Kino’s unusual series spotlights German silent gay-themed cinema
Kino on Video, with Filmmuseum Müenchen, has done the right thing for film history in issuing three DVDs billed as “Gay-Themed Films of the German Silent Era.” They vary in artistry, but as documents of society and its values, their value is immeasurable. Richard Oswald’s Different from the Others (1919) may be the oldest “gay movie” of feature length in existence. Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s Michael (1924) offers a look at a rare silent work of one of the cinema’s leading directors. And William Dieterle’s Sex in Chains (1928) has a candid story of prison love, a subject that would be taboo for years to come.
Different from the Others is the most rewarding of the three new old relics of Weimarian queer cinema. Michael and Sex in Chains portray homosexuality circuitously, through art and incarceration, respectively. Different from the Others, as the name implies, addresses same-sex love with the head-on commitment of a speeding bus. The result is a template of a century’s worth of gay stereotyping, politics, family relations, history, relationships, and medicine.
Different from the Others is an altogether fascinating spectacle. By way of latent pride, we’re introduced to Leonardo, Tchaikovsky, and Wilde. We see a gay bar populated by swishing men and butch women. As concert pianist Paul Körner, thin and pale Conrad Veidt assumes effeminate poses suggesting one of nature’s intermediary sexes, but the point of his essential nature is not lost. Just as his romance with a student catches fire, he is threatened with blackmail. Germany’s notorious anti-gay Paragraph 175 promises to ruin him.
It’s a pity that Different from the Others doesn’t survive in total. Huge chunks of narrative are supplied by modern intertitles and still photos. Considering that Different from the Others was banned soon after its release, and the Nazis believed they had destroyed all existing prints and negatives, the survival of any footage is something of a miracle. Indeed, Oswald’s 1927 remake, The Laws of Love, is believed to be entirely lost.
Of course Different from the Others heaves under passé acting styles and over-applied make-up, but its unveiling of ill-fated love amidst intolerance is all too plausible and contemporary. But even that asset can’t compete with its unimpeachable historic value. Any movie that features psychologist and early gay liberationist Magnus Hirschfeld playing himself and propagandizing on history, sexual orientation, and gender roles deserves the highest priority for restoration and preservation. Different from the Others‘ outrage at political and social injustice is as confrontational and compassionate as anything produced on film in the intervening decades.
Adapted from a 1902 novel and the myth of Jupiter and Ganymede, Michael is foremost a pretty movie, lit with great care to create a silvery aura of long-ago exoticism. Visual artist Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) adores his protégé Michael (Walter Slezak), but complications arise when the Princess Zamikoff (Nora Gregor) comes between them. Michael is a movie of few incidents, languid and tableauesque. It has an admirable engagement with art and creativity, while the homosexual content is subdued. In fact, according to the arid but informative commentary of film historian Casper Tybjerg, some choose not to see any erotic subtext. That strikes me as silly. If the Master’s obsession with Michael isn’t carnal, the plot veers into meaninglessness. The presence of the Countess works only in the context of her compromising an already charged relationship between the two men.
Michael was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, a man guaranteed a place in the film pantheon with The Passion of Joan of Arc. Unlike that masterpiece, Michael is not altogether satisfying dramatically. It relies on being visually sumptuous, while the characters remain distant. But it is the progenitor of a familiar genre of shame — the unrequited gay love story in which someone fatally crashes upon the rocky shores of passion. The survivor lands safely in heterosexualand, thereby reminding us of the sorry condition of the lavender male in movie history.
Sex in Chains (1928) was directed by and starred William Dieterle, who later made his name in Hollywood directing The Life of Emile Zola, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Portrait of Jennie. Sex in Chains is far removed from the rose-color sensibility of Production Code Hollywood; it dared to confront prison homosexuality. In fact, we’re told so in the first intertitle, so we may gird ourselves for a dose of realism. Not that Sex in Chains couldn’t have benefitted from higher production values. Though four years younger, it is visually more crude and less adventurous than the shimmering Michael. The acting, too, has too many moments of bug-eyed melodrama, and the score by Pasquale Perris is stultifying and generic. At times Sex in Chains looks amateurish, but then it surprises with a lyrical close-up or jump cut.
Sex in Chains is a braver and more honest prison movie than so many that came in its wake. It had the guts to treat what Midnight Express wouldn’t touch 50 years later: that men behind bars have sex with each other and even fall in love. Life may be miserable for those on the outside, too. Lovely Mary Johnson as the wife of inmate Dieterle has her own case of sexual deprivation as she surrenders to the advances of her kindly but unappealing boss.
Sex in Chains (such a lurid title!) is worth seeing because of its content, not its artistry. The restoration is watchable, but print scratches remain and faces are occasionally washed out to the point of being unidentifiable. But like Different from the Others and Michael, it could so easily have been dust by now. The once censured Sex in Chains was another unlikely survivor of World War II, and for that we may give thanks.