A Daring Film, Silenced No More
UCLA Film & Television Archive
By ROBERT ITO
LOS ANGELES — The dark tale begins with a concert violinist infatuated with a young student and ends with blackmail and suicide. In between there are visits to bars and brothels, brawls in swanky digs, creepy shakedowns and a cameo by Oscar Wilde. It sounds like a slightly experimental indie project. In reality, the movie, “Different From the Others,” opened in the summer of 1919 to sold-out houses across Germany.
The cast of this silent film, which was directed by Richard Oswald, included two up-and-coming actors: Conrad Veidt, who would later appear in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Casablanca,” and Reinhold Schunzel, an evil Nazi conspirator in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 thriller, “Notorious.”
But as much as some critics and audiences took to the film, others found it indecent, unwatchable. There were catcalls at some screenings; at others, riots and walkouts. It wasn’t just that the two romantic leads were men. The film also had the audacity to claim that homophobia, not homosexuality, was a scourge of society. The following year, censors banned “Different From the Others” throughout Germany, claiming that the film could endanger public safety or turn impressionable youths gay. When the Nazis came to power, they destroyed every copy they could find. In doing so, what many consider the world’s first feature film to showcase sympathetic gay characters and themes was lost.
Every trace of the film might still be lost today if not for a gay rights advocate (before they were called that), Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, who both appeared in the film as himself and was the film’s co-writer and resident sexologist. In 1927, Hirschfeld yanked 40 minutes of footage from the original film, scrambled the order of scenes and inserted them into his own feature, “Gesetze der Liebe” (“Laws of Love”). A cinematic primer on topics like hermaphroditism and sexual intercourse in the animal kingdom, “Gesetze” found its way to Russia sometime in the late 1920s. Two years ago, UCLA Film & Television Archivepurchased a fine-grain master positive (a high-definition print used to create additional film negatives) of the “Different” footage from the Russian Film Archive, and preservationists at the university have been working on it ever since. The goal: to create a watchable feature from those 40 minutes, one both faithful to the original story and understandable to contemporary audiences.
“The view of the film is at least 50 years ahead of its time,” the archive’s director, Jan-Christopher Horak, said in his office at the university. “It takes the view that homosexuality isn’t a sickness or a pathology, it’s in fact just another expression of human sexuality. It’s the kind of enlightened theory that you wouldn’t see in this country probably until the ’70s or ’80s.”
Although German versions of the footage have been released on video over the years, this restoration — under the auspices of the Outfest-UCLA Legacy Project, which is dedicated to preserving moving images with gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender themes — will be the most complete to date, with new English intertitles and the inclusion of recently found photos and film stills.
Even missing scenes (and in some cases characters), “Different” tells a captivating story. The film opens with a violinist, Paul Korner (Veidt), wooing his young charge, Kurt Sivers, (portrayed by a not-so-young Fritz Schulz). The villainous Franz Bollek (Schunzel) observes the two together and blackmails Korner, threatening to out him to the police and friends. Somewhere in the midst of all this, Hirschfeld delivers a long, spirited lecture in defense of homosexuality. Through flashbacks, we learn that Korner was expelled from school for falling in love with a male student, and that he once tried to “cure” his homosexuality with the help of a medical hypnotist. In the end, exposed to his family and abandoned by his friends, Korner drinks poison. Sivers, his grieving lover, dedicates his life to fighting Paragraph 175, a German statute that made homosexual acts a crime.
For Kristin Pepe, director of programming at Outfest, one of the country’s largest gay film festivals, “Different From the Others” was a revelation. “There’s not a lot of L.G.B.T. film before 1969 and Stonewall,” she said, referring to the Greenwich Village riots that led to the gay rights movement. “And so much of those films is in the subtext, there’s not a lot that’s explicitly about an L.G.B.T. person.”
Many of the film’s most compelling scenes — Korner’s flashbacks, Hirschfeld’s lecture, Oscar Wilde’s cameo, and scenes with Sivers’s sister, Else, who unwittingly falls in love with Korner — are gone for good. A large part of the preservationists’ task, then, is to fill in the missing plot points and smooth transitions between the missing scenes. They’re writing intertitles, complete with period tints, and consulting a film synopsis and German censorship records to get a better sense of lost scenes.
Mr. Horak also examined five volumes of material compiled by Hirschfeld, in the hope of finding images he could include in the film. Those images will be used to reconstruct a lecture scene in which Hirschfeld talks about how some, but not all, gay men are feminine (he shows relevant photos) and rails against the persecution of homosexuals throughout history. The scene, Mr. Horak admitted, is being created largely from a synopsis, written by Hirschfeld, a few reviews, and little else. “There’s always a certain degree of historical speculation,” Mr. Horak said. “We always want to be clear about that. You’re not seeing the original, because we don’t know what the original looks like.”
The archive hopes to finish the work within the year, although “finished” in the world of film preservation is often a relative term. Every year, there are new finds of supposedly long-lost films — a Mary Pickford silent discovered in a New Hampshire barn, an Orson Welles feature unearthed in an abandoned warehouse in Italy, to cite recent examples — and the preservationists at U.C.L.A. are not giving up hope on finding more “Different” material.
“What if some other source turns up?” Mr. Horak said. “In a sense, you’re never done.”