Kino has put out three DVDs under the title "Gay-themed Films of the Silent Era." The most salaciously titled film is the group, Sex in Chains, was directed and stars William Dieterle. Dieterle had played in German films for years, even having a role in Murnau's Faust, and drifted into directing. This was the fourth film that he directed and while not a classic, it does have some strong moments and does not flinch from its subject.
Franz (Dieterle) is an out of work engineer, who just can't seem to find a job. His young wife Helene (Mary Johnson) manages to land a job as a cigarette girl in a nightclub to help them out financially until Franz can get back on his feet. While working one night, a patron starts to harass Helene. When Franz sees what's happening he tells the man to leave his wife alone and a fight breaks out. Franz punches the man who is knocked down and strikes his head on a concrete step, a wound that eventually kills him. Franz is arrested and sentenced to three years in jail.
While in jail, Franz can not stand the lack of sexual relations with his wife. The otherwise pleasantly depicted prison is a hell for him, and it nearly drives him mad. Only the arms of an attractive cell mate allows Franz to retain his sanity. Little does he know, but Helene has also found comfort while her husband is imprisoned, in the form of her employer who has taken an interest in her well being.
I'm not sure that this film would be remembered today if not for the subject matter. It plays like a typical silent melodrama, with the characters displaying exaggerated emotions and feelings. While I'll admit that an extended period of time without sex wouldn't be pleasant, I can't see people going crazy or killing themselves over it as happens in this film. Franz reaction to the depravations while in prison are almost comical today.
The actors do give good performances though, with the overacting being kept to a minimum. Dieterle does a convincing job as Franz, and also does an admirable job directing. While the film isn't prefect, there are some very good sections to it. The reeling camera and quick cuts when Franz is near madness from lack of sex was very effective. As where the superimpositions used to show what characters were thinking.
The restoration was built off of a censored 1930 print from the Gosfilmoford collection in Russia along with a French print of the film that contained the censored scenes. The Russian parts of the film look very good, though not spectacular. There are still some spots and scratches on the image, but the detail is fair, and so is the contrast. The French print is noticeably inferior, with more grain, a softer picture and much less contrast. This print was only used for a few scenes though and overall the DVD looks fine.
The original piano score by Pasquale Perris while technically proficient, was uninspiring. There wasn't a lot of effort to have the music being played match the mood on the screen. A slow and steady piece played during the scene in a nightclub where a jazz band was playing, and during the fight that lands Franz in jail the music lacked excitement and tension. A song also gets cut off at the end of act II.
This film in presented with the oridinal German intertitles with optional English subtitles. The intertitles presented during the French sections of the film are in a different typeface which is very evident.
There are no extras on this DVD.
While this film would be of interest to individuals studying the depiction
of homosexuality in early cinema, I don't think it has a much wider appeal.
The script was too heavily laden with melodrama to be interesting to today's
audiences and while the direction is good, it doesn't make up for the sometimes
plodding plot. This would be a good rental.