Monday, May 4, 2015

Ernst Lubitsch | Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don’t Want to Be a Man)

without bounds

by Douglas Messerli 

Hanns Kräly and Ernst Lubitsch (writers), Ernst Lubitsch (director) Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don’t Want to Be a Man) / 1918

It’s hard to imagine a film like Ernst Lubitsch’s I Don’t Want to Be a Man being made in Hollywood until the last couple of decades. Certainly there were a number of films done in drag in the US (Cary Grant’s I Was a Male War Bride and Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon’s Some Like It Hot immediately spring to mind), but even pre-code films rarely embraced various sexualities and generational sexual relationships that Lubitsch did in his 1918 short.
       While the film plays it somewhat “safe” in having its popular star Ossi Oswalda perform as the cross-dressing male, once she dons her tuxedo, and enters into the manly fray, the director lets go with nearly every possible sexual “transgression” he can imagine, and all for comic pleasure.
     Even before Ossi’s transformation, the would-be respectable niece of Counsellor Brockmüller (Ferry Sikla), is a proto-feminist determined to be an equal to her male friends by joining in a round or two of poker while chain-smoking, throwing down a glass of toddy or four, and shouting out her windows at the passing male workers to she tosses out sweet “treats.” To her governess (Margarete Kupfer) Ossi represents a new generation that is utterly out of control. And Ossi is only too delighted, when her uncle announces that he must travel for period, to imagine a life without bounds.
      What she has not expected is that her uncle has provided her with a new guardian, the seemingly priggish Dr. Kersten (Curt Goetz), who promises to bring her into hand and force her to behave as a proper young lady, upbraiding her bad manners and sending her off to an early bed.

The very next day Ossi is off to the clothiers to have a new (male) suit made for her, and that very evening she is off to the ball. The moment she steps into male freedom she, now he, is immediately ogled by the women and given privileges she might never before have imagined. But she also must now be prepared for the rough and tumble world she will face in being among her “own” kind, as she soon discovers just how difficult it is for a man to choke his neck in a high collar and tie, and how much push and pull is involved in even checking one’s hat and coat.

     Once inside the ballroom, Ossi the male is immediately hounded by dozens of would-be female partners, nearly mauling the new young man in their rush to the dance floor, as they spin and turn him round like a top. Suddenly, from across the way, he spots her new guardian, attempting to engage a beautiful young lady, and determines to steal the young woman away from him in her little-girl revenge.

     Such a striking young male as Ossi immediately succeeds. Kersten furious with his new male rival moves toward him in anger, but before the two can even verbally spar, they turn back to see the young woman with yet another suitor, and they can only laugh at the absurd turn of events. In their mutual cuckolding’s they share a glass of champagne, another, and another. Kersten offers Ossi a cigar, and before the viewer can even assimilate the event, the two have become fast friends—so fast, in fact, that, in their sudden stupor, they are drawn to each other’s lips, smooching soon after in quiet homosexual rapport. 

Off they go into the night, wearing each other’s coat, as they catch a carriage to….well we never know, but it appears they might be perfectly happy to sleep in each other’s beds. Indeed, quite by accident, that is precisely what happens; since they now both have fallen asleep, the driver has no choice but to reach into their coat pockets in search of their cards, and delivers them up to each other’s residence.

     Shaken awake by a butler in a strange bed, Ossi is terrorized and breaks into tears, the butler telling her to wipe her eyes as if the young man’s appearance in his master’s bed were the most natural thing in the world. It apparently has happened in the past, and Ossi, indeed, does wipe quickly wipe away the tears, hurrying off to his/her own house.

     So too does Kersten wake up in a strange bed, hardly imagining it to be that of his new charge. As he attempts to sneak out, Ossi, still in male attire, meets him in the hall. He explains his appearance by suggesting that Ossi (that is herself) is his cousin who he has come to visit. Kersten seeks his assurance that he will never speak to her or anyone of the events of the previous evening, to which the young man agrees, and returns to his/her room, brushing out her hidden long locks.
      But now recognizing his location, Kersten is confronted with the governess, delighted he has finally shown up. He goes to awaken Ossi, discovering her still dressed in last night’s tuxedo, and realizes what has truly transpired.

      Oddly, he is not so much embarrassed as delighted, for he can now continue his affair with the young man, now his underage young female pupil without any further qualms. Ossi, however, promises that we will have to pay for it, and that she will most certainly have the upper hand.

      It’s hard to say where this film’s sexual sentiments truly lie, for in a short 41 minutes, the work has embraced a libertine feminism, cross-dressing,  transgenderism, lesbianism, homosexuality, and a man-child affair with batting an eye. As I have noted elsewhere in this volume, Berlin in the Weimar period was a wild place went it came to sexual identity. And Lubitsch’s film makes no apologies for embracing the whole range of possibilities available, apparently, to everyone.

Los Angeles, May 4, 2015

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