GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
From The Others
Unrated, 50 minutes
Birth Of Queer Cinema
Attention all students of queer cinema: what was the first feature film to include a sympathetic gay character and plead for tolerance? Parting Glances? Desert Hearts? Making Love? Victim? Would you believe that the first such cinematic venture was filmed in 1919?
|Different From The Others (Anders Als Die Andern) was a groundbreaking German silent film that was made during the years of the Weimar Republic. Aside from presenting the cinema's first gay hero almost a century ago, Different From The Others is important historically for a number of reasons. The film was funded, in part, by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute For Sexual Science. Hirschfeld, whose studies preceded Kinsey's sex research by several decades, co-wrote and appeared in the film to deliver an impassioned plea for tolerance and to abolish Paragraph 175 of Germany's penal code (which made homosexuality illegal). The film's star, Conrad Veidt, achieved stardom in one of the most famous silent films of all time, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, the following year. He would go on to work in Hollywood and cinephiles will remember him from Casablanca.|
Censorship wasn't much of an issue during the liberal Weimar era but, a year later, the film was banned and made available only to medical researchers. All prints of the film, along with Hirschfeld's research, were burned by the Nazis when they seized power in the 1930s. The film was thought to have been lost forever but a partial print was discovered in a Ukraine collector's vault in 1976. What is left of the film exists only in fragments and the 50 minute version available on DVD attempts to recreate what is missing through explanatory inter-titles and a handful of existing production photos.
How many films can
you name that come with such a distinguished pedigree?
Veidt stars as Paul Korner, a respected violinist with a secret that could ruin his career. As the film opens, he is reading the newspaper and is visibly upset by the accounts of several prominent men who committed suicide. The news coverage offers no explanations but Korner is able to read between the lines. He knows all too well how Paragraph 175 hangs over the heads of every gay man in Germany like "the sword of Damocles." Daydreaming, he imagines a grand and somber procession of gay historical giants and the queer queue includes Oscar Wilde, Tchaikovsky and da Vinci.
|Hirschfeld is making a political statement but his collaboration with director Richard Oswald doesn't forget to include a plot. Korner has a young admirer who comes to all his concerts. Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schulz) is a violin prodigy who asks the maestro if he can be his student. Kroner becomes his teacher and more. One day, rather brazenly walking arm in arm in a park, they find themselves being followed by a sinister looking man. Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schunzel) is, yes, a blackmailer and soon he is extorting cash from the terrified violinist.|
|Forgive me for giving away the ending but it is impossible to discuss the film, and its influence, otherwise. Besides, I suspect that most would rather read about this movie than add it to their Netflix queues. When Korner's young admirer learns about the extortion, he flees. Korner courageously turns Bollek in to the authorities as a blackmailer and both wind up in front of a judge. The magistrate is sympathetic to Korner but being queer is still a crime and he gives him the lightest sentence he can; a week in jail. Korner is shunned by his friends, and his family tells their son that there is only one honorable thing left to do. Korner takes poison. And so our first film sets the template for a long legacy of movies that ended with the queer offing himself in the last reel. The blackmail plot will be repeated in 1961's Victim with Dirk Bogarde. (Both films argue that the anti-homosexual laws accomplish nothing besides providing blackmailers with a way to make a lucrative living.)|
|It is a given that the film can't end happily. No one wrote happy endings for homosexuals back then (except E.M. Forster but you can't really count him either because his gay novel with a happy ending, Maurice (1913), wasn't published until after his death). But Hirschfeld uses the tragic denouement as a springboard to end the film with one last ardent speech. Kurt threatens suicide and Hirschfeld begs him to go on living and to fight the good fight until all homosexuals are free. An obliviously optimistic pipedream ended the film with Proposition 175 being crossed out in a large law book. (The statute would not actually get struck down until 1994.)|
