German actor, Conrad Veidt, will have a 126th birthday coming up on January 22nd, so this is a good time to look at this esteemed actor’s most controversial role as a gay music teacher from the 1919 film, Different From the Others.
Veidt, who appeared in a number of influential films, including The Man Who Laughs (1928) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is largely remembered for playing the role of the perpetually grinning clown, Gwynplaine — the character who later inspired the creation of Batman’s Joker a decade later.
But his more obscure film from a decade earlier is deserving of at least equal praise for its blunt pro-gay message. Its creation was enabled by the social democratic government that took control in Germany following the German revolution of 1919. Film censorship was eliminated for a time. The progressive spirit permeating Germany at this time led to the Institute of Sexual Research, which was begun by an advocate for gay rights.
The vibrant progress of that year didn’t keep Different From the Others out of hot water. It became so controversial that it was kept out of sight of general audiences and could only be viewed by medical professionals. It inspired the reinstatement of film censorship in 1920, and by 1933, the film was burned by the Nazis, among other materials the Nazi party wanted to do away with.
Despite these attempts to conceal or completely erase the film, 50 minutes of Different From the Others still exists and has been recently restored. One can find it on YouTube for free.
In the film, Veidt’s character, Paul, falls in love with his violin student, Kurt, and the two begin a covert affair. Yet the lovers do not remain hidden well enough as a man spots them on the street and deduces the nature of their relationship. This antagonist, who dons villainous black makeup around his eyes, turns out to be an extortionist who Paul must pay in order to preserve his career and public image.
No Less Pure or Noble
In the beginning, Paul, in the aftermath of the tale that’s about to be told, is sitting at his desk perusing a newspaper. He reads about a few unexplained suicides which he suspects are a consequence of lives that were damaged by anti-gay laws. He imagines a slew of historical figures, such as Oscar Wilde and Peter Tchaikovsky, who were gay like him and suffered for it.
At one point, Paul does not want to stand out from the crowd the way he feels he does. To relieve himself of his problem, Paul tries a visit to a physician and sexologist. Luckily, the sexologist is remarkably progressive and tells Paul that love between people of the same sex is “no less pure or noble” than opposite sex relationships.
Despite the positive words from the doctor, the law is the law in Germany, and Paul is still reprimanded in court for his ‘transgression.’
Being an activist film, its goal was to oppose Paragraph 175 of the Reich Penal Code. Paragraph 175 was the national prohibition of what the law called “unnatural sex acts.” Lesbianism was excluded from this law because lawmakers found it more difficult to define female sexuality. So Germany punished gay men and allowed jail sentences of up to 10 years, and in some cases, nothing less than a 3 month sentence could be issued.
But the judge in the film is a little nicer than a lot of judges probably were when the law was broken. He gives Paul the minimum sentence, but that doesn’t keep Paul’s career from plummeting into oblivion, and the once esteemed music teacher is left with his reputation sullied by an unjust law.
A Nuanced Look at the Gay Community
The performances in this film are more nuanced than some more contemporary portrayals of LGBT people. Paul Korner, as Veidt plays him, feels like a real man one would meet any day, and the same is true for his lover, Kurt.
Also subtle is a scene in a restaurant where lesbianism is quietly implied. During WWI, women’s fashion took a simpler form as they took on more traditionally male jobs. Some dresses had masculine additions, with neckties and military style coats. The more masculine style is worn by the women in the background of the scene as they drink and dance together. Men, too, sit at the same tables and dance together closely.
The film does a good job of showing the ubiquity of homosexuality and challenges us to see how gay people are part of the everyday, and not some abnormality.
What Makes this Film Relevant to Us?
One might say the West has come a long way since 1919 in terms of social progress. We have less film censorship, more civil rights, and women’s rights, yet it’s undeniable that our decade holds more than remnants of that bygone period. In movies, we’ve had Brokeback Mountain, which featured gay lovers, and an array of other films that feature gay or lesbian characters — but none of this has been free of controversy.
Even before the live action Beauty and the Beast was released in 2017, some soon-to-be audience members were troubled by Gaston’s gay sidekick, LeFou. Media outlets like Fox News and ABC published stories about the one ‘gay moment’ in the Disney film, and there was even talk of it being banned in Malaysia.
The reason behind this thriving prudery concerning gay characters is that plenty of people still view LGBT people as unnatural or sinful. Though progress feels linear, Different From the Others, and the story behind it, reminds us how quickly progress can happen, and how quickly it can be undone.
Thanks for reading! If you want to share your thoughts on LGBT history in film, leave a comment below!
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