Film/DVD: review

Anders als die Andern: Paragraph 175
Different From the Others

DIfferent From the Others
Directed by Richard Oswald
 
1919, Germany — 50 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama

This tale of two men who fall in love, only to find themselves the target of a blackmail scheme, is the first film to present a sympathetic portrayal of gay characters.

Review

ImageDifferent From the Others is the first major gay-themed film ever made, and still a work of genuine emotional power. Banned soon after its release in 1919, later burned by the Nazis and believed lost for decades, it only surfaced in a fragmented print found in the Ukraine. The first two times I saw this film, back in the '80s, in terrible blobby-looking prints, it seemed of interest solely as a historical footnote. How wrong I was! This newly-restored DVD, prepared by the Filmmuseum München and released by Kino, is a revelation both technically and artistically. Painstakingly restored, using newly-discovered film segments, still photos, and intertitles gleaned from documents (including censorship records) found in several different archives, the film has at last achieved its fullest possible form. This new restoration contains remarkably crisp image detail, as well as the option of hearing an evocative new piano score by Pasquale Perris. The film itself emerges, even in this (lovingly) cobbled-together form, as striking in its groundbreaking arguments for the dignity and naturalness of gay people. It was co-written by legendary gay-rights pioneer, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, who also has a cameo role. Even more, it comes across as a deeply moving story of two people – two men – who love each other despite the persecution of an intolerant society.

Different From the Others stars Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the 1940 Thief of Bagdad, Casablanca), who was himself gay, as Paul Körner, a famous concert violinist who falls in love with his adoring pupil Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schulz), only to find himself extorted by a beady-eyed blackmailer, and former fling, named Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schünzel). As Bollek's demands grow more vicious, Körner goes to the police for protection. But the harsh Penal Code Paragraph 175 makes criminals out of both accuser and accused. Körner's love for Kurt may cost him his career, his freedom... or even his life.

PLEASE NOTE: Before proceeding to my full review below, you are welcome to peruse the following historical background section, which briefly provides a context for this and the other Gay-Themed Films of the German Silent Era reviewed elsewhere at this site: Carl Dreyer's Michael (Mikaël) (1924) and William Dieterle's Sex in Chains (Geschlecht in Fesseln) (1928).

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Gay-Themed Films of the
German Silent Era
DIfferent From the Others Michael (Dreyer 1924) Sex in Chains (Dieterle 1928)

Historical Background

Click here to SKIP THIS SECTION – proceed directly to the full review.

Different From the Others is not only the first landmark in the history of GLBT Cinema, it is also an important historical document of its times. In this brief section, I provide a whirlwind tour of the social and artistic context in which it was made... and soon thereafter, confiscated. Immediately following this section is my full review of the film.

Germany in the 1920s: History, Cinema & GLBT Life

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ImageFull Review of Different From the Others

Different From the Others struck me very deeply, as I watched it twice in a few days.

Conrad Veidt's riveting performance (from 1919, the same year in which he had roles in a dozen films, including his legendary portrayal of Cesar the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) brings a human face to co-writer Magnus Hirschfeld's reformist zeal and producer/director/co-writer Richard Oswald's poignant melodrama. In its frank depiction of gay night life, closeted homosexuality, the suffocating expectations of straight society – as well as the healing process by which gay people can learn to accept themselves, and their family members can come to understand them – Different From the Others is both a fascinating time capsule and, sad to say, a still-timely plea for tolerance and justice.

Part of the film's impact also came from this outstanding new restoration. Unlike some restored DVDs, which look unreal in their new-found digital perfection, some minor scratches have been retained. What we see probably looks like what audiences saw in the original theatrical run of 1919, tiny imperfections and all. Although many of the major dramatic scenes are intact, the intertitles and archival still photos summarizing missing footage is a stark reminder of the power of censorship.

