Thursday, March 29, 2018

Richard Oswald | Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others)

justice through knowledge
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Oswald and Magnus Hirschfeld (screenplay), Richard Oswald (director) Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others) / 1919

Yesterday, by an accident of a Netflix mis-shipment,  I watched Richard Oswald’s 1919 silent film, Different from the Others, which he did in collaboration with the great (and one of the first) specialists in gay, lesbian, and transgender studies, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld.
     This film, starring the later noted actor Conrad Veidt (who soon after performed in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and later in Hollywood productions of Casablanca and even The Thief of Bagdad). Veidt plays a handsome German violinist, with whom his younger student, Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schultz) falls in love, the two of them walking arm in arm through the Berlin parks.
      It is there that they are spotted by Körner’s former college acquaintance, Franz Bolleck (Reinhold Schünzel), who, as we witness in a flashback, waits in gay bars to be picked up before blackmailing his would-be partners by threatening to turn them into the police.
     Although, as I’ve written above, homosexuality was looked upon as a rather benign thing in the Weimar Republic, it was still illegal, according to Paragraph 175 of the German statues, and one could not only be imprisoned for such acts but might surely be ostracized from the society at large. Bollack again threatens blackmail, and Körner, to protect himself and his younger lover, pays; but when Bollack demands more, he refuses, and a trial ensues. The judge gives Bollack three years and Körner only a week in prison. Yet the violinist’s career is ruined, and eventually, in a fit of despair, he takes poison and dies, his young student, rushing to his side, poised to also commit suicide.
      When this film first appeared, it drew large audiences, but it also quickly found social critics, and after a few months it was banned, soon after to be shredded with only a few copies intact to be used 
as teaching aids. Today, restored by the Outfest-UCLA Legacy Project, many of the most remarkable scenes of the film no longer can be found, including a cameo by Oscar Wilde. Yet the film specialists at UCLA have, through documents and reviews of the day, pieced together much of the original filling things in with literate intertitles and even speeches by co-writer Magnus Hirschfeld, which helps to give us a large sense of the amazing excitement of this text. And the film does provide us with some of the first documentary scenes of gay and lesbian bar-dancing of the day, along with some fairly sensual if not sexually revealing scenes.
       Different from the Others is not at all a great movie, and was, perhaps, meant to be more of teaching tool than a piece of literature all along. Yet its deep felt convictions and it poignant presentation of gay and even heterosexual love cannot be ignored.
       Of particular interest is Hirschfeld’s own statements, expressed to Körner’s sister (Ilse von Tasso-Lind) and in a lecture to a general audience of the day. I could do without Hirschfeld’s likening of homosexuality to a male-feminine response, but his early recognition of a great many possible sexualities is radical for its time and still has immense meaning for today’s society.
      As he cautions Körner’s parents early in the film:

 You must not condemn your son because he is a homosexual, he is not to blame for his orientation. It is not wrong, nor should it be a crime. Indeed, it is not even an illness, merely a variation, and one that is common to all of nature.

     And his later advice to the suicidal young Sivers is a monumentally brave statement for 1919, just a short while before the rise of Hitler’s party:

You have to keep living; live to change the prejudices by which this man has been made one of the countless victims. ... You must restore the honor of this man and bring justice to him, and all those who came before him, and all those to come after him. Justice through knowledge!

     We can perceive just how true, despite so many years it took, Hirschfeld’s words were. And despite whatever one may think of the corrupt Weimar Republic, it was far ahead in much of its sexual concepts, which might have shifted all European thinking long before if it hadn’t, like this film, been wiped out by the Nazis. Finally, in Kino Videos short disk, we are able to hear once more what had been so long silenced. Maybe out there, somewhere, we may eventually find a true original recording of that banned film. Meanwhile, we have an excellent restoration of many of its scenes.

Los Angeles, March 29, 2015

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