|This was a bold film for 1919 but don't expect to see the two men in bed. The cues to their relationship are mostly conveyed through glances and gestures. Kroner will seize the young man's arm and hold it, they stand close and look at each other, Kroner touches Kurt's hair. It is also apparent in one scene that they are living together. Veidt delivers an impressive performance but also plays the role as a limp wristed effete; during the first music lesson he appears to be wearing a kimono. He's a bit flamboyant but, this being a silent film, expect the acting to be exaggerated. And the make-up too. At times Kroner looks like Nosferatu in drag.|
|I admit to cracking up laughing during one scene where I wasn't supposed to. The blackmailer breaks into Kroner's house and is discovered by Kurt, who is so distraught when he learns about the extortion that he stands there in a daze and stares at the camera. When Kroner comes upon them, a fight ensues. The unintended effect is almost akin to Monty Python or, better yet, to a Warner Brothers cartoon as the static camera films Kurt still staring into space while grappling arms and legs flail away behind him.|
|To modern audiences, silent films often look primitive, stagy and hopelessly old fashioned. I'll be the first to admit that watching the acting in some silent films is akin to an evening at Kabuki theatre. And this one isn't even directed by one of the greats like F.W. Murnau or Fritz Lang. But cinema was in its infancy and Different From The Others needs to be looked at through an ideological prism. The film exists only in fragments but, when you get down to it, what powerful fragments they are. Look at how this film frightened the horses. A political statement unheard of in those days, it was so "dangerous" that Hitler dispatched it in a public bonfire.|
|It's interesting that most of the fragments that survive are all the gay scenes that drive the main plot. The secondary storylines involving their disapproving families are all missing. It's as if someone had taken just the "good parts" and perhaps held clandestine screenings in the gay cabarets. (By the way, the film was never shown in America.) Amongst the missing scenes: Kroner's family tries to fix him up with an heiress; he sends them to Dr. Hirschfeld to be educated about his homosexuality; Kurt's parents are concerned by the amount of time their son spends with the older violinist. Kurt's sister seems as if she may have been an intriguing character. She also falls in love with Kroner but backs off and becomes their champion when she learns the truth.|
|Surviving scenes include a flashback to Korner's first meeting with Hirschfeld wherein he is told that he is normal. Korner also remembers going to an ex-gay hypnotist to be "cured"and waxes nostalgic about a boarding school romance. We also see male couples dancing in the screen's first gay bar. This scene reportedly caused a few riots during early screenings. Novelist Christopher Isherwood offers a firsthand account of seeing the film, as well as a visit to Hirschfeld's Institute in his memoir, Christopher And His Kind (1976).|
|It's difficult to judge how the entire film would have played when so much of it is missing. What survives is amazing. Even more amazing is its rich history. The onscreen participation of Hirschfeld alone assures its place in the annals of cinema. For those who are interested in more about Hirschfeld, a rather forgotten but important figure in the gay pantheon, controversial German director Rosa Von Praunheim's 1999 biopic about the pioneer sex researcher, The Einstein Of Sex, is a good introduction.|
Different From The Others was the only film to make such an outright political statement but there were several other contributions to queer cinema during Germany's Weimar era. Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion Of Joan Of Arc) directed Mikael (1924), a story of the unrequited love felt by an artist for the young man who posed for his portrait of Seigfried. 1928's luridly titled Sex In Chains (Geschlecht In Fesseln) acknowledged that sex happens between men in prison. This one also concludes with a suicide. 1929's Pandora's Box (Die Buchse der Pandora) by G.W. Pabst featured the screen's first finely drawn lesbian. Madchen In Uniform (1931) took place in an all girls boarding school and ended with the obligatory suicide. Viktor Und Viktoria (1933) would be re-made in 1982 as Victor/Victoria starring Julie Andrews. Some of these films made it to America but were heavily censored.
Different From The Others was remade, again by Oswald and Hirschfeld, in 1927 as The Laws Of Love (Gesette Der Liebe) and no copies of this version are known to survive. Conflicting accounts suggest that footage from Different From The Others may have merely been re-used and incorporated into the newer film and this may account for the truncated version of the film that exists today.
on Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld