Sunday, September 6, 2020

William Dieterle | Geschlecht in Fesseln (Sex in Chains)

dying for change
by Douglas Messerli

Herbert Juttke and Georg C. Klaren (writers), William Dieterle (director) Geschlecht in Fesseln (Sex in Chains) / 1928

If you think by the title of this film, Sex in Chains, that I am about to write a piece on LBGTQ citizens who practice S & M, or a gay tract on motorcyclists in the manner of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising let me assure you that the 1928 silent film I am about to describe is a rather chaste affair that focuses on the heterosexual relationship of the innocent couple at its center, Franz Sommer (played by the director William Dieterle) and his newlywed wife, Helene (Mary Johnson).
      Very much in love, these two are also having a hard go from the beginning of their relationship. Sommer has evidently had a series of low-paying jobs which haven’t panned out for him, and his newest position as a vacuum-cleaner salesman doesn’t promise much difference.
      Helene, although beloved by her father, is left without any financial help (a bit like the new bride in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion—although he clearly has some wealth, at least enough to buy her a hand-engraved cake knife—because they are clearly not being honest with him, and he has hardly met his son-in-law, who the day he visits is working as a shill for a public photographer.
      She has just received an offer for a job herself, but as any typical German husband of the day, Franz refuses that she work. Nonetheless, they are getting so desperate that he finally “permits” it. And permit is the correct word here since this is a highly normative would-be bourgeois pair.
      The job she acquires is as a cigarette girl in an outdoor bierstube, and is already receiving unwanted attentions from one of her customers when Franz, finished with work, arrives to have a beer before the bar closes, his wife alerting him to her problem.
       Soon after, the drunken patron tries to steal a kiss from her once again, at which time Franz steps up and insists he stop his behavior. They argue, and the protective husband pushes him, the patron falling down a few steps into unconsciousness.

   The entire crowd of drinkers observes the incident, and the police are called, with Franz being arrested. When the elderly gentleman dies of his concussions a few days later, Franz is tried and sentenced, despite his clear record, to three years imprisonment.
       Before his sentencing, he is kept in a waiting cell with a wealthy industrialist, Steinau, who, when soon-after released on bail, promises he will look after Franz’s wife.
       So begins a film that, at its heart, is a strong plea for prison reform. Indeed, Steinau (Gunnar Tolnæs), does take care of Helene, hiring her to work in his factory, and simultaneously writing several essays concerning the injustices of the prison system, presenting them to a regional prison representative near the end of the film.
       The arguments against changes in the system sound very much like those speaking from the political right today, outwardly sympathizing with the prisoners, but making no effort for change. At one point, he repeats a version of conservative arguments that are still heard today: “Punishment must remain a penalty. We cannot put sofas in the cells.”
       To establish the unfairness of the system, the director centers most of his film on the difficulties of Franz and his wife living basically without any direct contact for three years. Both are desperate for the sexual encounters they once enjoyed  and, what’s more, simply desire a return to the intimacy of their previous life.
       At least she has her work and, gradually, the attentions of Steinau, at whose mansion, after a night of endless sexual frustration, she shows up at the door to spend the night with him, the industrialist thereafter trying as hard as he might to show her continued love and encourage her to marry him, hoping she might join him in his attempts at prison reform.
       For the men within the prison things are even more difficult. Except for a daily circular march in the prison yard, an occasional shower, and, presumably, served meals, they’re kept in their cells with little to do but to imagine the bodies of their loved ones and the female companions they have left behind.
       One of the men in Franz’s cell carves out an effigy of a female lover from bread and other foodstuffs, while other prisoners carve small wooden creations. None of these activities seems possible for the love-craved Franz. The eldest of his cellmates, in an attempt to calm him, relates that he has seen some men “unman” themselves simply to stop thinking of their lovers and wives, suggesting, presumably, that some of the prisoners have actually preferred castration to their sexual cravings.
      When one of their most desperate cell-mates is killed by the police, a new man, Alfred Marquis (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), somewhat younger that Franz, is placed in the cell. Sympathizing with the handsome young man Franz begins to attend to his new friend’s frustrations. And, finally, when Alfred not only states his appreciation for Franz’s kindness, but hints at his love for him, the movie almost grudgingly moves away from its more delimited subjects and begins to focus on the development of a homosexual relationship, surely one of many that such sexually restricted prison-life encourages.

     If you’re highly religious or homophobic you will likely agree with the Sunday priest’s sermon arguing that the locked-away men should not give into temptation. But at that very moment, Alfred is too busy writing his and Franz’s name together in a beautifully florid hand to even notice what the speaker is imploring.
      Certainly, anyone who might have read that this movie concerns gay life in prison—sorry to say, it doesn’t truly accomplish that goal—can now at least let out a sigh of release. And by the time the bell has rung for bedtime, with Alfred announcing to Franz a few feet away from where he lays, that his heart is heaving with, one imagines, pangs of love for his cell-mate, we feel that we’ve at last escaped the film’s interminable superimpositions of heterosexual longings. By the time that Franz actually grasps the boy’s outstretched hand in the night which—one imagines, but never observes—quickly develops into an intensely sexual relationship, the movie has already clocked in at one hour and twenty minutes. This film demands a lot of patience for a simple male-on-male touch.

    Alfred is finally released and returns home to what is evidently a male friend who either resides nearby or is living in his apartment. Yet, he remains loyal to Franz and can’t wait for his release. When his friend suggests that if Franz is wealthy he might be able to obtain a lot of money from their friendship (a sly reference to blackmail allowed the German law against homosexual acts, Paragraph 175), Alfred looks disgusted and walks off. He, it is clear still loves his prison compatriot.
      When our “hero” is released, however, he asks that his wife, who we know has continued to resist Steinau’s invitations, pick him up, returning him to their now slightly better decorated home (recall, that Helene has been taking in a salary during his years of imprisonment).

     Dieterle directs the last scenes rather interestingly. The moment Franz reenters his home, he opens the front door and walks out, returning the next moment, and repeating the action numerous times. Obviously, he is utterly delighted simply by being able to come and go inside and out at his own will. But there is also something almost maniacal in his visual repetend. We are not surprised, accordingly, when he finally turns to wife to say, through an intertitle: “Now I can come and go whenever I wish—but no longer to you!”
     Horrified by his statement, Helene blurts out, “So Steinau did contact you?”
   When she realizes, a few minutes later that her husband has no comprehension of what she is speaking of, she also realizes that she has just admitted to her brief affair with the man.
     And a few moments after, Alfred arrives with a bouquet of flowers in hand to award to his lover. His wife now realizes, in turn, what has occurred to him in prison, and after Franz angrily sends him away, she opening the hallway door to apologize.
     Although she suggests that perhaps now they can live together, both forgiving each other’s sins, Franz has already gone to the stove and put his finger on the gas. When he turns it on, both remain in place, committing suicide instead of being able to cope with their mutual shame.
      In short, Franz and Helene both prove themselves cowards, he for not fully embracing his own homosexual love and she for not having been able to except a more fulfilling and certainly more comfortable mode of life. Despite what may be its best intentions, Dieterle’s film refuses to accept the new “now” of their lives, insisting that they die for their utterly normative pasts. And in that sense, the director, while tentatively exploring worlds outside of those they both previously imagined, ultimately rejects change, just as the state representative shelved any propositions for prison reform “indefinitely.”

Los Angeles, September 5, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2020).

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