Beatrice Behn and René Gebhardt‘s documentary The Artist & the Pervert reveals touching truths about Georg Friedrich Haas and Mollena Williams-Haas, who “came out” about their master-slave BDSM relationship and have incorporated it into their work under the world’s glare.
The Artist & the Pervert first caught my attention at Hot Docs because: (a) I am often curious to learn about people whose lifestyles may be different from mine yet sound so enticing and interesting that I want to know more about them; (b) the idea of challenging societal norms always piques my intellectual interest; (c) Mollena’s powerful stare in the trailer caught my attention; and (d) I had not heard of Georg Friedrich Haas’ music before. Needless to say, after seeing the film, it quickly became a favourite of the festival for me. As such, I jumped at the chance to discuss more about it with directors Beatrice Behn and René Gebhardt.
The idea for the film came after Beatrice stumbled upon Mollena & Georg’s story when they outed themselves in The New York Times. The comments there and elsewhere on the internet were judgmental and very harsh. Of course, it is easy to judge when we do not know much about the couple’s history or lifestyle. If only they knew their star signs, they might understand why they are acting this way? But the internet is pretty great at jumping to conclusions. I wanted to learn more about the couple by seeing and learning, Beatrice and René explained how they reached out to Georg first through the BDSM lifestyle website FetLife. It was easier to contact him there than Mollena since she’s a well-known artist and kink educator, who receives many emails or messages via the site or other social media platforms. Neither Beatrice nor René had any idea Georg was such a well-known composer.
They decided to engage with Georg by telling him they were interested in telling his and Mollena’s story. They wanted to connect with him on the BDSM level – to show him they “were serious about making an honest film about a BDSM relationship… through honest storytelling”. As proof of their commitment, Beatrice and René sent Georg a copy of two short-films they’d made in the past. He was impressed by their interest and their work, and agreed to meet with them.
Their efforts were worth it as they set out for New York with their cameras to meet Mollena and Georg. Beatrice and René were the only ones who filmed the couple for over a year. The result is well… you’ll have to sit, watch, and learn through the film.
During our chat, we talked about the structure of the film. On one side, Beatrice and René begin the film with Georg and continued by deconstructing him throughout the film… from his bigger than life persona, as “the most important living composer” to the core of who he is. They wanted to show him as a regular man, who happens to be a world renowned composer in a BDSM relationship.
On the other side, they wanted to introduce us to Mollena (naked) staring into the camera at the start of the film… “Sort of like we are also being watched”… there is a play on voyeurism here that fits very well with people’s curiosity about lifestyles they do not fully understand. Beatrice talked about how people “shy away from sexuality”. She and René wanted to put us in the uncomfortable seat from the start of the film. A great example is a spanking scene in the film that some people said “it was uncomfortable, so we [decided to keep] the scene in the film for that reason,” explained René. I could not agree more. We should feel uncomfortable more often, and confront why we feel the way we do.
Between quiet, domestic moments, The Artist & the Pervert, reveals how Mollena and Georg met. A highlight of the film is Mollena’s hilarious, and sweet onstage retelling of their first date at an event called ‘Bawdy Storytelling’ in San Francisco. Mollena is a storyteller and kink educator whose stage presence permeates through the film.
We continue to talk about how Mollena is “such a powerful, strong woman.” She draws a lot of attention on her own. She is an artist in her own right. As Beatrice put it, “[Mollena] is so eloquent in her language.” As a storyteller, Mollena’s work with Georg on the Hyena piece they premiered in Vienna is on point. This is very personal story written by Mollena, who is by herself performing her inner talk with her very own “Hyena” (her history of alcohol abuse), perfectly complemented by Georg’s composition. We discussed how the premiere of Hyena might have been the first time a person of colour has performed in Vienna. The opera and music scene in Vienna is an “old white establishment.” One of my favourite lines by Mollena is “opera has always been about white people screaming about death and dying… it’s time to change that.” Thus, seeing Mollena perform is like the passing of the torch to new artists, and finally reaching new audiences. The performance itself also highlights Mollena’s own strength of character, and the loving relationship she has with Georg.
Georg is strong in his own way. In the film, we see Georg composing a new piece. Beatrice and René explain, “in a way that is [Georg] being naked metaphorically, as he doesn’t usually let anyone watch him work.” Seeing him at work and collaborating with Mollena, we get a sense of how Georg has grown as a person and as a composer. Mollena may be his ‘servant’ but she is also his muse. Being able to express himself fully has finally allowed Georg to tap into his creativity more clearly. In the film, we even see Georg’s brother comment on how more fulfilled and prolific Georg has become since he met Mollena.
The Artist & the Pervert also touches upon each person’s story. Mollena was born in a very artistic family; whereas, Georg was raised by Nazi parents in rural Austria. Their upbringing has shaped who they are in some way. Their lives’ ups and downs have also affected who they’ve become. Regardless of their stories, they are two people who have managed to meet someone who caters to their sexual and emotional needs in a way that many others have not yet achieved. Outside of the BDSM lifestyle, Georg and Mollena are very relatable people.
I think this is partly why The Artist & the Pervert received standing ovations at Hot Docs. The film introduces us to Georg and Mollena’s BDSM relationship, surely. Yet we see they are an average couple, who happen to get their kink from a very specific relationship style. At the core of their relationship, we see they understand each other. They love each other for who each person is, and what each brings to the relationship. This is why the film has captured audiences’ hearts in a way.
Some audience members relate as black women; they are seeing a powerful black woman on-screen. A black woman who dictates how she lives her life in a loving relationship while still being able to be her creative self. Many audiences “are starting to resonate with people on-screen that aren’t typical characters,” suggests Beatrice. In Toronto, there was “more political feedback during the Q&As” – these post-screening Q&A sessions were like “therapy sessions.”
Beatrice and René have done a lot of work for the film. From outreach, hours of camera work, “emotional editing”, and now traveling with it to various festivals. As their first feature documentary, I’d venture to say they are off to a great start. A testament of their hard work through the film and at Hot Docs, we see that Georg and Mollena are very supportive of the film. They attend screenings whenever they can, and also engage with the audiences well after the screening has ended.
The Artist & the Pervert achieves a lot in a short amount of time. We meet people like ourselves living a life that is not so unlike our own. Irrespective of sexual preferences, I think the film is about self-affirmation and self-determination in the context of a loving relationship.
The Artist & the Pervert continues its festival tour at the Holland Festival. This will prove to be very interesting since it will present Georg in a different light to very “artsy audiences.” Much success to Beatrice, René, Georg, and Mollena!
Photography by Trevor Sherwin of Provocateur Images.