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The Prince on the Silver Screen, Part 2

by Caspar Wintermans in Films & Books , 27 maart 2015

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Shortly after World War I, Father Mathias Marinus van Grinsven traveled the recently proclaimed Weimar Republic. A catholic trade unionist poured his heart out on a train compartment. Ever since the emperor had been kicked out, Germany had not been doing well.

“They do not take God and His Commandments into account any more,” Van Grinsven was told. “In theaters and cinemas, usually crowded, they are showing prostitution in all its lewdness, even propagating the most unnatural of sins. They are impertinent. Impudence triumphs.”

In the defeated, exhausted and traumatized country, censorship had been abolished, and cinematographers took advantage of the opportunity offered to them to fill the need for much-needed entertainment without interference from the government. Films such as “Die Nackten,” “Das Paradis der Dirnen,” “Sklaven der Sinnlichkeit” and “Hyänen der Lust” were huge box office hits.

Director Richard Oswald, however, wanted to offer more than just pastime. He recognized the educational possibilities of the medium, and contacted the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld to work with him on a film that would advocate equality of and sympathy for homosexuals. It was unheard of.

Hirschfeld was both famous and infamous. In 1897, he was the co-founder of the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäre Komitee [Scientific-Humanitarian Committee], the committee which (in vain) campaigned to have paragraph 175 abolished. This was the article in the Criminal Code that made sex between men punishable (with the exception of mutual masturbation).

According to the doctor, “Uranians” were “the third sex.” Their orientation was congenital, not acquired; their right to love and physical expression was just as fundamental as that of heterosexuals. This minority was not inferior. It was high time that they, after centuries of persecution by Church and State, should be stricken from the black books. Scorn and discrimination should be put to a stop, just as the extortion of homosexuals in Germany and elsewhere should become a thing of the past. That was the message of Oswald’s film, “Anders als die Andern” [Different from the Others], which premiered on May 31, 1919 in Berlin.

Not Criminal or Sick

The main character is violin virtuoso Paul Körner (played by Conrad Veidt). He loves his young apprentice, Kurt Sivers, who is unaware of his teacher’s orientation. His teacher limits his signs of affection to an occasional hug; he sublimates his desires. Eros just moves on the pedagogical level.

A flashback shows that Körner’s “being different” has already got him into trouble in his childhood. At boarding school he protected a bullied friend; when he embraced him in the dorm, they were caught by a teacher, who arranged Paul’s (in sailor suit) expulsion. As a student, he focused on his exams; girls of pleasure who were introduced by his fellow students tried their charms on him in vain, and even a hypnotist could not “cure” the musician from his homosexuality.

Visiting a psychiatrist - played by Hirschfeld himself - was more helpful. He assured him that he was neither a criminal nor sick, and encouraged him to make something of his life.

Unfortunately Franz Bollek now puts a spoke in his wheels. Körner once tried to seduce him, and now the criminal blackmails him, even though they never had sex. Bollek tells Kurt Sivers that Körner is “perverted” and insinuates that there are sinister intentions behind his kindness. Shocked, the boy breaks off contact with his teacher. Körner then sues Bollek for extortion, but is put in jail himself, which means the end of his career. He commits suicide; Kurt rushes to the scene and wants to follow his example, but Hirschfeld urges him to fight for gay emancipation.

‘Psychological Queasiness’

The film came as a bomb shell. In some cinemas, tears of emotion were shed. Hirschfeld received numerous letters from uranians who felt comforted and strengthened, announcing their coming out to their family. Thousands of visitors were touched by what Hirschfeld had proclaimed in a key scene: “May science triumph over prejudice, justice over injustice, and the love of men over misanthropy!” But not everyone was pleased with this enlightened information. There even were some riots.

“Should we Germans be tainted by Jews? How dare they show us something like that? Where is the science in this?” someone shouted in a theater, and attendants had to intervene to remove the agitators. The reviewer of the Frankfurter Zeitung claimed that “Anders als die Andern” gave him “psychological queasiness,” while a professor of art history - a subject that is all about observation - labeled the film “very indecent” without having seen it. He was told that during a screening in the capital, some soldiers “who certainly were not the most prudish lot,” left the theater under protest, “accompanied by the smiles of alien visitors who ostentatiously remained seated to enjoy this delicacy up to the end.”

These quotes show that a clear connection was made between the theme of the film and the makers. For: Oswald was Jewish. Hirschfeld was Jewish. Sodomy was “typically Jewish.” “Our dear Jews,” a Hamburg newspaper wrote, “are ‘different from the others’”! Besides this blatant racism, ultra-nationalism also played a significant part in the criticism to which the director and medical advisor were exposed. In the aforementioned scene, Hirschfeld had pointed out that the Code Napoléon allowed practicing homosexuality.

