2016 sees the 100th anniversary of what has been called the first feature-length gay-themed film: Mauritz Stiller’s Vingarne (1916). Whether or not it is indeed valid to refer to the film as “gay-themed” is, perhaps, in the eye of the beholder, but first a little bit of context.
By the time of the birth of cinema in the mid-1890s, Germany had become home to what was effectively the world’s first gay-rights movement. In the 1860s, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs had coined the term Urnings to describe what would today be called gay men. Ulrichs, like the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld who would follow two decades later, was a believer in what became known as the ‘third sex’ theory, which Richard Dyer sums up as the belief that ‘a man was a heterosexual man, a woman a heterosexual woman, and it followed that people who were not heterosexual were therefore neither one thing nor the other, neither a real man nor a real woman but something in-between’.[i] In other words, the belief was that homosexuality was the result of nature, not nurture, although still viewed as a departure from the norm. Ulrichs used this belief as the basis for his appeal to the Reichstag in 1870 in which he hoped to liberate Urnings from penal law. In this appeal, he stated: ‘in all creation, no other living creature endowed with sexual feeling is required to engage in life-long suppression of this powerful drive, causing it to consume itself in cruel self-matyrdom’.[ii] However, despite Ulrich’s eloquent and heartfelt appeal, in 1871 homosexual acts between men were further criminalised both within Germany and throughout the German Empire via what became known as Paragraph 175.
Building on Ulrich’s efforts, Dr Magnus Hirschfeld (above)began his campaign for the repeal of Paragraph 175 in the 1880s, and the prevalence of blackmail was one of the major arguments Hirschfeld used in his 1897 appeal to the Reichstag. This, and all later appeals by Hirschfeld, were unsuccessful with the exception of a vote for reform in 1929. Blasius and Phelan write that ‘in 1929, socialist and communist Reichstag delegates voted to reform Paragraph 175, but this proposal was scathingly denounced by the burgeoning Nazi Party, which repudiated Weimar culture as decadent and promised to wipe out homosexuality’.[iii] Hirschfeld left Germany for a world tour in 1930, never to return. He died in Paris in 1935, just over a year after watching newsreel images showing the destruction of his Sexual Institute and the burning of its library by the Nazis.
Though Hirschfeld’s name is recognisable today due to his work for gay rights, there was also a second, distinct gay movement in Germany during the same period. This was known as the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen/Community of the Self-Owned, and was headed by Adolf Brand. Brand and his followers believed in what Glenn Ramsey calls an ‘older, nationalistic aesthetic of classical male eros or Freundesliebe (‘friend-love’ between males)’.[iv] Brand was also the founder and editor of the world’s first gay journal, Der Eigene, which was devoted to fiction, articles, photographs and drawings which celebrated Brand’s concept of homosexuality. The journal ran intermittently from 1896 until 1932. Brand’s opinion of what a homosexual man should be and how he should act led to a number of attacks on Hirschfeld’s theories and the more effeminate (and often eccentric) gay men with whom he associated. In contrast to Hirschfeld, Brand and his followers were advocates of a teacher-pupil model of male/male relationships. The love of an older man for a younger one – the sort of relationship advocated by Brand – had also been spoken about by Oscar Wilde during his infamous trials.
The silent era saw two films based on the novel Mikael by gay Danish author Hermann Bang: Vingarne/The Wings (Mauritz Stiller, 1916) and Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1924). The narrative centres on the relationship between an older artist and his younger protégé. Both films follow the same basic plot: Zoret, an aging artist, helps and supports Michael, a young aspiring artist who also models for him.[v] The two begin a relationship (whether sexual or totally platonic is only hinted at through the subtexts of both films) but, through Zoret, Michael meets a Princess and the two begin an affair. Michael sells the gifts Zoret has given him, as well as borrowing and then stealing from him in order to sustain his now luxurious lifestyle. As Zoret becomes aware of the affair and the fact that he has been used by Michael, his health deteriorates rapidly and he dies before Michael can reach him in order to make peace with his mentor.
Vingarne survives today only in fragmented form, but Michael has been issued on DVD both in the USA and in Europe, with the American release part of Kino’s series called ‘Gay-Themed Films of the Silent Era.’ The problem with discussing “gay-themed films” of the silent era is that, all too often, modern ideas of queerness, masculinity and sexuality have been transplanted onto these texts created over 90 or 100 years ago. In the case of Vingarne, we are now privy to information regarding many of the participants in the film that encourages a queer reading even though this information would not have been widely-known at the time of release.
