Lesbian Traces in Film

From the beginning to 1933

Zapatas BandeI Don't Want to be a ManDifferent from the OthersPandora's BoxGirls in UniformAnna and ElisabethVictor and Victoria

During the first years of film history attraction between women in German silent films only occurred by way of a hint and could easily be missed at the margin and mainly in breeches parts1.

Out of need or maybe also as an humorous attempt of deception a woman puts on men’s clothes (breeches) to be able to act in a certain situation or treat a certain person differently from what would be dictated by her role as a woman.2 In the course of action between the woman in breeches and a traditionally dressed woman, the latter usually tricked by the “breeches”, even a kiss could happen (Zapatas Bande, Urban Gad, 1914) or just a flirtation attraction with the eyes (Ich möchte kein Mann sein [I don't want to be a Man], Ernst Lubitsch, 1918). Both disappear at the latest when the real gender is revealed and with this the attention of a woman that concerns the disguised woman seems disappears and she seems feel uncomfortable about it.

Asta Nielsen is acting Asta Nielsen, who for the making of a film takes on the part of Zapata and with her gang stupidly does not attack the awaited film carriage but the accidentally passing by Countess Bellafiore and her beautiful daughter Elena. Elena is so very delighted by the “beautiful gangster” (Intertitle!) that she kisses him immediately on his lips – which Asta Nielsen is unable to fight back, but would like to prevent. Also some scenes later on she is not very pleased when she – without knowing – breaks into Elena’s room and Elena understands this break in as an act of love. Anyway, Elena proves to be very clinging, is always looking for body contact and likes to be kissed. The fun of the scene relies on this very despair of Nielsen, to avoid those certain and very direct overtures without giving away her masquerade.

Nevertheless, “cross dressing” films like to play with the cliché of men generally being open to erotic interests of an (attractive) woman and would therefore rise suspicion to their sexual identity by a non plausible disinterest. The “mistaken identity of gender” (meaning a non heterosexual attraction) often causes embarrassing situations for at least one of the involved parties, because on the one hand she is not what she claims to be (and therefore being discovered) and on the other hand neither can nor will fulfil the allocated role of this claimed identity.

Ossi Oswalda résumé of her disguise act, I don’t want to be a Man” is put at an end of an odyssey through a man’s world. Not only does she have to drink and smoke like a man, no, the women cover her with their coats end expect Ossi heavily loaded to manoeuvre her way through to the cloakroom. The attention of the women at the soiree only then becomes inconvenient to her when their arisen expectations turn into stress: Ossi is expected to fulfil every duty that is considered to be those of a cavalier and this is just too much for her. Ernst Lubitsch deliberately carries his ironic act to the extreme by letting Ossi being thrown out of the lady’s room by raging women and her not bringing up the courage to go for the men’s room.3 By this clearly defined bathroom rules it becomes obvious: for a woman like Ossi who wears men’s clothes and therefore has the rights and duties of men there is no room.

During this night Ossi meets her guardian who has forbidden her – as a woman – to drink and smoke and other “unwomanly” behaviour. He does not recognize her but gets to like this young man very much and they close friendship over a drink. In a cosy twosome cuddled together – they even kiss! – and eventually completely drunk brought home by a coachman. The clearly obvious homosexual component of this hearty friendship between men does not arise neither embarrassment nor an escape tendency among those involved. To the contrary, in the morning after unspectacularly discovering Ossi’s true identity their reciprocal apparently homosexual attraction changes into an obvious equal heterosexual relationship.

Just a short time later a film was shot that not only did juggle with a homosexual hint but picked out homosexuality as a central topic in a serious drama. “Anders als die anderen [Different from the Others]” (Richard Oswald, 1919) shows the fate of a gay musician who gets black mailed because of his homosexuality and eventually takes his own life. The film – casting Magnus Hirschfeld – commented on section 1754 of the German law and calls for its abolishment. Lesbians were not a topic but it could be assumed that at first showing5 also lesbians were among the viewers.6

