by Laura Horak
In Ernst Lubitsch’s Ich möchte kein Mann sein (1918), a young woman named Ossi (Ossi Oswalda) disguises herself as a man to experience a night on the town and show up her uptight instructor, Dr. Kersten (Curt Goetz). The film has become a perennial favorite with film festivals – and for good reason. Oswalda is plucky and endearing, the film exemplifies Lubitsch’s flair for romantic comedy, and it is surprisingly explicit in its gender and sexual play. Unlike most surviving silent films, which can only be viewed in archives, Ich möchte kein Mann sein has been widely available on DVD in the US and Europe since the late 2000s. However, the film’s popularity and availability sometimes creates the impression that it is a unique example of female-to-male cross-dressing in silent cinema. Likewise, attention to the gender and sexual play of Weimar-era (1918-1933) German cinema often eclipses the gender and sexual experiments of German cinema of the Wilhelmine era (1895-1918).
Rather than see this film or Weimar cinema as de facto unique, this article asks the question: how does Ich möchte kein Mann sein fit into the wider ecology of German films featuring cross-dressed women? How are the cross-dressed women of German silent cinema similar to and different from silent films in other countries? How can the female-to-male cross-dressing films of the Wilhelmine era enrich our understanding of this genre?By examining more than 47 German silent films featuring cross-dressed women, I argue that cross-dressed women were a popular aspect of German cinema during both the Wilhelmine and Weimar eras and that their performances fit into transnational genre conventions that were adapted to fit local contexts. At the time, Germans called these films Hosenrolle(‘trouser roles’), using the term that had long described women playing men’s parts in theater and opera. While many German cross-dressing films are similar to their international counterparts, certain kinds of films were unique to Germany due to Berlin’s central place in the burgeoning sexual freedom movement. Ich möchte kein Mann sein exemplifies the tensions between transnational genre conventions of female-to-male cross-dressing and the unique aspects of cross-dressed women in German cinema.
Cross-dressed women in German silent cinema have been understood within the contexts of German gay and lesbian subcultures and a broader notion of queerness. Gay British film scholar Richard Dyer pinpoints Weimar cinema as a crucial moment for gay and lesbian filmmaking and describes the period’s Hosenrolle films as being of lesbian interest. Building on this, queer German film scholar Alice Kuzniar argues that Weimar cross-dressing comedies (including Ich möchte kein Mann sein) present queer performances and invite queer spectatorial experiences. She argues that the films ‘offer the prospect of escaping from gender and sexual prohibitions’ and go ‘so far as to undo sexual orientation as a category’. The characters are not merely gay or lesbian or ‘third sex’ (in the parlance of the time) but explode the idea of fixed identity entirely. Kuzniar’s argument resembles literary scholar Marjorie Garber’s contention that ‘transvestism’ is ‘the disruptive element that intervenes, not just a category crisis of male and female, but the crisis of category itself’.However, using queer to mean ‘category crisis’ creates some problems – not only cross-dressing, but all mistaken identity films, and even acting itself could be considered ‘queer’ in that it performs a lack of fixed identity. Everything becomes queer.
However, if we consider queer as an umbrella for non-straight sexualities and genders, Kuzniar’s close analysis of four Weimar Hosenrolle films indeed reveals many cinematic nods to same-sex desire, sexual subcultures, and alternative gender formations – but that does not make cross-dressed women in German silent cinema queer (or lesbian or third sex) by default. While all cross-dressing films could be said to embody the fantasy of escaping fixed gender roles, this fantasy is not necessarily transgressive – it can also be tied to nationalism, militarism, and white supremacy (the cross-dressing Confederate spies of American silent cinema are good examples of this!). I argue that while female-to-male cross-dressing is sometimes queer, it depends on the film itself, and often on the viewer and viewing context. Comedy is particularly adept at offering multiple readings, allowing each viewer to see it their own way. If we do not assume in advance that cross-dressed performances are queer, it allows us to see when they do invoke signs of queerness and to see the diversity and complexity of their cultural work.
Scholars have argued that representations of cross-dressed women were a way to work out cultural anxieties around the so-called ‘masculinisation of women’ in Germany before and after the First World War. Film historian Robert Kiss asserts that the masculine fashions donned by women in Hosenrolle of Wilhelmine cinema played into societal fears of and fascinations with the masculinisation of women and feminisation of men associated with the German feminist movement and rise of the ‘new woman’. Likewise, historian of sexuality Katie Sutton argues that media coverage of cross-dressed women in Weimar cinema attempted to render the masculinisation of women ‘nonthreatening and familiar’ by ‘situating the masculine woman within the strict spatial and temporal constraints of an overtly fictional theatrical performance’ – though the performances themselves could still challenge ‘traditional gender and social hierarchies’ and articulate ‘nonheterosexual desires’. Gender studies scholar Valerie Weinstein aptly describes the slipperiness of comedy in mistaken identity films like Ich möchte kein Mann sein, arguing that ‘on the one hand, the irony in these films insists that modernity has not dissolved class and gender difference’, while ‘on the other hand, the films’ humor and their comic instances of mistaken identity make changes in class, gender, and sexuality pleasurable’. Thus, films like these simultaneously dissolve and solidify traditional hierarchies. It is impossible to pin their cultural work down to simply transgressive or not.
