Scene Reports

Berlin’s Porn Scene Is Open, Experimental, and Endlessly Fun

Cheap rent and sex-positive laws have attracted adult filmmakers from around the world to the German capital.

by Josie Thaddeus-Johns
15 May 2019, 8:30am

The Ersties podcast team, from left to right: Olivia, Lina Bembe, Paulita Pappel, and Pandora. All photos by the author. 

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

When I got to Mad Kate’s live-in work studio in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, most of the porn filmmakers they had invited to talk with us had already arrived. Amid heaving clothes racks full of costumes, papier-mâché masks, and a wall made of splintered mirrors, everyone was catching up. “How are the plans for the filming session tomorrow?” “Loved that scene we shot last week. It was so hot…”

The group of porn actors, directors, producers, and artists gathered for our interview were from all over. Performance artist, sex worker, and musician Mad Kate is American, as is producer and filmmaker Harvey Rabbit, who works on explicit and non-explicit films. Filmmaker and journalist Marit Östberg is Swedish, while porn maker and sex worker Emy Fem is Austrian. There are a few Germans too: Theo Meow, Candy Flip, and Finn Peaxx, all of whom are affiliated with the Meow Meow porn collective, which makes “psychedelic porn”—short movies that might focus on an aspic jelly ritual or a surreal encounter between a girl and an octopus.

Berlin is a rare, welcoming place for radical perspectives in porn, which is often dominated by a starchy, commercial aesthetic. Films here often come from queer and/or feminist perspectives, and political discussions about labor, capitalism, and privilege are important to its participants. Over the years, this community has built a scene that values a radical, punk ethos, one that frequently has more in common with experimental film than with the more straightforward goals of mainstream porn films.

Berlin-based porn filmmaker Emy Fem
Porn filmmaker and sex worker Emy Fem.

“I feel like people are coming from really various backgrounds and various genders,” said Emy Fem, a transgender performer and activist who describes herself as “diesel femme.” “But they mix it up, so you see the same person acting in different movies with different partners. In the end, after ten years making porn, everybody’s had sex with everyone!”

A flurry of knowing smiles passed across the room, broken by Harvey Rabbit's voice crying, “I haven't had sex with anyone!”

International artists make up a strong subsection of almost every creative scene in Berlin, where the low rent has attracted creatives, many of whom hail from Western Europe, Australia, and the US. The porn scene is no different. “My living costs were a lot less than they were in New York, so I had more freedom to go hang out and meet people and then work on their projects for fun,” explained Sky Deep, a musician and filmmaker, sipping on a herbal tea.

Berlin-based porn filmmaker Sky Deep
Sky Deep.

I met Lina Bembe, a Mexican porn performer at the red-brick courtyard office of Ersties, a members-only, female-focused porn website, near the Landwehr Canal. She was there to discuss ASMR on this episode of Ersties' podcast, where she’s on the team.

“In so many ways, Berlin is much more livable than other big cities, in terms of money,” she said. For those in the adult entertainment industry like her, there’s a clear link between the lack of financial pressure that Berlin provides and the freedom to work on projects that engage you creatively. “If I lived in London, I don’t know if I’d find myself with the same free time to create, and put things into work,” she added.

Also on the team at the podcast is Paulita Pappel, a performer who also directs and produces. She moved here in 2006 from Spain, and described Berlin to me as “the city [where] porn dreams cum true.” But it’s not only about the cheap rent: The city also has a long history as a hub for sexual liberation, one that stretches back to the 1920s, when it was the home of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexology, a pioneering center for research and advocacy of same-sex love and transgender people. Though the Institute was shut down in 1933 by the Nazis, this spirit of openness returned to the city after the end of the war, with West Berlin providing something of a playground for queer people even if homosexuality was technically illegal until 1969. (The ban on same-sex relations on the other side of the wall was lifted a year earlier, but queer people continued to be monitored and harassed by the Stasi until 1989.)

The Ersties podcast team: Olivia, Lina Bembe, Paulita Pappel, Pandora 2
The Ersties podcast team, from left to right: Olivia, Lina Bembe, Paulita Pappel, and Pandora.

Today, the “playground” feeling lives on. Queer porn screenings and parties often take place in mainstream venues, with crowded audiences, and are advertised openly. Plus, in contrast to most other countries, prostitution is legal in Germany (although it’s worth noting that a recent law has forced sex workers doing session work to be registered).

“Berlin has been a place of sexual experimentation and acceptance for many years. I think all of that culture is part of the history,” Pappel said, noting that this extends to the police—while permits are required to shoot in public, attitudes are lax in practice. She offered the example of her friend who had been filming a sex scene in a car in Treptower Park. “Obviously with no permits,” she laughed. “The police come, and they’re like: ‘We don’t really care what you’re doing, but you can’t park here.’ And that was it!”

