instructor Diethelm (Werner Schwuchow). Martin concocts an elaborate escape plan for Thomas, involving a forged identity for himself as a psychologist and the machinations of a conniving German politician, Representative Clemens Krauthagen (Alexis von Hagemeister). Although Thomas gets away, complications arise when the politician reveals his own plans for the young man’s “education.” Thomas flees, only to wind up living on the street. Will Thomas overcome his shame and reunite with Martin?

After introducing director Wolfgang Petersen, author Alexander Ziegler and the historical context for The Consequence, I’ll offer an analysis of the film. The final section, Video, discusses the disc’s image and sound quality (there are problems, but they should not deter you from seeing this extraordinary film).

Wolfgang Petersen

Wolfgang Petersen was born March 14, 1941 in the small town of Emden, in northern Germany. He later moved to Hamburg to attend the Johanneum School, where he concentrated on theatre. Between 1966 and 1970, he attended the Film and Television Academy in Berlin, then immediately found work as a TV director on over twenty productions. On the popular German series “Tatort” (“Crime Scene” – with 90-minute episodes, it premiered in 1970 and is still running), for which he directed six episodes, he met the gifted actor Jürgen Prochnow. To date, the director and actor have made seven films together, including The Consequence (Petersen’s first theatrical feature), Das Boot (1985 – one of the two or three greatest war films), and Air Force One (1997). Petersen emerged as a major filmmaker during the rise of the New German Cinema (Das Neue Kino), but remained separate from its more theoretically-inclined superstars, including Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974), Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972), Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, 1987), Margarethe von Trotta (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1975), and Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum, 1979). Petersen remains the only one of this enormously gifted generation, all born circa World War II, to become a major Hollywood director. (Wenders has come close; and even Fassbinder dreamed of what he could do with a big budget – he was rapidly approaching this goal at the time of his tragic early death.) Petersen made a remarkably successful transition from this controversial, small-scale German film and Das Boot to the A-list, directing such blockbusters as The NeverEnding Story (1984), Shattered (starring Bob Hoskins, 1991), In the Line of Fire (Clint Eastwood, 1993), Outbreak (Dustin Hoffman, 1995), Air Force One (Harrison Ford, 1997), The Perfect Storm (George Clooney, 2000), Troy (Brad Pitt, 2004) and Poseidon (Richard Dreyfuss, 2006), as well as the ambitious but flawed science fiction drama Enemy Mine (1985 – a sort of intergalactic same-sex family drama with Louis Gossett, Jr. in reptilian drag, Dennis Quaid, and their baby). In The Consequence, which remains Petersen’s greatest work, and throughout his American movies, he has consistently shown a gift for taking the most cliched melodramatic situations (‘impossible love,’ ‘hijacking,’ ‘assassination’) and reinvigorating them through finely-honed performances and a mastery of composition and narrative flow. A handful of other directors can also do this, but few have made action movies as shrewdly entertaining as In the Line of Fire and Air Force One which (pardon the pun) blew me away when I recently re-saw it. His inspired craftsmanship enriches even a conventional script like this, especially in his use of narrative momentum. Both within his shrewdly-designed shots and in the editing, things don’t just blow up, they explode with the precise, varied, and compelling rhythms of a master painter… and percussionist. Yet his most fully-realized work – visually, dramatically and emotionally – remains The Consequence. Petersen is still in his prime as a director, and hopefully we can look forward to many more of his pictures.

