Sex in Chains
Geschlecht in Fesseln
Directed by William Dieterle — 1928, Germany — 107 minutes (fully restored and complete, despite incorrect 90-minute running time listed on the disc case), black & white, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama
IN BRIEF, a newly-married young man commits manslaughter and is sent to prison, where he encounters same-sex love for the first time, even as his forlorn wife has an affair with her boss; from filmmaker William Dieterle (who later made such Hollywood classics as The Life of Emile Zola), who both directs and stars.
Once you get past the luridly campy title, Sex in Chains (1928) proves to be a work of visually and dramatically astonishing filmmaking, as well as one which illuminates its tortured era of Germany not long before the Nazis seized control. It was both directed by and stars William Dieterle, whose vast filmography also includes such A-list pictures as The Life of Emile Zola and the 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame. But Sex in Chains is a much more freewheeling film than any of Dieterle’s Hollywood productions, as he boldly whips together love story, exposé (perhaps no film has ever campaigned so hard for conjugal prison visits), and nail-biting melodrama. Employing a visual style which ranges from classical to delirious (with an emphasis on the latter), it balances heartfelt romance with discreetly steamy eroticism, of both hetero- and homosexual varieties. As you might expect from such a mix, there are some genuinely silly moments, but many more are inspired, and a few are unforgettable. Although censored after its release, this DVD presents the fully-restored, complete 107-minute original version. This picture is definitely worth seeing, both in its own right, and as part of Kino’s outstanding series of Gay-Themed German Films of the Silent Era (which also includes the first gay film, Different From the Others, and Carl Dreyer’s early masterpiece, Michael – links are to my reviews).
In Sex in Chains, when an out-of-work young engineer named Franz Sommer (Dieterle) accidentally kills a nightclub patron harassing his wife Helene (Mary Johnson), he’s sentenced to three years in prison. Inside the pen, the newly-wed Sommer contends with the realities of men separated from women but not from desire, while outside Helene longs for her husband’s embraces. Destitute, she is offered a job by the socially-conscious industrialist Steinau (Gunnar Tolnaes), who briefly shared a jail cell with Sommer. (Steinau was falsely accused of a crime, and has now become a gung-ho advocate of prison reform.) After no intimate contact for three years, Sommer and Helene are each desperately driven to find release where they can: Sommer in the arms of a handsome new prisoner named Alfred (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) and Helene with her boss Steinau, whose kindness is her only comfort. When Sommer’s prison sentence is finally up, he and his wife must both confront what they have done and who they have become, even as Alfred appears on their doorstep, a bouquet of flowers in his hand for Sommer.
For historical context on Sex in Chains, see the brief remarks on Germany in the 1920s: History, Cinema & LGBTQ Life, in my review of Different From the Others.
Before looking closely at the dramatic and visual pyrotechnics of Sex in Chains, as well as its sometimes contradictory social messages, here is a whirlwind tour of the career of its star and director, Wilhelm Dieterle (1893–1972). (By the way, in Germany Wilhelm Dieterle’s last name was pronounced “DEET-err-luh” but when he moved to the US, he Americanized the pronunciation to “DETT-err-lee,” while changing his first name to William.) As a teenager he began acting on the stage before joining legendary theatre impresario Max Reinhardt in Berlin in 1918 (in 1935 he co-directed Reinhardt’s only sound film, the opulent Hollywood version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Between 1913 and the time he left Germany in 1930, he appeared in over 60 pictures, including two hit costume dramas for Richard Oswald (writer/director of Different From the Others): Lucrezia Borgia (1922) and Carlos and Elisabeth (1924), and such Expressionist classics as Murnau’s spellbinding Faust (as the dashing soldier Valentin) and Paul Leni’s Waxworks (both films 1924); he