Anders als die Andern still

© Anders als die Andern (Richard Oswald, 1919)

A Celebration of Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others)

Molly Harrabin, University of Warwick

Thought to be one of the earliest cinematic pieces in support of homosexuality, Anders als die Andern (Richard Oswald, 1919) has earned its place in history. Co-written by the director and leading Jewish sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, the film was part of a series of Aufklärungsfilme (enlightenment films) aimed at increasing awareness of sex education, covering topics from prostitution and venereal diseases to abortion. The Oswald-Hirschfeld partnership came together again to produce a film intended to criticise Paragraph 175 of Weimar Germany’s constitution, which made homosexuality a criminal offence. As a result, the film was one of the first on the agenda of the newly established censor in Berlin, who promptly banned the film in 1920 and viewing was restricted to those in the medical profession. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the film was one of many works burned on account of its ‘decadence’. Consequently, only fragments survive, but Anders als die Andern lives on, heralded for its ground-breaking portrayal of homosexuality. 

Historians often celebrate the Republic for being the first in Europe to guarantee equal rights to men and women, making huge strides in terms of gender relations. By contrast, the Republic’s stance on ‘non-normative’ sexualities was a dent in the Republic’s armour of tolerance. Indeed, the topic was somewhat of a taboo, despite the common perception of cities like Berlin as a hub for the gay and lesbian scene. The presence of Paragraph 175 in Anders als die Andern is established from the get-go via a newspaper headline informing the viewer of a factory owner’s suicide on his wedding day. The newspaper does not provide further details, claiming the motive to be unknown. However, an intertitle reading ‘the sword of Damocles that is §175 made life impossible for these unfortunate individuals’ suggests differently, supporting Hirschfeld’s claims that homosexuals were more likely to commit suicide. The film thus draws attention to the struggle of keeping one’s sexuality a secret and conforming to what society dictates as being ‘acceptable’, something which many a closeted man of 1919 could identify with.

The main focus of Oswald’s film though is on the character of the famous violinist Paul Körner (played by Conrad Veidt, who would rocket to fame a year later for his portrayal of Cesare in Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Caligari). Körner falls in love with one of his students, Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schulz) and the two start a relationship. Their relationship is not understood by Sivers’ parents who cannot understand why their son is more interested in playing the violin than in settling down and starting a film. Sivers is however eventually able to express his homosexuality more openly after his parents speak to his mentor (Magnus Hirschfeld), who explains that in plain terms that homosexuality is neither a choice nor a crime. Unfortunately, Körner and Sivers are spotted together whilst working in a park by Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schünzel) who recognises Körner and later blackmails him in exchange for not publicising his homosexuality. Sivers finds out though and the fear of being ‘outed’ causes him to run away, which prompts Körner to experience flashbacks to his own struggle with his sexuality and how he sought to change it. He eventually reports Bollek for blackmail, and though the judge expresses sympathy, Körner must still do a jail sentence of the minimum one week. Upon his release, it is clear that the revelation about his sexuality has damaged his career and rejected by everyone around him, he commits suicide. Upon hearing the news, Sivers returns and intends to do the same, but he is convinced otherwise, and the film ends on Paragraph 175 being crossed out from the Constitution.

The film shows the viewer that being homosexual does not stop an individual from achieving greatness. This is emphasised in a scene that takes place in Körner’s mind, where a procession is seen marching forward with Körner himself bringing up the rear. The procession consists of men that are lauded for their greatness, such as Tchaikovsky, Leonardo da Vinci and King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The figure of Körner as the final man to step forward in this line of ‘greats’ implies that all of these men, heralded for their contributions to culture and society, are also homosexual. The inclusion of these men can be interpreted then as an attempt to ‘normalise’ homosexuality, for it has been around for centuries. The film also criticises Germany for lagging behind its European neighbours, who, under the Napoleonic Code, saw the outlawing of homosexuality overturned, as it was seen as a violent of the rights of the individual. Furthermore, homosexuality is also presented as the sexuality of men who are thought to have made valuable additions to the world. This is echoed by the sexologist Körner visited whilst trying to come to terms with his own sexuality,  who reassures him that he can still make valuable contributions to society. Anders als die Andern not only tries to convince the viewer to alter their perception of homosexuality, but it also offers a degree of comfort to the homosexual struggling to accept his sexuality.

