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Ephraim 2

Meeting the landlords of Berlin’s S&M apartments

We talk to the filmmakers who are fascinated by the men loaning out their properties for sadomasochism

It’s an age-old problem: you want to be tied up and fucked on a St Andrew’s cross, but your shared flat just doesn’t allow for a spare room to store cages and five different sizes of butt plugs. This is the problem Berlin’s various providers of S&M apartments hope to solve. Catering for casual and longterm visitors, as well as the city’s sex workers, party animals, and anyone who’s read Fifty Shades of Grey, their tricked-out, wipe-clean flats provide a space for adventurous couples (and beyond) to experiment in privacy.

In Landlords – The Economics Of S&M Apartments In Berlin, filmmakers Emre Busse and Ceven Knowles show another side of these properties that focuses on the owners, rather than the clients. Debuting at the Schwules Museum on February 6, the short film’s subjects talk frankly about the ins and outs (no pun intended) of renting these spaces out, particularly in a unified, post-millenium Berlin: how the shifting space ownership after the fall of the Wall has combined with a permissive attitude to sexuality to create a traditional supply and demand system within even the most fringe activity. We spoke to Busse and Knowles about their experience making the film, which you can watch an exclusive clip of below.

How did the idea for the film come about?

Emre Busse: It just started with my personal experience on Gay Romeo, the online dating site: one date invited me to one of those flats. I thought: “OK, this flat is amazing, with all these facilities for S&M, but all these toys, they’re fucking expensive.”

Ceven Knowles: My background is video art, music video direction and art film. Emre said something to me about the economics of S&M apartments and I thought that's really interesting, because it really hit the note of singular voice or perspective.

Why are S&M apartments so important as a space to play?

Emre Busse: S&M play can be loud and messy: it’s not always a possibility when you have neighbours. One needs to be free to explore their boundaries if it is done correctly. Having a place where there are facilities made specifically for play makes that easier. It also allows for more experimentation when there are different types of furniture like cages, slings, chairs, etc, all available at once. Sometimes people just want to get out of their everyday headspace for a night or weekend and going into these spaces provides that. It also allows for people to do things on their own terms without onlookers, like in bars and clubs. More can be done, more time can be taken doing it, and one can feel safe.

How did you find people to interview?

Emre Busse: I just started Googling it and asking every sex worker I know: "Do you know any S&M apartments?" because they use these apartments, and rent them for their customers. I know three sex workers from Berlin who are regular users. 

Why do you think Berlin has such a strong leather/S&M scene?

Emre Busse: I don’t think that Berlin’s scene is stronger per se but possibly more visible. Leather and S&M connects many subcultures: the sex/fetish scene, the club scene, the punk scene, and the rock scene, all of which are vibrant and alive in Berlin. It’s also about the Berliner perspective. People here tend to not care what others are doing and don’t typically feel imposed upon when a new leather shop or a bar opens as much as in other cities.

All the flats in the film are in the Berlin neighbourhood of Schöneberg, which is well-known for its (mostly male) gay community. Did you get the impression that this was the main market for these flats?

Ceven Knowles: My impression of it is that it's intentionally marketed at gay men, but the people we interviewed said they've had straight couples - they'll take anybody who wants to rent the apartment. 

Emre Busse: They also explained that most of the straight couples are hiring those flats because they have children and can't play at home that well. The other thing they're often used for is for bondage workshops.

Why is the film entitled "Landlords"?

Ceven Knowles: It commands a certain amount of attention to hierarchy in a way. 

Emre Busse: Landlords can also seem sadistic! When you think about the economics of gentrification…

Ceven Knowles: …like modern feudalism.

Emre Busse: My mother always told me: work a lot and buy a house for yourself - it's a lifetime guarantee. Meanwhile, there are a lot of queer people in other areas of Berlin suffering to find a room. So some people are hiring a room to play in, while these guys have these apartments - one of them has four! There's this huge difference in the queer scene.

Why did you decide to put actual sex reenactments in the apartments into the film?

Ceven Knowles: Because it's fun!

Emre Busse: We needed to show people how to use the apartments, the toys and everything. Personally I didn't want to see the film full of men also - I'm so happy that we had this bondage performance with a woman. 

Ceven Knowles: My last film was quite successful because we just put together a party and said shot around them, and whatever material we got, we used. When you're shooting in that documentary style, you get authenticity, you don't get that vague look in someone's face, you get something real. And that speaks volumes about how people use these rooms.