even played Captain Ahab in a version of Moby-Dick re-titled Demon of the Sea (1930), for which he was also the uncredited director. It would be interesting to compare him in another same-sex role, which would certainly be quite different from the strait-laced Sommer, when he wrote (one of only six scripts by Dieterle), starred in and directed Ludwig II, King of Bavaria (1929), about the flamboyant and openly-gay ruler (his lover Alfred in this film, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, also played a featured role). In 1923 he gave Marlene Dietrich her first major role, opposite himself as star, in a Tolstoy adaptation, Man by the Roadside (Der Mensch am Wege), which he directed. Soon after emigrating to Hollywood, he was signed by Warner Bros., for whom he directed almost three dozen films in the ’30s, from forgotten quickies to well-regarded genre works like the musical comedy Fashions (1934) and the thriller Satan Met a Lady (1936; this was the studio’s second version of The Maltese Falcon, before John Huston’s 1941 “re-re-make”), to such A-list productions, which virtually defined the modern biographical picture, as The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936; best film about science that I’ve seen), The Life of Emile Zola (1937; Best Picture Oscar) and Juarez (1939), all with incomparable lead performances by Paul Muni. In 1939 Dieterle went to RKO, where he made the definitive Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939; one of Charles Laughton’s greatest performances), and the classic fantasy, The Devil and Daniel Webster/All That Money Can Buy (1941), in which he brought Stephen Vincent Benét’s folk tale to life through a fascinating blend of Murnau-like Expressionism and homespun Americana. In the ’40s he turned more to romantic films, including Love Letters (1945; from a screenplay by Ayn Rand!) for Paramount and the haunting Portrait of Jennie (1948) for Selznick. The dozen films he made in the ’50s were neither critically nor commercially successful, and he returned to Europe in 1958. There he made three more movies before retiring in 1960; he died in 1972. Throughout his career as a director, many people noted – but no one unraveled the mystery of why – he invariably wore white gloves on the set.
Sex in Chains was only Dieterle’s fourth work as a filmmaker (he would go on to direct 80 more pictures over three decades), and you can feel him experimenting with the camera, turning himself into a truly visual storyteller. A few of his effects are silly (like the distracting multi-image-filter shot which shows a circle of seven little Sommers going job-hunting – why are we seeing him from an insect-eye POV?: cut that shot, please!), but many more are creative – strikingly beautiful and expressive of his characters’ inner lives, as well as his own evolving aesthetic. Below I look much more at his visual techniques, but to take just one example for now, look at the establishing shot of the prison’s interior: maze-like, shadowy, seemingly endless – made even more unnerving by a looming silhouetted figure striding across the foreground. Through this single image, we know exactly how Sommer feels, even as Dieterle shows off his command of Expressionist riffs; maybe he’s even reminding us that he’s no stranger to art history, as Piranesi’s series of sixteen deeply mysterious etchings, entitled Prisons (1745–1761), also spring to mind. (If he were able to see into the future, he’d notice that this prison is a dead ringer for the one in Wolfgang Petersen’s landmark gay film, The Consequence (1977), about two other men who meet and fall in love behind bars.) Of the Dieterle pictures I’ve seen, the one which best shows his gift for uniting image, narrative, and psychological depth is The Story of Louis Pasteur. In it he not only creates one of the most visually astonishing pictures of the ’30s but also distills a fully living and breathing life into feature-film length (which only a handful of biopics have ever achieved). And it remains unsurpassed at dramatizing the probing essence of science: who would have thought that a picture about the researcher into milk safety could be so visually beautiful and, with perhaps Paul Muni’s greatest performance, so dramatically riveting. But there is also much to dazzle us in Dieterle’s early film, Sex in Chains.
