Dispelling the “Stink of Love”: On the Ken-ification of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Querelle”

David A. Gerstner considers the sterilized presentation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Querelle” in its new rerelease.

Dispelling the “Stink of Love”: On the Ken-ification of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Querelle”

It is tremendously exciting to discover, at first slowly and then more and more forcefully, how this strange world with its own peculiar laws relates to our own subjective sense of reality, how it brings surprising truths to the surface of this subjective reality of ours by forcing us (and I am fully aware of the possible bathos in this) toward certain recognitions and decisions which, no matter how painful they may seem to be, bring us closer to our own lives. This also means that we get closer to our own identities.
—R. W. Fassbinder, Querelle: The Film Book (1982)

THIS SUMMER, the Criterion Collection will rerelease Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1982 film Querelle. Based on Jean Genet’s 1947 novel Querelle of Brest, it is a film that all queers should see, take pleasure in, and—as the director suggests—use to create new fantasies for their lives and identities. But the art for the new Blu-ray cover, which has circulated widely online, has raised a few eyebrows, including my own. The image, by the artist Astra Zero, struck me queerly, if you will. When I first saw it, I joked with friends that the “new” Querelle had—in the wake of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023)—been Ken-ified. The polished caricature of the film’s star, Brad Davis, seemed far removed from the unwashed homoerotic imaginings I had come to associate with the film and its promotional artworks.

Astra Zero attests that the image is “100% AI-Free” and hearkens back to the work of George Quaintance and Tom of Finland. Perhaps. Similar in some ways to the film’s original US poster, the Criterion Collection cover art is stripped of the overt, even impure, homoerotic imagery that characterizes Fassbinder’s movie—phallic architecture surrounding bare-chested, sweaty, and unbathed sailors. Yet whereas the original is awash in amber hues that play on the film’s Breton setting, Astra Zero chose to showcase a hypermasculinized yet desexualized Querelle, a golden figure frozen in place, devoid of human eroticism.

As a gay man of a certain generation, I am curious to understand Astra Zero’s drawing: what fantasies—or whose—is this image meant to appeal to? And if this image now stands for Querelle in 2024, what do younger viewers hope to see, to experience, when they finally watch Fassbinder’s film? Will these newer generations be surprised when they finally see Brad Davis in a Bresson-inspired performance as the murderous Querelle? Will they be disappointed? Aroused? The new image of Querelle—a revision of a particular moment and a very particular scene in film and gay histories—raises the question: what is at stake when works of art are cleansed of, in this case, their unsettling stink?


When preparing the production for Querelle, Fassbinder stated that he could not “form a picture of the world of Jean Genet” because “every gesture” in the novel yields “something sacred.” Any cinematic rendering of Genet’s “astounding mythology” requires “a kind of surreal landscape” similar to that against which the text draws the characters and their world. Fassbinder’s genius was to create a Querelle that did just this. The film involves a choreography of gesture and camera movement, creating a dialectical tension within the mise-en-scène. For instance, consider the moment from the film’s extended opening credits when Querelle (Davis), Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau), and Robert (Hanno Pöschl) first encounter one another. Fassbinder’s long tracking shot draws together the exchange of looks among the characters, allowing their penetrating gazes to enfold one another. The cinematic maneuvering of scene and character Fassbinder offers echoes the “cinematic” movement Genet invokes in his novel: both texts immerse spectators and readers in a milieu that brings, as Fassbinder put it, “surprising truths to the surface.”

In 1983, when Querelle landed in New York, Fassbinder’s immersive mise-en-scène was broadcast in advance of its screening through the film’s marketing (posters, books, film stills). The promotional material made available a number of visual stimulants that prefigured the pleasures awaiting viewers in the movie theater. In New York’s West Village, the film’s poster outside the Waverly Theater made the pitch and then made the sale. Dressed in his “marinière réacteur” (or striped Breton T-shirt), a long black overcoat, tight white naval pants, and “bachi” (or sailor’s cap), Davis stood languorously confident against a nondescript wooden telephone pole. In the poster, the low-cut shirt revealed a hint of Querelle’s chest hair. The slight bulge in his pants, his lowered eyes, and his mischievous smile lure the spectator into what one version of the poster described as “a surreal world of passion and sexuality.” His easy stance echoed those similarly enticing masculine bodies that lingered among and cruised along the piers of the Hudson River waterfront in the early 1980s. This image whetted my appetite: Querelle was at once a fantasy and a familiar sight, someone I recognized from the neighborhood. He beckoned me, taunted me, and lured me into Fassbinder’s “surreal world,” where the things sailors do together took place just on the other side of and below that nondescript wooden pole.

The Waverly poster was just one of the images that promoted the film. International variations were readily available for viewing in Village smoke shops and the neighborhood’s then-plentiful bookstores. The French poster by Benjamin Baltimore for Gaumont Paris stood out. In the drawing, we see Querelle from the waist up. He is seated, his lithe muscular body resting against a thick stone phallus, neatly circumcised. He holds an extended, shimmering switchblade knife positioned at an angle that suggests an erect cock. In his 2001 book Saint Genet Decanonized: The Ludic Body in Querelle, Loren Ringer points out that “the penis reigns supreme and this is consistent with Fassbinder’s query into identity.” Baltimore does not hold back on this critical imagery. In keeping with Fassbinder’s mise-en-scène, he bathes the figure in amber hues and places him against a blood-red and maroon-brown sky, colors that reflect onto the shaft of the statuesque penis. Far from Astra Zero’s golden luster, Baltimore’s coloring reflects a close reading of both Genet’s and Fassbinder’s Querelle, in which blood and shit cover bodies and penises following acts of sodomy and murder. Querelle’s sexual pleasure, the delight and disgust he takes in relations between men and the violence that attends them, is conveyed by Baltimore’s provocative imagery.