Alexander Ziegler (March 8, 1944 – August 11, 1987), the Swiss actor, journalist and author, was a leading figure in Germany’s nascent gay liberation movement. His best-known and -loved work is the autobiographical novel The Consequence, for the film of which he co-write the screenplay (with director Wolfgang Petersen) and appeared in a cameo as a bushy-haired actor in the prison play. Ziegler, born in Zurich, discovered his love for both the stage and men at an early age. There are several parallels between his own life and those of his two protagonists in The Consequence. As with Thomas, his disapproving parents put him in a reformatory. Upon his release, he went to Vienna to work as an actor. As with Martin, he became involved with a young man in his late teens, was arrested and imprisoned for two and a half years. During that time he wrote his first novel, Labyrinths (1970), which received good reviews. Between 1971 and 1979, he edited the Hanover-based gay magazine, You & I. In 1975, he published The Consequence, the most important German gay novel of its time, and thirty years later still the most popular. (That same year appeared Verena Stefan’s affirmative lesbian novel Häutungen (literally ‘Sheddings’) – offers an excellent overview of German and Austrian GLBT Literature.) Ziegler’s novel, for the first time, brought to a wide readership an understanding of the emotional life of two men in love, as well as of the destructive and widespread force of homophobia. Two years later, the acclaimed film of The Consequence reached an enormous audience when it was broadcast throughout Germany (Bavaria’s attempt to censor it only increased its popularity). In the decade following the film’s release, Ziegler wrote several more novels and plays, and performed extensively on the Swiss stage. He died in 1987 of an overdose of sleeping pills, at the age of 43.

Although a film as vital as The Consequence is far from a relic, it holds a pivotal place in the history of German GLBT cinema, which began with the first gay-themed feature film, Richard Oswald’s 1919 Different From the Others (Anders als die Andern). Other landmarks include Carl Dreyer’s 1924 Michael (Mikaël), William Dieterle’s 1928 Sex in Chains (Geschlecht in Fesseln – the prison in this ‘love between inmates’ film looks almost identical to the one in The Consequence), and Leontine Sagan’s 1931 Mädchen in Uniform, about the affair between a student and teacher at a strict boarding school (this film was banned in the U.S. until Eleanor Roosevelt personally advocated its release). The most innovative and influential early German filmmaker, F.W. Murnau, was gay, but he never dealt overtly with gay characters, although same-sex motifs lurk in the shadows of his genre-defining vampire film Nosferatu (1922); his final two masterpieces, Sunrise (1927) and Tabu (1931), focus on forbidden (albeit heterosexual) love. Hitler declared war on many fronts, including GLBT people and their representation in the arts, as you can read in my brief historical overview. It took decades for German film to recover from the Nazis, but it eventually did in the late 1960s with the extraordinary New German Cinema movement (discussed above), which included a few films focused on GLBT experience. The first to make an impact was Rosa von Praunheim’s It is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse But the Society in Which He Lives (1970), a scathing indictment of both ‘bourgeois values’ and the then-current gay scene, as dramatized through the unprecedentedly explicit story of a closeted gay man’s coming out in the diverse, and self-destructive, Berlin underground, before finally moving into a gay countercultural enclave (which somewhat anticipates the one, a quarter century later, in Michael Stock’s problematic Prince in Hell (1993)). Von Praunheim’s film, originally made for television, helped galvanize the emerging German gay liberation movement; the filmmaker, born Holger Mischwitzky, chose his pseudonym as a political act – “Rosa” recalling the rosa Winkel (pink triangle) which the Nazis forced GLBTs to wear in concentration camps. Fassbinder raised the artistic bar for GLBT cinema with the controversial lesbian-themed The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and gay-themed Fox and His Friends (1975 – the only one of his 41 features in which he stars, as a hapless gay carnival worker who wins the lottery). Without the success of these pioneering works, The Consequence might never have been made.


The key to Petersen’s extraordinary achievement here is authenticity. The film comes alive through the achingly real performances of Jürgen Prochnow and Ernst Hannawald, which are made all the more vivid by Petersen’s cagey use of narrative form and starkly brilliant visual style.

This film is told from the point of view of the long-suffering Martin, and Jürgen Prochnow gives the character one of his most subtly modulated – and inspired – performances. Prochnow had been working primarily in German television, beginning in 1970, before his breakthrough performance here. He has long since become a much sought-after leading man and character actor, in both Europe and Hollywood. To date he’s appeared in a hundred pictures, ranging from independent movies to David Lynch’s Dune, Beverly Hills Cop II, The English Patient, and The Da Vinci Code, not to mention his seven films so far with Petersen, including his unforgettable portrayal of the submarine captain in Das Boot. Ernst Hannawald gives a remarkably convincing performance as Thomas, whether in the early scenes of dewy-eyed passion or later when he makes even the most melodramatic moments – and there are many – heartbreakingly real. Unfortunately, Hannawald’s film career has not been as rewarding as his co-star’s. He’s only made a dozen movies and TV episodes in the three decades since this film. In 1998, he was sentenced to prison for robbing a bank and post office, later appearing on talk shows to discuss his drug problems. But this film will always be a testament to his gifts. Simply put, without actors as brilliant, and understated, as Prochnow and Hannawald – and without a director as compassionate and visionary as Petersen – this film could have been a sodden soap-operatic mess.