Oddly, one reason I found the film so involving was because of its strange hybrid form. It forced me to experience the work simultaneously as a film, which I could watch, and as something like a novel. For the missing scenes, we have to read the intertitles and instantly imagine what has been lost. That was surprisingly easy to do because the lead actors' performances and the director's visual style were both strong and consistent. The superb musical score also helped keep the entire film flowing, unifying the transitions from full scenes to summarized ones. Obviously, seeing the complete film would be optimal – but it no longer exists; and Stefan Drössler of the Filmmuseum München has done the best possible job in making all of the disparate surviving elements work together. I hope you will not be put off by the mixed form of this film; this is a work of enormous historical importance but also of real emotional power.

Watching the film, I wondered about the man who produced, co-wrote, and directed it: Richard Oswald (1880–1963). Although I found nothing substantive about his private life, I was intrigued by his career. Richard Oswald (born Richard W. Ornstein) began as a successful theatre director, then achieved fame in 1914 in Germany's fledgling film industry, first as an actor, then as a writer, and soon as a director too. (Oswald made two popular historical films with actor William Dieterle (who would later direct Sex in Chains): Lucrezia Borgia, 1922, and Carlos and Elisabeth, 1924 – both also starred Conrad Veidt, with whom Oswald made two dozen features.) His first blockbuster was an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Hound of the Baskervilles (which he wrote and directed in 1915, then remade in 1929); the profits allowed him, in 1916, to establish his own production company, Richard Oswald-Film-Gesellschaft, which turned out many popular genre pictures, including supernatural thrillers (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1917; Tales of the Uncanny, both 1919 and 1932 versions) and historical dramas (Lady Hamilton, 1921; Dreyfus, 1930). In 1917 he wrote, produced and directed the hugely controversial, and immensely successful, Es werde Licht! (Let There Be Light), which established the so-called "Sex Education Feature Film" (also called "Enlightenment Film") and, of course, paved the way for Different From the Others. So popular was this new genre that in 1919 alone over one hundred and twenty such films – mostly about prostitution, veneral disease, and abortion – were rapidly made and released, although same-sex life was explored in perhaps only one other picture besides Different From the Others, namely, director Karl Grune's 1918 A Man's Girlhood (Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren). This so-called "liberalism" led to such an outcry that the following year all such movies were banned. (That began the disappearance of Different From the Others: in the 1930s the Nazis burned all known prints, fortunately overlooking the one fragmented copy stored in the Ukraine, which was not unearthed till 1976.) Despite the loss of this lucrative new genre, Oswald's more than twenty releases in the '20s made him perhaps the most commercially successful filmmaker in Germany, and virtually the only one who controlled all aspects of his productions. In the '30s he made a successful transition to 'talkies,' but had to flee his homeland when the Nazis came to power. He directed a handful of films in Holland, England, Austria, and France before emigrating to the US, where was unable to establish himself in Hollywood. He died in 1963, not having made a picture in thirteen years. Until there is a revival of interest in his entire career, Oswald will be remembered for this one film – and what a film it is.

Although some viewers might dismiss the picture as 'gay propaganda,' I was impressed by the heartfelt passion of Oswald and Hirschfeld – not only for their (admittedly didactic) theme but for bringing their characters to life, with the aid of an exceptional cast. They originally conceived this film as an exposé of the injustices of Paragraph 175, and to help liberate the "third sex" from legalized persecution and public scorn, but they achieved something more. Perhaps their success in humanizing what was to most people a rarely-mentioned "social problem" is what made this film especially threatening to the Nazis.

Before examining some of the outstanding aspects of the film, let me admit that one element seems downright silly. During an extended flashback, chronicling Körner's youth at a boarding school, Oswald cast an actor (Karl Giese) who looks almost the same age as Conrad Veidt. I found this very distracting. First there is the silly 'age dissonance' between the (new) actor and the role, but also Giese has a much stockier body type than Veidt. And I'm sure that the talented Herr Veidt, with some careful make-up and lighting, could have effectively portrayed his teenage self. He was only 26 years old at the time, and played the boyish somnambulist in Caligari the same year. Now that that quibble is out of the way, I want to look at some of the film's many strengths.

