Synopsis: Brilliant concert violinist Paul Körner (Conrad Veidt) is only too happy to take on young music student Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schulz) as his pupil. The two men find they have more than a love of music in common, and are soon spending all their time together. However, behind Körner’s polished façade lies a terrible secret: according to the law of the land, he is nothing more than a lowly criminal, guilty of the crime of feeling love for his own sex. Will Körner allow himself to be continuously blackmailed by the sleazy Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schünzel) in order to keep his predilection hidden? Or will he openly accuse Bollek of extortion and take him to court – knowing that his own crime may be revealed in the process?
If we’re going to start from the very beginning (a very good place to start), let’s go ahead and state the obvious: depictions of gays, lesbians, or otherwise non-heterosexual, non-gender-binary folks were considered highly taboo in mainstream film until pretty recently. A lot of the time, if you’re looking for queer themes in classic film, you’re going to have to sift through a lot of subtext and coded images to find what you’re looking for – and even then, you may be accused of seeing something that may not really be there at all. This is not the case with Richard Oswald‘s Different from the Others (German title Anders als die Andern), which the director co-wrote with the brilliant German sexologist and gay rights advocate Magnus Hirschfeld. (Seriously, look up some of his work; he was truly a pioneer.) Produced during the Weimar Republic during the brief period after World War I when censorship was temporarily lifted in all German media, Different from the Others is noteworthy as one of the earliest, if not the first, unequivocally sympathetic portrayals of homosexuality in the history of cinema. Sadly, it comes as no surprise that it exists today only in a fragmented state, as many prints of the film – along with Magnus Hirschfeld’s entire library – were destroyed as examples of leftist “decadence” when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Fortunately, a collaboration between Kino International and Filmmuseum München has led to a beautiful restoration of the surviving segments and a bold reconstruction of the rest. The film is also given extra context in the intertitles, and any missing portions are described using notes gleaned from contemporary advertisements for the film.
Different from the Others is both a narrative story and a polemic against Germany’s anti-homosexuality law, known as Paragraph 175, originally enacted in 1871. According to Oswald and Hirschfeld, the law did less to discourage homosexual behavior and more to encourage the crime of extortion. Any man accused of violating Paragraph 175 would either have to pay off his blackmailer or be put on trial for the offense, which could ruin his public reputation regardless of the verdict. In the film, this loss of face proves devastating and tragic for the accused, who is given only a minor slap on the wrist by the law but whose career and public standing are forever shattered by the accusation. After Different from the Others, Paragraph 175 was finally fully repealed… in 1994.
The film also serves as sort of a Public Service Announcement about homosexuality and other forms of sexual variation, including intersexuality. Paul Körner is first seen consulting with a sexologist (played by Hirschfeld himself) who tells Körner, “Love for one’s own sex can be just as pure and noble as that for the opposite sex. . . . Don’t despair! As a homosexual, you can still make valuable contributions to humanity.” Later, Körner gives Kurt Sivers’ sister Else, who has found herself falling in love with Körner, tickets to a Hirschfeld lecture on homosexuality. (I can’t tell if this is the most subtle or the least subtle way of giving her the brush-off, but either way, it’s hilarious.) There Hirschfeld discusses the spectrum of sex and gender expression, showing photographs of “virile women” and “men with female feelings,” as well as what he labels “sexual intermediates” who exhibit both female and male physical characteristics. At the conclusion of his lecture, Hirschfeld condemns Paragraph 175 and declares, “May justice soon prevail over this grave injustice, science conquer superstition, love achieve victory over hatred!” As history tells us, things would not work out that way for Hirschfeld or for Germany; what is meant to be a message of hope for the future leaves the modern viewer feeling an agonizing sorrow for the past.
Different from the Others is brilliantly enlightened in its message, but almost embarrassingly earnest in its delivery. I don’t want to call Oswald naïve – it wouldn’t be fair when I have the benefit of hindsight and he didn’t – but the urgency of his message, and the knowledge that homosexuals in Germany would in fifteen years’ time have a lot more to worry about than Paragraph 175, makes viewing the film from a modern perspective bittersweet. The performances are marvelous, with Conrad Veidt giving an especially graceful and heart-wrenching portrayal. Kino put superb effort into the restoration, as they always do, but sadly some of the most interesting portions of the film are the ones missing. In particular Körner’s recurring vision of all the homosexuals in history – including Oscar Wilde, Leonardo da Vinci, and Peter Tchaikovsky – marching single-file underneath the Sword of Damocles labeled “Paragraph 175” exists only as a still photograph, and the final scene, in which a giant hand paints a huge X over Paragraph 175 in the German law book, can only be described. Still, Different from the Others is a film of immeasurable importance to queer history, and one which espouses ideas and theories of sex and gender which are revolutionary even today.
Different from the Others (1919) – 4/5 stars