How the ‘Einstein of Sex’ Kept the World’s First LGBT Movie Safe from Nazis

A scene from Different from the Others, in which Körner meets his blackmailer (Photo: Courtesy of UCLA Film & Television Archive)

The first LGBT film ever made was released in Berlin, not long after the end of the Great War, and it was almost lost entirely.

A silent film, filled with love, betrayal, art and suicide, Different from the Others argued, very explicitly, that being gay was natural and that the only problem with relationships between two men were the laws that criminalized them. It was co-written by a sexologist and a movie producer, and though it was a popular film, within a year of its release in 1919, it had been banned from cinemas across Germany.

Any of the 30 or 40 original copies that were still around when the Nazi Party took over are now gone; a film like this one would have been singled out for destruction.

Original footage from the movie survived only serendipitously. After the first version of the film was censored, one of the co-writers, the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, patched about 40 minutes of it into another film, a copy of which ended up in a Russian archive, where it sat, untouched, for decades.

Over the past few years, film archivists at UCLA have been working to combine that footage with photos taken from Hirschfeld’s own collection and additional stills from the movie, in order to create a version as loyal to the original as possible. In February, that cut of the film will premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, and audiences will have a chance to see a Different from the Others that’s as close an approximation of the original as has been seen since before World War II.

Looting of Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexology (Photo: Wikimedia)

No copy of the full film has ever been found, so any current version of the film must fill in the gaps with photos and subtitles. But one of the treats of the footage that was saved is the appearance of Hirschfeld himself, in short glimpses, wearing oval-lensed glasses and a thick, dark mustache, corners upturned. He’s less well known in America today than the sexologist Alfred Kinsey, but Hirschfeld was once considered “the Einstein of sex,” a pioneering scientist whose ideas about sexuality were truly new. (He also showed up in the second season of Transparent, in the guise of Bradley Whitford, a.k.a. Josh Lyman.)

Hirschfeld’s own Institute for Sexology opened in 1919 in Berlin. But his radical-for-the-time ideas dated back even further, to the 1890s, when he first proposed that sexuality existed on a spectrum and that homosexuality was a natural orientation for a minority of people.  

Different from the Others was conceived during an unusually free moment in German culture. At the end of 1918, the government had lifted all censorship of books and films, and Hirschfeld’s co-producer, Richard Oswald, wanted to take advantage. He had been finding success with didactic movies that touched on sexual realities, like syphilis or back-alley abortion, and he proposed to Hirschfeld that they collaborate.

The two writers packed into the film both a scientific lecture about sexuality and the story of Paul Körner, a successful violinist, who was played by Conrad Veidt, one of the most famous German actors of his day. Körner and his student, Kurt Sivers, fall in love, but their relationship is marred by a blackmailer, and Sivers flees.

Bereft, Körner recalls the struggle to live with and conceal his sexuality, but then he’s educated by Hirschfeld and comes to terms with it. In the middle of the movie, as Körner is trying to explain to Sivers’ sister why he cannot love her, he takes her to a lecture given by Hirschfeld, who explicates his theory of sex. When Körner's blackmailer is caught and prosecuted, the secret of Körner’s own sexuality comes out, and though he receives only a token official punishment, his professional life is ruined, and he commits suicide. 

A 1919 poster for the film (Photo: Wikimedia)

This plot was drawn from Hirschfeld’s preoccupations. Since the 1890s, he had been fighting against Paragraph 175, a law that criminalized homosexual acts, and arguing that the law did more to assist blackmailers than it did to stop homosexuality. He was also deeply troubled by suicide in the gay community; he once wrote that one of the greatest satisfactions of his life had been to keep at least some people from killing themselves.

By 1919, though, Hirschfeld was already, in some ways, old-fashioned, “an avant-gardist of the belle époque,” whose rivals for leadership in the gay rights movement thought of him as “a fossil of a bygone era," as James Steakley, an academic who studies 20th century gay history in Germany, writes. But if the plot and storyline were drawn from the pre-War era, the movie was still a radical piece of culture. When it came out in May 1919, nothing so accepting of and positive about homosexuality had ever been shown on film before.

Where the film was distributed, it filled movie houses. But in some parts of Germany, screenings were banned almost immediately or restricted to audiences of people over the age of 20. Within a few months, Hirschfeld and Oswald were organizing special screenings for politicians, with little success. The opposition to the film (and others made in this free period) was so strong that by 1920, the parliament had reinstated censorship. Different from the Others was quickly banned–in part on the recommendation of Hirschfeld’s rivals, who claimed to cure homosexuality with hypnotism, which the film depicted as an ineffective ruse.

Hirschfeld was still allowed to show the film at his own institute, but he wanted it to have a wider audience. Over the next few years, he tried to edit the film into some form that would make it past the censors, and, very briefly, in 1927, he succeeded. His movie Laws of Love was an educational picture, which combined David Attenborough-esque nature footage of sex in the animal kingdom with parts of Different from the Others.

The film was shown in theaters for just a week and was not well reviewed, before it was yanked from public distribution. A version of that movie, though, made it to Russia, where it stayed safe (and forgotten) for decades.

Some of the images in Hirschfeld's collection (Photo: Wellcome Images/Wikimedia)

In the later decades of the 20th century, the most widely seen copy of the film was just 24 minutes, a version that had been edited in 1928 to evade censorship. In 2004, though, the Munich Film Museum rescued the footage from the archive and cut together a restored version. “The Munich version was a breakthrough,” says Steakley, who translated the text for the English version.

It's also the basis for the new cut of the film. Jan-Christopher Horak, now director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, oversaw that earlier restoration, and, when he came to California, started working with Outfest, an L.A. organization that promotes LGBT films, on a new version, based on that same footage from the Moscow archive. 

“We have about half the film, maybe slightly more,” says Horak. “That’s all there actually is. There has been a search all over the world, but so far no one has found more. No print was found in other countries. We’re lucky to at least have some of this material.”

The version that will premiere in February at the Berlinale makes some improvements on the 2004 German version, though. Horak says that a “very, very long synopsis of the film,” found in censorships records, gave them additional hints as to how the existing footage should be ordered and how the plot worked. The latest version also has newly uncovered stills from the film, some of which were saved in film magazines from the time, including an additional shot from Körner’s funeral.

The most important update, though, may be to the lecture that Hirschfeld gives. In the film, he showed his own slides about the nature of human sexuality, including people in gay and lesbian relationships, as well as transgendered and transsexual people. In the new version, those slides come from Hirschfeld’s four-volume history of sexuality, which includes selections from his photo archive and from the photos that once hung on the wall of his Institute for Sexology.

“We can’t say for certain that these were the actual images in the film,” says Horak. “But they could have been.”

With the information available, this may be the best version of the film that can be made–unless, by chance, there's more original footage, somewhere in the world, hidden away.