German film scholars Silke Arnold-de Simine and Christine Mielke’s ambitious Charleys Tanten und Astas Enkel: 100 Jahre Crossdressing in der deutschen Filmkomödie (2012) includes the most thorough examination of Hosenrolle in German silent cinema to date. They rightly argue that the cross-dressed women of Wilhelmine cinema are often ‘fun-loving, wild, high-spirited girls [who] vigorously resist in their puberty years the female role expectations placed on them, only finally to be tamed in a middle-class marriage’, in line with the Backfisch (teenage girl) novel of the time. They argue that the dissolution of the German empire after the war ushered in a crisis of masculinity. The conservative right described androgynous ‘new women’ who worked outside the home as a deeply un-German ‘new race’ bred in the US that would lead to ‘racial decline’. Arnold-de Simine and Mielke claim that critics eroticised Hosenrolle in order to control them – but that the social reality proved harder to control.
Other than Kiss, existing scholarship does not take into account transnational genre conventions or influences when analysing German Hosenrolle – thus missing how these conventions shaped the meaning of these performances in Germany. As Weinstein shows, the films cannot be pinned down as either transgressive or conservative – they purposefully construct multiple conflicting readings. What’s more, including a wide range of films in the analysis, as Kiss, Arnold-de Simine, and Mielke do, demonstrates the diversity of cross-dressed performances. Building upon these foundations, I will show how transnational genres, stories, songs, and performers shaped diverse performances of female-to-male cross-dressing in German silent cinema and how these performances changed from the 1900s to the 1920s.
The German film industry
Though Germans helped invent early film technology, German film production remained artisanal from the 1890s through the early 1910s. Until 1906, according to German film historian Sabine Hake, itinerant exhibitors screened variety programs of short films including ‘newsreels, nature scenes, humorous sketches, acrobatic acts, dramatic recitations, and documentary shorts about local events’. In 1911, distributors agreed to a system of exclusive bookings called the ‘Monopol’ system, which allowed production companies to charge more for their products and thus build up the industry. Cinema moved to permanent venues, feature-length films became more popular, and filmmaking became industrialised. However, German screens were dominated by foreign films. According to German film historian Thomas Elsaesser, between 1905 and 1910, ‘French (30%), American (25%), Italian (20%), and Scandinavian (15%) film imports made up 90% of the films shown in Germany.’ German films were only around 10% of the box office. Thus, to understand cross-dressed women in German film at this time, it is important to examine cross-dressed women in films made elsewhere, because German audiences and filmmakers saw these films and could compare them.
The First World War was good in some ways for the German film industry. Films from Allied countries like France, the United States, and Italy were banned. In 1917, much of the domestic industry was nationalised with the creation of Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA). This included buying out foreign interests on the cheap, including the Danish company Nordisk’s Germany-based production companies, cinemas, and distribution company.
With the establishment of the Weimar Republic in 1918, censorship briefly disappeared, although the major distributors voluntarily submitted their films to the Berlin Film Inspection Office. In 1920, national censorship of films was established for the first time. The import ban on foreign films was lifted in 1921, but protective laws were enacted to restrict foreign competition. German market share rose from 39% in 1926 to 58% in 1931, while the US market share fell from 55% to 28%. With the Film Europe movement, big-budget European co-productions sought to compete with Hollywood, while UFA concentrated on distinctively German films. Though foreign films no longer dominated German screens, it is still useful to compare how cross-dressed women were being represented in German films compared to their European neighbors and the increasingly dominant behemoth to the West – Hollywood.
Transnational theatrical inspirations
While most scholarship examines cross-dressing in national contexts, in fact cross-dressing performances and performers circulated transnationally within Europe and North America. Women played male roles in British musical hall, Anglo-American plays like Peter Pan, Oliver Twist, and The Prince and the Pauper, and European opera, operetta, and ballet. Actresses like the British Peg Woffington, the American Charlotte Cushman, and the French Sarah Bernhardt played male dramatic roles. Companies traveled to different countries to present their performances, critics published reviews of other countries’ work in local newspapers, and plays were translated and performed in local languages. Films adapted stories and conventions from these transnational theatrical traditions. Films, too, traveled internationally and film performers often worked in multiple countries.
Cinema adapted some of these theatrical traditions quite directly. For example, early French films like Gavotte (1898) and Au bal de flore (1900) featured women dancers ‘en travesti’, often in couples with female partners. Male critics praised the display of women’s bodies by the tight-fitting male costumes. At the same time, Susan Potter argues that films like Gavotte invited audiences to consider the ‘playful erotics’ of women dancing together. The Swedish film Skilda tiders danser (1909) likewise featured women dancing together, one in the guise of a male ‘cavalier’. Women in similar costumes appeared in early German films, but with an emphasis on vocal performance. In 1903, Oskar Messter invented the Tonbilder Biophone, which enabled the creation of short synchronized-sound films. Messter and other German companies created hundreds of Tonbilder in the early 1900s. In one, Flotte Bursche. (Duett). Nr. 47 (1908), women play drunken students lounging in the background behind the singers. Henny Porten, who went on to become one of the most popular German stars of the silent era, performed a male role in at least eight of Messter’s Tonbilder, often opposite her older sister Rosa. These included: Apachentanz (1905), Meißner Porzellan (1906), Funiculi-Funicula (1908), Der Bettelstudent (1908), Im Fasching (1908?), Die Kleine Baronesse (1908?), ‘Kusslied’ aus ‘Herbstmanöver’ (1909), and Linda von Chamonix (1910). Just fifteen years old when she appeared in Apachentanz, the blonde, blue-eyed Porten’s later star persona personified ‘traditional Germanic womanhood’. However, these early Tonbilder were decidedly transnational – ranging from the Parisian ‘Apache dance’ to the Austrian Meißner Porzellan and Herbstmanöver, the Neopolitan Funiculi-Funicula, and the Italian Linda von Chamonix. Cross-dressed women helped cinema connect to popular traditions of cross-dressing on stage and internationalise the new medium of cinema.