In Vingarne, the narrative is supplemented by a framing device in which the director, Mauritz Stiller, and the actors all play themselves during the casting and making of the film. This involves a sequence where Nils Asther is cast in the role of Michael and filming begins, only for Asther to be told by Stiller early on in the production that he thinks he is too young and inexperienced an actor to play the role. He is replaced by Lars Hanson in the role of Michael, although Asther remains on set during the production. Once the film has been made, the cast and crew attend the opening of Vingarne which we, the audience, then watch as a film within a film. Once the premiere screening is over, attention once again turns to the cast and crew as Egil Eide, who plays Zoret in the film, attempts to console Asther after his advances towards Lili Bech, the actress playing the Princess, are rejected.
Richard Dyer, in the second edition of Now You See It, goes to great pains to suggest that this framing device is significant when exploring the homosexual element of the film, not least because of the sexuality of both Stiller and Asther who were gay and bisexual respectively and who themselves had a relationship.[vi]
However, there are problems here, not the least of which is that this whole framing section of the film is lost, leaving us with just the film within a film section, ie. the dramatisation of Bang’s novel. While the current restoration reconstructs the beginning and end section of the film in detail with stills and explanatory intertitles, it is difficult to explore these sections of the film and come to conclusions without resorting to supposition. What the framing device clearly does give us, however, are examples of the mentor/pupil relationship advocated by Adolf Brand, with the role of mentor split between Stiller (in the opening segment) and Egil Eide (in the closing segment). While the parallels between real-life relationships, those in the framing device and those in the film within a film are fascinating, for Dyer this is partly because of the sexuality of the real-life participants:
The key personnel were all gay. Herman Bang’s novel, published in 1904, was well known and he himself was a notoriously gay figure, a kind of melancholy Oscar Wilde…The scriptwriter and designer, Alex Esbensen was gay. Mauritz Stiller, the director, was not only gay but a flamboyant man about town…One of Stiller’s most important relationships was with Bnils Asther, the Danish actor who plays himself in Vingarne, his first film.[vii]
While this information is of interest to modern viewers, and no doubt encourages queer readings within the characterisations and narrative, it is safe to assume that, with the possible exception of Herman Bang, the sexuality of the participants would not be common knowledge to those viewing the film back in 1916 when the film premiered. For example, Stiller himself, although having directed a number of films since 1912, had not yet reached his zenith as a filmmaker by the time of Vingarne, meaning his best work and most significant period of fame was still to come. Bearing in mind that he was not a household name, and that Nils Asther was a newcomer to film (Vingarne was his first film), just how much of the homosexual element of the film would contemporary audiences have picked up on, and how much are modern audiences giving queer readings of the film simply because of personal information that we are privy to? Richard Dyer writes:
Vingarne’s framing story … seems to emphasise that the actors in “Vingarne” are not implicated in the characters’ predilections. Lars Hanson, at the premiere, says he’s terrible at Mikael and can’t understand why Mikael leaves the Princess, while Egil Eide (Zoret) says that he is glad the film is over. In other words, the men who play the lovers in “Vingarne” seem to want to have nothing to do with it.[viii]
Here Dyer bases his observations on textual features of the film, specifically the dialogue (via intertitles). However, it is just as likely that these comments were inserted into the film as instances of self-referential and self-deprecating humour on the part of Stiller as much as to distance the actors from the parts they have been playing. Similar self-referencing moments can be found in Stiller’s comedy Thomas Graal’s Basta Film/Thomas Graal’s Best Film (Mauritz Stiller, 1917) from the following year. While playing gay characters – whether implicit or more overt in character – could be viewed until recently as damaging to an actor’s career, the homosexual element in Vingarne (or, at least, what exists of it today) is buried so far beneath the surface that it is possible for many viewers not to notice it at all. In other words, the comments to which Dyer refers are likely to be interpreted in different ways depending on what the viewer themselves bring to the film. It is almost impossible to come to definite conclusions about a segment of film that survives only via a handful of stills, original intertitles, and explanatory intertitles added later. How can one comprehend whether the comments to which Dyer refers were intended to be taken at face value or as a joke without access to the footage?
Near the opening of the film, ‘when Stiller is discussing the project with Asther, he takes the novel Michael off the shelf … and says that his script is “faithful to the ideas” in it’.[ix] This could certainly refer to the gay element to be found in Herman Bang’s novel, although even in that source novel the nature of the relationship between Zoret and Michael is hardly overly explicit.
