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Sex in Chains

Sex in Chains sounds like it's going to be really hardcore and, I suppose, by 1928 standards it is rather shocking. The original German title is Geschlecht in Fesseln - Die Sexualnot der Strafgefangenen, which literally translates into something more like 'Sexuality in Custody - The Sexual Distress of Prisoners'. Or, in other words, dudes have to turn to each other in prison because of the lack of conjugal visits.

Directed by William Dieterle - who also played the main character - the film was originally released on October 24th 1928 with a running time of 107 minutes. Its purpose was to send a message to the authorities that it was inhumane to deprive prisoners of sexual relations, and only lead to societal problems. Despite its lofty aims and initial highbrow publicity, the film soon fell foul of foreign censors and was marketed on its scandal appeal. It was restored to its original running time and released on DVD in 2004.

Most modern critics aren't keen on its generous helpings of melodrama but, if like me, that's your kind of thing, this is a gem of a film. Lots of emotion, tragedy, and close-ups of Dieterle's wonderful bone structure as he angsts over Alfred (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski)...


The Story - 

Franz Sommer is a regularly unemployed engineer. To help make ends meet, his young wife Helene takes a job as a restaurant cigarette girl. When one of her customers gets too fresh, Franz pushes and accidentally kills him...

Franz is arrested

In detention, Franz meets the wealthy Steinau who promises to look after Helene

Franz is sentenced to three years for murder

Captivity drives them mad with frustration - Franz and his cellmates fight for Helene's handkerchief

Unable to take it, one steals a guard's gun and kills himself

Crazed with longing, Helene seeks solace in Steinau's arms

Franz finds comfort with his new cellmate, Alfred

Franz is eventually released from prison

But they are both changed, broken people

Gas being turned on

Alternatively, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube with French intertitles. (Note - this print has hacked out much of the gay love story, including the entire scene where Alfred brings Franz flowers after his release; this was the real reason why Franz wants to commit suicide, not Helene's infidelity.)


Contemporary Reaction - 

" In late November 1928, Berlin newspapers reported strange goings-on in some of the city's grimiest neighbourhoods: in the working-class districts in the north people were surprised to find letters in their mailboxes marked , "Streng Vertraulich" (Strictly Confidential). Likewise, passers-by on Mullerstrase in the district of Wedding were handed sealed envelopes with the imprint, "Nur offnen, wenn Sie allein sind" (To be opened only when you are alone). ... Those adventurous enough to open these envelopes found that they contained an ad for a film with the titillating title, Geschlecht in Fesslen (Fettered Sexuality, or Sex in Chains) that was to be shown in a local movie theatre. The title and the aura of secrecy surrounding the film may very well have created the impression that what was advertised was a pornographic film catering to the more unusual sexual tastes. The whole thing, it turned out, was a clever publicity stunt devised by the owner of a local cinema, eager to exploit people's penchant for secrecy and to capitalize on the title of a film that seemed to cater to prurient desires. Such lowbrow advertising techniques were a far cry from the official publicity surrounding Wilhelm Dieterle's film a month earlier when it opened at the prestigious Tauentzienpalast in Berlin's affluent West End. "
 - Rogowski, Christian., 2010. The Many Faces of Weimar Cinema: Rediscovering Germany's Filmic Legacy. [Chapter 13; The Dialectic of (Sexual) Englightenment: Wilhem Dieterle's Geschlecht in Fesseln (1928)]


Analysis - 

" A title of Alfred saying that he loves Sommer - or something to that effect - was certainly cut at some point. Additionally, the declaration of love which Alfred makes in chapel by writing both his and Sommer's names in the prayer book is the film's way of saying that homosexual love is as sacred as heterosexual love and as likely to be true. The point that Alfred's love is indeed the real thing is shown when he turns away with loathing when a crony tells him he can make money blackmailing Sommer. The film says that the suicide of the two lovers, if not exactly as romantic as that of Romeo and Juliet, is nonetheless true, as is that of the two lovers left behind, one a rich heterosexual and the other a poor one.

... Sex in Chains would be a better film without any of its messages. The actions of the characters do not correspond to the inter-titles. Dreyer's Michael, which came out the same year as Sex in Chains, is worlds away from it in terms of artistry. Sex in Chains is about human behaviour and how to change it. Dreyer's film is about the heart, which means, of course, that it is not really about sex at all, at least in the way it is depicted in Sex in Chains, but about the unchanging nature of the human heart. "
 - Parrill, William B., 2006. European Silent Films on Video.


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