Film festivals do two things: they showcase the newest feature films and they celebrate the best of past cinema. This year, GAZE featured a fascinating film from Weimar Germany, Different from the Others (1919, Richard Oswald). It tells the story of a violinist, Paul Körner, who falls in love with a young male student, Kurt Sivers, and then becomes the victim of blackmail.
Magnus Hirschfeld co-wrote and starred in the film, practically playing himself, a sexologist. Hirschfeld developed the “third sex” theory and was part of the early 20th century movement in northern Europe that sought a new understanding of homosexuality and campaigned for the removal of penal provisions such as Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code. He participated in the production of many educational films that addressed issues such as venereal disease, abortion and prostitution. When the German Empire fell after the First World War, Hirschfeld worked with director Richard Oswald to create Different from the Others, to expose the provisions as a blackmailer’s charter, and to condemn homophobic society. It was a time of revolutionary hope and potential, soon quashed by the rise of Nazism.
Like many historical films, the primary interest and virtues of Different from the Others lie in the historical context in which the film existed. Vito Russo noted that Christopher Isherwood, whose stories form the basis of Cabaret, remembered attending screenings of the film that the Nazis broke up. In Vienna, a man fired a revolver into the audience, wounding several patrons. The Nazis destroyed all prints of the film when they came to power. They then used the provisions of Paragraph 175 to imprison homosexuals, forcing them to wear a pink triangle (instead of a yellow star, the subject of the play and the film Bent). When the war ended, the gay men who survived the concentration camps remained imprisoned. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman tell that story in their documentary Paragraph 175. The Nazis attempt to remove gay men from their society and to remove any record of anything that advocated tolerance or justice for them. So, Different from the Others remains as an important cultural and historical artefact that testifies to an early and important gay liberation movement.
The Filmmuseum München pieced together the film screened at GAZE from a print found in Ukraine during the 1970s. In this version, they fill gaps with intertitles and stills. What survives is a film that features static shots and theatrical staging that seem so outdated to (post)modern viewers. But the story is a powerful one, and it becomes more absorbing as it progresses. It features an early performance by Conrad Veidt, who plays Paul Körner, the lead character. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, filmed shortly afterwards, made Veidt a star. He became famous for his films with Valerie Hobson and as the evil Grand Vizier in The Thief of Baghdad. His character is the film’s tragic hero; the villain is not just the blackmailer, but, as Hirschfeld stresses, society’s injustices arising from a misplaced condemnation of homosexuals.
The Hirschfeld Centre, opened in 1979, was the first gay community centre in Dublin, honouring the importance of his work in pleading for justice and the repeal of oppressive laws. The laws that criminalised homosexual acts between men in Ireland were only abolished in 1993, a year before the final repeal of Paragraph 175. The story behind Different from the Others reminds us that we cannot be complacent with regard to freedom to create such works, particularly at a time when works that “promote” homosexuality have again become the subject of criminal sanctions in Russia and when the death penalty continues to be imposed in other countries as a punishment for homosexual acts. In Ireland, the Equal Status Act provisions exempt the teaching profession, and the fear of being outed and losing one’s employment and status remains all too real.
The Dublin Film Qlub presented the film with the assistance of the Goethe Institute. The Film Qlub organisers had previously run a season of silent films from the early 20th century, emphasising that Different from the Others represents a fascinating and insightful range of filmmaking that merits further critical and public attention.