Central Europe Review find out about advertising in CER
Vol 2, No 15
17 April 2000
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Rosa von Praunheim's Der Einstein des Sex - Leben und Werk des Dr Magnus Hirschfeld (1999)
Hirschfeld: Revolutionising sex
Rosa von Praunheim's
Der Einstein des Sex - Leben und Werk des Dr Magnus Hirschfeld

Elke de Wit

When the American press dubbed Dr Magnus Hirschfeld "the Einstein of sex," the infamous Geman sexologist retorted that he would have preferred the pioneer of relativity to be known as "the Hirschfeld of physics."

Such humour is apparent in a new biopic of Hirschfeld by Rosa von Praunheim, Der Einstein des Sex - Leben und Werk des Dr Magnus Hirschfeld (The Einstein Of Sex - The Life And Work Of Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, 1999), a humour that is surprising for a gay Jewish Socialist sexologist working in Germany in the Nazi era.

Upon the death of his parents, Hirschfeld was taken in and brought up by his uncle, Onkel von Hirschfeld (Gerry Wolf), and aunt, Tante Gesche (Christa Pasemann). They remain loyal to him, though are often bemused by his actions.

He discovered his sexuality at university and in 1897 founded the first ever gay political association. In 1920, he finally realised his dream and opened his Institute for Sexual Studies.

But, whilst in public he promoted a liberal attitude towards sexuality, his personal sexual preferences were guarded from the outside world. It is inferred that he believed that any respect he had gained by academics might be thwarted by the public knowledge of his own sexuality. Thus, his love affairs are marred by secrecy.

Von Praunheim gives us insights into the prejudice that Hirschfeld had to deal with and the relationships he had with those closest to him. The transsexual Dorchen, who became his housekeeper and lifelong friend is in turn hilariously and pathetically portrayed by Tina die Göttliche, demonstrating both Hirschfeld's need for stability in the home and his sympathy for those who are outcasts.

Prejudice but little pride

Rosa von Praunheim's Der Einstein des Sex - Leben und Werk des Dr Magnus Hirschfeld (1999)
Distanced lover
Interestingly, his relationships with his lovers demonstrate how difficult he actually found it to "come out," although he was always encouraging his clients to do so. His theories on sexuality are most easily understood when contrasted with those of his opponent, the gay right-wing writer Adolf Brand (played by the absolutely dazzling Ben Becker).

The humour in the film is often represented by phallic displays. Hirschfeld's Institute houses a museum of the most mind-boggling sexual stimuli. When visiting a friend who researches testicles, Hirschfeld brings him the gift of a pair of tattooed balls belonging to the Chinese Emperor's brother. Not to mention the intriguing 19th-century wooden masturbating contraption, which Hirschfeld himself uses - a device which really has to be seen to be believed.

The fate of Hirschfeld's Institute with the rise of Hitler's popularity is unfortunately all too predictable. It is looted, and books are burned by the National Socialists in 1933 whilst Hirschfeld is away from Germany. Only his lover and Dorchen remain to defend the Institute in vain. Nothing is known of their fates. Hirschfeld himself died two years later in Nice.

Rosa von Praunheim's Der Einstein des Sex - Leben und Werk des Dr Magnus Hirschfeld (1999)
Shocking the relatives
For all the sympathy this character deserves as a Nazi victim and respect as one who did much for others, one is left with the feeling that Hirschfeld was not able to focus on his own relationships, always keeping those who most wanted to be close to him at a distance.

Von Praunheim's Der Einstein Des Sex reminds us of a historical figure worthy of attention whom the National Socialists wanted to banish into oblivion. Given that his name is relatively unknown, we can, perhaps, consider that they succeeded in some way. One can only hope that as many people as possible will go to see this film to make sure that the Nazis' intentions are well and truly thwarted and that Hirschfeld gets the recognition he deserves.

Elke de Wit, 17 April 2000

Elke de Wit reviews other Neue deutsche Filme shown at the 50th Berlinale:
Wasted Lives in Changing Times
Andreas Kleinert's Wege in die Nacht
Dreaming in Colour
Veit Helmer's Tuvalu
One Last Lunge at Freedom
Sebastian Schipper's Absolute Giganten
Pricking Germany's Racist Conscience
Frieder Schlaich's Otomo
Devilishly Bad
Bernd Eichinger's Der Große Bagarozy
Chance at the End of the Millennium
Thorsten Schmidt's
Schnee In Der Neujahrsnacht
Growing up Late
Doris DĂrrie's Erleuchtung Garantiert
The Sunnier Side of East Germany
Leander HauĂźmann's Sonnenallee
Broken by the Streets
Maren-Kea Freese's Zoe

Click here for the Berlinale website

Moving on:


Catherine Lovatt
Securitate Shuffle

Saša Cvijetić
Croatia's Crisis

Jan Čulík
Political Control of Czech TV

Sam Vaknin
Yugoslav Myths

Mel Huang
Instability in Latvia

Magali Perrault
Social Democrats and Nazis

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Censorship

Andreas Beckmann
After the Floods

Židas Daskalovski
Interview with Labina Mitevska

Elke de Wit
The Einstein of Sex

Elke de Wit
Wasted Lives in Changing Times

Culture Calendar:

Hall and Perrault
Europe's Right

Czech Republic