When we think about expressing queerness and LGBT representation on screen, we probably think of something very recent. The 1980s? The 1990s?
It’s different from the written form. Queerness has been written in stories for a long time and certainly quite regularly (if sometimes in disguise) throughout the last century. But the screen is different. And if you think about the history of cinema and the long time through which films (especially from the US) were under strict censorship, it’s no surprise that we should think that queerness must have been banned from the seventh art for decades.
But there was a place, more than one hundred years ago, where expression of diversity of any kind came to the front, where people brought down most walls and found a freedom of expressing themselves that went beyond normal (for the time) boundaries.
That place was Berlin during the Weimar Republic, which was also the site of the German flourishing expressionist film industry.
No surprise, then, that the first explicitly queer film ever made saw the light of day in 1919 Berlin.Directed by Richard Oswald in 1919, "Anders als die Andern" (Different from the Other) is the first film to ever depict a queer relationship on screen #cinemahistory #SilentFilm #LGBT Click To Tweet
Anders als die Andern – The film
During and right after WWI, there was a very serious problem with sexual diseases in Germany. This problem had arisen in the trenches but was then brought home when the war ended.
It was maybe the only opportune time to film a movie like Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others). After the end of the war, which was also the end of the German Empire and the rise of the Weimar Republic that would give equal rights to everyone, censorship – hellishly heavy during the war years – was struck down.
Richard Oswald was an Austrian director who had moved to Germany long before the war. His interests were always in educational films that illustrated a social situation and films against any form of oppression. Because sexual diseases were such an issue in post-war Germany, it of course caught Oswald’s attention. He directed films in collaboration with many doctors, addressing this matter.
One of these doctors was Magnus Hirschfeld, the Institute for Sexual Science founder, whose main interest was diverse sexuality, a theme he had discussed in many books.
With him, Oswald produced the films Die Prostitution (Prostitution) and Anders als die Andern, which was not only a film about diverse sexuality but an altogether beautiful drama.
As the film opens, Paul is reading obituaries in the newspaper and is visibly upset. He knows that many of those men took their lives because of the German law known as Paragraph 175, an 1871 law which stated: “an unnatural sex act committed between persons of the male sex, or by humans with animals, is punishable by imprisonment, the loss of civil rights might also be imposed.” Despite Berlin’s tolerance in this regard, this law caused an unthinkably high number of blackmails and, indeed, many suicides.
That is what happened to Paul too. When he starts his relationship with Kurt, Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schünzel), once Paul’s lover, discovers it by chance and starts to blackmail Paul. Kurt panics and runs away, leaving Paul broken-hearted. While looking at his lover’s photo, Paul remembers his past.
We see him as a young boy, teased by his schoolmates and forced into the arms of girls who try to kiss him, but he’s then caught kissing a boy and expelled from the school.
At university, he finds it ever more difficult to hide his sexuality. He tries to ‘cure himself’ with hypnosis, with no result, and finally, his parents bring him to a doctor.
This doctor is Magnus Hirschfeld himself, who, far from trying to ‘cure’ him, tells Paul that “Love for one’s own sex can be just as pure and noble as that for the opposite sex.” To his parents, Dr Hirschfeld says, “Homosexuality is neither a vice nor crime, indeed not even an illness… your son suffers not from his condition but rather for the false judgement of it.” “This is the legal and social condemnation of his feelings, along with widespread misconceptions about their expression. The persecution of homosexuals belongs in the same sad chapter of human history in which persecution of heretics and witches is inscribed. [The law] is a violation of the fundamental rights of the individual.”
The story then gets back to the present. Paul courageously turns Bollek in as a blackmailer, and both wind up in front of a judge. Although the judge is clearly sympathetic, being queer is still a crime. He gives Paul the minimum sentence possible – a week in jail – but this still ruins the musician’s life. Friends shun him, and his family tells him there is only one honourable thing left to do.
Desperate as he is, Paul takes his life with poison.
