Saturday, September 13, 2014

I Don't Want To Be A Man (Ich Mochte Kein Mann Sein, 1918) ***1/2

This is the kinkiest, most twisted movie I have seen in a while, and I loved it! The great German director Ernst Lubitsch was known for imbuing his films with a cheeky, sexual humor, and his “Lubitsch Touch” is fully displayed in this short, silent film, one of his earliest productions.

In this strikingly feminist piece, Lubitsch presents Ossi (Ossi Oswalda), a tomboyish, rebellious girl who drives her uncle and governess crazy by gambling, smoking, drinking, and flirting with men. When her uncle travels out of town, leaving her in the care of a handsome, younger new guardian, Ossi figures it is party time. The new guardian, however, turns out to be even stricter than Ossi's uncle. Ossi decides that the only way to achieve any freedom is to pose as a man, so she has a suit tailored, and after bed one evening sneaks out on the town. As a man, Ossi get attention from women and feels exhilaratingly free, but she soon finds that men have it tougher than she thought. On a train she is forced to give up her seat to a woman, and when her foot is stepped on, she is told not to cry about it, to “be a man.” At a dance hall, Ossi runs into none other than her new guardian, who doesn't recognize her in her man's garb. After almost getting in a fight, the two become drinking buddies, then progress to some very un-buddy-like kissing.

I call the movie feminist, because the point of the story seems to be that Ossi doesn't want to be a man, she just wants to enjoy the freedom and independence that would be hers if she were a man. Some have described the movie as ahead of its time, but in fact there was a robust feminist movement in Germany at the time. Much as in the U.S., many of the gains made by the women's movement were undermined by the worldwide Great Depression, (and in Germany by the Nazis). Before the Depression (and the Hays Code), however, many films featured strong-willed women.

Many films from this period also featured scenes of cross-dressing and implied homosexuality. In “I Don't Want to be a Man,” the guardian's actions are not technically gay, since he is making out with a woman, but he sure does think that Ossi is a man when he is kissing her. There's also a scene where the guardian wakes in Ossi's room, wearing her sleeping cap, suggesting that the cross-dressing goes both ways. Perhaps the title, “I Don't Want to be a Man” can also be interpreted as a plea from the guardian. Maybe it is he, not Ossi, who is struggling with gender-identity issues.

3.5 stars out of 5

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