The strength of the Hosenrolle tradition is also clear in the 1911 German film adaptation of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. As in the opera, the show’s lusty young hero Octavian is played by a woman. The film is silent, though there is no need for a female performer to achieve the correct vocal range. Likewise, in the 1919 German film adaptation of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, the page Cherubin is played by a woman (Hella Moja), even though the film is again silent. These silent opera adaptations show that women were expected in these roles even without the motivation of vocal range. Although the films frequently pair women with other women, it’s not clear to what extent viewers read them as lesbian. Kiki Loveday argues that the frequent ‘sister acts’ of silent cinema were a coded way of representing lesbianism. In any case, these performances did not arouse any public concern at the time.
However, other stage traditions of cross-dressed women were not taken up in German cinema. For example, French actress Julienne Mathieu’s performance as a magician in a white tuxedo in Segundo de Chomon’s films and the spectacular trick of turning a woman into a man and vice versa in Méliès’s films were unique to French films. French, American, and Italian films also regularly cast women as young boys, but I did not find this in German silent films – perhaps because the romantic boy type so common to them was less popular in Germany.
Adapting well-known plays, novels, and operas became particularly important in cinema of the 1910s as producers tried to elevate cinema’s reputation and attract middle-class audiences. In the US, for example, the Vitagraph Company featured cross-dressed women in Shakespearean adaptations including A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909), Twelfth Night(1910), and As You Like It (1912). In Germany, as mentioned, Der Rosenkavalier and Figaros Hochzeit featured women in Hosenrolle. However, the best known and most unique example in German silent cinema was Asta Nielsen’s spectacular performance as Hamlet in the 1921 feature film. Nielsen was one of the most popular stars of the silent era. Her popularity helped launch the ‘Monopol’ system of booking, as Martin Loeperdinger and others have shown. Though Nielsen ‘was adored, even idolized, in Germany’, the dark-haired Dane was always considered a foreigner, according to Scandinavian film scholar Julie K. Allen. German feminist film scholar Heide Schlüpmann argues that, starting in 1911, Nielsen had more control over her productions than any other actor, and that she put women’s fears, desires, and fantasies onto the screen, engaging audiences in mutual play. Artistically ambitious, Nielsen played all kinds of roles in all kinds of genres. She made many cross-dressed films in which she played with and departed from established conventions.
Hamlet is a good example. Though women had played Hamlet on the eighteenth and nineteenth century stage, Nielsen’s performance is the weightiest of the male roles played by women in silent cinema. However, the film reframes the role as a female one (in disguise). It opens with a title card explaining American scholar Edward P. Vining’s theory that the historical Hamlet was a woman. Thus, Nielsen plays Hamlet as a woman posing as a man. Despite this sleight of hand, the film provides the opportunity for her to demonstrate her acting chops by performing one of theater’s most famous male protagonists. Hamlet’s female gender also creates new innuendos, as the film plays up the character’s unrequited love for Laertes.
The role of Pierrot also offered opportunities for cross-gender casting across Europe. This stock character, a lovesick clown with a whitened face and loose white blouse that originated in the commedia dell’arte of the late seventeenth century, was ubiquitous in European painting, music, and theater by the early twentieth century. Though Pierrot was traditionally played by men, in 1883 Sarah Bernhardt appeared as Pierrot in a variety program. In France, Alice Guy’s hand-colored dance film Fredaines de Pierrette (1900) features a woman as Pierrot, courting another woman, Pierette. In Italy, the role was even more popular. Italian diva Francesca Bertini plays Pierrot in Histoire d’un Pierrot (1914); French dancer and actor Stacia Napierkowska is Pierrot in Il disinganno di Pierrot (1915) and Polish actor-director Diana Karenne is the eponymous lead in Pierrot (1917), which she also produced and directed. Italian diva Leda Gys plays a woman who performs as Pierrot in Napoli è una canzone (1927).
In Germany, Henny Porten played Pierrot opposite her sister Rosa as Pierrette in the Tonbild Im Fasching. Even more dramatic were Asta Nielsen’s Pierrot performances. In Komödianten (1912/1913), Nielsen plays an actress, Kamma, who is cast in the role of Pierrot for a new play, ‘The Death of Pierrot’. Kamma divorces her husband, a fellow actor, when she discovers him with another actress. At the play’s opening night, she goes to their son, who is deathly ill, but is persuaded to return to the play. When she receives word that her son has died, she removes the tip of her rapier, hoping to kill her husband during the performance, but she herself is mortally wounded. She stays in character until the curtain falls. Kamma’s suffering and death is tied to that of the iconic character she plays. Similarly, in Die Filmprimadonna (1913), Nielsen plays a film actress who sacrifices her health to cover the gambling debts of an upper-class cad. In the meantime, a poet falls for her and writes a film drama called (again) ‘The Death of Pierrot’ that describes their tragic situation. She plays the lead and dies (once more) in the final scene. Like the role of Hamlet, Nielsen uses male roles to demonstrate her tragic acting capabilities beyond the confines of gender.
As Italian cinema scholar Rob Rushing points out, Pierrot allowed actresses to play a male character while wearing a costume that was not considered to be particularly masculine. Like Hamlet, the role gave actresses the opportunity to show off their acting, but perhaps in a more acceptable way, because the character is so androgynous and even otherworldly. The female Pierrots across European cinema show how cross-dressed women in German silent cinema participated in transnational networks of influence.