First, I like the way Oswald and Hirschfeld use melodrama. (After spending the past few years looking closely at Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films, I have a new appreciation of the psychological and political uses of melodrama, even when employed in a, if you'll pardon the phrase, "pre-modernist" work as here.) Oswald and Hirschfeld tell their story crisply – you can imagine that this would be the case even if we had a complete version of the film – with well-defined, psychologically complex, and involving characters.

ImageFor instance, look at the relationship between the blackmailer and his victim. In a potboiler, this would be a simplistic predator/prey relationship; there might even be some villainous twirling of moustaches involved. But here, we have an emotionally complex backstory for Körner and Bollek, whom the violinist "took home" one night in the past. (There is also another, personal level for Conrad Veidt, who was himself gay: we can only speculate what he must have felt portraying a "type" of himself on screen.) There is a brief but real sexual charge between Körner and Bollek, both when they first meet at a gay night club and later at Körner's home, when the 'morning after' scene shifts from romance to extortion. Also, Bollek's line to Körner, when he finds him strolling close with Kurt in a park, is telling: "Handsome lad." Not only is Bollek expressing his knowledge of Körner and Kurt's relationship, there is also possibly the implication of Bollek's jealousy. (Not only is Kurt younger and better-looking than Bollek, he also suggests genuine caring and love for Körner.) There is also a brief moment, in the scene in which Bollek initially manages to weedle hush money out of Körner, that the criminal sensuously rubs his hand over Körner's chest: desire, self-loathing, greed, confusion all come together in one simple, quick but deeply-resonant gesture.

ImageSpeaking of gesture, Oswald takes an interesting double approach to it in the film. While Veidt effectively uses the theatrical, larger-than-life body and facial movements associated with this period (Griffith, Chaplin, Murnau), by contrast Fritz Schulz as Kurt gives a restrained, nuanced and surprisingly 'modern' performance (in looking at Schulz's complete filmograpy, I did not recognize any of his other films). The character I most wish we had in actual footage is Kurt's sister Else (Anita Berber), since she goes on the most complex emotional journey in the film, from falling in love with Körner herself, to being disgusted by his and her brother's homosexuality, to listening to the words of the wise psychologist (played by Hirschfeld), to becoming a staunch supporter of gay rights! Whether or not Ms. Berber's performance is up to delineating such an extraordinary amount of character development, we can not know. But at least in my "imagined" version of her missing scenes, she acquits herself, and her character, admirably.

Oswald's use of melodrama, aside from being a popular genre (then as now) which audiences are comfortable with, also works well with this as a "message" picture. Since melodrama is fundamentally "intellectual" – characters clearly, allegorically represent ideas about society – it makes a smooth fit with the film's overtly didactic purpose, of arguing for the repeal of a cruelly unjust law. In fact, the full German title is Different From the Others: Paragraph 175. Many thousands of gay men in Germany were sentenced to prison terms of up to five years under that statute, which had been enacted in 1871 with the creation of the modern German nation. (It was toughened in the Nazi era and later liberalized in East and West Germany, before being fully repealed in 1994.) As early as 1897 the law was challenged by the German homosexual emancipation movement, the first such initiative in the world. Its leader, Dr. Hirschfeld, held that gay people constituted a biological "third sex," a social minority unjustly subjected to discrimination and persecution. Hirschfeld argued that Paragraph 175 did far less to prevent the victimless so-called "crime" of homosexuality than to promote the real crime of extortion. For each gay person prosecuted under the law, another one hundred were victimized by blackmailers, as we see dramatized in this film.

