Out of the Celluloid Closet

Flaming Ears is a Queer Dystopian Romp Through an Uncertain Future

· Updated on October 4, 2023

The year is 2700. The city of Asche is a dystopian dump. It is the dawn of the dykes.

The bold and outlandish Austrian cult classic Flaming Ears has languished in obscurity since its release in 1991. But thanks to a stunning new restoration and release from Kino Lorber (and currently playing on Criterion Channel) this jaw-dropping Super8 film can finally be seen and believed on a global scale.

Less of a narrative film and more of a burlesque wandering through a lesbian wasteland, Flaming Ears barely has an intelligible plot. Instead, we follow three women as their stories and lives intertwine. There’s Volley (Ursula Purrer), a radical pyro-sadist. She blows up a printing press, which belongs to Spy (Susanna Heilmayr), a libertine poet-comic book artist who vows revenge on Volley. But before she can exact her plan, she’s beaten and taken in by Nun (A. Hans Schierl), an androgynous alien who looks like she’s from the same planet as the “Oops! (I Did It Again)” video. The three become entangled in a love-hate triangle that will push social and cinematic conventions to the ledge.

Flaming Ears burns incandescently with queer ingenuity from start to finish. In its under-90-minute runtime, we encounter practical, miniature, and stop-motion effects. The storytelling and gloriously grimy world recall other abstract films like Mad God (2022) or The City of Lost Children (1995) that would come years later. Unlike these films, however, Flaming Ears combines its open-world adventure with a radical and angry lesbian queerness to imagine a wholly different world.

Though the city of Asche is built on domination and submission, the collective directorial effort of the cast transforms this power dialectic into something genuinely kinky. Its world, made almost entirely of women, disperses power amongst groups and factions rather than a top-down hierarchy. Power and control become relational, as does gender, and can change any time. Their visual and meta-visual world imagines not just the aesthetics of a different world, but how that world would work and operate if it were genuinely queer.

Flaming Ears burns incandescently with queer ingenuity from start to finish.

Asche is a wonderland that gets curiouser and curiouser the deeper we go. We notice more and more of the handmade qualities, the rough-hewn pieces that somehow fit within Flaming Ears’ frayed and imaginative world. Though this independent film has a visibly modest budget, it maximizes the talents of its collaborators. It uses these constraints to its advantage when creating the distressed mise-en-scene of the city. It is a world made of and by queer resourcefulness that dares to use what little is available to create something that defies the norm.

Kino Lorber rightly celebrates this inventiveness by including three shocking short films which showcase the crude and evocative performance art made by the women involved at the end of the 1980s. Screening them together with Flaming Ears, we can see the intention behind the torture, humiliation, and piss play that would define the world of the feature film. As gory as they are, these unique features help us see that they are not without pattern, rhyme, or reason.

What keeps our jaws earthbound throughout the entirety of Flaming Ears is the unmistakable sense of intention. Here is a group of women artists who came together as The Cold War was ripping European society apart, injected their rage and their queerness to create a new world order that runs contrary to the masculine capitalist one that was calcifying around them. Their emphatically collaborative work is a lucid feat of daring that remains as fresh and effectively “in your face” as ever. If “the revolution of love is bloody,” then Flaming Ears is a rich and violently queer work that brings the revolution to the cinema in ways that would make much of the New Queer Cinema canon blush and squirm.♦

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