In France, Italy, Denmark, and the United States, Joan of Arc also provided myriad opportunities for cross-dressing. However, in Germany, a historical enemy of France, it seems that only modernised Joan of Arc comedies were made, including Eine modern Jungfrau von Orleans (1905), Die Jungfrau von Orleans in Schlotterdeike (1916), and Die moderne Jungfrau von Orleans (1921). In the 1905 film, for example, Eugen Skladanowsky (younger brother to inventor Max) plays a maid who is obsessed with Joan of Arc and gets a chance to live out her fantasy when she routs several burglars. In Germany, Joan of Arc became a figure of comedic athleticism rather than a divinely-inspired cross-dressing heroine.
The gender disguise romantic comedy
The most popular genre featuring cross-dressed women in German silent cinema was the gender disguise romantic comedy. In these films, like the plays they draw on, there is narrative motivation for gender disguise and the disguise sets in motion mistaken identity gags, wherein, for example, a girl falls for a cross-dressed girl, or a cross-dressed girl’s interest in a man are interpreted as gay. Sometimes the disguised character fails tests of their performed gender – other times they are better than the ‘real’ men, especially when it comes to romancing women. In the end, their true identity is revealed, a heterosexual couple is formed, and the gender and sexual order is restored. For example, in the US film Making a Man of Her (1912), a girl disguises herself as a boy to get a job as a ranch cook. Jealous of the ranch women’s attention to the cook, the cowboys challenge her to a boxing match, during which her hat gets knocked off, revealing her long hair. The ranch foreman immediately proposes. In contrast, in The Danger Girl (1916), Gloria Swanson disguises herself as a man to lure a vamp away from her sweetheart, Bobbie. The disguised Gloria is much more appealing to the girls than Bobbie is, but they do end up together.
Asta Nielsen used not only tragic male roles to demonstrate her acting proficiency but also comedic gender disguise roles. In Germany, one of the first gender disguise romantic comedies starring a cross-dressed woman was Asta Nielsen’s Jugend und Tollheit (1912/1913). Its success cemented the presence of this genre in Germany throughout the rest of the silent era. In 1928, Nielsen recalled:
When I decided to make my first comedy, Jugend und Tollheit, and to perform a Hosenrolle in it, protests arose from all quarters: apparently, I was doomed to ruin my good name and business alike.
The protests were in vain, however – not only was the film a success, but Nielsen followed it with four more cross-dressing films. In the film, Jesta (Nielsen)’s sweetheart, a young lieutenant, is supposed to marry a rich girl to save his uncle from ruin. However, Jesta disguises herself as a student and follows him. As a boy, she is forced to shave, listen to dirty jokes, share a bedroom with the lieutenant, and (almost) to wear men’s swimming trunks. In the end, though, she manages to wed her sweetheart.
As is typical of the gender disguise comedy genre, the film justifies Jesta’s cross-dressing as a necessity and draws her into increasingly awkward situations. Comic publicity photographs of the film show a nervous-looking Nielsen getting a shave at a barbershop and Nielsen holding up men’s swimming trunks in front of her body, eyebrows raised. As Kiss notes, German critics tended to dampen the sexual and political potentials of cross-dressed women’s roles by emphasising how attractive they looked in tight-fitting men’s clothing.
Nielsen’s next cross-dressing comedy, Das Liebes-ABCs (1914), parodies the genre’s typical conventions. Lis (Nielsen) is a wealthy young woman who finds that her betrothed, Philip, does not live up to her fantasy. He does not smoke, does not flirt, and his clothes are downright dowdy. She tricks him into going to Paris with her and then dons men’s clothes to teach him how to be a real man and romance a woman in the proper way. When her father tracks them down, she decides to keep up the charade. But her father sees through her, and he and Philip put one over on Lis. In the end, the couple marries, and Philip becomes the kind of man Lis had dreamed about. But while cross-dressed women typically find tests of manhood onerous, the joke in this film is that Lis makes a much better man than Philip does. She smokes and drinks with aplomb and effortlessly playacts the kind of seduction her ideal man would employ. She’s also popular with the women at the opera house. Only by following her lead does Philip come stumbling into manhood.
In line with Schlüpmann’s argument that Nielsen’s films explore women’s fantasies through play, Das Liebes-ABCsdepicts a young woman who fantasises about the kind of man and romantic relationship she wants and then uses exuberant role play to teach a man how to fulfill these desires. While cross-dressed women are often more popular with women than men are in these films, it is unusual for the cross-dressed woman to be better at manhood in every way. However, the film’s ending, with a gender-normative heterosexual couple, is typical of the genre.
When a woman at the opera house hugs and kisses the disguised Lis, she grimaces at the camera to demonstrate how uninterested she is in the woman’s affection. On the one hand, these grimaces establish her heterosexuality. On the other, needing to demonstrate disgust meant that audiences may have been aware that some woman would welcome this type of affection (when the US Production Code Administration assessed a scene in Sylvia Scarlett  where a maid embraces and kisses a disguised Katharine Hepburn, they demanded that Hepburn’s disgusted reaction be cut, explaining that ‘there should be … nothing suggestively emphasized by any horrified reaction on the part of Sylvia’). Thus, objecting too much – as Nielsen does – may have raised the specter of lesbianism even as it was intended to dispel it.
