Director: Jasco Viefhues
The AIDS crisis has many chroniclers, including those who chart their own death from the virus, but three men stand out in particular: Derek Jarman and David Wojnarowicz are fairly well known, but now these are joined by German photographer Jürgen Baldiga who died aged 34 in 1993. In this intimate documentary, friends and collaborators remember the life and death of the artist, who used his camera to document the queer community.
Like the British Jarman and American Wojnarowicz, Baldiga is a multi-media artist, and like the other two men, he left diaries full of haunting fragile words. These, and his films and photographs are now in the archive of the Gay Museum in Berlin, and here fellow artist Aron Neubert pulls out early photos that Baldiga took when he first arrived in the city.
We also meet other friends who chat over champagne and cakes about the times they met Baldiga. At first, it’s hard to work out who these people are and how they connect to Baldiga’s story; there are no names or professions placed on screen, and Jasco Viefhue is a silent presence on the other side of the camera. It takes some time to realise that Aron is an artist in his own right, and that he photographed Baldiga regularly.
At first the photos – Aron’s and Baldiga’s – are joyous, and they show Baldiga, confident and happy, just as comfortable naked as dressed up in drag. With his elfin ears and his shorn hair, he cuts a striking figure, but all his friends remember how well he got on with people, especially those who posed for him. Someone pulls out a photo of Derek Jarman that Baldiga took when the British artist visited Berlin for the film festival. Like Jarman, Baldiga was fascinated with queer icon Caravaggio, and photographed tableaux of the paintings, inserting himself as the subject. Of all the photos we see, these remain most memorable; sexy, lewd, and uncannily familiar.
He also took pictures of himself when he became sick from HIV-related diseases, bone-thin and covered in dark lesions from Kaposi’s sarcoma. He stares into the camera challenging you to look away. He even persuades a doctor to cut out one of the lesions so that he can preserve it in resin, like a paperweight, though it is stored in a reliquary as if it were the bone of a saint.
Aron’s own photographs of Baldiga are held in the museum too, and in these we see his wasted body in the hospital, morphine drips and wheelchairs gesturing to the artist’s failing health. Aron won’t show us the last photo, an image of Baldiga, minutes after his death. One of Wojnarowicz’s most famous photos is of photographer Peter Hujar dead in his hospital bed and yet it’s not clear why Aron won’t reveal this final picture, but it comes as a relief, and, eerily, as a disappointment.
The film could end here, but there are other chilling stories to tell, and it’s to Viefhues’s credit that Baldiga’s friends are relaxed in front of the camera, even when they are discussing the most tragic events. Interviews are all conducted in cheery well-lit rooms – even the museum’s archive is clinically modern and organised – and this brightness is a little at odds with the darkness of the 80s and 90s, caught so perfectly in Baldiga’s black and white portraits.
Rescue the Fire goes a long way in consolidating the career of photographer Jürgen Baldiga, and will ensure that his work will reach wider audiences. Understated, and fairly low on drama, this documentary is, nevertheless, a vital addition to remembering those who died in the AIDS epidemic. This is witness to a lost generation.
Trailer available here