We are fortunate to have, for the first time in over seventy-five years, an absolutely complete version of Sex in Chains, running its full 107 minutes (instead of the 90-minute censored cut, the only one previously available: NOTE that the DVD package incorrectly lists a 90-minute running time despite the fact that this is the 107-minute original). The print used for the DVD was painstakingly restored by Stefan Drössler, of the Filmmuseum München, by conflating a censored 1930 print, from the collection of Moscow’s Gosfilmofond, with one from Berlin’s Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, which contained all of the missing footage (although this Berlin print is less pristine, and you will notice a slight difference in image clarity). Drössler recreated the lost intertitles from old German censorship records, although he does not try to match the Expressionist graphic style of the original titles. Overall this is a first-rate, and the best possible, restoration. There is also an excellent new piano score, although I am confused by who should be credited: the film itself attributes the music to Joachim Bärentz while the DVD lists Pasquale Perris (who composed the exceptional score for Different From the Others).
Sex in Chains is the perfect title for this film. Not only does it sum up the ‘sexual repression’ theme, its level of hyperbole (“in chains”!) nails the picture’s over-the-top visual and dramatic style.
As you would expect from a film directed by a successful professional actor, there are many fine performances, even when the screenplay sometimes works against the characters. The featured players are uniformly fine, from the people Sommer meets on his quests to find a job, in the opening, to the prisoners he shares a cell with. One example of the dozens of small, unique moments which make this film so striking is a young woman whom Dieterle shows us for just a moment, as someone Sommer notices in his first scene, in which he’s involved in a scam to photograph passersby in a park. That woman is absolutely real, perhaps someone who happened to be strolling by on the day of shooting. But she adds a touch of much-needed naturalness, as do the various real-world locations which pop up amidst the many soundstage scenes, to a film which would otherwise be too uniformly artificial and heavy.
Less successful is the co-starring role of Helene Sommer, whose character does not develop organically. I’m not sure whether this problem should be attributed to Johnson (who left acting the same year as this film; she was for a time the wife of Fritz Lang’s frequent star, Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the two screenwriters, or to Dieterle – or all three. In any event, Dieterle places far too much emphasis on her hysterical nature; and while that’s entertaining, it doesn’t ring true, especially during her outrageous ‘mad scenes’ late in the film. After seeing the apartment filled with ghostly images of her hubby, she tears off into the ‘dark and stormy night’ for the prison, where she hammers her fists on the huge door, screaming, “My husband! My husband!” (Only the guard’s snarling dog – you know it had to be a German Shepherd – can chase her off.)
Although it may not have been intentional, one of the weirdest of the film’s many bizarre elements is the lips of Helene’s boss and eventual lover. Steinau, the prosperous and straight-shooting businessman, looks like he’s wearing dark-colored (ruby red?) lipstick. Yes, there are many intriguing sexual aspects to this film, but Steinau’s lips seem like nothing more than a distracting makeup mistake.
The two best characterizations are, perhaps not coincidentally, Dieterle’s and his onscreen male lover’s. (The actor who played Alfred, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, had a long career as a featured actor; intriguingly, he has also the uncredited screenwriter on Murnau’s 1922 Phantom.) Sommer and Alfred’s performances are not so much downplayed as they are subtle, made up of countless small suggestions of who they are. In a film bursting with extravagant visual and melodramatic flourishes, they are the quiet and authentic center. Unfortunately, the screenplay does not introduce Alfred until the film is two-thirds over; below I will look more at that in relation to the overall dramatic structure. The character who principally holds the film together is Sommer.
During the early sequence in which the erstwhile professional Sommer, an engineer, desperately goes looking for a job, any job, Dieterle must have connected with many people in his 1928 audience. In Germany unemployment was at an all-time high (and with the Great Depression just a year away, about to become unimaginably worse). Then as now, who can’t relate to the scene in which the stone-faced Sommer comes up against a prospective boss who demands that he smile if he wants the job. Sommer tries, as hard as he can, to feign a grin. When he fails to get even that menial sales job, our hearts go out to him – meaning that we now have an emotional investment in this character, which will carry us through the film, even when he later begins experimenting with ‘forbidden desire.’