Nielsen’s grimaces point to a key difference between German and US contexts. In the US in the 1910s, filmmakers, critics, and censors did not expect American audiences to read cross-dressed women as potentially lesbian. Only in the late 1920s did newspapers and fan magazines suggest these interpretations to their readers. In contrast, sexual subcultures and sexological writings were much more visible to the German public. European sexologists described people with unusual gender expressions and sexual desires as ‘sexual inverts’, ‘sexual intermediates’, ‘third sex’, and ‘homosexuals’ since the mid-nineteenth century, and many pioneering scientists and activists were based in Germany. Already in the 1890s, activist scientist Magnus Hirschfeld helped launch the German sexual reform movement and the 1907 Eulenburg affair (a libel trial about alleged homosexual encounters between General Kuno von Moltke and Prince Philipp von Eulenburg) brought male homosexuality to public attention.
Women who wore masculine styles were also under suspicion in Germany in the 1910s. The adoption of pants into women’s fashion, in tandem with women’s entrance into sports, the workplace, and universities, and the choice by some lesbians to wear ‘a style of dress based on the men’s suit’, led many commentators to complain that the distinctions between the sexes were dissolving. Already in 1911, journalist Eugen Isolani published a whole book devoted to Die Frau in der Hose (The Woman in Pants) that charted the controversies around this style, which included ‘mockery, public demonstrations, and rules banning women in pants from public places’. Isolani described an 1890 divorce case in which a Berlin man divorced his wife ‘because he believed that her predilection for wearing pants to masquerade balls shows were “homosexual leanings”’.
While some sexologists in the US also warned that women who wore men’s clothes should be suspected of broader pathology and commentators complained about women’s incursion into male domains, the tendency to connect masculine styles and deviant identities was limited in the US to the elite. In popular culture, women in men’s clothing were much more often heralded as athletic modern women. Stores advertised attractive ‘mannish’ clothing for women. Although there were laws in many cities against wearing ‘a dress not belonging to his or her sex’, when journalists interviewed people living as men who had been assigned the female gender at birth, the stories reported favorably about these individuals, even when they had married women. The publicly expressed concerns about inverts and lesbians in Germany in the teens only reached the US public in the late 1920s and early 1930s, with the import of European talent to Hollywood.
The gender disguise romantic comedy remained popular throughout both Wilhelmine and Weimar cinema. This is the genre of Ich möchte kein Mann sein (1918), but the film was joined by three films by director Franz Hofer: Hurra, Einquartierung! (1913), Malheurchen Nr. 8 (1914), and Fräulein Piccolo (1914/1915). Manny Ziener (of Hurra, Einquartierung!) also starred in the cross-dressing military comedy Fräulein Leutnant / Fräulein Feldgrau (1914). Ossi Oswalda also cross-dressed in Amor em Steuer (1921) and Ossi hat die Hosen an (Abenteuer eines Unterrocks) (1928). Other gender disguise romantic comedies included: Lolas Hosenrolle (1914), Hans im Glück (1916), Die Landpomeranze(1917), Die Heimkehr des Odysseus (1918), Komtesse Doddy (1919), and Der Fürst von Pappenheim (1927).
For example, in Hurra, Einquartierung!, Franchon (Ziener) and her friends are excited when local soldiers billet at Franchon’s father’s house. The friends disguise themselves as maids to meet the soldiers but Franchon gets a better idea – she disguises herself as a soldier. A lieutenant asks the disguised Franchon to pull off his boots. But when he asks her to pull off his pants, he trips and falls on her, revealing her long hair. Delighted, the two erect a screen to hide behind. Though the father tries to evict the soldiers, he eventually accepts his daughter’s choice.
Similarly, in Fräulein Piccolo, Lo (Dorrit Wiexler)’s father, a hotel owner, asks her to fill in for a maid and a bellboy (or piccolo) who had run off together. She must quickly change outfits depending on which bell is rung. In both guises, she fights off amorous attention from the guests. After many tricks and much confusion, she gets together with a lieutenant. Arnold-de Simine and Mielke write that in both Hurra, Einquartierung! and Fräulein Piccolo, ‘the gender swap is accompanied by a change in social class’, in which ‘middle-class daughters are transformed into men or women who are socially significantly lower in social status (boy/piccolo or farm maid/chambermaid)’, which makes them more sexually available, which in turn ‘serves as a catalyst for their (nevertheless befitting) marriage’. Thus, while the films create opportunities for same-sex desire through gender disguise, the plot directs this disorder to reestablishing a bourgeois heterosexual order. This order remains in tension with the central action of the film, which shows off eroticised ‘boys’ cleaning military boots and girls playing tricks on lusty men.
In the years leading up to the First World War, several German cross-dressing romantic comedies involve the military, including Jugend und Tollheit, Hurra, Einquartierung!, and Fräulein Leutnant. What is more, in Es wär so schön gewesen (1910) a conscript fantasises about leading a regiment of women in soldier’s garb. The military was a famously single-sex environment, so it offered a good narrative motivation for gender disguise. Arnold-de Simine and Mielke note that military farces were popular on stage and that the motif of ‘Fräulein Feldgrau’ could also be found on field postcards. These cross-dressing scenarios were part of the culture of German militarism. If we consider the popularity of cross-dressed women in American war films, we can see how cross-dressed women, far from critiquing nationalist projects, could be mobilised in support of them. Women were not only attractive in tight-fitting male uniforms, they demonstrated the health and athleticism of future mothers of the nation. And yet, sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld reported that one of his clients assigned female at birth longed to wear a uniform and become a soldier – so these depictions of martial femininity could promise fulfillment for trans men longing to be recognised as male even as they also supported nationalist militarism.
