Berlin-based filmmaker Julia Ostertag’s urban fantasy, Dark Circus (2016) has been described as both ‘a sensual journey into the depths of the unconscious’ and ‘Kenneth Anger takes Alice to Fetish Wonderland’. Finally, after three years touring film festivals where it has won a number of prestigious awards, Dark Circus has been released as a limited edition of 500 DVD Media Books.
Quite unlike anything I have ever seen before the action within Dark Circus slips from the gritty reality of contemporary Berlin into a feverish underworld of dark and sensual erotic pleasures, a place of personal discovery and fulfillment where the lost individual can finally achieve their true self. The scope of imagination in the creation and realization of Julia’s underworld wonderland is both stunningly beautiful and remarkably pragmatic.
The Alice of Dark Circus is 20-year-old Berliner Johanna (Angela Maria Romacker). Stuck in a dead-end job with a bunch of selfish friends, a grotty flat and a nagging mother, Johanna resorts to self-harm and eating disorders to cope with her humdrum existence. However, once she is fired from her hair salon workplace, life takes an unexpected turn. Johanna starts seeing strange occult symbol graffiti everywhere and experiencing visions of strange seductive figures, before a night out with her vapid friends ends with her being guided to an underground club by the film’s White Rabbit, in the form of the Dandy (Nikoli Arnold). The Dandy takes her into the city’s parallel world – a place in its own time that is governed by its own rules and bizarre rituals. Initiated into this society Johanna is guided by the Mistress (Namjira As-Sefid) a mysterious woman in a horned headdress. Joining the cult of the Mistress allows Johanna’s perception and self-confidence to grow and as she becomes stronger she leaves her old life behind, becoming more immersed within the occult world of Dark Circus as her real-world outside slowly collapses.
So how did this journey of self-perception and fulfillment begin? ‘When I first started writing Dark Circus I had more of a “classic“ horror film in mind.’ Julia told me, ‘But along the process of writing, I figured that even though I was inspired by 70s occult movies my objective was not to retell a story of evil Satanists kidnapping a virgin. From this point on things became a lot more experimental and authentic as I started to fill in the story with the rituals and with protagonists who I already knew including performance artists who are truly familiar with the ritualistic aspect of their work and committed to it. It’s my belief that we are missing rituals in our 21st-century life and so we replace them with other actions that are often addictive-like Johanna’s self-harming but lack the healing and cleansing aspects of the true archaic rituals.’
There are very strong occult and psychological influences upon Dark Circus. “I had started reading Crowley, CG Jung and other takes on archetypes, tarot, and magick back in 1988 at the tender age of 18.’ Julia explained. ‘The first films that really impressed me were the short films by Kenneth Anger and the Cinema Of Transgression by Richard Kern, Lydia Lunch, and Nick Zedd. Those films show that if you have more imagination than money it is important to find alternative and sometimes even drastic (or radical?) ways to express your vision. And to this day these sorts of underground films strike me as more impressive than a lot of the glossy high-end big productions or mainstream films.“
“Writing Dark Circus I tried to keep my vision as pure as possible to not have it blocked by financial considerations. I listened to a lot of music and traveled within my own mind to find the strange universe that is presented in my film. I literally replayed the film again and again in front of my inner eye. Dark Circus and its characters are the culmination of a lot of things that I have either experienced, dreamed or collected over the years and I attempted to manifest as much of that as I could in the film. The film works as an initiation, a journey to the darker parts of the inside full of epic visions and strong female characters. I’m interested in creating seductive and disturbing images that provoke controversial sentiments and thoughts in the viewer. To me as a director and author, the mix between beauty and irritation is a challenge.”
“Dark Circus is driven by melancholy as well as a deep sense of strangeness and dark beauty. The magic we perform is not superficial and you can sense that. I had experienced people help me write the ritualistic texts. I was inspired by the Temple Ov Psychick Youth as well as the teachings of KaliYuga. A friend from L.A. who is practicing magic helped me come up with the names of the goddesses and erotic rituals. I took spiritual advice and studied a variety of existing cults. I was not surprised (yet slightly disappointed) that matriarchal cults seem to be a minor phenomenon. Or if there truly exist more cults led by women, their activities are poorly reported, like other female activities of historic relevance.’
Dark Circus is a film of stark contrasts. Johanna’s real world is grim and starkly hopeless, the new world she discovers is exciting, seductive and full of transgressive pleasures. It’s a world populated with exotic characters where the dark Gothic set dressing, costumes and wearable art created by Louis Fleischauer and Aesthetic Meat Front are embellished and added to by performance artists and extras drawn from Berlin’s BDSM, Goth, punk, metal LGBT&Q and fetish subcultures. What you see is what you get and human suspension, bondage and BDSM play are entirely genuine and consensual.
‘In 2008 when I shot my first award-winning fiction feature Saila I befriended punks in the last abandoned industrial wastelands of East Berlin and part of Dark Circus is a reference to all sorts of subculture. It is about that attempt to catch a glimpse of a parallel universe (aka the subculture) when you already feel like an outsider in “normal“ society.” And then once you stepped in that so far unknown community you learn, bit by bit, the rules, habits and other codes. And even if some of this may at first seem absurd they tend to feel so much better and promising than that grey “real world.”
“For me, this is the true message of Dark Circus, it’s all about finding yourself by finding out about yourself Julia continued: ‘The third aspect of Dark Circus is sexual and at the same time demonic. In order to discover yourself, you have to discover your own sexuality. In order to dive deeper, you will face your subconscious and fears. And those demons within you might be way more challenging than any monster in a conventional horror movie. In a Bataillean transgressive sense, we are confronted with insanity, sexuality, and death. I refuse to give a full explanation to the narrative of my film, but everyone is highly welcome to come up with their own associations and interpretations and I think this is exactly the challenge of that type of cinema.“
So far, Dark Circus has been shown at around 50 festivals and cinemas in over 15 countries around the world and has won numerous awards including Best Feature and Best Camerawork at the Underground Film Festival in Manaus, Brazil.