Kurt, who’s returned, finds Paul’s body. He thinks about taking his own life too, but Dr Hirschfeld intervenes, telling him, “You have to keep living. Live to change the prejudices by which this man has been made one of countless victims. You must restore the honour of this man and bring justice to him and to all those who came before him – and all those to come after him. Justice through knowledge.”
Anders als die Andern – The history of the film
Reactions to the film were initially remarkably good. The film ran in cinemas for about a year, gathering praises for its ‘good taste’.
But in the background, the protest was mounting, especially from religious groups and right-wing representatives.
The Weimar Republic was a safe haven for anyone who wanted to express an opinion. Censorship was at its lowest, which gave space to many groups that had previously been silenced. Artists could push the boundaries like never before and be both explicit and extremely emotional, as Otto Dix‘s paintings exemplified. In Berlin, you could buy ‘gay’ magazines at the newsagent.
Yet, exceptions were made specifically for films, which could still be censored if deemed to be ‘obscene’ or ‘dangerous to young people.’
Here’s where protesters against Anders als die Anders pushed the buttons. They claimed the film was dangerous for young people’s integrity. As time went by, They didn’t content themselves with protests but acted. Gas and rabid rats were allegedly released into the aisles of the cinemas that screened the film, and the filmmakers and Veidt received death threats. Later, the star would receive hate mail from one Adolf Hitler.
The situation became so difficult that in 1920 the film was retired from the market.
But Dr Hirschfeld wasn’t easily deterred. The message of the film was essential to him, so in 1927, he and director Oswald edited much of Anders als die Andern into a shorter, more academic educational film which they called Gesetze der Liebe (Laws of Love). Since this film was not meant for the general public, opponents regarded it more leniently.
Then, when in 1933, the Nazis rose to power, Anders als die Andern was branded ‘a fest for degenerates which could ruin German youth.’ Degenerate. The fate of so much other avant-garde art. All copies of the film were requisitioned and destroyed, along with much of Dr Hirschfeld’s research.
For many years, the film was believed to be lost forever.
But in 1976, a copy of Gesetze der Liebe with Ukrainian subtitles was discovered in the Russian Film Archive.
At the turn of the millennium, the Filmmuseum Munich restored the documentary. Yet, Stefan Drößler, director of the museum, wanted more. He had the idea of reconstructing Anders als die Andern from the fragments contained in the documentary. It was a huge undertaking that many didn’t believe possible because there is simply not enough material to recreate the complicated flashback structure. But he restored the many fragments included in Gesetze der Liebe and integrated the missing parts with productions stills, publicity photos, censorship documents from different archives, explanatory intertitles and most importantly, Hirschfeld’s yearbooks in which he describes the structure of the film precisely, already fearing its difficult life. The result is a 50 minutes-long film – greatly mutilated from the original 90 minutes but still meaningful.
We know that many parts are missing and probably lost forever. One of these is the sequence in the opening scene (only surviving in a still) where Paul imagines seeing many important men from the past who suffered for their sexual orientation.
Entire subplots are also missing, like the one where Kurt’s sister falls in love with Paul too, but then backs off and becomes their champion when she discovers the truth.
It’s a sad fate that this film should face such hate and destruction. Yet, it didn’t completely disappear. Thanks probably to an accident (it is likely that the Ukrainian copy was used to demonstrate degeneration rather than acceptable diversity) and to the love of modern film lovers, we can at least glimpse the powerful story Anders als die Andern tells.
Dr Magnus Hirschfeld and the Institute for Sexology
If today we walk down Berlin’s Tiergarten, we won’t see any remnants of what was an important, cutting-edge institution that once stood here. Throughout the short life of the Weimar Republic, Dr Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sexual Science).was a place of learning and inclusion, widely ahead of its time. As such, it was one of the first targets of Nazi hate when they rose to power.
Dr Hirschfeld was born to a Jewish family in Kolobrzeg (Poland today but was then Prussia, part of the German Empire) on May 14, 1868.
