Prolific activist-filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim was born Holger Radtke in Nazi-occupied Latvia in 1942. He rebranded himself “Rosa”, to serve as a constant reminder to others of the pink triangle that gay prisoners were made to wear by the Nazis – a gesture emblematic of his provocative, regularly controversial approach to filmmaking.

His epochal 1971 documentary Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt (It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives), in which a closeted young provincial man is introduced to a range of manifestations of gay subculture in Berlin, has long been deemed instrumental in the establishment of the gay liberation movement in Germany, and a catalyst for liberation movements globally. This was despite the film being critical of homosexuals who ape bourgeois heteronormativity, for which it incurred the wrath of not just some straight audiences, but some gay audiences too.

Several documentaries probing homosexual life in the United States were among his following works, including a notorious diaristic investigation into the American gay liberation movement, Armee der Liebenden oder Revolte der Perversen (Army of Lovers or Revolt of the Perverts, 1979).

The Reagan era, Berlin-set, punk rock/new wave musical City of Lost Souls (1983) fused von Praunheim’s critical enquiries into the queer lives of Germans and Americans. Nearly 40 years after its premiere, there is a sense that the wider world is only beginning to catch up with it now, in all its raucous, hilarious, gloriously hybrid, trans-representational-vanguard mayhem.

Centred around a squalid West Berlin burger joint named “Hamburger Königin” (“Burger Queen”), and the equally unhygienic lodgings under the same management, City of Lost Souls profiles a ragtag, multiracial group of expatriate Americans, of a broad range of gender identities and sexual persuasions, who work and live together. Melding documentary and performance, campy comedy and tender autofiction, most of the larger-than-life cast play themselves and incorporate aspects of their own biographies into improvised dialogues and cabaret performances. This includes top-billed, Harlem-raised, trans lesbian Burger Queen proprietrix, Angie Stardust.

Stardust’s backstory includes membership in the late 1950s and ‘60s of a multiracial drag troupe, the Jewel Box Revue and, as she laments in the film, being among the first black trans women working in New York City nightclubs… until she was fired for taking female hormones. Whereupon Berlin, ostensible paragon of “anything goes” permissiveness, came calling.

Disenchantment – but also a longing for connection – with an abandoned America of yore is common amongst the cast, which includes putative English teacher and sexually hyperactive trans woman, Tara O’Hara; gender-fluid dancer, Joaquin La Habana, who “thinks he’s the world’s greatest show star”; Gary Miller, a dancer who holds orgiastic sex magic sessions in his bedroom, and the erotic trapeze duo of Tron von Hollywood and Judith Flex. The former is a cowboy hat-sporting hunk who is “not gay, nor straight, nor bisexual, nor tri-sexual” but rather, “simply just sexual”, while the latter is a buxom Jewish woman who hits it off with “another nice Jewish American” woman and with a young German man whose parents are Nazi sympathisers. She also provides the film with intermittent voiceover narration.

The one player not obviously mining her own lived history is transgender punk rock icon, Jayne County, “the toast of Max’s Kansas City, a Stonewall girl, a Warhol actress, part of the Bowie circus, a punk star who toured around every club in Europe”1. She plays blonde bombshell, Lila, pitching her in a frenzied performative register harkening back to County’s earliest days treading the boards, not in front of punk rock bands but in outrageous plays intended to offend, like Andy Warhol’s “Pork” (1971) and, just prior, her own “World – Birth of a Nation (The Castration of Man)”. County also made a memorable appearance in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1978) as “the Lounge Lizard”.

County had combined with Tron von Hollywood in 1982 in “U-Bahn to Memory Lane”, a typically over-the-top stage musical two-hander. During rehearsals in Berlin, von Hollywood introduced County to von Praunheim, who was “looking for eccentric Americans to be in his new movie”2, as “he wanted to document the lives of Americans living in Berlin, to make a film about alienation.”3 Signing up, County brought material from the play with her, including some of its campiest elements, like Lila agonising over having fallen pregnant to a communist, later to belt out “I Fell in Love With a Russian Soldier”.

City of Lost Souls was shot on 16mm film over six weeks, much of it in von Praunheim’s basement. Some of its initial reception was scathing. “A sort of transvestite/transsexual cabaret, it looks dispiritingly like amateur night on an off-day”, sniffed a critic in The Observer4, while Chris Auty bizarrely wrote in The Guardian that “The latest and junkiest outing from the travelling opportunist of gay cinema, Rosa von Praunheim … [is] as much calculated to upset a heterosexual audience as to flatter the complicity of a (male) gay one”.5

Yet City of Lost Souls has become a queer classic and a revered sex-positive trans film text, for anticipating intergenerational, intersectional conversations commonplace today.