In 19287 the scandal play “Die Büchse der Pandora [Pandora’s Box]” (Georg Wilhelm Pabst) was put into film under the same title by Frank Wedekind8 Lulu is charming all men with her appeal and so brings ruin upon them and eventually is murdered as a prostitute. The countess Geschwitz is immensely fond of Lulu and in the depiction of her character (as an independent costume designer, very determined and obviously courting Lulu) is regarded as the prototype of lesbians in film as they are known today.9 Although Pabst as against to the plays very much abridged Geschwitz’s character the lesbian desire is visible in those few scenes.10 One of her first appearances shows her smoking, dressed with a bow-tie and casually leaned against a piano as she watches Lulu and Alwa with a stern face. Later on the countess Geschwitz and Lulu dance together on the wedding of the latter. Whereas for Lulu it seems to be a provocative sort of fun the countess seems to be very solemn and vulnerable. Cuts towards the watching countess illustrate her desire since she permanently keeps her eyes on Lulu. As there are drinks offered to the guests the countess runs up to Lulu, hugs her and hastily turns away. When Lulu is sentenced because of murder to her husband and has to flee it is the countess who gives her passport to her. And even more often, each time Lulu gets into trouble it will be Geschwitz helping her out. Unscrupulously Lulu talks her into seeing to Rodrigos, to flirt with him and to give in to his overtures so that he will not betray Lulu to the police. There is no other reason why the countess should take on all this except that she loves Lulu.

The first film explicitly featuring lesbian desire – “Mädchen in Uniform [Girls in Uniform]” (director: Leontine Sagan, overall director: Carl Froelich11) in 1931 at the same time is an all time international classic that represents a milestone in German film history.12 “Girls in Uniform” bases on the autobiographically influenced play “Gestern und heute [Yesterday and today]” by Christa Winsloe.13 The film takes place around the turn of the century and tells the tale of the young girl Manuela von Meinhardis who within the strict girls boarding school falls for the friendly teacher Miss von Bernburg. When after a stage presentation Manuela slightly tipsy announces that she loves Miss von Bernburg the mother superior, personifying manners and order, considers this as a scandal and threatens to take on certain actions. Therefore Manuela in despair wants to jump of the flight of stairs into the depth of death but is saved.

In addition to the soft-focusing lens a number of close-ups of Manuela’s face full of adoration and dedication aim at her emotional bond with Miss von Bernburg. The lonely girl, just having to come to terms with this unfamiliar surrounding, is especially open to the warmth of the friendly teacher. This not necessarily erotic attraction between those two women gets an additional shimmering note when the camera shows all the girls in the dormitory. Standing next to their beds, their eyes closed, their lips pursed to receive the hoped for kiss the girls wait for the appearance of their beloved teacher. “She snogs everyone – wonderful!” the girl of the bed next to Manuela’s excitedly whispers to her. But Manuela will not be kissed by Miss von Bernburg chastely on the forehead like all the others, no, Miss von Bernburg takes Manuela’s face into her hands and kisses her on her lips.

The girl’s feelings especially for this teacher but also for each other has been admitted so much room and so many pictures so that the willing film watching viewer of the 21st century is asking wistfully which way lesbian film history would have gone without the ‘Third Reich’.14

Neither the explosive topic of Prussian pitilessness which makes up the second motive of the play, was greeted full heartedly by the Nazi’s nor the lesbian content. The film was forbidden and at this time was only shown abroad.15

Anna und Elisabeth [Anna and Elizabeth]” (Frank Wysbar) 1933 took up the success of “Girls in Uniform” but the affection between the two protagonists is possibly read as a platonic friendship. It is very interesting that once again Hertha Thiele (i.e. Manuela von Meinhardis) and Dorothea Wieck (i.e. Miss von Bernburg) act together. Anna (Hertha Thiele) has the reputation to work miracles. The paralysed Elisabeth (Dorothea Wieck) desperately asks Anna to work such a miracle on her. Again with soft-focusing lens and heart throbbing pain the emotional intensity between those two women is put into scene but this time the subtle erotic would not want to really take a grip. Heavy, glutinous and dark the drama mirrors itself in its gloomy decor and costumes. Hardly being finished in Italy this film was forbidden by the Nazi’s.16

In the same year “Victor und Victoria [Victor and Victoria]” by Reinhold Schünzel was made.17 Out of financial despair Susanne acts as a man that again at the variety pretends to be a woman. Soon Viktor/Susanne falls for Robert, for whom she will not be considered as a man. Living this conflict at this point there remains nothing left to do for her than to compete with him in his masculinity. Thus, in a dive after a flirtatious exchange of views between her and another woman a vivacious pub fight since the companion of her flirt partner not only is a giant but also lacks an essential portion of humour... Robert, already knowing that Viktor actually is Susanne (sure, otherwise he would get a gay touch) protects Viktor by more or less starting the brawl. Both of them fight back energetically until all person present are involved and they can more or less steal away unseen.