Throughout, Dieterle is adroit at finding tiny, fleeting actions to make his prim character come to life. For instance, after Sommer knocks down his wife’s harasser, and he is frightened and confused about whether the man is dead, he subtly toys with the brim of his hat, bending it, mussing it up. This is one of those quirky little nervous actions you can imagine a real person, as opposed to a fictional construct, doing under such stress. My favorite bit comes in the final scene, after Sommer has been released from prison and is back in his apartment with Helene. After being locked up for three years, he just opens and closes the front door a dozen times with childlike glee, even though he never steps outside. A moment like that – simultaneously cute, creepy, and unforgettable – feels like real life, and helps round off our impression of Sommer as the film’s most fully-developed character. Dieterle’s bits are not always so realistic. Past the middle of the film there is a moment which, in retrospect, is genuinely uncanny. Sommer, briefly in solitary confinement, sketches Helene’s face on the wall – yet it looks much more like the square-jawed Alfred than his wife. Weirdly, Sommer has not yet seen Alfred, who won’t enter the prison until a later scene. (This use of art to ‘summon’ a person also foreshadows the plot device of Dieterle’s fantasy classic, Portrait of Jennie, made 20 years later.)
Dieterle certainly does not lavish his gift for imaginative details solely on his own character. He’s able to imbue even an expository little montage with an emotional charge. As Helene hungrily awaits her husband’s release, she marks off days on three successive calendars (1926, ’27, and ’28) with an erotic charge: notice how she sensuously carsesses the ’28 calendar. When the hunky new prisoner Alfred enters, the fey/gay prisoner sniffs his arm, unsuccessfully covering his desire with the line, “He smells like the outside.” Alfred says nothing, giving him what today would be called ‘attitude.’
Although a savvy filmmaker like Dieterle knew that the “sensational” same-sex relationship would be the selling point of the film, he relegated it entirely to the final third. In fact, most of the film’s dramatic problems are structural, and stem from Herbert Juttke and Georg C. Claren’s ungainly screenplay – although I was never bored. Juttke and Claren (also spelled Klaren) wrote several other films, but none are prominent. Earlier, Claren did work on a couple of scripts for Richard Oswald; later he stayed in Germany to write movies for the Nazis, while Juttke did not. Sex in Chains would have been much stronger if the script had condensed the repetitive, protracted middle section (the prisoners and Helene are really, really horny: we get it) and spent more time developing Sommer and Alfred’s relationship. However, the script does set up an important sociological distinction between the two men’s respective sexual orientations: while Alfred reads as gay, Sommer does not. Alfred seems gay not only because of his clear love for Sommer but because, near the end when he meets his reptilian gay acquaintance (who suggests he blackmail Sommer), we see that he is no stranger to the same-sex demimonde. By contrast, Sommer seems to represent “situational homosexuality,” the condition in some basically straight people who, when completely deprived of opposite-sex opportunities – as in prison – form intimate same-sex bonds for the duration but return to their heterosexual lifestyle upon release. Of course, Sommer and Alfred’s relationship is not just some cinematic illustration of a common psycho-sociological phenomenon; it is heartfelt and moving, although compressed within the final half-hour.
Fortunately, Dieterle makes the most of their limited screen time, most of which is expressed through simple gestures, like Alfred sweetly writing his and Franz’s (Sommer’s) name together in a Bible, or the two men reaching their hands out to touch each other in the night. Many audiences then, as even now, would have been ‘uncomfortable’ with a seemingly straight man going down the primrose path; but that was also what drew them to the theatre in the first place – to peep at the ‘taboo.’ Although what little we see of Sommer and Alfred feels genuine, and hence is very moving, they should have received at least as much attention as the Helene/Steinau coupling.
Some viewers could argue that Alfred is just too good to be true, with his finely-chiseled Nordic features, innocence, and discreetly open-hearted love for Sommer. But I take him at face value; Twardowski and Dieterle present him as real, and to say that the film needs an example of passionate but self-controlled love is, well, an understatement (we see, in several instances, what happens to sexual obsessives). And in case you need a less noble and model-perfect gay character, we have the ‘fey prisoner’ (like all three of the other prisoners, he is given no name, not even in the screenplay). He is shown in many scenes (overall he has at least as much screen time as Alfred), but is never developed beyond a showboating stereotype – one you could still use, as is, in a prime time sitcom today. On the other hand, it’s interesting to see how matter-of-factly all of the other prisoners, and guards, treat him: he’s just another one of the boys. And it can be argued that he’s also an endearing figure, with his energy and self-possession.
