The Einstein of Sex (1999)

“Your name tops the list of Jewish criminals.”

The film’s unfortunate title The Einstein of Sex is one of the nicknames given to Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a Socialist German Jew whose pioneer studies in human sexuality came to a crashing halt when the Nazis took power. The Einstein of Sex charts Hirschfeld’s life from boyhood in the late 1800s, to his interest in the study of human sexuality, and then concentrates on his medical career.

The film does an excellent job of showing attitudes towards human sexuality at the end of the 19th century. Human subjects under scrutiny are treated abominably, and homosexuals are especially mistreated. German law (specifically Paragraph 175) stated that homosexuality was illegal, and after Hirschfeld encounters a homosexual who commits suicide due to the fear of exposure and blackmail, it becomes Hirschfeld’s goal to have this law repealed.

Hirschfeld battles prejudice, fear and ignorance in a society in which Prussian strains of militarism are deeply embedded. The plot also covers the German Youth Movement and the macho homosexual activist Herr Brand (Ben Becker). Hirschfeld struggles with his own preconceptions of homosexuality at many points, and locks horns with Brand–who believes in ‘outing’ prominent homosexuals to advance the cause.

The film’s production values leave a lot to be desired, and that’s a shame (I’d really like to give this film a higher rating due to its unusual and worthy content). The quality here is about what you’d expect from a televised play, and at times, it’s rather amateurish. Some of the acting is spotty–the scene at the club of transvestites is especially poor. Two actors play Hirschfeld as an adult–Kai Schuhmann plays the younger version, and Friedel von Wangenheim plays the middle-aged Hirschfeld; meanwhile, other characters do not age at all. The film’s quality distracts from the excellently conveyed texture and culture of Weimar’s Germany.

The film was at its best–and most powerful–in the final half hour. An interview with the engaging filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim is included in the DVD extras, and this interview is well worth watching. Von Praunheim explains that he adopted a feminine name, ‘Rosa’ in remembrance of the pink triangle homosexuals were forced to wear in concentration camps. In German with English subtitles.

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Filed under German, Rosa von Praunheim

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