Another really beautiful scene is certainly indirectly built around Robert again. Viktor aka Susanne is furiously jealous of the mundane Lady Elinor who threatens to snatch away Robert. Viktor wants to go to the bottom of this fear and in his/her absurdly desperate Viktor almost make the Lady fall for her/him.18

The oncoming national socialistic Government did make any film production impossible that would be relevant for lesbian film history and its destruction of politically and socially not wanted representations could still be felt far into the fifties.

© Ingeborg Boxhammer (Bonn 2005)
Anke Sauerbrey (Translation, Bonn 2005)

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[1] The term „Breeches part“ stems from the world of theatre and refers to women that wears men’s clothes on stage. Further information concerning history and definition of the term “breeches part” in: Frauen in Hosen. Hosenrollen im Film. Texte und Materialien. Eine Dokumentation von Madeleine Bernstorff und Stefanie Hetze. Eine Filmreihe im Münchner Filmmuseum 15. bis 18. Juni 1989. Münchner Filmzentrum e. V. (Hrsg.). Munich 1989.
[2] Wolfgang Theis did once perfectly point it out: „With the exchange of trousers or skirts irritating situations occur that the viewer fills with their own experiences. Homosexuality ist not explained but displayed or offered.“ Wolfgang Theis: Tanten, Tunten, Kesse Väter. 100 Jahre Travestie im Film, in : Rundbrief Film: Filme in lesbisch-schwulem Kontext. No. 3, Dez 95/Jan 96, pp. 187-190, p. 187.
[3] Concerning this Lubitsch film also look at: Heide Schlüpmann, "Ich möchte kein Mann sein“, Ernst Lubitsch, Sigmund Freud und die frühe deutsche Komödie, in: KINtop. Jahrbuch zur Erforschung des frühen Films. Früher Film in Deutschland 1. Basel Frankfurt/ Main 1993, pp. 75-93.
[4] Section 175 was later portrayed and discussed in the TV documentary "Die Homosexuellen - Paragraph 175" (1965), the documentary „Rosa Winkel? Das ist doch schon lange vorbei…“, Germany 1975/76, directed by Peter Recht, Detlef Stoffel, Christiane Schmerl [https://www.glbtq.com/arts/symbols.html, 2005], the British production "Desire - Sexuality in Germany 1910-1945" UK 1989, directed by Stuart Marshall, in which Hilde Radusch is seen, see Hilde Radusch also in "Muß es denn gleich beides sein?" Germany 1985, by Pieke Biermann and Petra Haffter; the documentary concerning the Hamburg area „Verzaubert - Drittes Reich und Wirtschaftswunder - Geschichten vom anderen Ufer“ by Dorothee von Diepenbrock, Jörg Fockele, Jens Golombek, Dirk Hauska, Sylke Jehna, Claudia Kaltenbach, Ulrich Prehn, Johanna Reutter and Kathrin Schmersahl, Germany 1994, and the co-produciton „Paragraph 175“, UK/Germany/USA 1999, directed by Jeffrey Friedman, Robert Epstein. In the latter Annette Eick was interviewed as the only lesbian. See for Eick also "Immortal Muse" UK 2005, directed by Sue Giovanni.
[5] The first showing was on May 28th 1919 in Berlin. Therefore see the program of the Bonn summer cinema: International silent movie festival. 20th Bonn Sommerkino. Bonn 2004, p. 32. „[The film was banned on 8/18/1920 “with the proviso that the showing would be alowed for certain group of people which include physicians and medical personnel, in educational and scientific institutions.”] Source, for example: https://www.wernerkuespert.de/html/anders_als_die_anderen.html, 2005.
[6] In 1927 Magnus Hirschfeld shot and directed a film “Gesetze der Liebe: Schuldlos geächtet!” [“Laws of love – innocently proscribed!”]. Only the last episode remained which is an uncut short version of “Anders als die anderen”. See 20th Bonn summer cinema.
[7] The first showing was on February 9th 1929 in Berlin. Concerning the early Wedekind film also turn to: Ilona Brennicke / Joe Hembus, Klassiker des deutschen Stummfilms 1910-1930. With pictures from copies by Gerhard Ullmann and a preface by Xaver Schwarzenberger. Munich 1983, pp. 150-156.
[8] The film bases on the „Lulu“ dramas „Die Büchse der Pandora“ (published in 1903) and „Erdgeist“ (published in 1895). Already an 1923 there was a film of the latter: “Erdgeist”. Germany 1923. Director: Leopold Jessner. Remakes: Austria 1962: “Lulu” Director: Rolf Thiele and 1979 as a German Italian Co-production “Lulu” Director: Walerian Borowczyk.