While the film’s many melodramatic moments, often centering on Helene, can be enjoyed as camp, its polemical moments, alas, can not. The film’s alternate, full title sums up its split: Geschlecht in Fesseln: Die Sexualnot der Gefangenen, which translates literally as Sex in Chains: The Sexual Desire of Prisoners. While this film has one proverbial foot in over-the-top melodrama, as we’ve seen, its other is planted squarely in sociology and progressive penal reform. In the opening credits, we read that it is “based on work about the sexual desire of prisoners by Franz Hallering and on actual statements by Karl Plättner from his book Eros in Prison, founded on his observations from eight years in prison.”
The film’s didactic side takes two forms. The most in-your-face version comes in the egregiously expository ‘talking heads’ scene near the end, in which Steinau zealously tries, but fails, to convince a nameless Member of Parliament to allow prisoners to let their spouses come for intimate visits. But throughout the entire film we hear the implicit rallying cry of ‘Conjugal Visits NOW!” We see that theme dramatized in many over-the-top scenes, as when an unbelievably horny prisoner kills himself because he’s been so long deprived of his wife, as well as in the respective infidelities of Helene (and Steinau) and, more shockingly to some audience members, Sommer (and Alfred).
The polemical underpinning of the film feels forced, and is responsible for many of its periodic dramatic failings, such as the redundant prison scenes before Alfred’s arrival: half as many would have been twice as effective. This is in marked contrast to, say, Richard Oswald’s equally reform-minded picture, Different From the Others (1919), which is paradoxically more in-your-face didactic yet much more emotionally powerful. That earlier film has a palpable commitment, of both filmmakers and cast, to a much broader, and more inspiring, theme of universal social justice for GLBT and, by extension, all “different” people. You just can’t imagine anyone, including Dieterle, feeling the same kind of passion for something as limited in scope as conjugal prison visits.
What also undercuts the film’s argument for reform is that the prison environment, as Dieterle presents it, doesn’t look so bad at all. Rooms are fairly spacious and clean, there are ample opportunities for showering, the guards are polite, and the cellmates are amusingly quirky (like the one who molds bread crumbs into the shape of a curvaceous woman, and then fondles it). If only it weren’t for that darned intrinsic male super-sex-drive uncontrollable-horniness thing, and the fact that you can’t check out whenever you like (short of suicide), this could be a cozy place to kick back for a while.
In other words, while this film purports to be a realistic domestic drama, when the polemic rears its well-intentioned but very large head, it yanks us out of the psychological integrity of the characters’ story. What saves the film from being a silent-era After School Special, is Dieterle’s brilliantly imaginative command of style. If you’ll allow a musical analogy, what Dieterle achieves here – in blending grim realism with over-the-top design to advance a didactic agenda – is a cinematic equivalent of the ever-popular Verismo form of opera, such as Mascagni’s durable Cavalleria Rusticana [“Rustic Chivalry”] (1890). Here florid image and gesture (especially Helene and the suicidal prisoner) are counterparts to the opera’s music and gesture, all in melodramatic support of a “social problem:” the issue of vendettas in Mascagni, the lack of conjugal prison visits here.