That reasoning is watertight, but to praise arch enemy France as an example to be followed, infuriated people. This “decadent” country had got the better of the Germans after one of the most horrific wars in history. French troops were occupying the left bank of the Rhine, and in a time in which the decimated male population should be concentrating on reproduction for future revenge, the (pacifist!) fool Hirschfeld was asking for sympathy for those sterile perverts, also claiming the great king of Prussia, Frederick the Second, was one of them. That was going too far.

Hirschfeld experienced how much he was hated first-hand. After a lecture in Munich, he was spat at on the street, pelted with stones, and beaten, after which he had to stay in hospital for a week to recover from his concussion. Newspapers reported his death, and later rectified these reports. “Ill weeds grow apace,” “Die Jugendzeitung” regretfully noted.

When the doctor was discharged from the hospital, censorship had already been reintroduced. The government had, also because of the fuss “Anders als die Andern” caused, decided to establish a film classification board on April 15, 1920. It was quick to prohibit the screening of Oswald’s pioneering work. The sexologist Albert Moll was pleased with this decision. He wrote that the film suggests that homosexuality is something normal, yes, even “desirable.” It was dangerous to young people who might be encouraged to “chose” a homosexual existence after seeing the film.

It was the same argument that was used in The Netherlands to oppose screenings of the film. A journalist warned that it “was possible that this tendency was contagious, that a non-direct homosexually inclined or a weak unaware homosexual would develop to such a state, which will surely rob the individual, however they may try to create a sympathetic public opinion, of a healthy life.”

Much Ado in The Hague

Remarkably, “Anders als die Andern” could be seen in the Rotterdam Astoria Theater for a period of two weeks in January 1920 without any problems, in Amsterdam even three weeks. In The Hague in the Centraaltheater, the film was first shown to police officials and doctors; mayor Patijn, who was also invited, was unable to attend. Jacob Anton Schorer Esq., Hirschfeld’s ally and founder of the Dutch branch of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, gave an introduction in which he assured the attendees that the film “contained nothing extra-sensational, nothing indecent,” and that people who would be looking for “stimulation of the senses would be disappointed,” and hoped that the film would draw attention to a great injustice that is inflicted on homosexuals because of “wrong legislation.” The projector was started, and the film was approved.

However, after one screening, the mayor decided to ban the “social-hygienic drama” after all. Mayor Patijn used article 188 of the local government act, which gave him the power to intervene if something in theaters or cinema’s would offend public decency. Imagine Schorer’s disappointment. He suspected that the Christian councillor Van As had talked the mayor round to it, and blamed him for making the decision without having seen the film.

The supporters of the religious parties cheered, especially father Van Grinsven. But even an impartial newspaper as Het Vaderland was relieved that this “cinema Bolshevism” was finally and seriously dealt with. The newspaper thought that it was extremely coincidental that shortly after the release of the offending film with an “overtone of titillation and sensuality,” the “The Hague sex scandal” was brought to light. “It is as if with this film, the guilty parties try to cover themselves against possible detection of their dark motives.” This insinuation went down the wrong way for Schorer. He stressed that his committee had not taken the initiative in screening the film, and that it was sad that even a “moderate medium” as Het Vaderland was publishing such conspiracy theories.

One thing had become clear: gay emancipation had a long way to go. The social aversion of uranians was deeply rooted and fanatically cultivated. In his novel “Het masker” [The Mask] (1922), Charley van Heezen (the pseudonym of Joannes Henri François, a friend of Schorer) takes his readers to the foyer of the cinema in The Hague during intermission, when men and women are discussing their impressions of “Anders als die Andern”:
“‘I think the whole affair is disgusting.’
‘And,’ someone else added, ‘like the newspapers say, especially dangerous to young people.’
‘I don’t understand why they allow this,’ a third person said, ‘it is distasteful; I have a good mind to leave.’

One woman’s voice protested:
‘I only have one word for this: sad. What if your own son...’
‘I would rather see him dead,’ the first speaker argues, her husband apparently, as she seemed startled by the hard look in his eyes.
Another woman laughed.
‘Don’t think about it anymore. It is impossible, as decent people, to spawn such a degenerated child.’”

In the “regenerated” Germany of Adolf Hitler, they knew what to do with Hirschfeld and Oswald. Both men had to emigrate. The doctor to France (where he died in 1935) and the director to the USA. The Nazis destroyed every copy of the film. Only a fragment, about a third of the original, was miraculously saved and was released on DVD in 2006. It looks dated and endearing. A monument of guts we owe a lot to. The first classic of a brand new genre: gay cinema.

(To be Continued)



In the New Issue of Gay News, 324, Augustus 2018

Amsterdam Pride
July 28- August 05, 2018

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