Bearing this in mind, and the seemingly impossible task of finding an element of the film that spells out for certain that homosexual content is present, what is it about Vingarne that has given it its position as being regarded as the first ‘gay’ feature length film? After all, there is nothing here to inform the viewer of the nature of the relationship between Zoret and Michael. While the connections with Bang and the gay and bisexual members of the cast and crew are fascinating, it does not make the characters involved any more or less homosexual – not least because the actors playing Zoret and Michael were both, as far as we know, heterosexual. Matthew Kennedy, in his review of the DVD release of Dreyer’s film Michael, may provide the answer, suggesting that ‘if the Master’s obsession with Michael isn’t carnal, the plot veers into meaninglessness’.[x]
Kennedy is writing specifically about the later adaptation, Michael, here, but the same thing can certainly be said about Vingarne. If Zoret and Michael are not in love, then why is Zoret so upset when Michael begins a relationship with the Princess? It could, of course, be that Zoret simply objects to losing the platonic attention of his young protégé, and especially that Michael begins fleecing money from Zoret in one way or another. What is more, Zoret could be said to be looking for a successor. We know his quality of work is falling from when he is painting the portrait of the Princess. He is having trouble getting the eyes right in the picture, and becomes frustrated. It is at this point that Michael enters (meeting the Princess for the first time). While Zoret’s back is turned, Michael picks up the brush and makes the necessary adjustment to the eyes which his mentor has been struggling with. With Zoret getting older and his touch failing him, he seems to spend more time in mentoring his pupil than actually painting. Therefore, it could be said that he fears all of his work with Michael is going to waste as he now spends all of his time socialising with the Princess.
This is a valid reading, but fails to work dramatically. After all, this is not a revenge narrative, in which Zoret plans to get some form of pay back on Michael for his abuse of their friendship and through sheer envy on Zoret’s part. Instead, the artist’s health starts to fail and, at times, he appears to be on the border of losing his sanity as well as his physical well-being. It could be argued that he is, simply, love-sick.
Viewing the film in relation to the thinking of both Hirschfeld and Brand, identifies elements of both men’s ideas at work in the scenario despite their seeming contradiction. But it is Brand’s philosophies that are most in evidence here. In Vingarne, as in the later Michael, a love is portrayed that has grown out of a mentor-pupil relationship of the kind which Brand advocates and describes in an article from 1925:
[We promote] a close joining of man to youth and of youth to man, so that through respect and mutual trust, and not least through the offering of one to the other, through the case of the older for the younger, through assistance in his education and progress, as well as through the promotion of his whole personality – to educate each individual to loyalty, to voluntary subordination, to civil virtue, to a noble ambition, free from all social climbing, to a noble courage constantly ready to act, and to a sacrificing willingness and joy in working for the national cause![xi]
Bearing in mind Brand’s comments, and those of another contributor to the same journal some two decades earlier in 1902 who wrote that ‘the ideal love union of a mature man with a growing adolescent can be of the greatest social value’,[xii] it is difficult to view the film in any way other than advocating Brand’s thoughts and ideals.
Despite this, in Vingarne, Michael himself is full of contradictions and ambiguities. When we first see him, he is an excitable and bubbly youth in the company of some girls with whom he appears to be flirting, a scene which is clearly not intended to spark questions about his sexuality in the minds of the audience. Zoret, on the other hand, can be characterised as almost predatory in this scene. He observes Michael from afar and promptly walks down to him and asks him to model for him. The modelling, we later discover, involves Michael being nearly naked and posing for a sculpture that Zoret is working on. Michael simply stands while modelling with his arms above his head, his chest pushed forward and a sheet draped over his waist in order to retain his modesty. While hardly the most masculine of poses, if Stiller wanted to make more of the relationship between Zoret and Michael it would have been more effective to simply film Michael from the waist up and therefore give the viewer the impression that he is, indeed, posing naked. Instead, we are afforded no close-ups of Lars Hanson as he poses for Zoret in this scene. We the audience have to content ourselves with viewing him from afar, although the long shot of Zoret working on his sculpture with Michael in the background does allow us to view Zoret studying his near-naked model’s torso as he perfects his work of art.