Dieterle’s astonishing visual style – although this film is much more than a mere stylistic ‘excercise’ – raises Sex in Chains above its didactic theme, and makes it exciting to watch even today. (His cinematographer was Walter Robert Lach, who also shot two classics for Pabst, Joyless Street, 1925, and The Loves of Jeanne Ney, 1927; his last film credit comes in 1935.) As with Dieterle’s best later films, there is a fresh juxtaposition of angles in most scenes, almost always with a few shots which are both unexpected (often close-ups) and exactly on target. This is anything but boring master shot / medium shot / over-the-shoulder shot filmmaking. To take just one early example, Dieterle establishes the passion of the newly-wed couple (they’re so sizzling hot for each other that their last name means “Summer”!) through a brief series of fragmented close-ups, obscuring their faces, and then cuts to a bizarre close medium shot of a phallic vacuum-cleaner house inching up on a fluffy white cat. We have instantly gone from Sommer and Helene in the throes of (discreetly fully-clothed) passion to the degrading and ‘unmanly’ job which he has been forced to take. Not only that, Sommer is a dupe, as the wealthy women tricks him into vacuuming her room for free, under the pretext of getting a “demonstration” of the vacuum he’s trying to sell. The film boasts dozens more comparably quirky, emotionally resonant, and unforgettable moments. What makes them work is Dieterle’s inspired cinematic imagination, which includes not only formal mastery but genuine inventiveness. True, he goes overboard at times, but I’d rather see such energetic excess than formulaic convention any day.
Dieterle also keeps the (no pun intended) big picture in mind throughout. Notice how this “…In Chains” film is filled with images of imprisonment, including an endless but subtle array of railings, window frames, slatted park benches, as well as actual prison bars. (One of the film’s most extraordinary images comes during a brief, and necessarily chaste, prison visit for the newlyweds: Sommer falls to his knees and embraces Helene’s legs through the railing.) Dieterle weaves in this motif from the very first scene, with Helene cleaning the stairwell. We see her “behind the bars” of the railing, even as she stands in a liminal zone, with steps leading offscreen in both an upwards and downwards direction. (This stairwell also serves as almost the film’s final shot, although there we have a high angle, looking down on Helene and Alfred.) Although I don’t believe Dieterle was using cheap ‘what does it mean?”-type symbolism, right from the beginning he has imaginatively layed out the emotional core of his story in a single image: being confronted with seemingly different paths, even as we are trapped.
Throughout, there are dozens of highly imaginative images both which feel right for the emotions being expressed and which are visually astonishing. I noted a few at the beginning of this review, including the Expressionistic establishing shot of the prison’s interior, but there are many more. Even a tossaway shot, like the final close-up of Helene in an early office scene with her boss Steinau, can have real visual interest. Dieterle shoots her from above, her neck twisted a bit. Yes, it’s literally from Steinau’s POV but the contortion effect is also a subtle expression of Helene’s twisted feelings. This subtle visual comment is, for me, more effective than her histrionics in later scenes.
Dieterle also makes expressive use of space in his compositions. One especially effective moment is how he presents the minister, preaching to the rows of prisoners (each squeezed into an individual ‘box’) from high up in his pulpit, towering above the men below. He gives a hopeful sermon, but the obvious implication of his spatial disconnection is even more telling. (One can only wonder what he would have to say about Alfred passing a love note, written in his Bible, to Sommer.) Of course, Dieterle is not always at the top of his form, as in the clumsy use of space in the quick three-shot montage in which he shows us how, each year of Sommer’s imprisonment, he and Helene grow farther apart. As we see more space between them in each successive shot, it’s just literalistic silliness. Besides, Dieterle has already made it very clear through the performers, and the compositions in which he places them in the ‘naturalistic’ scenes, how disconnected they feel. (To see just how brilliantly effective an analogy between physical and emotional space can be, note the classic montage in Citizen Kane in which the title character and his wife, as they become ever more estranged, are shown dining at ever-longer tables.)
The most powerful and moving use of space is the nocturnal Sommer/Alfred love scene. Although Dieterle keeps them physically apart, each staying in his respective bed (at least while the camera is rolling), he uses the slow, erotically-charged movement of the panning camera, back and forth between them, again and again, to provide a palpable connection. Even the intertitle dialogue, or conspicuous absence of it in one instance, is exactly right:
Sommer: Alfred, what are you thinking of?
