In the Schöneberg section of Berlin lies the Alter Sankt-Matthäus-Kirchhof, best known as the burial site of the Brothers Grimm. While framed by one of the Brother’s stories, this documentary isn’t about them, it’s about a man whose life has become inextricably linked to the cemetery.
Ichgola Androgyn is a gay drag queen, who used to be involved in experimental art and various other slightly hippie-ish pursuits. Almost accidentally he got involved with the cemetery, which he helped change from a staid, Victorian institution to something more welcoming that is designed as much for the living as the dead.
His association with the graveyard started during the AIDS crisis, when it almost became the ‘gay cemetery’ due to the number of young men being buried there. The cemetery now includes a beautiful AIDS memorial, but that was only the beginning of Ichgola’s work there, as he also helped found the ‘Garden Of Stars’, a place to bury stillborn children. Ichgola specialises in this work, organising the funerals for these babies, and ensuring the Garden is both a place of sadness and solace, covered in toy, bright colours and flowers. He also gives tours of Alter Sankt-Matthäus-Kirchhof and helps to run a small café in the cemetery’s ground.
Garden Of Stars tells Ichgola’s story, as well as introducing us to him and his ideas. He’s an interesting man, who manages to mix the seemingly contradictory qualities of being a bit of a bohemian dreamer and also quite driven and practical.
It’s an intriguing character study, which nicely shows how someone’s sexuality infuses everything about them, but that doesn’t mean it overwhelms their personality or mean that everything they do is ‘Gay’ with a capital G. Ichgola’s life in the cemetery is undoubtedly informed by growing up gay before it was accepted and getting involved in a more free-thinking culture outside the mainstream, which allowed him to look at a graveyard that was stuck in a timewarp and see what it could be. What they have created is something that respects the past, while looking to the future and realising that death is part of life.
With some beautiful images and intriguing ideas, the only downside is that it ends up feeling like there was more to be mined here, both about Ichgola as a person and the cemetery itself. It’s like being given a window into something that should be quite profound, but then being forced to look away before you’ve seen everything. What it does offer is enough and there are certainly quite a few moving moments, but there is a bit of frustration at the end, not help by the documentary’s occasional tendency to seem rather pleased with itself.
Overall Verdict: An interesting look at a gay man whose freethinking life and attitudes have been translated into a new and potentially better way to handle death.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac