Cross Dressing in Silent Film: Ernst Lubitsch’s I Don’t Want to Be a Man! (Ich mochte kein Mann sein!, Germany, 1918)

This post was contributed by Rosalyn Croek, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Cultural Studies

Birkbeck Arts Week 2012 was a chocolate box of assorted events for an arts enthusiast to pick from, a platform for students and tutors across the arts courses to engage in a more open setting, tutors expressing the very latest research through a particular theme or object for their session.  At the close of the week, this event doubled as good old-fashioned Friday night entertainment, wine and a silent comedy screening which resounded to much laughter in the room at 43 Gordon Square.

Silke Arnold-de Simine introduced the film, this event in part a launch for the book she has co-written with Christine Mielke on cross dressing in German film comedies from 1912 to 2012.  The book is only available in German but others can consult a chapter Silke wrote in the most recent Blackwell’s Companion to German cinema, about Weimar cross-dressing comedies and their Hollywood remakes. Did you know Some Like It Hot has a German original?

Ernst Lubitsch’s I Don’t Want to Be a Man! (Ich mochte kein Mann sein!, Germany, 1918), centres on tomboy Ossi who enjoys poker, smoking, and drinking, shunning the delicacy expected of her and mocking the authority figures of her uncle, her strict and corseted governess, and new male guardian Dr Kersten.  Her preferred activities denied to her as a female, she decides to dress up as a man, making for a humorous scene when she is fitted out for a tailcoat at the shop.  Her disguise is actually completely successful; she revels in female attention and in a twist drinks with Dr Kersten at a nightclub – with the two sharing a kiss. The comedy owes much to Ossi’s ‘physical and exuberant acting style’.

Director Ernst Lubitsch went to Hollywood, Silke explained, but star actress and producer of cross dressing cinema in her own right, Ossi Oswalda, real name Oswalda Stäglich, sadly died in poverty in Prague. 

Silke explained the mechanism of cross-dressing comedy in film and prior to that popular theatre by asking us to think of familiar film Mrs Doubtfire (1993), where, as well as gender, variables age, class and nationality are also changed.  ‘The comedy stems from the accumulated and exaggerated discrepancies between appearance and behaviour, on the one hand, and the allegedly authentic identity on the other hand’.  She continued, ‘stories centring around disguise and mistaken identity can be seen as playfully countering anxieties concerning the successful fulfilment of social roles and mobile identities.  They can equally be geared to subvert or to provide symbolic reassurance, questioning or confirming the boundaries of social conformity’.

Nowadays, Silke reminded, we are more accustomed to men cross dressing as women but in the early twentieth century, women cross dressing as men was also prevalent, roles played by Weimar stars like Asta Nielsen and Elisabeth Bergner.  Men dressing as women was considered problematically associated with homosexuality, but women dressing as men was more socially acceptable and even becoming quotidian as women had taken over some men’s jobs during World War 1. That social change could feel threatening to men however, particularly to already-defeated German men, and thus well a time at which ‘I don’t Want to Be a Man’ might ring true – certainly Ossi learns that being a man has its difficulties. Silke also highlighted an alternative interpretation, centring on Magnus Hirschfeld’s widely-accepted contemporary theory The Third Sex, that ‘I don’t want to be a man’ could be read as ‘I don’t want to be a heterosexual’.

The film, Silke closed, was a success with critics and cinemagoers at the time, and was certainly successful with us too.

Charleys Tanten und Astas Enkel. Hundert Jahre Crossdressing in deutschen Filmkomödien (1912-2012). Trier: WVT (Filmgeschichte International. Ed. by Uli Jung)

Cross-dressing and National Stereotypes: The German-Hollywood Connection. In: Companion to German Cinema. Ed. by Terri Ginsberg and Andrea Mensch. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell 2012, pp. 379-404.

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