In Germany, cross-dressing military comedies disappeared during the First World War, while in France, Sweden, and the US their numbers increased. For example, in Julie Cuisinier Militaire (France, 1914), a woman pretends to be an army cook to be near her boyfriend, and in I kronans kläder (Sweden, 1915), a conscript escapes his punishment by changing first into the clothes of a woman who is swimming and then into the clothes of an officer who is swimming. When the woman gets back to shore, she dons the conscript’s clothes and gets arrested in his place – until she reveals her long hair. In the US, Margarita Fischer starred in Miss Jackie of the Navy (1916) and Miss Jackie of the Army (1917), where she not only disguises herself but leads several heroic rescue missions. Perhaps German filmmakers were wary of poking fun at the military while such a bloody and prolonged conflict raged. It was not until 1931 that Germany made another military gender disguise romantic comedy – Liebeskommando (1931), an early talkie starring twenty-one-year-old Dolly Haas, who went on to star in several more cross-dressing films.
Of all the cross-dressing comedies made in Germany, one of the most unique is Asta Nielsen’s Zapatas Bande (1913/1914), which defies many of the conventions of this genre. Nielsen’s character has no male suitor and no couple is formed at the film’s conclusion. Her character slips into the role effortlessly and does not seem to find manhood onerous. Unlike most films, her performance of manhood is not really played for laughs. Nielsen plays a Danish film star who travels to Italy with a film troupe to make a movie about a gang of bandits. Nordland, the film company the character works for, echoes Nordisk, the Danish film company where Nielsen had begun her career (Nordisk had recently shot several action films on location in Italy). Nielsen and her troupe are so convincing as bandits that they accidentally hold up a real countess and her daughter, Elena. Nielsen is dashing in her bandit’s outfit and handy with the pistols she keeps slung in her belt, and Elena falls in love with the gang’s handsome leader. At the same time, a group of real bandits steal the film troupe’s ordinary clothes and escape under the noses of the police. The troupe is stuck in their bandit outfits, shot at by the local townspeople, and unable to explain themselves because they cannot speak Italian. While trying to find food, Nielsen enters Elena’s bedroom through a window at night and the girl demonstrates her ardent affection. Like in Das Liebes ABC, Nielsen makes faces when Elena hugs and kisses her, trying to convince the film audience that she is not enjoying this female attention (again perhaps suggesting the possibility of pleasurable same-sex affection). After more adventures, the troupe is rescued by the Scandinavian consul. In Zapatas Bande, Nielsen performs an attractive form of nonwhite lower-class masculinity that is predictably appealing to the young woman in the film (and perhaps those in the audience as well?). Once more Nielsen demonstrates her versatility and unwillingness to be pinned down by convention.
Gender disguise romantic comedies are the most familiar and popular type of Hosenrolle in German silent cinema. They provide many opportunities for ‘accidental’ same-sex eroticism and gender exploration, but also conclude by reinstating the traditional social order. German filmmakers adapted this transnational genre to German contexts, like the military, and Asta Nielsen exploited it to demonstrate her comic prowess. Never content to simply repeat herself, Nielsen turned the genre conventions upside down in Zapatas Bande.
Cabarets, chevaliers, and inverts: Cross-dressed women of Weimar cinema
While gender disguise comedies continued to be the most popular form of Hosenrolle during the Weimar period, new genres also provided new opportunities for queer representation. Cross-dressed women from Berlin’s infamous cabaret scene began to appear in films, such as the notorious cabaret performer Anita Berber’s tuxedoed dance in Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1921/1922). By the 1920s, Berlin had become an international hotspot for lesbian and gay culture. Lesbians and gays had their own cafes, nightclubs, theaters, and publications. According to Arnold-de Simine and Mielke, Berber was not only ‘a regular guest in lesbian bars’ and married to iconic gay dancer Sebastian Droste, but was also ‘the first to appear in tails and monocles’ – the look that Marlene Dietrich brought to Hollywood in 1930.
When Dietrich appeared in tails in Hollywood, her outfit was understood as paradigmatically European. In the US, women in elegant tuxedos appeared throughout the 1920s as extras spicing up Parisian dance parlors, as in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and Wings (1927). In France, Victor Margueritte’s infamous 1922 novel La garçonne, about an androgynous woman who decides to live free of morality and sleep with men and women alike, was adapted to film in 1923.
Some Weimar films presented individuals who identified as a sex other than the one assigned them at birth or who used clothing to signify their deviant sexual orientation. The famous Aufklärungsfilm, Anders als die Andern (1919), argued for the rights of what Hirschfeld called ‘sexual intermediates’, and featured shots in a gay bar of women in tuxedos dancing with women in dresses. That same year, another Aufklärungsfilm called Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren (1919) adapted the 1907 autobiography of an intersex individual who was raised female and transitioned to male. The distributor described the film as a tragedy that would lead viewers to sympathise with the protagonist’s plight:
Erika Glässner embodies pseudohermaphroditism in a self-effacing manner of characterization. She portrays the unfortunately afflicted boy/girl in gripping scenes, as a poor creature of indeterminate sex – scenes that capture all the tragedy of sexual intermediacy.
The film is unfortunately lost, but it remarkably makes ‘sexual intermediacy’ its explicit subject.
