Sex in Chains (1928): William (Oscar Winner, Life of Emile Zola, 1937)Dieterle Acts in and Directs Silent Gay Movie

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William Dieterle acted in and directed Sex in Chains (German: Geschlecht in Fesseln – Die Sexualnot der Strafgefangenen), a controversial, pioneering gay silent film made during the Weimar regimes.

My new book:

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press).

Franz Sommer (Dieterle) and newlywed wife Helene (Mary Johnson) are going through hard times; Sommer is out of steady employment.

To make ends meet, Helene takes a job selling cigars at  restaurant. When a patron advances on Helene, Sommer pushes him away, and the former and hits his head and dies. Sommer is arrested and sentenced to three years in prison.

Sommer is kept in a cell with four men, one of whom, Steinau (Gunnar Tolnæs), is acquitted and promises Sommer to help his wife. He offers her better job at his business, and the two cultivate friendship, while trying to get Sommer out.

In prison, the men’s sexual frustration from their separated from women,  To pass time, they make nude sculptures from breadcrumbs and water and fighting for a woman’s handkerchief that’s smuggled in during visitation.

At the same time, there’s strong homoerotic undercurrent, though it’s only hinted at.

Helene, delirious from Sommer’s absence, goes to Steinau one night after madly trying to enter the prison, and sleeps with him.

Meanwhile, Sommer’s relationship with fellow inmate Alfred Marquis (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) becomes more explicit.

At the prison church service, Sommer and Marquis sit next to each other, and the preacher unfirms, “Yield not to temptation,” while Marquis is writing Franz and Alfred in the cover of his Bible.

That night, Sommer asks Marquis about his real thoughts, and the latter asks if nonresponse means hatred, holding out his hand. Sommer takes it, and begins moving into Marquis’s bed as the scene fades to exterior night shot of the prison.

The next day, Helene arranges for a private visit with Sommer,  planning to tell him about Steinau, but she does not. Nor does Sommer say anything and the meeting is short, awkward and distant.

Steinau calls for penal system reform, which is ignored. Steinau asks Helene to divorce Sommer and marry him, but she refuses.

Marquis is released, and Sommer shortly after him. Marquis is briefly seen by the river with another man, who suggests there is money to be made out of Sommer.

Though not spelled out, he implies Paragraph 175 (the German law against homosexual acts) could be used to blackmail Sommer (same idea appears in Different from the Others)

Sommer goes home, happy to be free, but confesses to no longer loving her. Helene thinks he has found out about Steinau, but when she is mistaken.

Marquis arrives with flowers to see Sommer, which makes Helene figures it all out. Sommer, ever more depressed, sends him away. He leaves the flowers in the hallway and apologizes to Helene

Gloom Ending

Sommer, eyeing the gas valve on the heater, tells her that he cannot go on living, urges her to leave him, which she refuses.

In the truly tragic and unexpected ending, he the turns on the gas and they both die together.


Directed by William Dieterle
Written by Herbert Juttke, Georg C. Klaren
Produced by Leo Meyer
Cinematography Robert Lach
Production company: Essem-Film
Distributed by Vereinigte Star-Film; Nero Film (worldwide)
Release date: October 24, 1928

Running time 107 minutes
Weimar Republic



My new book: Gay Directors, Gay Films? (Columbia University Press)