Berlin-based porn filmmakers Harvey Rabbit, Theo Meow, and Candy Flip
Harvey Rabbit, Theo Meow, and Candy Flip.

With minimal financial and social pressures, porn filmmakers have been able to carve out space for niche, experimental porn that isn’t aimed at making money. DIY is a prized frame of mind in the scene, that allows participants to pursue creative freedom over financial reward. As Emy Fem put it in Mad Kate’s studio, “It's a privilege to have the possibility to make porn without getting paid.”

“The height of privilege,” Marit Östberg added in agreement. Östberg’s work centers around emotional boundaries and relationships as much as it does sex. For example, her film When We Are Together—a queer, short porno about making a porno—narrates her own complicated desire on a journey through trailer parks and sex clubs.

People in the community often barter and trade services. According to the group at Mad Kate’s place, one or two cameras belonging to a few key characters in the Berlin porn scene might be used to make many different directors’ films. “It’s like a small ‘fuck you’ to capitalism,” said Östberg.

Berlin-based porn filmmaker Marit Ostberg
Marit Östberg.

A low- or non-existent budget might sound galling to those who recognize the labor that goes into making any kind of film, let alone one that asks performers to risk the stigma that is still attached to appearing in porn in many countries. And yet, many in this scene see their work as part of an artistic or activist practice, one that is better off separated from the ethical issues of capitalism. “Most of us do porn for activist reasons,” said Theo Meow. “Usually with porn, I don't earn money. I'm more likely to lose money, actually,” he added.


However, as Mad Kate pointed out, not everyone has the same freedom to choose to make porn for free—or close to it. “It’s about what we're willing to live with and what sacrifices we're willing to make around consumerism,” they explained. Sky Deep, for example, is Black, and explained that although she faces different issues as a queer person of color living in Germany, being in an “expat” community also meant she was able to pursue creative interests surrounded by others doing the same: “I was in a privileged position at the time that I made my film, but still underprivileged in many other ways. When I look at the brown POC community here, or just, like, the non-white queer community here, it's not so easy. What's left over after you finish fighting to fucking survive?”

I dropped in on dominatrix and porn performer Sadie Lune who, until recently, had been renting studio space at the Altes Finanzamt in Neukölln. Together with other members of the porn community, she’d been using the basement of this former tax office-turned-office space near the Rathaus Neukölln U-Bahn as a multipurpose area for shoots and meetings. The borough is home to a large Turkish and Arab population, although it’s becoming increasingly gentrified by young creatives who have moved there from elsewhere in Germany or Europe, particularly in the north, where it borders Kreuzberg.

When Lune first arrived in Berlin as a visitor over ten years ago, she was already working in porn, although she hadn’t previously considered herself a filmmaker. She had come for a touring shoot around Europe with other porn makers, and it was the Berlin Porn Film Festival, which started in 2006, that persuaded her to stay. “I was really amazed by the community and that event. I was like, ‘I need to make a porn movie every year so that I get an accreditation,’” she recalled.

Sadie Lune
Dominatrix and porn performer Sadie Lune.

She wasn't alone. Many of the porn makers noted the significance of Berlin’s Porn Film Festival, which Pappel has been co-organizing since 2015, for their careers. As much of a Europe-wide community event as a place to watch XXX movies, the festival takes place at Moviemento, the oldest working movie theater in Berlin, on one of Kreuzberg’s busiest avenues, Kottbusser Damm. It represents much of what Berlin’s porn scene is about: feminist and queer perspectives are celebrated, along with DIY and experimental work. And according to its figures, in sharp contrast to the make-up of mainstream porn consumers, over half of its audience over the years has been women. “It kind of exploded over the last years,” said Theo Meow.

What becomes clear, however, in my conversations, is that the conditions that produced this playful and chaotic scene are changing. Rent in Berlin is rising, and Lune and others noted that abandoned spaces that served as locations for many of this community’s films are being bought up and renovated by developers. At the same time, politically-conscious independent porn platforms, such as Erika Lust’s XConfessions in Barcelona, are bringing bigger budgets to their international productions, shifting economic expectations even within the scrappy and close-knit Berlin porn family.

Sadie Lune's BDSM toys

“I think we’ve lost this exuberant naïveté, as a scene,” Lune told me, noting the effect of cheaper, more accessible technology on creating professional-looking films. “Now everybody’s gotten used to films that look like money.” However, she doesn’t necessarily see this as a negative shift. “It just has more layers,” she said.

Despite these changing circumstances, members of the community stressed the mutual respect and inclusivity remain at the scene’s spiritual core. For now, at least, it’s still a welcoming space for those who are running on enthusiasm rather than experience.

“You’ll be talking to your queer, broke friend who’s really excited about their weird, radical porno concept, and you’re like: ‘Sure, I’ll help out,’” said Lune. “We’re all turned on creatively, politically, maybe sexually (but certainly not only financially), by making sexual, explicit content. That’s the special thing about the community here.”