Germany, like the US, also created big-budget historical dramas featuring cross-dressed women in the 1920s. While US films like When Knighthood Was in Flower (1921) and Dangerous Maid (1923) gave actresses the opportunity to disguise themselves as men without looking like men, German films used historical settings to depict an actual person famous for changing sex – the Chevalier d’Eon, an eighteenth-century French spy who lived alternately as a man and as a woman. Exzellenz Unterrock (1920) and Marquis d’Eon, der Spion der Pompadour (1928) both purported to tell d’Eon’s story. Both films starred actresses who portrayed the Chevalier as a woman in disguise. While their costumes looked as feminine as those in the American films, the films evoked the life of an actual gender-crossing person.
Gender disguise comedies in Weimar cinema make more explicit references to homoerotic possibilities than previous films. For example, in Der Geiger von Florenz (1925/1926), a brother and sister fall in love with a disguised girl, Renée (Elisabeth von Bergner). At one point the brother tells the disguised Renée, ‘Sometimes I think you are a girl – and often I wish you were.’ When Renée asks, ‘What would you do if I were a girl?’, he answers: ‘I think I should want to marry you.’ Likewise, when the sister discovers Renée’s secret, she places a hand on Renée’s breasts and kisses her on the mouth. Bergner cross-dresses twice more: in Doña Juana (1927) and As You Like It (1936).
Another example is Der Fürst von Pappenheim (1927), a comedy of errors set at a high-end department store, adapted from a 1923 operetta. In the film’s finale, a store clerk switches costumes with a princess on the run who has been working as a model. She wears his tails and he wears her exotic beaded dress and black domino. When her uncle finds them kissing (the girl still in tails), he remarks: ‘I may be old-fashioned, but when I kiss, I prefer a pair of female lips.’ He takes this apparently male couple in stride. During the Weimar period, certain cross-dressing films like these played on audience knowledge of real-life Berlin lesbian and gay subcultures.
Ich möchte kein Mann sein
Ich möchte kein Mann sein marks the transition between the Wilhelmine and Weimar eras and points both toward the transnational conventions of the gender disguise comedy and its specific German context.
Ossi (Oswalda) disguises herself as a man to go out dancing despite the contrary orders of her guardian, Dr. Kersten (Curt Goetz). At the dance hall, she encounters Kersten and they spend the evening getting drunk and toasting their ‘brotherhood’. By the evening’s end, they kiss sloppily and take a carriage together, continuing to kiss. In their drunken stupor, they are delivered to the wrong apartments and wake up in the wrong beds. Once Ossi returns to her own room, Kersten spies her long hair and they embrace enthusiastically.
In many ways, the film is typical of the transnational gender disguise comedy genre. Indeed, one contemporary German reviewer remarked that:
[T]he story of the mad, high-spirited teenage girl, who as a boy regularly lets off steam, gets into all sorts of trouble, and finally lands in the port of marriage, has been staged a thousand times before in all possible variations.
The film fits Straayer’s conventions: there is narrative motivation for the disguise; the disguise is convincing to people in the film but not the film’s audience; gags are based on the character’s failure to enact the performed gender; the disguise creates opportunities for accidental same-sex desire; there is a big reveal; and the film ends with the formation of a heterosexual couple. In all these respects, the film is similar to transnational gender disguise comedies. Like Jugend und Tollheit, Making a Man of Her, and The Danger Girl, Ossi must undergo tests of manhood, including drinking, smoking, and flirting with women. Ossi’s confusion about which bathroom to enter gets repeated in the later American film Sylvia Scarlett.
However, the sloppy kisses between Kersten and the disguised Ossi, and the fact that they are presented in extended close-ups, make I Don’t Want to be a Man unique. Even though the audience and Ossi know that these kisses are heterosexual, Kersten does not know that, and yet he repeatedly kisses his young male companion, both in the dance hall and in the carriage. Kersten’s desire thus comes across as same-sex desire, which makes this one of the queerest of the cross-dressing comedies. The German public’s knowledge of same-sex desire, spread by sexology, the sexual reform movement, and the controversies over the Eulenberg affair, mean that audiences likely read Kersten as potentially homosexual. His interest in the female Ossi at the film’s end comes as something of a surprise.
Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that the film had censorship troubles. It was initially released in October 1918 with significant cuts and the complete film was not released until 1921. This is another important difference between cross-dressed women in Germany versus the US – in the US, censors hailed films with cross-dressed women as the wholesome answer to worrisome slapstick comedies.
Many elements of Ich möchte kein Mann sein are consistent with the transnational cross-dressing comedy genre – the disparity in audience and character knowledge, the tests of manhood, and the representation of accidental same-sex desire. However, comparing it to other films reveals that the close-ups on the sloppy kisses between Kersten and the disguised Ossi are unique and, I think, one of the main reasons the film has been such a perennial favorite.
Ambiguities and possibilities
Cinema is not only influenced by transnational entertainment trends, but also a motor of these trends. As commodities, films traveled even more easily than performers – especially during the silent era when an exchange of intertitles was all that was needed to adapt a film to a new language. Films picked up traditions from theater, opera, and operetta and circulated them even farther and wider. While for practical reasons most scholarship on cross-dressed women in films focuses on particular national contexts, it is helpful to see how narrative, costume, and performance traditions were picked up, traveled, and adapted to local contexts and then how those films traveled.
While scholars like to declare cross-dressing in any given film either transgressive or conservative, at some fundamental level the politics of cross-dressed performances is impossible to pin down – and this was key to its appeal. It is the nature of comedy to be ambiguous about who is being laughed at and who is being laughed with, and the nature of popular culture to invite multiple ways into a text. For example, some viewers might focus on the chaotic middle section of a film and others on the conservative ending (and others might want some of both!).
