This is a remarkable film and one that survives only in partial form: that it survives at all given what was to come is all the more extraordinary…
Paragraph 175 in the German Criminal Code made homosexuality illegal and contributed to the loss and wreckage of so many innocent lives whilst also acting as a fertile area for blackmail and extortion. Shockingly it wasn't repealed until 1994 (after decades of amendments) which shows, in nothing else, how incredibly advanced this film was and how brave. In an age when many leading straight men, like Conrad Veidt, might still think twice about playing a gay character, the future star of Caligari took up the challenge for director Richard Oswald’s film.
|Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld|
“Love for one of the same sex is no less pure or noble than for one of the opposite. This orientation can be found in all levels of society, and among respected people. Those that say otherwise come only from ignorance and bigotry.”
His words could be from decades later and indeed there are similarities in story with the 1961 British film Victim in which Dirk Bogarde’s married lawyer is blackmailed over his sexuality. Sadly there are probably still some who would find the film shocking: this is still a hot topic as the recent debate over equal marriage has illustrated.
|Paul and the parents|
Conrad Veidt plays successful concert violinist Paul Körner and the film opens in his well-appointed flat as he reads newspaper stories describing inexplicable suicides of young men. He suspects he knows the reasons for their demise and has a vision of great homosexual men who were victimised for their orientation: Leonardo da Vinci, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Oscar Wilde and others.
|Fritz Schulz and Conrad Veidt|
Meanwhile Körner's Father (Leo Connard) and mother (Alexandra Willegh) try to push him towards marriage and he refers them to his specialist, Dr Magnus Hirschfeld (who plays himself) who explains his sexuality to them: “… he is not to blame for his orientation. It is not wrong, nor should it be a crime…”
|Bollek spots his opportunity...|
Körner tries to hide this from Kurt but after the two surprise Bollek in their flat a fight breaks out and all is revealed. Kurt runs away leaving Körner heartbroken. He thinks back to his days at school and his expulsion after being found kissing another male student, then onto university where he couldn’t connect with any women.
Kurt’s sister Else (Anita Berber), has her own feelings for Körner but he takes her to one of the Doctor’s lectures in which he espouses his theory of graduated sexuality – men with female elements and vice versa with some frank photographs of "virile women" and "a man with female feelings...". Obviously research into human sexuality has advanced but how would this have played to audiences 95 years ago? Else starts to understand and to support her friend in different ways.
|Virile women and a man with feminine thoughts|
Too much of the film is missing to judge its overall direction but I like Oswald's settings and the way he deals with the romance. The lack of episodes involving the families does diminish the broader drama but that's nobody's fault but the censors. There is however, more than enough of Veidt’s acting to be convinced of his excellence. He’s an extraordinarily protean performer not only using his shallow cheeks and electric eyes to convey emotion but also the torture expressed through his malleable physique.
An appeal made all the more poignant given the ensuing decades in which intolerance was refined into a grotesque art form in Germany. Justice will out and you have to keep on believing that...
Available from Kino and Amazon.