How we put Berlin’s gay clubbing scene on film

The closing night film of BFI Flare, Drifter is the story of a gay man’s ”second coming out” amid Berlin’s frenetic techno scene. Debut director Hannes Hirsch tells us how he recreated the energy of the city’s nightlife.

Drifter (2023)Salzgeber

Hannes Hirsch’s debut film Drifter follows a few months in the life of 22-year-old German student Moritz (Lorenz Hochhuth) as he moves to Berlin to live with his boyfriend. The relationship soon falls apart, but timid Moritz makes friends and blossoms in the German capital’s thriving gay clubbing scene, experimenting sexually and narcotically among weird and wonderful partygoers.

Shot on location over a total of six weeks during winter and summer 2020, it clocks in at a lithe 79 minutes yet vividly captures the ecstasies and agonies of romance, friendship and desire of a young, chemically enhanced man’s life in northern Europe’s party capital. Such is the authenticity in some graphic scenes of sex and drug-taking that the film often has the feel of a particularly energetic documentary.

With Drifter playing the closing night of BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival, we sat down with Hirsch the day after its world premiere at Berlin Film Festival to discuss the making of the film.

How did you come up with the idea for the film?

I was working on this screenplay for a very long time – not constantly, just here and there. I tried to put together all these stories that were stuck in my head to find how they could be told to a broader audience of not only people who know the queer scene and, especially, the Berlin scene. I tried to connect them so they somehow mirror each other.

Drifter director Hannes Hirsch

It looks like you filmed all over Berlin.

We picked many different places – not even people from Berlin can immediately say where they are. I hate when you come from a city where a film is set and you’re like, “It doesn’t make sense.” I try to give a feeling of Berlin but still leave out corners where people say, “Ah, this is there.” When you see the Wall, the buildings with all the graffiti, you know it’s Berlin. And many of the locations were not actual clubs; we turned places into clubs just for the shoot.

How did you find Lorenz for the part of Moritz?

I was [looking at] many different guys for this character, and I was really concentrated in work in our office in the University of Fine Arts in Berlin (UdK) where I was studying. The door opened, Lorenz stepped in and I was just like, “OK, sorry but please leave the room.” I sent him out and then 10 minutes later I was talking to my first assistant saying, “Who was this guy? He was perfect.” It turned out he was an actor and they were rehearsing something in the same building. I was running through the building to find him. We did the casting the next day.

What does he bring to the role?

Lorenz is capable of changing a lot, like a chameleon. I realise I’ve only seen him for almost a year on the screen while editing, and now meeting him again in person I’m always surprised. He’s different, of course. He’s done a very good job being this shy little guy who dreams of a romantic relationship in the city. He can also be aggressive in some parts, he can be dreamy, he can play [as if] high on ecstasy. He’s also a very good theatre actor. He’s playing in theatre in Munich now.

How important was it to get the depiction of sexuality of the film correct? 

There are many films that show gay sex in a wrong way, how it doesn’t work technically. For me as a gay man, it’s very important to show sex how I think it can be. For example, Noah – the more responsible guy in the middle of the film – was meant to be like a guy who was working in culture, who was reading books; he’s very reflective and very against drugs. But then when he’s having sex with Moritz, he’s bringing this little bottle of poppers. The idea came from the actors, and it makes so much sense because this is how gay people but also straight people live now.

To what extent did any of the events in the film actually happen in real life? 

None of them has happened like this in my life, but I connect to the feelings and emotions that the film discusses. I came from a smaller city in Germany, but not for my boyfriend but because I wanted to study film. I think many people who come to Berlin experience this second coming out, this second change in their life. Who are my friends? Who am I? These are things that you think about when you come to a big city like Berlin.

How did you make the club scenes seem so realistic?

All the extras know the party world, but we met in the morning at eight and started our regular shoot day. Nobody was high. They had to dance without music. It’s not that we organised the party and filmed while it was happening. Everything is quite artificial.

Drifter (2023)Salzgeber

Was it a priority to get the look of the clubbing scenes right?

Yeah, because there are many TV shows that show Berlin nightlife in a very simple way. I wanted to make this film for people who know how it works and they can distinguish: this is a techno club where people are taking ecstasy, and this is an after-hours where people do ketamine. This is the birthday party where people do MDMA. To really be precise – also about what kind of music is playing there. 

Drew Lint was my assistant director during the shoot. He made this movie, M/M (2018), also set in Berlin. Drew helped me to organise all the extras: we had many Excel sheets where we were moving the extras around to move the right people to the right party. So each party looks a little bit different.

Do you think this film could have been made anywhere else other than Berlin?

Berlin is the mecca of the techno world and also for gay people nowadays. It’s the place where everything happens and everything is most extreme in some ways. But I think the queer scene is very connected internationally. Similar things happen in Athens, Amsterdam, London, Barcelona. A little bit different for each country, but still people are travelling. Grindr connects everybody. I hope that the film is also important to people who are not living in Berlin. I’m very curious to see how it’s seen by people in other countries.

How do you want audiences to feel when they see the film?

I want people to find their own stories happening in the film; that they say “This is my friend,” or, “This was me 10 years ago,” or, “I wanted to do this.” Did they see themselves in the film, in a way that they can relate to it? Also, if they don’t identify as queer, then I hope that the best thing that could happen is that people start discussing it, because I would love that my film takes part in the public discourse about queer politics.

Drifter is the closing night film of BFI Flare 2023

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