A key exchange occurs between “transsexual” Angie Stardust, whose “greatest desire is to be a woman” and whose “only problem is that she has a penis which she wants to have surgically removed”, and the younger “transvestite” Tara O’Hara – a conversation our narrator advises us they are always having. Tara asserts that “We’re the third sex” before asking Angie “Do you think a sex change will make you a woman?” “It’s not necessary anymore”, she insists, telling Angie “You’re so old school.”

“Hush and listen well, child”, Angie replies. “Because of the ‘old school,’ because of us, you can be what you are.”

While the terminology of transgender self-identification and -determinism has since evolved, this discourse is very much of the here and now. Perhaps it was all too much, too soon and just too unabashedly queer, for the critics, the public and the queers of the time, to digest?

City of Lost Souls speaks profoundly to queer people’s practice of adopting a “chosen family”, a common function of exile for non-mainstream-assimilationist or -assimilable queer folk, from those who raised and spurned them. Furthermore, as Matthew Robinson writes, “The boarding house [in City of Lost Souls] becomes a transitional space that allows for the creation of new forms of queer nationhood”6 – a queered place where American/German, black/white, East/West binaries can be collapsed as readily as binaries commonly ascribed to gender and sexual orientation.

Even language is queered throughout City of Lost Souls, with characters speaking German and subtitled in English one moment, and speaking English and subtitled German the next, with mid-sentence shifts in language, and interplay between dialogue and text on screen, adding further layers to the film’s textual richness.

For all its energetic, high camp shenanigans, City didn’t sugar-coat harsh realities faced by othered people in a divided, Cold War-era land riddled with systemic problems and hangovers from Nazism. The racism pervasive in U.S. culture gets good and roundly skewered too. But even though not all of the cast make it to the end of the threadbare narrative alive, they’re all re-united for the film’s joyous finale featuring Jayne County’s titular composition. With verses sung in turn by County, Tron von Hollywood and Angie Stardust, the main players – flaming creatures, one and all – cavort en masse direct to camera and before a growing audience looking in from outside the Burger Queen. It’s perfectly clear that von Praunheim here is celebrating the liberated othered, and not the vanilla onlookers. The straights have literally been rendered outsiders. They are, nonetheless, welcome to enjoy the show… until the curtain comes down.

Stadt der verlorenen Seelen (City of Lost Souls, 1983, West Germany, 94 min) 

Prod Co: Rosa von Praunheim Filmproduktion, Hessischer Rundfunk, Sender Freies Berlin Prod: Renée Gundelach, Dietmar Schings, Rosa von Praunheim Dir: Rosa von Praunheim Scr: Rosa von Praunheim Phot: Stephan Köster Mus: Alexander Kraut, Jayne County, Angie Stardust, Holger Münzer Ed: Rosa von Praunheim Prod Des: Inge Stiborski

Cast: Angie Stardust, Jayne County, Judith Flex, Gary Miller, Joaquín La Habana, Tara O’Hara, Tron von Hollywood, Lorraine Muthke


  1. County in Jayne County with Rupert Smith, Man Enough to Be a Woman (London: Serpent’s Tail, ebook edition, 2021), p. 222. She was later the “patron saint” of the 1990s drag rock n’ roll party, SqueezeBox, per its promoter Michael Schmidt in SqueezeBox! (Steven Saporito and Zach Shaffer, 2008). This was the weekly party in New York City where John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) had its genesis.
  2. County in Jayne County with Rupert Smith, Man Enough to Be a Woman (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1995), p. 146.
  3. ibid.
  4. Unnamed critic cited in Juliet Jacques, “Returning to the City of Lost Souls”, 3:AM Magazine, January 4, 2012.
  5. Auty, cited in ibid.
  6. Matthew Robinson, “Reconceiving Trans Womanhood And Sexual Pluralism In Rosa Von Praunheim’s ‘City Of Lost Souls’”, Another Gaze, April 9, 2018.

About The Author

Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Cerise Howard has been Program Director of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival since May 2023. A co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque for several years now, she previously co-founded the Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia and was its Artistic Director from 2013-2018; she was also a co-founding member of tilde: Melbourne Trans and Gender Diverse Film Festival. For five years she has been a Studio Leader at RMIT University, specialising in studios interrogating the shortcomings of the canon and incubating film festivals. She plays a mean bass guitar.

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