Here, as throughout the whole of Vingarne, it is impossible to ascertain whether Zoret is in love with Michael as a person or Michael’s youth, a question which brings us back to the influence of Oscar Wilde. During his testimony in his first criminal trial, which took place between April 26 and May 1, 1895, Wilde said ‘I am a lover of youth…I like to study the young in everything. There is something fascinating in youthfulness’.[xiii]
The influence of the Wilde case on European culture should not be underestimated, with the prosecution of Wilde sending shockwaves through homosexual communities both in the UK and in mainland Europe in the mid-1890s. With Wilde becoming something of a martyr for the gay cause following his conviction for gross indecency, it is hardly surprising that his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas can be seen as the model upon which that of the two main characters in Anders als die Andern/Different from the Others (Richard Oswald, 1919), a 1919 German film calling for tolerance towards homosexuality, was based. After all, Wilde’s work was remarkably in vogue on the silver screen during the 1910s and early 1920s. At least seven film adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray were produced between 1912 and 1919 (four of these were European productions, three were American; most are lost). There were also versions of Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1916 and 1925, two of Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime in 1920 and 1922, and three of Salome in 1908, 1920 and 1923. The sheer number of these adaptations point to the fact that Wilde and his works were very much in fashion during this period, and his influence is very much to the fore in Vingarne.
The queer element within both Vingarne and the later adaptation of the same book, Michael, is difficult to pin down. Neither film explicitly refers to or depicts the Michael/Zoret relationship as homosexual, and even if it was homosexual in nature, there is nothing to suggest that the relationship was consummated. It is only through subtexts, and references to scientific thinking and the attitudes of society at the time in which they were made, that the queer nature of these films can reveal itself. In the case of Vingarne especially, our knowledge of the sexuality of the participants within the film only complicates our readings of it, and makes it difficult for audiences today to relate to the text in the same way as audiences did one hundred years ago when it was first released. In fact, if we strip away all of the knowledge about the writers, actors and director, this first film version of the story becomes by far the lesser of the two screen adaptations if we are looking at indicators of homosexuality or queerness.
What we are left with is actually a rather confusing film which never quite manages to spell out to the audience the nature of the relationships within it. While those familiar with Bang’s source novel would be aware of the nature of the relationship between Michael and Zoret, those without knowledge of the novel may well even find the plot somewhat nonsensical and preposterous. Despite this, the complex structure of the film (for the time), the lives of the partipants, and the mystery surrounding the film’s actual intentions make it a fascinating relic that is well worth viewing should the opportunity arise.
(Queer Sexualities in Early Film: Cinema and Male-Male Intimacy is available to pre-order.)
[i] Richard Dyer, Now You See It. Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 17-18.
[ii] Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, ‘Araxes. Appeal for the Liberation of the Urning’s Nature from Penal Law. To the Imperial Assemblies of North Germany and Austria’, trans James Steakley, in Mark Blasius and Shane Phelan (eds), We Are Everywhere. A Historical Sourcebook of gay and Lesbian Politics (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 64.
[iii] Blasius and Phelan, We Are Everywhere, p. 134.
[iv] Glenn Ramsey, ‘The Rites of Atgenossen: Contesting Homosexual Political Culture in Weimar Germany’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol 17, no. 1, pp. 89.
[v] Michael is referred to in differing prints of the films as ‘Michael’ and ‘Mikael’. For clarity, I shall refer to this character throughout as ‘Michael’.
[vi] See Dyer, Now You See It, 2nd edition, pp. 8-22.
[vii] ibid, pp. 11-12.
[viii] ibid, p. 15.
[ix] ibid, p. 12.
[x] Michael Kennedy, ‘Tears for Queers. Different from the Others, Michael and Sex in Chains on DVD’, Bright Lights Film Journal, issue 48 (May 2005), retrieved Aug 11, 2012 http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/48/queersilents.htm
[xi] Adolf Brand, ‘What We Want’, trans Hubert Kennedy, in Harry Oosterhuis and Hubert Kennedy (eds), Homosexuality and Male Bonding in Pre-Nazi Germany. The youth movement, the gay movement and male bonding before Hitler’s Rise: Original transcripts from Der Eigene, the first gay journal in the world (Binghamton: Harrington Park Press, 1991), p. 161.
[xii] Reiffegg, ‘The Significance of Youth-Love for Our Time’, trans Hubert Kennedy, in Harry Oosterhuis and Hubert Kennedy (eds), Homosexuality and Male Bonding in Pre-Nazi Germany. The youth movement, the gay movement and male bonding before Hitler’s Rise: Original transcripts from Der Eigene, the first gay journal in the world (Binghamton: Harrington Park Press, 1991), p. 167.
[xiv] Blasius and Phelan, We Are Everywhere, p. 191.