As with most of the major elements in The Consequence, Petersen and Ziegler provide some layers of complexity which are more apparent on subequent viewings. For instance, it’s ironic that Martin is an actor, yet he comes across as the most natural and stable character in the film, especially in contrast to the majoritarian heterosexuals, who invariably wind up playing out societal roles which they’ve fallen into, and which invariably turn them against our benighted gay protagonists (more about this stereotype-flipping one-sidedness below). Thomas is the other most convincing character, although for the first half of the film he is playing, both for Martin and himself, the perennial adolescent role (regardless of one’s sexual orientation) of The Boy Madly In Love. It’s only later, ironically when the melodrama escalates at the reformatory, that Thomas becomes as authentic as the man he loves; unfortunately, and truly heartrendingly, that newfound integrity comes to him through terrible physical and emotional pain.

Although sex between an adult and a minor is repellant, whatever their genders, Petersen carefully keeps the spectre of such an exploitative relationship at bay. Prochnow looks a decade younger than his 36 years (he was born in 1941, like Petersen), and Hannawald looks his age: 18. Using various bits of dialogue, we can do some math and deduce that Thomas is 17, soon to be 18 (and “free of school”), when he meets Martin. To be blunt, Martin’s being a ‘late-years teenager’ greatly increases my comfort level with the film. Also, there is never any suggestion that their love is based on anything except equality, mutual respect and, of course, romantic passion. By eschewing explicitness, Petersen helps the film deliver its message – about the common humanity of gay people – to the widest possible (television and cinema) audience; the lead actors are so good that no matter how subtextually preachy the film may get, we always believe in their authenticity.

Not only the leads, but every person in the film comes across as real, no matter how melodramatic their role. It seems likely that many of the characters, especially most of the reform school boys, are played by non-actors. Whether that’s the case or not, Petersen deserves credit for keeping every performance, including those extras in the background, convincing. Even the most over-the-top character, the reform school’s instructor cum bully-in-chief Diethelm, is fully believable (even as he anticipates Ralph Fiennes’s portrayal of the jovially sociopathic commandant Amon Göth in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993)).

One of the most revealing – and visceral – scenes comes when the reformatory boys try to “cure the faggot” by shoving Thomas on top of the retarded girl Babette, in the shack they call “our whorehouse,” demanding that he have sex. This scene is at least as powerful as the comparable one in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). (Trivia fans take note: The Last Picture Show – although it ‘de-homosexualizes’ the coach – is based on the novel by Larry McMurtry who later co-wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, whose mainstream success in the U.S. parallels that of The Consequence in German society three decades earlier.) Yet Petersen’s direction of the young (presumably) non-actors and his documentary-like style here takes us to a new level of subjective horror, surpassing even Bogdanovich. (There’s perhaps a touch of irony in Petersen here ‘de-Hollywood-izing’ his likely model, when his own aspirations were clearly aimed at L.A.) The confusion of sound and image, jerking between long shots from wildly unbalanced compositions, to leering close-ups of Babette – with grotesquely huge glasses – obliviously giggling, lets us experience the horror that Thomas is feeling.