When studying medicine, he was shocked by the treatment a queer man had to endure during a lesson. This man had been in prison for 30 years because of his sexuality and was forced to walk around in the class, naked, as the teacher explained his condition. Hirschfield was the only one who protested against this treatment, which all other students thought normal and justifiable.
After graduation, he was for many months in Chicago. Back in Germany, he founded his medical cabinet in Magdeburg before moving to Berlin, where he would do his major work.
He was always an activist. His motto, ‘Justice through science’, perfectly illustrates his idea that science shouldn’t work for its own sake but to better people’s life.
Most of his studies revolve around what he called ‘sexual intermediacy’. He argued that between the male and female identities, there are many others that are just as natural, and he fought passionately to bring down anything that criminalised these intermediate identities. He was a passionate opponent of Paragraph 175, the Imperial law that criminalised same-sex relationships between men. He managed to have the law discussed in the German parliament in 1898, an act carried out by August Bebel, the SPD leader (Hirschfeld was a party member). True, they failed to abolish the law, but it was the first step to bringing LGBT rights in front of the law and society at large.
In 1899, Hirschfeld started publishing the Yearbook of the intermediate types, the first magazine in the world to address sexual variation, which would be regularly published until 1923.
In 1913, he was one of the founders of the Medical Society for Sexual Science and Eugenics.Dr Magnus Hirschfeld was a pioneer of the sexual science and an activist for the #LGBT rights well before this was a thing. In 1920s Germany, he founded the first Insitute of Sexual Research #history Click To Tweet
1919 can probably be considered the pick of his life. That year, he founded the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, a groundbreaking institution that preceded Dr Alfred Kinsey’s Institute in the US by almost thirty years.
The Institute ran ongoing research on all kinds of sexual activities, from contraception to marital orientation, from counselling to queer and transgender experiences to the prevention of sexually-transmitted diseases. The Institute also supported queer people’s as well as women’s rights. More than 20.000 people a year found help and support there.
Here, Dr Hirschfeld himself performed the first operation to change the sex of a young war veteran.
This was a groundbreaking work that, though unthinkable in many parts of the world at the time, was appreciated and supported by many people worldwide, from scientists to artists to politicians.
It also brought Hirschfeld into the limelight and to the attention of haters.
A Jew by birth, an activist for many people’s rights, an anti-racist, a communist, and a queer man himself, he soon became the favourite target of the rising Nazi Party, who considered him ‘a public enemy and danger.’ Hitler called him ‘the most repulsive of Jewish monsters.’ Hirschfeld and his mate and assistant, Karl Giese, were repeatedly assaulted and beaten by Nazi squats.
In 1933, the same year the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany, Hirschfeld went on a world tour to explain his theories about sexual intermediacy. The Nazi caught the opportunity to assault his Institute and burn it down with all his research and books. Images of the fire of his books are among the best known in the sad history of Nazi hate for books. The Nazis also seized the lists of his patients and used them to compile their infamous ‘pink lists’ of queer people. Most of these people were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps, where they met their end.
His world tour turned into a permanent exile, and Hirschfeld profoundly suffered from this situation. He died in Nice of ictus in 1935. His health was already not good, but many suspect that grief played a great part in his death.
His partner, Karl Giese, hung himself in 1938 while escaping Nazi persecution.
Dr Hirschfeld is a giant in the fight for civil rights for so many people. Although he is best known for his work about sexual intermediacy, he was a supporter of sexual education in its larger meaning. He supported the use of contraception for women because he believed they should have more control over their body and life. He hated racism of any form.
His words in the film Anders als die Andern convey his cutting-edge position on all questions of sexual identity and resonate with us still today.
He was a man ahead of his time, and it was hard for him to live in his time.
After WWII, Hirschfeld disappeared from history. Only in most recent years, particularly from the 1970s and 1980s, his name has been resurrected and restored to remembrance.
Today, his remarkable life and work still inspire us all.