ImageArguably the most effective actor, in this strong cast, is Hirschfeld himself, playing the wise and avuncular psychologist (who is given no name). From just the few surviving shots of him, coupled with the words he "speaks," you can almost hear his voice: knowledgable, rational, caring and strong – maybe a cross between Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Dr. Ruth. Again, we each have to flesh out our own imagined version of the character; that helped draw me even closer into the world of this film.

From what has survived of the film, Hirschfeld seems beguiling both in his one-on-one sessions counseling Körner (as when he says, "Love for one's own sex can be just as pure and noble as that for the opposite sex. This orientation is to be found among many respectable people in all levels of society. Only ignorance or bigotry can condemn those who feel differently. Don't despair! As a homosexual, you can still make valuable contributions to humanity.") and during the climactic lecture scene, which includes an extensive number of slides! One can only imagine how powerful this unprecedented scene must have been for GLBT audience members, and the people who loved them, in 1919, as Hirschfeld concludes, with immense gentleness and power, by saying: "May justice soon prevail over this grave injustice, science conquer superstition, love achieve victory over hatred!"

Another lost scene which I sorely wish existed, so that we could see Hirschfeld's use of gesture, is when he explains about Körner's nature to his confused parents, who don't understand why their son is not interested in women, especialy a certain wealthy widow. As the good doctor explains, "You mustn't think poorly of your son because he is homosexual. He is not at all to blame for his orientation. It is neither a vice nor a crime, indeed, not even an illness, but instead a variation, one of the borderline cases that occur frequently in nature. Your son suffers not from his condition, but rather from the false judgment of it. This is the legal and social condemnation of his feelings, along with widespread misconceptions about their expression." (Later I will look at film's crucial closing scene.)

ImageAlthough this film does not employ the visual pyrotechnics of such contemporary films as William Dieterle's Sex in Chains (1928), or the brilliantly meticulous style of Carl Dreyer's Michael (1924), Oswald does create some resonant images. One shot in particular is noteworthy: Körner and Kurt, after they have become lovers, have a relaxed moment together in Körner's home. This shot becomes a resonant image both for their relationship and, by implication, for GLBT people of their time (and still for many today). Relaxed, the two lovers touch, stand in a shaft of light; yet at the same time they are wedged – literally marginalized – into just a small corner of the frame. Behind them, the deep, shadowy space of Körner's home, seems more constrictive, even menacing, than safe. The duality of being both close and closed in evocatively sums up their lives.

NOTE: PLOT "SPOILER" AHEAD! I have structured this review so that, until now, I could discuss many aspects of the film without revealing the ending. If you have not yet seen it, and do not want to know the resolution, read no further. Otherwise, here we go...

It will come as no surprise that the film ends tragically, at least for Körner. Despite the judge's pronounced repulsion at Paragraph 175, and his respect for Körner, he must sentence the violinist to prison under that inflexible, infernal law. Körner loses everything, from his career (all of his concerts are canceled and he is dismissed), to his family. His stern father hints that a man should "know what to do" in these circumstances. Körner has already lost Kurt, who fled after his lover's flight with the blackmailer (more about Kurt in a moment). Sadly, Körner not only takes his own life, with poison, but becomes a template for decades of doomed GLBT characters, who will almost invariably die – in the final reel, final act, or final pages – by suicide or murder. It is only in the past quarter century that GLBT characters have been given the chance not only to escape a hideous, not to mention cliched and all-but-mandated, death but to find happiness.

ImageTwo outstanding, but rare, exceptions to this rule – which also provide an interesting comparison with this film – are author E.M. Forster's (Howards End, A Passage to India) landmark novel Maurice and the 1961 film Victim. Although Maurice was written in 1913, Forster kept it unpublished (although he widely circulated it among friends) until his death in 1970, due to the very real fear of his being blacklisted at a time when homosexulity was still punishable, in England, by prison. The early scenes of Forster's novel, although set at university, contain some remarkable similarities to the boarding school flashback in Different From the Others; its gloriously but credibly affirmative ending also provides a marked contrast to the one here. Director Basil Dearden's Victim shares a similar didactic purpose with this picture: both want to abolish the vile sodomy laws in their countries. Dearden's excellent film also centers on an extortion plot, but there is a striking difference between Körner and (gay) actor Dirk Bogarde's blackmailed character, who ultimately becomes one of the (still) few out-and-out gay heroes (although some viewers might be taken aback by his life decision in the final reel, necessary for a 1961 audience).