But it is Querelle: The Film Book that stands on its own as promotional material extraordinaire. Published in 1982, the volume features Andy Warhol’s wonderfully non sequitur cover image  while, inside, Roger Fritz’s film stills present the unwashed, sweaty bodies of Davis and the other sailors as they rest against one another, or lean against the phallic structures we see in Baltimore’s drawing. Like Baltimore’s cover, Fritz’s images invoke the stench of sweat, cigarettes, and sex. Cumulatively, they reflect what Genet describes in the novel as “the special atmosphere that a man who loves men always calls forth […] with its own laws and its secret, invisible understandings.” James Baldwin, writing later from Paris in the shadows of Genet, aptly describes this atmosphere, in his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, as the “stink of love.” There was something in the air in mid-20th-century Paris that homosexual artists breathed into their depictions of relations between men. This air appears to have dissipated. It is difficult to imagine the Querelle of 2024 navigating the soiled streets of 1950s Paris, let alone the sludge of Brest. Astra Zero’s Querelle, in short, is cut off from the “stink of love”; he is best suited to a world tailored for Barbies and Kens.


It’s difficult to underestimate the atmospheric promise Querelle offered a young gay film student in 1983. For me, Fassbinder’s movie was nothing less than a gift. During those heady years, when I was studying at NYU, Fassbinder signified “gay” to me—whether the films were explicitly queer (In a Year with 13 Moons, 1978) or not (Lili Marleen, 1981; Veronika Voss, 1982). His final film, Querelle, did more than confirm for me Fassbinder’s gay cred; it gave me the courage to be a gay filmmaker and scholar. His cinema provided the road map for becoming a young, sexually liberated gay man prior to the tragedies that would befall us with AIDS.

For some time after seeing Querelle, my body, my desires, felt inseparable from Fassbinder’s mise-en-scène. It was around this time that I first visited the Mineshaft, the leather bar and sex club in the Meatpacking District that first opened in 1976 and would close in 1985. Here, the human senses opened wide onto unexplored possibilities for sexual pleasure. Beer, piss, sweat, and sex were the only perfumes that permeated the wooden rafters and the male bodies in various states of undress. In fact, they were the only scents allowed in the Mineshaft; a large sign posted at the door clearly stated: No Cologne. No Polo Shirts.

Querelle’s world, in other words, was our world. As film scholar Al LaValley wrote in a 1994 essay,

Fassbinder gives us a ritualistic atmosphere in which every gesture means something else or something more, a kind of theater of sex, that is not very different in design or dress styles from the leather bars like the Anvil in New York which were at their peak in the late 1970s and which he regularly frequented.

As a result, LaValley speculates, “For gay male audiences […] and especially for the gay leather crowd, [Querelle] may be the one film of Fassbinder’s to live on.” I take LaValley’s comment as both an endorsement of the film’s central position in gay film history and an invitation to live onward. In other words, Querelle allowed for ways to live—and, in turn, to live one’s identity. What makes Querelle a queer touchstone is that it signaled an era in which gay men discovered not merely “who we were” but also, more saliently, “the peculiar laws” that gave us our “sense of reality.”

When reviewing Querelle in 1983, Vincent Canby in The New York Times called the film “a mess.” But what does a not-gay guy know about Fassbinder anyway? As a not-not-gay guy, I offer my reflections to keep Fassbinder’s “mess” in play. More importantly, I make these notes to convey something of the invigorating homosexual pleasures the film unleashed in 1983. Querelle emerged in a particular time and place when the expression of certain homosexual identities infuriated the religious Right and other moralists (including some homosexuals). The images of a sweaty and dirty Querelle that circulated in posters and books offered a rebuke to the purportedly clean world—inviting them to see, to be witness to, the “filth” we actively embraced.


If Astra Zero’s cover for the newly minted Querelle leaves me cold, it is due in no small part to my own formative encounters with the film—my melancholy longing for my own past. Yet the fact that so many people I’ve spoken to seem to share my negative reaction suggests that the issue is not merely personal. Put simply, Astra Zero’s new cover art rekindles age-old concerns about what it means to be human, to have bodies and desires.

During the 20th century, writers such as Sigmund Freud, Georges Bataille, and James Baldwin as well as painters like Pavel Tchelitchew regularly occupied themselves with the stink of humanity and those cultural forces that sought to purge it. On the heels of two world wars in Europe, thinkers and artists were especially alert to the implications of cleansing humanness, bodiliness, and, by extension, identity. Whether it was the wartime annihilation of unwanted populations or postwar initiatives to saturate the continent with all manner of soaps, toothpastes, and shampoos, these thinkers and artists recognized that claims about hygiene frequently masked US-style commercialism on one hand, and cultural sanitizing on the other. A contempt for banal cleanliness took hold among European artists, with Genet’s and Fassbinder’s Querelle a case in point.

The stakes have been raised again in the 21st century. AI brings us ever closer to the dream of the über-cleansed body, a world of polished Barbies and Kens, avatars bereft of texture and sensuality. In her 1999 book How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, N. Katherine Hayles wrote that “in the posthuman [condition], there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals.” Absolved of their messiness, AI aesthetics wither the body as body. With its new rendering, it would appear that Querelle has become posthuman.

LARB Contributor

David A. Gerstner is a professor of cinema studies at CUNY. He is the author of Queer Imaginings: On Writing and Cinematic Friendship (2023).


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