Though scholars have focused on Weimar cinema as offering new possibilities for gender and sexuality, we can see that Wilhelmine cinema also offered varied visions of female masculinities – especially in Danish actress Asta Nielsen’s creative takes on cross-dressing traditions. Weimar films continued these traditions while making more explicit reference to real-life sexual intermediaries. Attending to the complexities of female-to-male cross-dressing allows us to see how popular culture manages to envision alternative gender and sexual scenarios while maintaining its popularity and, for the most part, dodging the censors’ scissors.
Laura Horak is an Associate Professor of Film Studies at Carleton University and director of the Transgender Media Lab and Transgender Media Portal. She is co-curator of the 99-film Blu-ray set Cinema’s First Nasty Women (Kino Lorber, 2022) and is author of Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressing Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908-1934 (Rutgers University Press, 2016) and co-editor of Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space (Indiana University Press, 2014), Unwatchable (Rutgers University Press, 2019), a special issue of Somatechnics on trans/cinematic/bodies, and a special section of the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies on transing cinema and media studies.
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Arnold-de Simine, S. and Mielke, C. Charleys Tanten und Astas Enkel: 100 Jahre Crossdressing in der deutschen Filmkomödie. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher verl. trier, 2012.
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Toepfer, K. ‘The Rise and Fall of Pierrot: Pantomime Noire: The Cercle Funambulesque’, Karl Toepfer (blog), 28 June 2019: https://karltoepfer.com/2019/06/28/the-rise-and-fall-of-pierrot-pantomime-noire-the-cercle-funambulesque/.
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 Ich möchte kein Mann sein has been screened at festivals in the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, the UK, Greece, and the Philippines, including at the Berlinale in 1984 and Frameline in San Francisco in 1994.
 It was released on DVD in the US by Kino Lorber in 2007, in Spain by Divisa in 2008, in the UK by Eureka in 2010, and in Germany by Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2012.
 Of these 47 films, 33 are known to survive (some only in fragments) and of those, I have viewed 19. For ones that may not survive and the surviving films I have not viewed, I use plot descriptions, photographs, cast lists, and reviews from existing scholarship and online resources like FilmPortal.de and the German Early Cinema Database (https://earlycinema.dch.phil-fak.uni-koeln.de/).
 While opera critics only used Hosenrolle to describe women playing male parts, film critics used it for any type of masculine performance by a woman, including roles where a female character disguises her gender.
 Dyer 1990, p. 7.
 Kuzniar 2000, p. 56.
 Garber 1992, p. 17.
 Horak 2016, pp. 54-60.
 Kiss 2000, pp. 180-230.
 Sutton 2011, pp. 126-127.
 Weinstein 2006, p. 131.
 Arnold-de Simine & Mielke 2012, p. 49.
 Ibid., p. 52.
 Hake 2002, p. 10.
 Elsaesser & Wedel 2005, p. 273.
 Elsaesser 2005, pp. 271-272.
 Arnold-de Simine & Mielke 2012, p. 50.
 e.g. Duckett 2023.
 Potter 2019, p. 58.
 Horak 2017, pp. 380-381.
 ‘Tonbilder – Geschichte, Technik, Produktion Und Aufführung’.
 Hake 2002, p. 16.
 Loveday 2019.
 On the romantic boy type, see Horak 2017, pp. 23-53.
 Loiperdinger & Jung 2013.
 Allen 2012, pp. 14, 20.
 Schlüpmann 2014.
 Toepfer 2019.
 Rushing 2021, p. 84.
 Chris Strayer describes these genre conventions in Straayer 1996.
 As cited in Kiss 2000, p. 217.
 Ibid., p. 221.
 Ibid., p. 220.
 Schlüpmann 2014.
 Horak 2016, p. 221.
 Ibid., pp. 93-223.
 Weinstein 2006, pp. 122-123.
 Ibid., p. 122.
 Ibid., p. 123.
 Horak 2016, pp. 93-223.
 Arnold-de Simine & Mielke 2012, p. 41.
 Prickett 2006, p. 113.
 Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler (2 Teile).
 Arnold-de Simine & Mielke 2012, p. 53.
 Horak 2016, pp. 127-130; 153-156; 179-181; 194-198.
 Aufklärungsfilm, literally ‘Enlightenment film’, was a genre of educational film that addressed taboo topics such as sexually transmitted diseases, drug use, and abortion.
 As quoted in ‘Bei der UFA machte man das so…’ Translation by Nicholas Baer.
 For in-depth analysis of Der Geiger von Florenz and Der Fürst von Pappenheim, see Kuzniar 2000, pp. 36-39; 41-46; Arnold-de Simine &Mielke 2012, pp. 53-61.
 ‘Denn die Geschichte von dem tollen, übermütigen Backfisch, der sich einmal als Junge ordentlich austobt, dabei in allerlei Nöte gerät und schließlich im Hafen der Ehe landet, ist schon tausendmal vorher in allen möglichen Variationen auf die Bühne gebracht worden.’ Frank, Film-Kurier, Nr. 96, 8.5.1920. http://www.filmportal.de/node/16223/material/663229.
 Straayer 1996.
 ‘IM ZEICHEN OSSIS!’, dp., Erste Internationale Film-Zeitung, Nr. 18-19, 8.5.1920. http://www.filmportal.de/node/16223/material/663227
 Horak 2016, pp. 105-107; 115.