I’m through my Kafka phase now and have started a brief Oscar Wilde phase because I was interested in reading his play “Salome” so I borrowed a collection of his plays and writings from the library. I’ve been interested in Wilde since high school although I’d never previously read anything of his; I bought “The Picture of Dorian Gray” a few years ago but never got around to it.

What finally pushed me into reading some of his stuff was a culmination of a couple of things. First, a friend of mine loves the actor Conrad Veidt, best known for his portrayal of Major Strasser in “Casablanca.” I love him, too, especially his unique look in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” where he plays the somnambulist Cesare. (His role of Gwynplaine in “The Man Who Laughs” also contributed to the aesthetic development of the well-known Batman character, the Joker.) My friend introduced me to his film, “Different from the Others,” (“Anders als die Andern”) from 1919.

“Different from the Others” is a film co-written by Magnus Hirschfeld and Richard Oswald that follows a gay violinist, Paul Korner (Veidt). Korner had previously tried seeing a hypnotherapist to “cure” him of his homosexuality but discovers him to be a charlatan, so he tries to see a doctor (played by Hirschfeld). The doctor tells him, “Love for one of the same sex is no less pure or noble than for one of the opposite.” 

Despite the support from the doctor, Korner is sentenced to prison for the crime of being gay (it was illegal in Germany at the time, as well as in England, where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for the same crime) and is shunned by friends and family. He commits suicide and his boyfriend attempts to as well, but the doctor stops him and says: “You have to keep living; live to change the prejudices by which this man has been made one of the countless victims.”

This film came out in 1919 and Hirschfeld was, in fact, a doctor who specialized in gender and sexuality, having founded the Institute for the Science of Sexuality which was the only place the movie was publicly screened. He was early an advocate for homosexual and transgender rights and was working hard to educate others — one of the last lines of the movie is, “Justice through knowledge!” 

Hirschfeld was, in fact, greatly moved by Wilde’s trial in 1895, and referenced it in his writing. He often tried to help his gay patients find reasons to live, struck by how many of them had scars from previous suicide attempts. In a suicide note from one of his patients, he was told, “The thought that you [Hirschfeld] could contribute a future when the German fatherland will think of us in more just terms sweetens the hour of my death.”

Unfortunately, when the Nazis took power in the 1930s, they destroyed Hirschfeld’s institute, burned its library and archives, destroyed nearly every copy of “Different from the Others” and Hirschfeld himself was exiled in France.

The fact that the fight for LGBTQ rights has persisted for over a century is disheartening, and part of the reason I decided to pick up Wilde, to get a glimpse into that history.

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