The suicide of Körner is certainly one reason I did not connect with Different From the Others when I first saw it years ago. Not pleasant to be reminded that the very first gay-themed film, like virtually all GLBT-themed works up until the 1980s, climaxes with despair as virtually the only possible "resolution." But watching the film this time I was struck, and deeply moved, by the powerful, and empowering, final scene, between Kurt and the psychologist. The Hirschfeld character fully acknowledges the terrible fate of the young man's lover, but he also gives Kurt – and us – context. His words ring true: Kurt may feel like killing himself because of his profound grief at the suicide of the man he loved. But there is more.

We have come to realize that the title is not accurate. Körner and Kurt, brought to life by the actors and all the dramatic and visual elements of this film, are not "different from the others" except in superficial ways. We come to see them, like Kurt's sister Else, for who they are: two people, who happen to be two men, who love each other, in defiance of society's ignorance and hate.

We understand, and hopefully so does Kurt, how important it is to honor Körner, all GLBT people – and by extension all oppressed people – by continuing to fight for justice. Sixty year's after Hitler's defeat, and eighty-six years since this film premiered (and then was summarily confiscated), some nations are still wallowing in gay-hating swill, indistinguishable from that of the Nazis; but a few other nations have realized the integrity of Dr. Hirschfeld's argument for the naturalness and sanctity of love in all its forms. What would Hitler make of same-sex marriage, or even domestic partnerships? These changes are being brought about not only by the public leaders – latter-day Herschfelds – but by the millions of women and men who don't give in to despair, who keep on fighting for justice. If there was a real-life Kurt, perhaps he was one.

On still another level, I like how the end of the film – even as it existed in its original, complete form – is so open. After the thematically "predetermined" storyline, which clearly served as a way to dramatize a grave social injustice, it feels right, and honest, to have the film open up both to Kurt and to us. On the one hand, we are compelled to imagine, for ourselves, what will happen next with Kurt, now once again on his own but with a new, deeper self- and political understanding.

Yet beyond the realm of fiction, Oswald and Hirschfeld try to inspire each of us to join in the real-world struggle for freedom. Dr. Hirschfeld's, and the film's, final words still resonate loud and clear:

"This is the life task I assign to you... What matters now is to restore honor and justice to the many thousands before us, with us, and after us. Through knowledge to justice!"

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Crew

  • Directed by Richard Oswald
  • Written by Oswald & Magnus Hirschfeld
  • Cinematography by Max Fassbender
  • Production Design by Emil Linke

Cast

  • Conrad Veidt as Paul Körner, Violin Virtuoso
  • Fritz Schulz as Kurt Sivers, His Student
  • Anita Berber as Else Sivers, Kurt's Sister
  • Reinhold Schünzel as Franz Bollek, the Blackmailer
  • Leo Connard as Körner's Father
  • Alexandra Wiellegh as Körner's Mother
  • Ilse von Tassilo-Lind as Körner's Sister
  • Ernst Pittschau as the Sister's Husband
  • Wilhelm Diegelmann as Sivers's Father
  • Clementine Plessner as Sivers's Mother
  • Helga Molander as Mrs. Hellborn
  • Karl Giese as Paul Körner as a Student
  • Magnus Hirschfeld as the Physician

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DVD

As described above, this newly-restored DVD, prepared by the Filmmuseum München and released by Kino, is a revelation both technically and artistically. The sound quality, for the evocative new piano score by Pasquale Perris, is excellent.

DVD Details

Reviewed January 23, 2005

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