[9] See Karin Jurschik, Der andere Blick, in: 100 Jahre Frauen & Kino. Bielefeld 1996. pp. 32-40, p. 33.
[10] Therefore also see Rosi Kreische, Lesbische Liebe im Film bis 1950, in: Eldorado, op.cit., p. 190f.
[11] In this case Froelich Toeplitz suggests to speak of „co-directory“. Hertha Thiele had regarded Froelich as the real director whereas Dorothea Wieck assigned Sagan to this function. Toeplitz – whose five volumes of film history is still considered a standard – had his difficulties with the lesbian content that even he could not have overseen: „Manuela’s exaggerated love of Miss von Bernburg belongs to the field of psychology, yes possibly even borders on pathology.“Compare: Jerzy Toeplitz, Geschichte des Films. Bd. 2: 1928-1933. Berlin 1992 (Polish first in 1955, German first in 1972), p. 217f.
[12] According to Huebner this film set off a scandal in the 30s. This probably was the reason why already during after war times a number of directors wanted to use the material for a film until in 1957 Geza von Radvanyi did it with Romy Schneider and Lilly Palmer. Despite that Huebner also claimed that the draft came from F. D. Adam whereas according to all other sources F. D. Andam (i.e. Friedrich Dammann, www.filmportal.de, 2005) wrote the script together with Christa Winsloe. Compare Michael O. Huebner, Lilli Palmer. Ihre Filme - ihr Leben. Munich 1986, pp. 129 -134.
[13] Winsloe wanted to show that in Prussian boarding schools the loving girl’s soul would be destroyed. Despite of that the films ends with Manuela being saved. Thus after the showing of the film Winsloe rewrote the play “Gestern und heute [yesterday and today]”, that before had been on stage as “Ritter Nérestan [knight Nérestan]”, into a novel with the title “Das Mädchen Manuela [The Girl Manuela]” (published in 1933 in Amsterdam, therefore go to Christa Winsloe) that many years later (the Nazis had banned it in 1933!) was published with the title “Mädchen in Uniform [Girls in Uniform]” by the publishing company Frauenoffensive and then by Daphne. Therefore see the epilogue by Susanne Amrain, Christa Winsloe - die berühmte Unbekannte, in: Christa Winsloe, Mädchen in Uniform. Göttingen 1999, pp. 275-281, p. 276.
[14] The first showing was on November 27th 1931 in Berlin. Compare www.filmportal.de, 2005.
[15] Concerning the stage and perception history of “Mädchen in Uniform” and “Anna und Elisabeth” see Heide Schlüpmann, Karola Gramann, Momente erotischer Utopie - ästhetisierte Verdrängung, in: Frauen und Film (fuf), 28/1981, p. 28-47, und Rainer Rother, Rückblick auf Preußen? Zweimal „Mädchen in Uniform“, in: filmwärts 22/1992, pp. 47-53.
[16] Schlüpmann, Gramann, 1981, same place., p. 43. Concerning questions of film censorship turn to Ursula von Keitz, Filme vor Gericht. Theorie und Praxis der Filmprüfung in Deutschland 1920 bis 1938, at: https://deutsches-filminstitut.de, 2004.
[17] Despite his Jewish faith the actor (among others in “Different from the Others” 1919, where he acts as the blackmailer!) and director was under special protection of Hitler for some time. Because of increasing difficulties he emigrated into the US in 1937. For detail of his biography turn to https://deutsches-filminstitut.de/dt2tp0052.htm, 2005.
[18] The film and Schünzel’s script – there also exists a French version of his film, “Georges et Georgette” – was the draft among others for “First a Girl” Great Britain 1935. Director: Victor Saville; for “Viktor und Viktoria” West Germany 1957. Director: Karl Anton and for “Victor/ Victoria” USA 1982. Director: Blake Edwards. In Edward’s film the character of Robert (played by James Garner with King Marchand as the name of his role) shows explicitly more open features; though he is a self declared Macho he becomes unsure of his sexual identity when Victoria shows herself as Victor. Certainly the incontrovertible laws of gender attraction will be reinstalled in the end: his instinct (= I only react to women, so he has to be a woman) was right. Here Victor (Julie Andrews) does not stir much attention with the female audience.
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