Another aspect of the film’s realism is its settings. Clearly, a story – however autobiographical – with this many over-the-top scenes needs to be grounded in the real world, and Petersen delivers. The locations look real because they are real, both exteriors (shot in Zurich, Switzerland, and in Germany’s Munich, the Starnberger See (Lake Stamberg) and other locations around Bavaria, as well as the Jugendvollzugsanstalt (reformatory) in Vechta, Lower Saxony) and interiors, from a prison to various offices, apartments, and theatres, to a reform school. We’ve all seen countless films where shoddy sets and fake costumes destroy the illusion, but that never occurs here. Every table, chair and cigar (ouch!) is what it is. Even while this realism is essential to grounding the physical world of the film (as the actor’s emotional authenticity is to grounding its psychological world), it is also a shrewd cost-saving measure – no expensive sets to build – which allowed this low-budget film to be made.

Yet with all of this realness, Petersen and Ziegler – both of whom began their careers in theatre – intersperse, throughout the film, many scenes of stage performance, both in the prison play (whose plea for social tolerance obviously parallels this film’s) and later in Martin’s professional theatre productions. This hints at the pervasive, and limiting, nature of artifice: all the world’s a stage, of course, but think how cramped that world is. The only character we see escape the oppressive confines of the ‘world stage’ is, in the film’s most glorious – and subtle – irony, the stone-faced actor Martin.

Whatever Thomas’s fate, one of his and Martin’s most crucial aspects – which would have been especially liberating for GLBT audiences in 1977, when so few GLBT films had been made – is their resolute honesty about their sexual nature. No matter how intimidating, or violent, the authority figures become, Martin never recants, and neither does Thomas until – as he tells Martin in the film’s climactic scene – his torture at the reformatory reached an unbearable level; judging by what Petersen has already shown us (he never depicts these ultimate degradations), this is almost unimaginable. Of course, Galileo recanted the scientific truths he discovered rather than be burned at the stake by the Inquisition, and even St. Peter three times denied knowing Jesus. One of this film’s richest aspects, which I’ll look at more closely below, is the many different ways we can read the experiences it presents, ranging from hope to its opposite – and many degrees in between. Look at that second-string actor Martin: for all of the abuse he endures and pain he works through, he remains steadfast to who he is, and to the man he loves.

Petersen and Ziegler’s screenplay embellishes the characters and themes by using various narrative strategies. We can see several ingenious ways in which the psychological, the polemical and the richly aesthetic are woven together. For instance, the principals’ names carry a symbolic, and political, charge. Martin’s last name, Kurath, suggests derivation from Kur (‘cure’); his first name may, or may not, bring to mind Germany’s most famous Martin – Luther – with his reformist’s zeal. Thomas’s last name recalls the great Italian author Alessandro Manzoni. His 1827 epic, The Betrothed, is still the most widely read Italian novel; its primary themes connect with The Consequence both in the undercutting of doctrinaire authority figures (in Manzoni, the priest Don Abbondio is revealed as a hypocritical coward) and in the unwavering strength of love despite the most hair-raising travails (Manzoni’s title characters, Renzo and Lucia). Thomas’s Italian last name also invokes a perennial theme of German literature, that of the ‘hot-blooded foreigner’ from the south. The quintessential example (dare we call it a stereotype?) is, of course, bisexual author Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella – not to mention its adaptations in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film and Benjamin Britten’s 1973 opera – Death in Venice. While this book’s exalted reputation is deserved for Mann’s prodigious literary technique, the story – of a famous middle-aged German author who falls hopelessly and pathetically in love with a beautiful boy in the midst of a plague – is, at core, sickly. In a sense, it’s the opposite of The Consequence, which centers on the forthrightness of its openly-loving gay couple. With a wink to those of us who have not fallen in love with Death in Venice, Petersen ironically styles Hannawald, especially his long blond hair, into a dead-on (if a few years older) version of the angelic actor cast by Visconti to play the boy Tadzio. This irony melds into a rich, and heartbreaking, pathos as Thomas’s cherubic features in the first half are beaten into the scars and filthy, matted hair of the end.

