Most people know about Alfred Kinsey. He was the sexologist whose “Kinsey scale” showed that sexuality was on a spectrum. It was relational and ever changing, not a gay or straight switch people could flip on or off. His research was groundbreaking, but it couldn’t have been possible without the work of Magnus Hirschfeld, a name we don’t hear as often. Hirschfeld was a Berlin-based doctor whose “Scientific Humanitarian Committee” of 1987 advocated for the legitimacy of gay relationships. In addition to fighting for “homosexual emancipation” at a time when such notions were criminal, he collaborated with director Richard Oswald and produced a series of films related to his studies in human sexuality. While I’m not suggesting that Dr. Oz should begin producing narrative cinema, it is remarkable that a medical doctor understood the power of the motion picture and used the medium to forward a message of social acceptance. One such film Hirschfeld wrote and produced was 1919’s Different from the Others, a remarkably frank portrait of a forbidden gay relationship. After years of censorship and near disappearance, this “first gay film” has been restored to its fullest and most impactful state.
Different from the Others was, like most artifacts of queer history, fragmentary and incomplete. When the restoration began six years ago, “The problem was that there was no film at all,” said Ashley Swinnerton, Collection Specialist of the Department of Film at MoMA. Hirschfeld and Oswald’s gay love story challenged Paragraph 175, the German law that condemned same-sex relationships. As a result, the film was banned throughout Europe, and when the Nazis rose to power, they burned all existing copies. Lucky for us, Hirschfeld repurposed 40 minutes of the original film for a separate project. It was this repurposed footage that was found in Russia and rearranged by the restoration team at UCLA according to meticulous censorship records. How ironic to think the very documents made to suppress the film were the same ones used to restore it.
The story of Different from the Others is fairly simple. Paul Körner (Conrad Veidt, the somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) is a successful violinist who falls in love with his pupil Kurt (Fritz Schulz). Although never shown kissing, they share romantic gazes and walk side-by-side in the park. When the conniving Bollek (Reinhold Schünzel) spots the men together, he blackmails them for money. Under Paragraph 175, this was a common practice. It is alleged that for every gay person persecuted under the law, another 100 were extorted. Paul pays off Bollek in order to save his relationship, but he can’t keep it up. When he finally turns Bollek into the police, Paul is persecuted under Paragraph 175. He loses his job, his family and his social standing.
When Hirschfeld appears in the film, he is the beneficent doctor, promoting knowledge and understanding over hate and ignorance. “Nature is boundless in its creations,” he says in a lecture that Paul attends. “Between all opposites there are transitions, and this is also true of the sexes.” The bold, mustached doctor stands at a podium and shares slides of androgynous men and women. He explains there are feminine men and masculine women and this is not a crime. “May science conquer superstition, love achieve victory over hatred!”
Hirschfeld’s lecture scene is didactic but fascinating. His speech is like a time capsule of ideas that we can now properly recognize as revolutionary for their time. The scene also confirms how the gay rights movement, which we commonly understand to have begun at Stonewall in 1969, has roots much farther back. Doctors like Hirschfield and actors like Conrad Veidt were willing to risk their lives for the sake of defending the human rights. So, it’s crushing to remember how their stance of radical acceptance was soon replaced by the radical non-acceptance of the Third Reich. The Nazis burned Hirschfeld’s offices in 1933. He left Germany the same year, never to return again.
Like any stretch of damaged celluloid, Different from the Others makes for an atypical viewing experience. Much of the original footage has been replaced with either text or still images that serve as frozen windows into what the scene would or should have looked like. Entire scenes and characters have been eliminated, their scenes banned, burned or buried. As Swinnerton pointed out, “Unless someone’s grandma had a print in her basement, this is as close we’re going to get the original.”
The restoration of Different from the Others is important cinematically and politically. Not only has the world of a silent film been expanded to include the sight of two men in love, the restored film stands as further proof that queer history is a work-in-progress. It’s always in the process of recovery. History, in the form of motion picture entertainment, continues to surprise.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.