Silent DVD Archive
Gay-themed Films of the Silent Era
In this Thankgiving week installment of Silent DVD, I'll be looking at three little seen movies that Kino is slated to release next month. Their Gay-themed Films of the Silent Era series presents a trio of films that look at alternative lifestyles, and how that was treated at the begining of the last century.
A little bit of a shorter intro this time around, since I have a house
full of guests. Next week I'll have a look at The Buster Keaton Collection,
a set of Keaton's first three films for MGM. These include his last
silent films along with his first talkie. Until then, here's hoping
that everyone has a safe and happy holiday.
Gay-themed Films of the Silent Era
Kino video has released a trio of silent films under the banner of “Gay-themed Films of the Silent Era.” When thinking about movies made in Germany during the Weimar Republic, those with a homosexual content don’t generally spring to mind. However Kino has been able to illustrate that a wider variety of films were made at this time than I’d previously thought. The three films, sold separately, are Different from the Others (1919) staring Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,) Michael (1924) directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Sex in Chains (1928) directed and staring William Dieterle (Faust, The Devil and Daniel Webster.) While none of these films can be considered masterpieces, all three present an interesting look at homosexuality in the early part of the last century.
Different from the Others is the earliest entry in this series. In fact, it is the first film to depict homosexual activity in a positive light, and it discusses the issue in a very frank and straight forward fashion. The movie is a rally against Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code which made homosexuality between men against the law.
This film has an interesting history behind it. Paragraph 175 had been a source of contention for a number of years. Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a German sexologist and scholar, thought that homosexuals were actually a “third sex,” and they were just acting on their nature. During WWI, Hirschfeld teamed up with director Richard Oswald to produce a series of films on sexual education. They filmed stories on prostitution, VD and the like. After the war the censor restrictions were lifted in German and Hirschfeld saw his chance. He and Oswald made Different from the Others, part educational and part political, their film was very controversial when it was released. It was banned in 1920, and all copies were burned by Nazi’s. Today the film only exists in an incomplete form discovered in a film archive in Russia.
The film stars Conrad Veidt (Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) as a virtuoso violinist, Paul Körner. He takes on a handsome young student, Kurt (Fritz Schulz,) and the two soon fall in love. Unfortunately, Paul is being blackmailed by Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schünzel) a shifty crook who has found out that Paul is a homosexual. He’s bleeding Paul for all he’s worth, and though Körner could have Franz arrested for blackmail, he would be arrested too for violating Paragraph 175. Why, the film asks, should someone, an artist no less, be condemned for just loving someone?
The main problem with this film isn’t the subject matter or the way it is handled, it’s the fact that it is incomplete. The film runs less than 50 minutes, and roughly half of that is actual video. The rest of the movie was recreated from production still incorporated into the film and long intertitles that explain the sections that are missing. Unlike Metropolis however, which handles missing segments in a similar fashion, there is a large percentage of Different from the Others that is missing. Whole subplot involving Paul’s family are missing, as well as much of the film dealing with Kurt’s relatives. The film has no rhythm to it because of the frequent intertitles, and the synopses of the missing scenes are no replacement for the scenes themselves. It is really hard to judge the quality of this movie because so much of it is missing.
One highlight of the film was Conrad Veidt’s performance. He did a wonderful job, and he is always a joy to watch. His climactic scene was my favorite part of the movie.
This DVD has the best accompaniment of any of the films in this series. The piano score actually matches the action on the screen, with fast intense music during the fight scene and slower music during the somber sections. A nicely matched score.
The intertitles to the film, as well as the letters and other text information are in English and contemporary creations. There are no subtitles.
Taking into account that there is only one copy of this film left, the image isn’t too bad. The image is dark in places, and the details are lost in darker areas, but there is a good amount of detail. The contrast isn’t great, and there is a good amount of print damage, but the DVD is very watchable.
Unfortunately, there are no extras with this disc.
Unfortunately, the complete version of this film is lost to us, and this pieced together reconstruction, while better than nothing, only hints at what the complete movie would have been like. While Conrad Veidt does a good job, there were just too many missing sections of film to really evaluate the quality of the script or direction. A very interesting look at homosexuality in German between the wars, this DVD is would make a good rental.
The best film of this series is easily Michael by the Danish master, Carl Theodor Dreyer. Thought lost for years, and eclipsed by Dryer’s later films, Michael is a very interesting work. In this film Dreyer’s techniques that he would use in making his silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc are fully realized, and the film is a stylistic triumph. Though the story itself didn’t captivate me, Dreyer’s direction made this an interesting film to watch.