On an immediate level, Petersen and Ziegler’s screenplay works well at revealing the characters, embodying the theme (with its out, loud and proud plea of social justice for GLBT people), and – certainly not least important – keeping the film moving at a pace which is both natural and inexorable. (As mentioned above, shrewdly-paced filmmaking has always been a Petersen hallmark.) However – yes, there’s a ‘however’ – for all of the script’s functional brilliance, there are several problematic areas. Some of them, when looked at from a certain point of view, are not nearly as damning as they might at first seem, but it’s important to bring them out of the narrative closet. Here’s the list: it’s all but unbelievable that a prison official’s son would ever fall in love with a prisoner (yes, I know it’s based on an autobiographical novel, but still!); this film’s ‘parallel universe’ is populated with nothing but pitiful and/or vile heterosexuals – of course, the gay characters, other than Martin and Thomas, don’t come off much better, to wit, the skanky forger and the slimy politician who have nothing on their minds but doing the nasty with our heroes; every kid in the reformatory seems to fall into one of only two categories: wimp or thug. I saw these problems from the first viewing, but then as now the sheer force of Petersen’s technique (with his unwavering demand for naturalness) and moral vision makes everything work… in spite of the sometimes creaking sounds of hoary melodrama. Even with its gay protagonists The Consequence is, at heart, a tale of lovers separated by a cruel world – and that’s a fundamental fictional motif, from ancient myth, to Romeo and Juliet, to the star- and socio-economic-crossed lovers of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997 – although Martin and Thomas feel more real than their iceberg-bound, CGI-enhanced counterparts).

The other narrative problems involve Petersen’s reliance on flashback structure as a framing device (which we’ll look at below in the final section), and an increasingly-frequent expository use of letters and phone calls. On the one hand, these devices are necessary to convey important character and plot information, primarily involving what Thomas is up to after he’s cast off by the thwarted politician. On the other hand, like most uses of voice-over narration (in countless movies), they imply a certain dramatic laziness. We would much rather see, than hear about, key events. But on yet a third hand (!), from the point of view of romance, there is a real poignance in keeping the lovers physically separated as long as possible, as we know from the third acts of Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (1939) and An Affair to Remember (1957), and all of Nora Ephron’s update, Sleepless in Seattle (1993). What’s this – a fourth hand! Such ellipsis can also function as an effective device, in cinema as in literature, to force us to fill in the details, on the fly, which can make a work even more involving. But here there are a few too many omitted scenes, especially in the late sections about Thomas’s life as a rent boy. There’s a fascinating development, or de-evolution, in him, from the guy who would rather refuse the advances of the dastardly politician to the beaten-up, drunken wreck we see at the end. But that’s too much emotional material to cover via a phone call and a brief dialogue scene between the two lovers. Yes, we fill in the details, but sometimes seeing (a bit more) is believing (a bit more).

The focus on Martin is effective, but the film could have supported more of a double-protagonist structure, with equal screen time for both Martin and Thomas, even during the long stretches when they are separated (think of Romeo and Juliet). We actually have such a ‘double structure’ in the middle, when Petersen intercuts between extended scenes of Thomas in the reformatory and Martin’s schemes to get him out, and it’s a powerful way of conveying not only what they are each experiencing but the ache of their separation. However, during the final third Thomas disappears from the screen, while we focus on Martin, or more specifically his reactions to Thomas’s absence. Yes, that increases the emotional impact of Martin – and our bond with him – but with so many crucial, and harrowing, developments in Thomas’s life, we would like to see some of them dramatized, as in the middle section, rather than merely hear about them in his (powerfully-delivered) monologue and summarized visually by the terrible scar on his face.

Yet the screenplay’s strengths far outweigh its problems; and with the narrative so enriched through Petersen’s extraordinary direction of the actors and brilliantly evocative visual design – which we’ll look at in a moment – you have a great film which has moved audiences around the world.

Petersen shows us the evolving steps in Thomas and Martin’s relationship; he never hurries their scenes along, letting them play out in real time. Yet he never falters in maintaining the film’s momentum. Petersen’s brilliant but subtle use of editing moves the picture forward with all the passion of the two people falling head over heels. There are also times when he stuns us by juxtaposing extremely disparate scenes. One of the most shocking moments comes when Martin finally manages to sneak into Thomas’s cell at the reformatory, only to find his lover cowering and filthy. When Thomas turns his almost-naked body, Martin – and we – are stunned to see Diethelm’s cigar burns on the young man’s back. We accept the inherent melodrama of this reveal because of Petersen’s shrewd technique, which in no way lessens the film’s sincerity. This is a quiet scene; Thomas, long beaten down, has already retreated far into himself. Ending the scene by revealing the burns, and then showing Martin kissing and embracing Thomas, is one of the film’s most heartrending moments.

