Geschlecht in Fesseln / Sex in Chains (1928, Germany)
This is not a softcore exploitation movie, 1928-style. You’ll find it filed under ‘Gay-Themed Films of the German Silent Era.’ But while it is all of those things, it is also much more: a push for penal reform, a brave contribution to the debate about the purpose of punishment, and some poignant studies in guilt and prisoners’ longing for intimacy.
Wilhelm Dieterle directs and stars in what must have been a very controversial film in its day. He plays Franz Sommer, a big, sappy engineer who has lost his job and has resorted to selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. His wife, Helene (Mary Johnson), starts work as a cigarette girl to make ends meet. One night she is being pestered by an older gent, and Franz just happens to drop by and see it all happening. He intervenes. Push comes to shove and the older man falls on some concrete steps, hits his head, and some time later, dies. Franz cops three years in the slammer.
While awaiting trial Franz had shared a cell with an industrialist, Herr Steinau (Gunner Tolnæs), whose make-up is so thick it gives him a Joker-like appearance at times (I don’t think we’re supposed to read anything into this), and when bailed he promises to look after Frau Sommer. The charges against him are duly dropped and he is good to his word; he offers Helene a job, supports her throughout her husband’s trial, and continues to actively campaign for penal reform, even though he could leave it all behind.
The prison in which Franz is held seems a humane one. Sure they don’t get out of their cell too often (and when they do, it’s just to walk in a circle in the exercise yard), but the cell in extremely spacious and the inmates get to do hobby work – making toys – with hammers and all sorts of interesting tools. But they don’t get conjugal visits. And the rest of the film is concerned primarily with the prisoners’ (and Helene’s) sexual desire and longing for intimacy, and their difficulties in obtaining relief from it.
It’s a theme Genet later explored in Un Chant D’Amour (1950), but one which has rarely been covered in prison movies since. One young prisoner fondles a naked (gingerbread man-sized) woman he has made out of breadcrumbs. There is talk of another prisoner who ‘unmanned’ himself in order to try to get some sleep, and the breadcrumb man, newly married, also tries to emasculate himself and then, as his madness grows, kills himself with a guard’s gun, unable to bear his sexual frustration any longer. Franz returns from a visit with his wife’s handkerchief, and three of the men fight over it, all trying to retrieve her scent. The official response is unsympathetic: Franz gets three days in solitary for smuggling the item back from the visit.
There is lots of sensuous longing, and not just from the prisoners. Helene rails at the prison gates, beating them with her fists and crying out for her husband. She is driven away by the prison guard dog and runs to find comfort in the accommodating arms of Herr Steinau. Awkward. Not what Franz understood by, “I’ll look after your wife.” Meanwhile, a new prisoner, Alfred, is introduced into Franz’s cell and soon professes his feelings for Franz. They touch. They presumably do more than touch, although the opportunities for privacy would seem to be few and it’s all handled very discreetly. Franz cheers up. When the prison warden affords him and Helene some unsupervised time together, they remain frozen, both burdened by guilt that they cannot talk about.
When Franz is released, he and Helene are very different people to those of three years earlier. Their cruel estrangement, the film argues, is largely the fault of the prison system for punishing them beyond locking them up. But their respective guilt and infidelity exposed, they choose not to go on. One wonders how it is that some relationships survive four years and even more.
Posted on October 11th, 2009 at 7:19 pm. Updated on October 16th, 2009 at 6:12 am.
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