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'Different from the Others'

Every now and then, something comes up in my schoolwork that really does interest me. Something that I desperately look forward to reading and researching. Something that makes me think, “ah, so this is what I’m here for!”. And while there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to concentrate on it, you can bet I’ll be able to rant and rave to you about it.


(Now, some of you may think it’s a bit lazy, that it’s missing the brief somewhat, to take something directly from academic studies and transplant it into our feel-good queer blog. But, like, shut up xoxo) 

Released in 1919, Different from the Others, (German, Anders als die Andern), was the first film of the Weimar Republic to consider queer themes, and is believed by some to be the first film worldwide with a gay protagonist. Although ultimately a tragedy, and in some respects a hard watch for the queer viewer, the depth and range of queer identities it features and explores really is remarkable, given the extent of queer oppression still ravishing much of the world today. And when we are so often told that our identities are just fashion trends, that we “didn’t exist in the olden days...”, and all the rest of it, it can be incredibly refreshing and validating to see such open, visual evidence of the existence of our queer ancestors.  


If you haven’t watched it yet, I’m not going to spoil it too much – especially as it’s not really the plot itself that struck me most. Rather, it’s the film’s background aspects, its de rigueur portrayal of the range of queer identities, and the joy to be found in queer communities, which I think particularly merits sharing. 


In one particularly notable scene, the protagonist, Paul, finds himself in one of Berlin’s queer clubs. While his reason for being there, of course, fits into the plot (though I won’t spoil that here), the presence of queer couples dancing in the background is not explained in any way. They just exist. Remember as well that we’re not talking here about the height of the (up to a point) “liberal” Weimar Republic; this film was released in 1919, and the sort of queer spaces it explores had existed long before, and indeed had been explored by the film’s (gay) co-author, Max Hirschfield, a sexologist, or Sexualwissenschaftler, and advocate of queer rights, long before the advent of Weimar.  


Particularly notable about this scene is the range of queer identities it shows. Unlike other landmark queer films, which are often accused of focussing too much on one identity, in the background of this scene we see all sorts of expressions of gender and sexuality, all of which are recognisable to us today, and all of which are still somehow contested in various places around the world.  


One of the most interesting parts for me (which I think ought to be mandatory viewing for politicians, transphobes, keyboard warriors, and so on) is a lecture attended by Paul, given by an unnamed Sexualwissenschaftler (literally, “sexual scientist”), played by Hirschfield himself. As part of the lecture, the relatively new media of film is put to good use, where we are shown inset images and videos of trans and androgynous individuals. We see both the malleability of our bodies and the fluidity of gender – in society and in individuals. The Sexualwissenschaftler  explains the dangers of stereotypes in queer culture, outlines the differences between sex, gender and sexuality, and covers the decades’ worth of scientific progress on understandings of queerness. The whole film, in fact, outlines how acceptance and understanding of queer identities comes from research and science, contrasting it with the illogical and inhumane prejudices of society, and the dangerous, pseudo-scientific thinking behind conversion therapy. 

 

As a contemporary queer person, seeing this provoked differing responses in me. On one hand, it’s really quite frustrating – shameful, even – that queer oppression is still so prominent today. In a German context, the film’s most prominent demand, that the criminalisation of male homosexuality be ended, was never achieved in the apparently liberal Weimar Republic. Indeed, the first laws to decriminalise gay male relationships wouldn’t be achieved until 1968 in East Germany, and 1969 in West Germany.  

I also couldn’t help but contrast the nuanced, empathetic and research-based advocation of trans rights and identities by the Sexualwissenschaftler, effectively representing the real-life views and findings of Hirschfield, with the prejudiced, ill-informed and deeply harmful transphobia spat out by so many in public life today – not least by the UK’s current Prime Minister.  


What this film also shows though, is something we should really know already, but is all too easy to forget: namely, that queer people have always existed. In some societies, we may not have been considered queer; in others, it has been tried to write us out of history. But this latter attempt has failed. Evidence of our ancestors’ queerness – in their sexuality, gender, approaches to romance, and in so many other areas – does exist, and with every passing day, more is being found.  


And the next time I hear ill-informed comments – whether from family, politics, or wherever else it may be – trying to question the validity of our identities, I’m going to think back to this film. I’m going to think back to these images, of queer people in all their glory, living as their authentic selves and loving one another. And I’m going to make sure that my queer history will never be unwritten.  


If you are interested in seeing this film, DVDs in both the original German and in English translation are available in the university library. They’re on level 4, at the far end, on the top shelf, beside those little individual desks where people abandon their laptops for 6 hours so no one else can sit there... 

And while there are problematic aspects (notably in its quite scientific language, and some reflections of Hirschfield’s own prejudiced views around sex work), I really do think it is worth watching.  

(or if you don’t like silent films, watch Big Boys on Channel 4. It’s really good too xx) 


By clio (they/she)

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