Then Petersen unexpectedly cuts to a scene of Thomas laughing and roughhousing with other reformatory boys. A shock cut like that, from tortured to laughing, is one of several strategies for preventing this intrinsically over-the-top (however autobiographical for Ziegler) tale from turning into sop. Such editorial brilliance also points us to the film’s extraordinarily evocative use of visual style, which becomes more apparent with each new viewing.

With director of photography Jörg-Michael Baldenius (who did only this one feature and a dozen TV shows, the last in 1979), virtually every shot, from first to last, succeeds in expressing the main characters’ inner lives through external form while creating pared-down but immensely evocative imagery. Rarely has such visual simplicity been so emotionally, thematically, and aesthetically rich. In the fullest sense, this is an art film. For all of his subseqent commercial success, Petersen has never surpassed this film. It’s interesting to note that here Petersen minimizes one of the strengths of his later films: sound. In The Consequence, sound design, including musical scoring, is (literally) downplayed. By contrast, few films make more sonically expressive than Petersen’s next feature, Das Boot (with a vastly larger budget), in which the submarine’s shifting reverberations, not to mention its climactic death groans, virtually turn it into another major character.

Petersen wisely chose black and white cinematography for The Consequence. It simultaneously ratchets down the melodrama a bit, even as it allows Petersen to explore the formal, at times abstract, depiction of this world. His plea for tolerance is never as literal-minded, and punning, as ‘seeing the world in black and white,’ but the visual design does allow us to view the starkness, and the unyielding nature, of this world, so set on keeping two men who love each other apart. Color would have made it too easy to get sucked into the romance; the high contrast black and white lets us see the world with stark, and at times cruel, clarity, whether it’s the blank walls of the Manzoni family’s (literally and metaphorically) constricting apartment or the black scars on Thomas’s white back and, later, face: shot this way, the contrast could hardly be more visceral.

The use of space is also expressive, with its continual pull between constricting flatness and vertiginous openness. Many settings are claustrophobic, as in the penitentiary and, even more extreme, “C Block” at the reform school; but note Petersen’s implicit visual commentary on the ‘free world’ – equally constricting are the Manzonis’ apartment and the series of cramped bureaucratic offices. By disorienting contrast, there are a few scenes of almost dizzying openness – the prologue shows Thomas’s tiny boat adrift in the vast lake; the key shot of Martin and Thomas’s apartment has them standing on the narrow balcony looking out at the vast, disorienting expanse of the town below; the crane shot of the reformatory’s crumbling ‘whorehouse’ gives an ominously swooping movement as the impossibly high angle parallels Thomas’s anxiety. Petersen’s use of space – always filmed at actual locations – simultaneously expresses Martin and Thomas’s feelings while commenting on the hostile and (literally) narrow world set on keeping them apart.

There are also clusters of visual motifs, which help give structural and thematic coherence, even as they counterpoint the story’s romance. For instance, note the two separate close shots of one man’s hand on another’s. In the first, at the gay bar we have the middle-aged forger who gets Martin the papers he needs to get into the reformatory. The forger’s hand on Martin tells us what he wants in payment: not money but sex, to which Martin reluctantly agrees (with typical circumspection, Petersen does not show us the, um, transaction). This hand-on-hand image recurs when the German politician covertly puts his hand on Thomas’s during the silly super 8 porno movie, but Thomas pulls away. Much later, of course, Thomas tells Martin that the politician threw him out when he refused his sexual advances; sadly – yet ironically – that didn’t stop Thomas from finally having to support himself as a hustler. In brief, the first ‘hands scene’ reveals that Martin pays his debts but is unchanged in his love for Thomas; the second shows Thomas guarding his virtue… only to lose it, on an undreamed-of scale, later. This interplay of visual similarity and shifting thematic implications provides yet another subtle example of this film’s richness.