Conrad Veidt, the star of two worlds
The leading actor of Anders als die Andern is another remarkable man.
Hans Walter Conrad Veidt was born in a humble working-class Berliner neighbour on January 22, 1893.
Being of the perfect age, he was drafted into the German army at the WWI outbreak. In 1914, when he had already started his acting career, he was sent to the Eastern Front, but he contracted jaundice and was put in hospital. When he recovered, he managed to join the so-called ‘front theatres’ in Tilsit and Libau. He was later declared ‘unfit for active duty’ in 1916 and sent home. He always considered his front-theatre years like a significant education for his subsequent career.
He started acting in films in 1916 already, but his role in Anders als die Andern was the first important one in his career. He probably embraced the film message with passion. Married thrice, dad of a girl, Veidt was widely known to be bisexual. During the years of the Weimar Republic, most of his friends would describe him, ‘as a ladies’ man during the day, and going after the men after he’d had a few drinks in the evening.’
The role of Paul attracted a lot of hate from the rising Nazi Party, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this was the start of his lifelong anti-Nazi feelings and actions.
In the same year, 1919, Veidt starred in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari by director Robert Wiene, considered the quintessential Expressionist film and a milestone in cinema history. His role as the zombie-like, sleep-walking murderer Cesare is intense and unforgettable. It set him up for a string of demonic roles in his silent film career.
In 1928 he was Gwynplaine in the film The Man Who Laughs, from Victor Hugo’s novel of the same title. Here, he plays the role of a man disfigured by haters who cut his mouth into an eternal grin. This role is widely acknowledged to have inspired Batman’s The Joker decades later.Conrad Veidt wasn't only a versatile, intense actor. He was also an altogether beautiful human being #history #cinemahistory #Germany Click To Tweet
Unlike so many other silent film stars, Veidt was able to transition from silent to talkies. In the late 1920s, he moved to Britain to perfect his English and covered a few roles in the rising Hollywood film industry.
He then lived for a time in Britain, and once back in Germany, he married a Jewish woman originally from Hungary, Ilona’ Lili’ Barta Preger.
In 1933, following his work in the German film Wilhelm Tell, Veidt accepted the titular role in the British production Jew Süss when he already knew that he would leave Germany for good with his wife and move to Britain. On his expatriation race card, he wrote Jew even if he was not. But before he could go, the Nazis arrested him, and when he refused to turn down his role in Jew Süss, they declared him “ill and unable to travel’, forcing him to remain in Germany as a prisoner. It took intervention from the Gaumont-British studios and a vigorous diplomatic protest by both the British government and the studios to finally set him free.
Veidt then lived with his family in Britain until he achieved British citizenship, then he once again travelled to America, where he started a second career. Before leaving for good, as he knew it was going to be, he sold all his British properties and donated the proceedings to the British government to help the war effort.
He was Jaffar in The Thief of Bagdad (a role that was basically lifted as it was by Disney in their 1992 Aladdin). As it was going to become his custom, he donated a part of his caché to the British government to help the war effort. He was going to do this with all his subsequent roles.
But he soon realised that, given his origins and his accent, he had little chance of being typecast as anything else than a German Nazi, which is what indeed happened. Quite ironically, given his life-long activism against Nazisism and his Jewish wife. But he turned things on their head and demanded by contract that when interpreting a Nazi, that character must be a villain so that he could show what the Nazis were like. That is the case of Major Strasser in Casablanca, one of his last interpretations. Even for those roles, Veidt sent money back to Britain to help the war effort and lived a humble life with his wife in Hollywood.
He truly was a remarkable man.
He died of a heart attack in 1940 and never saw the Nazi demise.
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Mary Sue – The Enduring Gay Legacy of Different From the Others, the First Silent LGBTQIA Film
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The Hindu – ‘Anders als die Andern’, the first pro-gay film in history, was released in Germany 100 years ago
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The German Way – A Distinguished Cinema Career Cut Short