Alred: Place your hand over your heart and promise that you won’t laught at me.
Sommer: I shall never laugh at you.
[There is no intertitle as Alfred clearly mouths, “I love you.” Long pause, then…]
Alfred: You don’t say something. Do you depise me?
Sommer does not answer. When we finally reach the simple but heartfelt climax of the shot, with just their two hands finally clasping, it is perhaps the most affecting moment in the entire film. After holding on that emotional image for several beats, Dieterle cuts to the next scene, allowing each of us to imagine what we will for what happened next between Sommer and Alfred.
NOTE: PLOT “SPOILER” AHEAD! I have structured this review so that I could discuss many aspects of the film, until now, without revealing the ending. If you have not yet seen it, and do not want to know the resolution (which certainly surprised me), read no further. Otherwise, onwards…
The other best-written scene in the film, after the Sommer/Alfred scene discussed above, is the final one, in which the scenarists do not hit us over the head with the obvious. Through Helene’s believable slip of the tongue, Sommer implicitly understands that she has had an affair with Steinau, whom he knew and liked during their brief time together in a holding cell. And when Alfred comes knocking on the door, a big bouquet of flowers in his hand for the man he loves, Sommer does not have to tell Helene anything. She figures it out right away. We understand Sommer’s reaction eloquently, and movingly, from his contorted body language. The little intertitle dialogue we are given is poignant, as when Alfred, clearly hurt but trying to be a gentleman as he leaves, says, “Madame, if I’ve destroyed your happiness, forgive me.” Outside the apartment on the stairwell, which was also the film’s first scene, we have a high-angle master shot of Alfred leaving the flowers on the railing as he walks off, heartbroken but with quiet dignity. But what happens next is just too much.
Helene finds Sommer with his hand on the gas jet: it’s suicide time! Prepare yourself for the tackiest lines in the film, as Helene says, “We belong together, as in love, as in guilt.” Sommer asks, “Even if it can only end this way?” But of course. Not only is their suicide ridiculously pointless, it’s unbelievable. The only possibly “uplifting” aspect to their pathetic end is that the film, at a time when homosexuality was still viewed with disgust by most audience members, there is a sort of twisted equality: Helene’s heterosexual infidelity and Sommer’s homosexual one both result in an identical fate, although by implication this opposite-sex couple is here fatally re-upholding the marital status quo. With queasy hindsight, the last two images we see – heavily-diffused close-ups of their eerily-serene faces, dead from gas poisoning – now can be seen as a hideous reminder of a similar fate, under Hitler, for millions of people.
Even more distrubing than this melodramatic suicide – at the time, suicide was a very popular “curtain” for many movies, plays, and novels – is that the film never seems to understand the implications of its “sinful” view of humanity. Paradoxically, while it comes out slugging in favor of the progressive prison reform it actually holds a dim view of maleness and, by extension, human nature. Men are so intrinically sex-crazed that when they are deprived of regular ‘natural heterosexual gratification’ they will brazenly pinch a waitress (the harasser at the tavern where Helene works, who sets the entire fatalistic plot in motion), or resort to molding bread crumbs into a naked woman (the suicidal prisoner), pass along tales of other inmates “unmanning” (castrating) themselves out of heterosexual frustration (several prisoners), jump a fellow inmate in his sleep (the ‘fey’ prisoner), or twist themselves into emotional knots as well as torturous Expressionist compositions (Sommer, who as Wilhelm Dieterle was literally calling the shots), or commit suicide (the looniest prisoner). Weirdly, sexual self-gratification is never even hinted at. This may have been (melo)dramatically effective for German audiences in the ’20s, and campy fun today, but there is a sinister implication as well.