Another motif, which also cuts against overly-sweet romanticism, is the peephole. With a wink to the novel’s many readers, the first instance comes in prison when a door closes and through its small circular window we see a hunky guy kissing the actor from the play: Alexander Ziegler.

Although peepholes are, of course, associated with pornographic experience, whether straight or gay, Petersen later essentially deconstructs the device. In the reform school’s dreaded C Block, the voyeuristic camera peers through yet another tiny round opening to reveal what can only be called an anti-erotic “peep” of Thomas. He’s stripped to his shorts, but he is literally and figuratively beaten down to the point where one can only feel pity, not desire.

The most pervasive motif is as clear as it is powerful: everywhere, prison-like bars. Not only do they occur in the obvious places (the penitentiary and reform school) but throughout the entire carefully-framed world of the film. Petersen frequently shoots through windows, gratings, narrow hallways, and similar objects and places – all simultaneously realistic yet symbolically charged. When Martin is finally released from prison after two and a half years, Petersen shoots his lonely exit, grubby suitcase in hand, through a bar-like window in the warden’s office.

As we can see, Martin and Thomas are imprisoned wherever they go. But it can be argued that the conformity of the disapproving people around them – from shrill parents to icy wardens to sadistic insructors – traps them in internal prisons, Martin and Thomas’s love for each other, paradoxically, sets them free. But for all of its passion, this is not a film of gooey romance. At the end it asks, Can even their love survive the unimaginable, and unseen, pain which Thomas had to endure? Can there be healing, and renewed connection?

SPOILER ALERT — discussion of the film’s ending.

The most ambiguous – and confusing – aspect of this film is its framing device, which connects the brief prologue, with Thomas (about whom we then know nothing) letting himself slip out of a rowboat into a vast lake, to the final five minutes. The scar on his face makes it clear that this opening is, chronologically, part of the last sequence, involving the aftermath of Thomas returning to Martin, then abruptly leaving. (The remainder of the film, comprising over 95% of its length, is told chronologically, with clarity and power.)

My thanks to Bill N and Lee, from the state of Washington: Bill clarified the chronology of the frame device, and Lee translated several pages of Alexander Ziegler’s original novel, which firmly establishes the sequence of events with the seal of authorial approval (Ziegler wrote both the book and screenplay). Martin leaving the clinic, about a minute or so before the end credits, is, as Bill writes, “a continuation of the same clinic visit we see in the opening of the film. This means that Thomas took 60 sleeping pills and then slipped into the lake from which he was apparently rescued and taken to the psychiatric clinic. The remainder of the film – until the scene with Martin exiting the clinic – is Martin recounting the whole story (beginning with his transport in cuffs to the prison) in response to the doctor asking him, “Maybe now you’ll tell me the whole story,” as Martin looks at the scarred, unconscious Thomas lying in the clinic bed. Lee kindly, and expertly, translated the key passages from Ziegler’s novel (unavailable in English), that clarify this chronology. Lee notes that the book, narrated by Martin, “begins as the movie does with Martin going to the clinic – the chapter is dated March 18, 1974. On page 2 he is speaking to the doctor”:

“You know a young man named Thomas Manzoni?” began Dr. Brenneisen. I answered, “Thomas Manzoni is my friend,” although I still didn’t know why the professor had called me in.

“Ah,” said Brenneisen. “Your friend was brought to us after a suicide attempt.”


“The day before yesterday.”

I could feel that the professor was observing me – as if he wanted to gauge my reaction and thereby learn something about my relationship to Thomas.

“How did it happen?” I asked.

“He rented a rowboat and rowed out into the lake. There he gulped down a packet of Valium and waited until he was suffiently drugged up to jump in the water. Two young men who were sailing by in their sailboat observed him. They fished him out of the water and handed him over to the seapolice who brought him to the clinic.”

He paused and asked, “Do you know why he would want to kill himself?”

“It’s best if you ask him yourself.”

“We can get no word out of him. With great effort we got your name.”

