The first gay film ever
In the year 1918 the Great War had just ended. Europe was fed up with suffering, and a widespread drive toward a better, happier future was palpaple in every aspect of life – including sexuality. In Germany Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a pioneer in the still young field of sexology, seized the opportunity and set to work with famed director Richard Oswald on a series of «enlightening films» to educate the people about a better way to live sexuality. The subjects ranged from sexually transmitted disesases prevention to abortion, prostitution and more. While their format was more narrative than a documentary, each movie included a section in which Hirschfeld himself was consulted by the characters, allowing him to reach out to the audiences and teach them a modern, saner approach to the facts of life.
The crown jewel was one film in particular, titled Anders als die Andem (‘Different from the others’) and starring superstar Conrad Veidt (and the vice queen of the Weimar Republic, Anita Berber). Veidt played the first ever gay character in the history of cinema in a charged drama denouncing the effects of Paragraph 175, a 1871 law against «lewdness between men».
According to the German penal Code homosexuality was to be punished with imprisonment and loss of civil rights. Hirschfeld and many intellectuals had fruitlessly fought against it since 1897, claiming that a gay inclination was akin to a medical condition and thus not to be judged or discriminated against; the general sentiment was however very hostile, with a large part of the population even believing that “queer” people were somehow untermensch, or subhuman.
The sexologist believed that showing what the actual life of a gay person was like, and the extent of the discrimination and blackmailing he was subjected to, would allow a more reasonable discourse and social development -and he was right. Although only forty copies were printed, Anders als die Andem was released in 1919 and became an instant hit. Maybe too much so.
Inspired by the movie success, many “studios” published over 150 “educational” films before the year ended. Unfortunately most of them were crass exploitation crud or plain porn, so the authorities were forced to impose a strict censorship on the material shown in movie teathres: by 1920, Hirschfeld films had been retired forever. The rise to power of the nazisocialism put the last nail in the coffin of sexual education: in the subsequent years all the films were destroyed, and Paragraph 175 wasn’t completely repealed until 1994.
Against all odds however one copy of Anders als die Andem remains, and I am very happy to be able to show it below in the entirety of what was salvaged. It is of course a silent movie, here with English intertitles and Russian subtitles. Following this link you can also see another version, recorded at a special 2012 New York performance with live modern music and a haunting stage direction.