Sex in Chains

"Good"

Sex in Chains Review


Sex in Chains doesn't deliver much of either, so if you're looking for kink in this historical oddity recently dug up from the archives of classic silent German cinema, you'll be disappointed. If, however, you'd like to take a trip back to the Weimar era to see what was on the minds of the filmmakers of the time (and to see some beautiful cars, by the way), you'll be fascinated. This is an elegant, urbane Germany, and it's creepy to visit today knowing that Hitler was hiding just around the corner.

Sex in Chains concerns itself with politics, but only in a roundabout way. Times are a bit tough for the young Sommers couple. Franz (William Dieterle) has been unemployed for a while, and his wife Helene (Mary Johnson) frets at home as he attempts to find any sort of decent job. He even signs on as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, and in one notable scene, he pitches to a wealthy young fraulein who feeds her cat gourmet food as she watches his demonstration. His look of disgust is memorable.

To make ends meet, Helene takes a job as a cigarette girl at the local beer garden, but one night while Franz is visiting her, a dirty old man makes a pass at her. When Franz shoves the man away, he stumbles, falls, and cracks his head on the concrete. Franz is quickly arrested, and when the man dies, Franz finds himself facing manslaughter charges.

The sentence: three years, which Franz starts serving at a rather cozy prison, complete with curtains on the barred cell windows. His three cellmates are a ragtag bunch, and they seem totally preoccupied with sex, or the lack thereof. All they can talk about is their girlfriends. One prisoner even sculpts naked women out of soggy bread crumbs.

Back at home Helene takes a new job as a factory bookkeeper. The kind factory owner Herr Steinau (Gunnar Tolnaes) takes her under his wing and vows to help her get her husband released, since he, too, has been sent to prison in the past on trumped-up charges. He also vows to himself that he'll seduce her.

At first, Helene's visits to the prison are hopelessly romantic in the way that silent films usually are, with much eyelid fluttering, tight embraces, and long looks. But after Helene cheats with Herr Steinau, her guilt severs their lines of communications. Franz feels guilty, too, for in a moment of despair, he has sought solace by holding the hand of his cellmate (and more is implied). Can he live with the guilt? Can she? And will Herr Steinau's one-man crusade to reform sentencing guidelines for first-time offenders and to institute conjugal visits have any success?

In the end, penal reform is what Sex in Chains is about: the rights of men in chains to have sex with women so they don't end up having sex with their cellmates. It's a weird topic for a movie, especially one made in 1928, and it would fail if it were not for the ultimately tragic love story around which these issues are debated. As one of three "gay-themed" German silents recently released on DVD by Kino, it suggests that filmmakers of that time and place were way ahead of their time. Director/star Dieterle ended up leaving Germany just in time and had a prolific career in Hollywood, where legend has it that he always wore white gloves on the set. One wonders about the fates of other filmmakers of the era who took on such risky material in those increasingly troubled times.

Aka Geschlecht in Fesseln - Die Sexualnot der Gefangenen.



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