Lee’s message continues, “They talk further, and the professor wants to know more about his background: ‘It’s a long story….’ The final chapter is dated May 12, 1974 (almost two months later) – and concludes just like the movie with the TV announcement of Thomas’s escape.

Again, a heartfelt THANK YOU to both Bill and Lee, in untangling the narrative chronology and for sharing your thoughts on The Consequence.

Yet even with the plot (ahem!) ‘straightened out,’ we’re still left with more openness than most romantic dramas – or melodramas. What happens next? The authors want, and expect, each of us to come up with our own interpretation. Of course, that will reveal at least as much about each viewer as about Martin, Thomas, and their society.

Color me optimistic, but the film provides enough indicators to suggest that Thomas may have gotten enough of a jolt from the freezing waters, not to mention the warmth of Martin’s steadfast love, to allow us to have hope for him, and for his and Martin’s future together.

Intriguingly, the film concludes not with the expected words The End, but with the title, now more resonant than ever: The Consequence. But is what happens next – whatever you believe happens to Thomas and Martin – a consequence of their being gay, or of society’s homophobic prejudice and violence against these lovers whom it regards as ‘deviant,’ or even, on a grander scale, of humankind’s deeply flawed nature?

Through the experience of this film, we now know these two gay men as flesh and blood, loving people, who are essentially not – to borrow a phrase from the first landmark gay film, made over fifty years before this one – different from the others. Petersen and Ziegler have succeeded in revealing the common humanity of Martin and Thomas, and in the process they’ve touched the many people who have seen this unforgettable film

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  • Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
  • Written by Wolfgang Petersen & Alexander Ziegler, based on the novel by Ziegler
  • Produced by Bernd Eichinger
  • Executive Producer Peter Genée
  • Cinematography by Jörg-Michael Baldenius
  • Production Design by O. Jochen Schmidt
  • Costumes by Josef Satzinger & Gabriele Zu Solms
  • Makeup by Jutta Saewert
  • Edited by Hannes Nikel
  • Sound by Ed Parente & Christian Schubert
  • Music by Nils Sustrate

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  • Jürgen Prochnow as Martin Kurath
  • Ernst Hannawald as Thomas Manzoni
  • Werner Schwuchow as Diethelm, the instructor
  • Hans-Michael Rehberg as Rusterholz, the head of the institute
  • Hans Putz as Enrico
  • Walo Lüönd as Giorgio Manzoni, the father
  • Edith Volkmann as Frau Manzoni, the mother
  • Erwin Kohlund as Director Reichmuth
  • Alexis von Hagemeister as Clemens Krauthagen
  • Elisabeth Fricker as Babette, the retarded girl
  • Jan Groth
  • Gerold Noelli
  • Hans Irle
  • Erwin Parker
  • Wolf Gaudlitz
  • Thomas Haerin
  • Franz Kollasch
  • Carsten Naumann
  • Franz Stiefel
  • Alexander Ziegler

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Video Release

Thanks to Water Bearer Films for at last bringing this extraordinary film to DVD. Unfortunately, there are problems with the image and sound – although they should not prevent you from seeing the picture. I know that Water Bearer, an independent company with a strong focus on international GLBT films (which might not otherwise be released on DVD), strives to use the best available source material, but here that seems to be a worn video master with small English subtitles burned in. In an unusual twist, Water Bearer provides a second set of optional English subtitles – huge orange/yellow letters on a white bar – which fill the bottom quarter of the screen; they do indeed cover the hard-to-read original subtitles. In fairness, let me note that the first time I saw this film, at a revival cinema in Los Angeles in the 1980s, the print was equally mushy. It’s sad to think that a film as visually rich is not available in pristine form.

  • The DVD case notes “Digitally Enhanced Master”
  • The film has small burned-in English subtitles, but there is the option of overlaying a second set of large, super-clear English subtitles
  • $29.95 suggested retail
LGBTQ+ Cinema / Jim's Film Website
LGBTQ+ Cinema / Jim’s Film Website

Reviewed September 9, 2006 / Revised October 23, 2020

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