This procession of noble homosexual men is contrasted with the behaviour of Franz Bollek, the man who blackmails Körner when he catches him in the park with Sivers. Bollek is presented as receiving great satisfaction for exploiting the musician for his own financial gain. Bollek serves as a reminder of the price to be paid if a man’s sexuality was revealed, since homosexuality was perceived as something to be ashamed of. When Körner rebels and decides not to go along with it, Bollek raises the bar and breaks into Körner’s home. It is in this moment that the film really hammers home how Bollek is the abhorrent one, for he physically assaults Sivers. His actions towards Sivers thus contrast starkly with those of love and affection by Körner. The film thus proposes that it is actually the sorts of behaviour exhibited by Bollek that are criminal and should be punished. Moreover, it is Bollek who receives the more severe punishment (he is jailed for 3 years) for his actions. By contrast, Körner, the man society determines to be a great threat, serves one week. Though the judge finds that Körner is an ‘honourable individual who has hurt no one’, he cannot grant Körner acquittal due to Paragraph 175.

The leniency of his sentencing however does not feel like justice, and the implications of Körner’s trial are much greater than those for Bollek. Körtner takes his own life because he cannot cope with immense loss that he feels as a result of Bollek’s actions. Sivers’ sister delivers a damning condemnation of Körner’s family who turn up at his deathbed, blaming them for his death. She also claims society at large has Körner’s death on their conscience, which encourages the contemporaneous audience to reflect upon their own treatment of homosexuals in the present day. The film does not though close on an entirely negative note. It urges Sivers and the audience alike to ‘keep on living to change the prejudices’ of which Körner has fallen victim. The film thus delivers an inspiring message of hope and determination that the fissures in society, generated on modes of difference, will one day be removed.

Anders als die Andern is a revolutionary film that offers a pioneering commentary on the societal situation for homosexuals in the Weimar Republic. It underlines the impact of Paragraph 175 and puts the image of 1920’s Germany as one of great acceptance into question.  Yet the film also speaks to societies in the modern era that still punish individuals for their sexuality. In as much as the German audience in 1919 could learn from the film, its sentiment is just as relevant now as it was then.  It is for this reason that we should indeed continue to celebrate Anders als die Andern, but also take on board its message and consider what more can be done in today’s world to eliminate discourses of hatred and prejudice.  

Further Reading

Böni Oliver, and Japhet Johnstone, ‘Anders als die Andern’, in Crimes of Passion: Repräsentationen der Sexualpathologie im frühen 20. Jahrhundert (Berlin; Boston, Massachussetts: De Gruyter, 2015), pp. 5-34

Dyer, Richard, ‘Less and More than Women and Men: Lesbian and Gay Cinema in Weimar Germany’, New German Critique 51 (1990), 5-60

Linge, Ina, ‘Sexology, Popular Science and Queer History in Anders als die Andern’, Gender and History, 30.3 (2018), 595-610

Malakaj, Ervin, ‘Richard Oswald, Magnus Hirschfeld, and the Possible Impossibility of Hygienic Melodrama’, Studies in European Cinema, 14.3 (2017), 216-230

Smith, Jill Suzanne, ‘Richard Oswald and the Social Hygiene Film: Promoting Public Health or Promiscuity?’, in The Many Faces of Weimar Cinema: Rediscovering Germany’s Filmic Legacy, ed. by Christian Rogowski (Rochester, New York: Camden House, 2010), pp. 13-30

Steakley, James D., ‘Cinema and Censorship in the Weimar Republic: The Case of Anders als die Andern’, Film History, 11.2 (1999), 181-203