If men can be so totally throttled by their raging hormones, then they need the strictest possible discipline to contain their destructive lusts. Not only does that imply a very dim – and hopelessly one-sided – view of human nature, it also lays the groundwork for massive oppression for all of society. We can still see this in several cultures, including many in the Middle East, where woman are forced to cover their bodies and faces, even mutilate their own genitals, to “discourage” the ever-lusting men in their midst – who are also socially defined as being more “powerful” and hence “naturally” deserving of dominance. And what about women’s sexuality? The increasingly “lustful” and melodramatically obsessive Helene is hardly a poster girl for feminine integrity.
When a society believes that human nature can so easily run amok, is it any wonder that they clamor for a repressive regime to “order” their lives? Is it any wonder that Hitler rose to power as a fierce opponent of “liberalism” and “immorality,” and that his implacable demand for the most narrowly-defined family values (Kinder, Küche, Kirche: Children, Cooking, Church) played so well in a Germany whose societal moorings had fallen loose, albeit from the defeat in World War I and the subsequent economic catastrophe? Looked at another way, and despite its seemingly liberal pro-conjugal-visits thrust, this film’s view of human nature is bleak indeed. And when the two protagonists choose to end their lives over relatively small and completely understandable infractions of marital decorum – rather than work things out, either together or on their own – it’s no wonder that such desperate feelings of impotence and self-loathing would pave the way for the most tyrannical “father figure” of the twentieth century: from “sex in chains” to a dictator’s dream of a “world in chains.”
At the end of this film, the foolishly self-doomed couple have lost my sympathy, and I find myself caring only about Alfred. As with other gay-themed works from this time, like E.M. Forster’s 1913 novel Maurice or the film Different From the Others, we must imagine our own continuation of stories in which important gay characters do not wind up, to be blunt, dead. What will happen to Alfred in the years ahead, when the Nazis declare all-out war on so many “un-German” groups, including GLBT people? With his Aryan good looks, Alfred could be a poster boy for the Nazis; but as we know from what we see of him in this film, there is much more to him than that, more even than the open secret of his being gay. Will Alfred be strong enough to resist the Nazis’ seductive demagoguery – as he was strong enough, once out of prison, to resist taking up his sleazy gay acquaintance’s advice to blackmail Sommer (“If he’s rich you can get a nice little sum out of him”)? Is he strong enough to remain true to himself? It’s both frustrating and strangely involving to have to invent our own history for such an important character. At least off the screen, actor Hans Heinrich von Twardowski knew enough to leave the Fatherland around 1932 for Hollywood, where he played featured roles, invariably as Nazis (including a bit in Casablanca), for the next dozen years.
Even with its lapses, Sex in Chains is an extraordinary film, and one which I enthusiastically recommend. There is so much visual excitement, the historically groundbreaking relationship of Sommer and Alfred is brief but genuinely moving, and there is more to talk – and argue – about than perhaps even Dieterle and his screenwriters realized.
- Directed by William Dieterle (as Wilhelm Dieterle)
- Written by Herbert Juttke & Georg C. Claren
- Produced by Leo Meyer
- Cinematography by Walter K. Lach
- Art Direction by Max Knaake & Fritz Maurischal
- Makeup by Paul Dannenberg
- Production Management by Fritz Brann
- William Dieterle as Franz Sommer
- Mary Johnson as Helene Sommer
- Gunnar Tolnaes as the manufacturer Steinau
- Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (as H.H. Twardowsky) as Alfred
- Carl Goetz as Prisoner #1
- Friedrich Kurth as Prisoner #2
- Arthur Duarte as Prisoner #3
- Paul Henkels as Helene’s Father
- Hugo Werner-Kahle as the Member of Parliament
- Anton Pointer as the Salesman
This DVD, prepared by the Filmmuseum München and released by Kino, contains not only an excellent restoration but, for the first time since its release, the complete and uncensored 107-minute original version of the film. The sound quality, for the first-rate new piano score, is excellent.
- Original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1
- Silent with English intertitles
- Film Restoration by Stefan Drössler, Filmmuseum München
- Produced for Video by David Shepard, Film Preservation Associates
- $29.95 suggested retail
Reviewed January 27, 2005 / Revised October 27, 2020