Baldiga: Unlocked Heart | QFest St. Louis 2024

The final day of QFest 2024 begins with a screening of Markus Stein’s documentary Baldiga: Unlocked Heart, which offers a look at the life and work of German photographer and author Jürgen Baldiga. Born to a mining family in Katernberg, near Essen in the Ruhr region of Germany, Baldiga knew from a young age that he wanted to get out of there (his sister recalls that on visits home he would pace “like a caged tiger” because life in Katernberg was simply to slow for him).  He moved to West Berlin at age 19 with no qualifications or plans other than a desire to create art. Fortunately for us, he recorded his thoughts in journals so we have a verbal as well as a photographic record of his time in Berlin.

Baldiga quickly found his place in West Berlin’s queer community and became intimate with the well-known painter Salomé (Wolfgang Ludwig Cihlarz), who told Baldiga “I love you and I will paint you so you’ll always be by my side.”  He thrived in the city’s lively cultural scene, enjoying the nightlife and publishing a volume of poems while working at various jobs to support himself and his drug habit, including sex work (something he had begun in Essen before leaving home).  

As in the United States, AIDS was raging through the German gay community in the early 1980s, and Baldiga was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1984. Rather than throwing in the towel, the diagnosis seems to have pushed him to focus on photography, resulting in a body of work that creates a portrait of the gay scene in West Berlin in the 1980s and 1990s. Baldiga took his own life in 1993, tired of battling an illness for which there was no cure.

Baldiga: Unlocked Heart is formed primarily from Baldiga’s photographs and excerpts from his journals read by Maurice Läbe, with some interviews salted in to provide context. There are also some re-enactments, including the opening sequence, which I could have done without, but that’s an artistic decision by the filmmaker.  The journal experts are well-chosen and reveal Baldiga to be a person who thought and felt intensely and found his own style organically, by honoring his own ideas and experiences and the truth of his community. His photographs show a remarkable range, from sexually explicit shots of men to self-portraits (in which he always seems to be pouting) and shots of children and random passers-by on the street.

Baldiga worked in black and white, but apart from that his work is reminiscent of Nan Goldin’s documentation of the New York gay and trans communities in the 1980s. His more explicit photography also recalls the work of another American contemporary, Robert Mapplethorpe, but Baldiga’s style is clearly his own. His work deserves to be better known in the United States and this film provides a fine vehicle to introduce his photography to a wider audience. | Sarah Boslaugh

Baldiga: Unlocked Heart will screen at QFest of May 5 at 1 pm at the Hi-Pointe Theatre (1005 McCausland Ave, St Louis). Information about programming, ticket prices and passes is available from the festival web site.

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