Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sex In Chains (1928)

Sex In Chains isn’t the exploitation film it sounds like, but if you did find it shelved—accidentally, we’ll say—next to a stack of early-70s convent skin flicks and womens’ prison dramas, you wouldn’t be wholly misled. Those films, like this one, are about people veering to extremes. They’re about people in heat.

Sex In Chains—an often delicately shot, honest film with compassion for its suffering married couple, Franz and Helene—is at a low boil even in its quietest moments. But director (and star) Wilhelm Dieterle isn’t satisfied with mere melodramatics, even of a kind lurid or borderline nymphomaniacal enough to hold our attention. He wants us to be more than observers. He makes us care about these people, all the while tackling social issues that remain, to this day, contentious. I’ll not soon forget Sex In Chains, or the people in it.

Franz has been laid off from his job and ekes out a living snapping candid photos of people in the park. ‘You’ve been caught on camera,’ reads the little card he hands to his subjects, who smile, decline to buy, and keep walking. Later, he finds work selling Electrolux’s door-to-door. We see a bored socialite recline on her bed while he demonstrates the vacuum cleaner’s prowess. Franz makes a great pitch, but she doesn’t care. Her cat hisses at him in closeup. Meanwhile, Helene (Mary Johnson) takes a job as a cigarette girl. One night she’s harassed by a patron while Franz is sitting close by. A scuffle ensues, and Franz kills the man. He gets three years for involuntary manslaughter.

This is catastrophic for Franz and Helene, who desperately want to be together. They are a young couple and their sex life is vigorous. So much so that Franz begins obsessing about his wife soon after entering his prison cell, which resembles a hostel room, occupied by three other stir-crazy prisoners just like him.

Sex In Chains considers intercourse a necessity of life, closely following food, water and shelter in importance. Helene's food, water and shelter are maintained during Franz's imprisonment by an industrialist named Steinau (Gunnar Tolnæs), who was once briefly held by the police himself, due to the wiles of an informant. While incarcerated, Steinau met and befriended Franz. And once freed, he becomes Helene’s benefactor. He gives her a job in one of his factories, and they begin socializing.

It’s not what you think—at least, I don't think it is, though the years do go hard on Helene. The court's refusal of conjugal visits starves her in a sense, and by year three, she finds herself whirling through her bedroom, burying her face in her husband’s old suits, drawing breaths of his scent; seeing his reflection in their mirror; glaring at their bed as his image superimposes itself over the sheets. She shows up at Steinau’s door in a swoon, mumbling ‘husband… husband…’ and he pulls her inside.

They do something in there, but I wonder what. Mostly because I wonder about Steinau, the wealthy bachelor who throws himself so zealously into causes like prison reform—issues that redirect one’s energies and passion. I wonder about the fineness of his features; the precise lines of his lips and eyebrows, which contrast with Franz’s handsome, but more bluntly masculine face. Steinau does love Helene, but is he in search of a trophy wife to compliment his image as a social crusader? Are we watching a silent precursor to Shane (1953)?

Franz is certainly a man loved by other men. They watch him, though at first he’s oblivious to their attentions, as he lies on his prison bed and dreams tortured dreams of Helene. He makes love to her in soft-focus fantasies of astonishing beauty and eroticism; but as the months drag by, his visions degrade—he takes to drawing her likeness on a cell wall, with dirt, then kissing it. Their real time together is cruelly limited to quarter-hours, and always in the presence of a guard. Sex In Chains makes it clear that, in the absence of any reasonable sexual release, even the most moral man could turn to his fellow men for comfort.

For Franz, homosexuality is a last resort—a product of extreme circumstances—but that doesn’t stop the film from looking positively on a character who is gay without being ‘forced’ to be. A new prisoner named Alfred (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, looking innocent), arrives in Franz’s cell and not too long after, they are holding hands across their beds.

Sex In Chains is a message movie, and the message isn’t that homosexuality is OK. Rather, it’s that conjugal visits are a humane and necessary reform to the German penal system, and if they’re ignored, consequences like gay sex are to be expected. This doesn’t make Sex In Chains enlightened by modern standards, but, by making ‘social deviance’ less the product of bad character or mental illness than a simple reaction to torture, the film took a giant leap forward for its time. There are no real villains in this movie: only men and women with needs worthy of being met.

Where to find Sex In Chains:
Sex In Chains is part of Kino International’s Gay-themed Films of the Silent Era series, along with Different From the Others (1919) and Michael (1924).


  1. Never heard of it... But I'm intrigued. I'll need to look it up! With that title it can't be a disappointment, right?

  2. It's a Kino release, so it shouldn't be too hard to find.

    I've been giving more and more thought to why silent films seem to do soured marriage so well... this one and The Crowd spring to mind, but there's so many examples. Perhaps I'll write about that someday.