Michael (Walter Slezak) is a model and apprentice to the wealthy master painter Claude Zoret (played by Benjamin Christensen who went on to direct Haxan. This was his last acting role.) Zoret dotes on his protege, and his most famous works are portraits of the young Adonis. When a Russian Princess, Lucia Zamikoff (Grete Mosheim,) comes to have her portrait painted by the master, things start to change. Michael falls in love with Lucia and as the two grow closer Michael pulls away from Zoret. The master painter is deeply troubled by this, and when Michael rents an apartment of his own, and sees this as an act of betrayal. Though when Michael starts selling the gifts Zoret gave him and even starting to steal from him in order to woo the Princess, the painter turns a blind eye to the exploitation.
The story itself, based on a novel by Danish writer Herman Bang who was popular in Germany at the time, didn’t really grab me the way most of Dreyer’s work does. I never really was that interesting in the love triangle that at first glance is the driving force of the movie, nor the subplot of the Duke having an affair with a married woman. Like the ogre Schrek though, this film has layers. On the surface, the two plots are a little on the melodramatic side, but when placed against each other and examined, they give new meaning to the film. The two romances involve love triangles an run through similar courses. When you compare the two, they are very similar. The Duke’s involvement with a married lady is a forbidden love though, and by implication so is Zoret’s love for his model Michael.
Art plays an important role in this film, not only by being the backdrop to the drama, but because most to the characters are associated with art and interact through art. The story itself is almost told through the various pieces of art that populate the film. Zoret paint all three of the main characters, Michael, Lucia and himself in a fashion that reveals the role that they will play in the movie. Michael and Lucia’s romance first starts when he shows her a statue of a naked woman, just as Michael’s relationship with Zoret began when the young artist showed his sketches to the master. The comparison of people to art objects, and how art connects people is hard to miss.
There is also the underlying theme of the role inspiration plays on artistic achievement which I found much more engaging. The master can create brilliant images when Michael is posing for him, but when he tries to paint the Princess, he can’t manage to fully capture her. Michael on the other hand, can perfect his teacher’s painting with a few brush strokes.
Dreyer obtains subtle performances from his actors in this film, as he often does, and this subtlety greatly adds to the film’s appeal. The subject of a homosexual romance gone sour, told mainly through implication, is a tough idea to get across. Even more so in 1924. The strength of the actors and their willingness to tell the story through more natural means is a key ingredient to the success of this film.
The one aspect of this movie that appealed to me most was the way that Dreyer filmed it. He uses a very interesting tableau for much of the film. Many of the shots are ‘framed’ by a doorway or an arch, and there is little depth to th image with all figures being in the same plane. These shots are reminiscent of some 18th century art. The figures themselves are not as important as their surroundings...the decor is what captures the eye. He alternates these tableau images with many closeups, where a face fills the screen. This is almost the opposite shot, where the decor is totally ignored and the focus is on a single individual.
This is an interesting and effective way to tell a story. The tableau style shots are useful in moving the narrative forward and telling the story, but it is not very personal. Dreyer solves this problem by intercutting closeups that are prefect for revealing emotion and giving the movie a personal and intimate feel. The way he utilizes this technique is both masterful and artistic, making this an important film in his evolution as a director.
The original piano score by Neal Kurz was technically sound but didn’t enhance the film the way the best silent scores do. The music for the Swan Lake scene had the same feel as the rest of the soundtrack and didn’t set this trip to the theater apart from the rest of the film for example. Kurz’s performance is very good though, and his score is pleasing to the ear, it just doesn’t mesh with the visuals as well as some other scores do. There are English intertitles, but no optional subtitles.
The image was good for an 80 year old film. While this restoration by the Murnau Institue is a quality effort, it doesn’t look like their fill effort and resources were put into this effort. While the image is clear, the picture is on the light side, and details are lost both in the shadows and highlights. The range of grey tones is acceptable, but not spectacular. It is very obvious that the film has been restored though. Dirt and spots, while present, are not very frequent and the image is much cleaner than one would normally expect. A nice looking movie, even if it isn’t outstanding.
This disc has a commentary by Danish film scholar Casper Tybjerg from the University of Denmark. He gives a very through and scholarly talk. He discusses the background for the making of the film, the careers of people involved, Dreyer’s style and the differences between the novel and the movie. Though it sounds like English isn’t Tybjerg’s first language, his commentary is very clear and easy to understand, though his presentation is a little on the dry side. Even with that flaw, this was a very informative audio track.
There is also a text listing of Dreyer’s films.
While story itself was not as engrossing as some of Dreyer’s other films,
if you examine this movie a little it has some interesting things to say.
There are several layers to the film, and Dreyer includes a lot to interpret.
Dreyer has a lot to say about the relationship between art and the artist
and the role of inspiration. I haven’t even touched on the religious
aspects of this work, a subject that runs through most of his films.
Technically the film is masterful. Dreyer has constructed with mainly
closeups and long shots and it is quite effective in telling the story
and keeping the film intimate and subtle. Recommended.
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.
Comments? Suggestions? Feel free to send me an e-mail.
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