[Outfest 2019 Review] Label Me is Fantastic
Earlier this year, I fell in love with Sauvage/Wild, a French film about gay and gay-for-pay hustlers and sex workers trying to make their living on the city streets. That movie focused on Léo, a man searching for love and intimacy in a world that saw him solely as a tool to fulfill whatever fantasy or sexual adventure they craved. It was a powerfully messy movie about trying to find love in places where it just doesn’t belong. Desperate for intimacy and something to quell the horrors in his life, if he didn’t desperately need the money, Léo probably would have given himself away for free.
In Label Me, the debut film from writer/director Kai Kreuser, we see a different kind of sex worker. One who keeps his johns at arms length and views sex with men as merely as a transaction.
The film opens on two trains passing in the night, their bright lights coming from different sides of the screen and meeting briefly in the middle before continuing on their journey. It serves as a transition to a subway where Waseem (Renato Schuch) sits on a bench, people watching as they get on and off the train. But it’s also a subtle metaphor for the way Waseem views his trade: two people passing each other in the night, sharing a brief, bright moment, before continuing on their way.
His phone buzzes and he looks up to see a German man named Lars (Nikolaus Benda) smiling at him before heading up the stairs. A moment later, Waseem follows. It cuts to Lars’ flat, a sprawling home made of concrete columns and tiled floors. Gray. Dark and full of shadows. Cold. While Lars wants to get right to the action and fuck Waseem, but Waseem has rules. Waseem only does the fucking until his client gets off then he will take the money and leave. And above all, absolutely no kissing.
The rules established, Waseem starts masturbating to get hard and Lars comes over to help. It’s an awkward moment as Lars wants eye-contact and to make a human moment while Waseem sees it as an exchange of services and wants to keep it as cool and detached as Lars’s home. Afterwards, Waseem goes home to a communal Syrian refugee shelter where he has to share a communal shower and deal with bunkbed roommates.
The difference in situations is immediate. Where Lars’s flat is quiet, cold and blue, Waseem’s meager residence is loud, red and bustling with life. Crying babies and loud arguments echo through the paper thin walls. After contemplating robbing Lars, it’s telling that the only thing he steals is a pair of ear plugs so he can mute the frenetic and constant noise.
Waseem probably thought his encounter with Lars was their one moment of passing in the night, but something about Waseem intrigued Lars, who purchases his services again. Lars wants to get to know what makes Waseem tick and over the course of the film’s meager ~60 minute runtime they start to slowly become friendly, if not outright friends.
Label Me impressed me from the very beginning, mostly because of the powerful and empathetic performances by Schuch and Benda. When Lars finally breaks down Waseem’s walls enough to have somewhat of a conversation, they discuss their fears. Lars is afraid of being alone with his thoughts and makes the comment about how loud thoughts can be when you’re all by yourself. When asked of his fears, Waseem replies, “Everything.” Lars takes it to be a more worldly fear, commenting on how terrifying the illicit boat ride to escape Aleppo must have been, but Waseem kind of shrugs it off.
“If you sink, you sink,” Waseem sums it up.
Because it’s not so much the worldly turmoil that bothers Waseem. It’s the fear of his thoughts and of being himself that terrifies him. The lifestyle between the two men could not be more different and Kreuser’s script really digs into this dichotomy. The only autonomy that Waseem has over his body and life is through his sex work. Yes, his body is still a commodity, but in a world of shared everything, it’s his to give. Hence the rules.
He says he’s not gay, but the truth is a bit more complicated, wrapped up in homophobia, both societal/cultural and internal. It’s violently reinforced one night when Waseem comes home to see a group of fellow refugees sexually harassing and abusing one of Waseem’s bunkmates. Waseem walks away rather than face the homophobia straight on. That’s the fear of “everything.”
Earlier in the movie, Waseem starts to put Lars’s household goods (laptop, clothes, chargers, etc.) in his bag with the intent of stealing them. But something stops him. He’ll tell Lars later that it was more difficult to sell the items that to just fuck him, but that’s a lie. What stops him is a drawing of his face he finds in Lars’s sketchbook. Not of his body or his sex, but of his face. It’s a moment of thematic depth and open to interpretation, but I think it’s the first time he feels seen in Germany. As not a commodity. It becomes a turning point early in their relationship.
What impressed me most, though, is the way Kreuser’s script doesn’t give into tropes or stereotypes. It articulates Waseem’s life as a refugee in Germany and doesn’t pull its punches. Nor does it create a Pretty Woman-type savior storyline. It takes some dark, dramatic turns showcasing the very real problems facing the Syrian refugee. While there’s a hopefulness to the evocative and powerful last shot of the film, Label Me understands that it’s not something that can be easily won. But sometimes you have to go for it.
If you sink, you sink.