Ossi Oswalda

I Don’t Want to be a Man! (Ich Möchte Kein Mann Sein) (1918 Germany 48 mins @ 18fps)

Source: ACMI/NLA Prod Co: Union Atelier Prod: Paul Davidson Dir: Ernst Lubitsch Scr: Hans Kräly, Lubitsch Phot: Theodor Sparkuhl Sets: Kurt Richter

Cast: Ossi Oswalda, Ferry Sikla, Margarete Kupfer, Kurt Götz, [Victor Janson]

Ernst Lubitsch’s meteoric German career spanned ten years, with him acting in about a dozen films before directing approximately two dozen shorts and 12 feature films. The shorts Lubitsch featured in or directed were mainly comedies or parodies, while his features alternated between comedies and historical melodramas. Lubitsch’s career in Hollywood would last 24 years during which time he made ten silent and 17 sound features as well as producing a number of additional features at Paramount Studios while he was head of production. Lubitsch was a prolific filmmaker and a driven workaholic.

I Don’t Want to be a Man! was the short Lubitsch made immediately before directing his first feature, Die Augen der Mumie Ma (1918), and at this early stage it demonstrates Lubitsch already having developed the themes and distinctive style that would continue throughout his oevure. I Don’t Want to be a Man! was produced by Lubitsch’s team of regular collaborators, including Ossi Oswalda and Hans Kräly, cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl, who worked almost exclusively with Lubitsch from 1916 until the director left for America, photographing all of his German features, and Kurt Richter, who set designed most of Lubitsch’s German features. (1) I Don’t Want to be a Man! was filmed during the final stages of WW I, yet it’s concerns are far removed from the war, except obliquely.

Ossi (Ossi Oswalda) is a precocious youngster. (2) The film opens with her playing poker with the hired help and smoking. When she is castigated by her governess (Kupfer) she retreats into the house to have a stiff drink before her uncle (Götz) interrupts her. A group of men appear beneath her window to serenade her and she prepares to leave with them. Again Ossi is thwarted in her attempts. Her uncle is urgently summoned to America and Ossi prematurely prepares to celebrate her freedom when she is informed that she will have a new guardian in her uncle’s absence. An attractive young man arrives as her guardian but Ossi’s delusions rapidly disintegrate as he demonstrates his authoritarian manner. She isn’t allowed out. She must go to bed. Ossi realises that it is only as a man that she can have a semblance of freedom. She hatches a plan….

Lubitsch’s characters are always driven by the immediacy of their primal desires. I Don’t Want to be a Man! is filled with such characters, from the women in the street who stare at the cross-dressed Ossi and the young men who wait under her window, to the governess who develops a sudden taste for cigarettes and the leering male shop assistants who are ready to devour Ossi. This last scene culminates in a pure Lubitsch moment. The five assistants quarrel over who is to take Ossi’s measurements for the garments she is purchasing. They decide that each one of them will take a different measurement. “I’ll do the right arm!” says the first. “I’ll do the left arm!” says the second. The fifth asks, “And what’s left for me?” Lubitsch then shows the assistants taking the measurements. The first does the left arm, the second the right arm, the third her waist, and the fourth the outer leg. Just as we are about to discover what spoils the fifth has procured, the film cuts to a new scene. This is an example of the Lubitsch ellipsis, teasingly provocative, and alluringly under-informative.

In Lubitsch’s cinema there is no conscience to temper the appetites of the id. Ossi, like any hormonally charged teenager, needs to satisfy her various lugubrious vices and she will go to any means to do so. Like characters in most Lubitsch films, she finds her means in disguise and deceit, but in so doing becomes marginalised within proper society. (Other examples from Lubitsch films include, Lanzelot in Die Püppe [1919] who buys a mechanical doll to masquerade as his wife, Tura who impersonates Ehrhardt, and Greenberg who impersonates Hitler in To Be Or Not To Be [1942], and, of course, Lubitsch’s films’ legion of faithless lovers).

Lubitsch’s films are populated with strong-minded, independent women, from the heroines played by Oswald and Pola Negri in the silent films, to those played by Jeanette MacDonald, Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard in the sound era. It is Ossi’s determination to achieve her objectives that makes her a compelling lead. It is also the sexual equality that she strives for that would have appealed to the women of Germany. As Thomas Elsaesser states, “[the cinema] also became implicated in the social transformation of gender, helping to redefine the roles of women and specify the meaning of their visibility in this public sphere.” (3)

The cinema allowed German women to compare themselves with others and raised issues of mutual relevance, even if these issues were raised tangentially in Lubitsch’s films:

If one bears in mind that nowadays a film is seen by some million-and-a-half spectators […] of which at least half are from the world of women… even a cursory glance into any of these cinemas will confirm that most of the girls and women present belong to the working class, our very own area of agitation. (4)

In Ossi’s frustrations German women would have seen their predicament. Just as films of the Hollywood studio system (of which Lubitsch would become an exemplary exponent) articulated the desires of the American middle class, here, in an earlier era, Lubitsch was expressing the wishes of a repressed female class, who because of the war, significantly outnumbered their male counterparts. Because of the strain the war placed on the resources of the country, these women also had a growing political significance in Germany. And when it came to the movies, the German women voted with their feet, supporting the feisty Ossi and turning her into a national icon. Oswalda was hailed as the German Mary Pickford and in terms of the level of her popularity the comparison is correct. But in terms of representation, she was far removed from the demure Pickford and more like the American ‘It’ girls of the mid to late 1920s, exploring the boundaries of her newly found sexual freedom. Her acting style was very physical. She was ideally suited to Lubitsch’s early comedies which tended to be full of movement. In I Don’t Want to be a Man! she is continually jumping, dancing and moving, always excited and testing. Her dialogue also expresses this exuberance. However, once she dons a masculine identity her performance is more restrained as though she is trapped in a straightjacket. At the ball the ‘male’ Ossi needs to be dragged onto the dance floor, yet earlier she had been shimmying around her Uncle’s house.

I Don’t Want to be a Man! is a fable of sexual inequality, sexual representation and sexuality itself. Ossi is aware of the limitations of being a young woman, but it is only as a male that she realises the strictures society also places on men. Social convention forces her to not express pain, and stand up for women on public transport. She also discovers that male attire is as complicated as that worn by women. This is beautifully expressed when Ossi dresses in her male evening attire in preparation for the ball. She struggles with the bow tie, eventually settling for a pre-tied bow. The image cuts to black and then slowly irises out on an image of Ossi’s guardian also preparing for the ball. As the iris starts, the white of his shirt, just below his black vest, briefly forms a ‘tick’ of approval – Ossi’s got it right and is ready for the ball. Whether this was intended by Lubitsch or is purely accidental, it illustrates Lubitsch’s keen visual sense and his interest in maintaining appearances, especially if one has to cheat to create them. Ossi’s disguise allows her to escape the hypocrisies of her authority figures and to transgress the superficial standards society expects of her. It is in the transgression of sexual taboos that Ossi, and the film, take their greatest pleasure. Once in male dress Ossi can flirt with women, to their approval, and to the obvious pleasure of Ossi. This delight is shared with the audience. This kind of shared moment between character and audience is a quintessential aspect of Lubitsch’s cinema.

Ossi now engages in the joys of sexual pursuit. She attempts and succeeds at enticing the woman who is drinking with her guardian and this draws the guardian’s attention to ‘her.’ Here the film becomes more daring. To this point the film has stayed within the conventional cross-dressing comedy cinema territory of I Was a Male War Bride (1949) and Tootsie (1982). In these films, as well as most others in this ‘sub-genre’ the basis for the cross-dressing is established as non-erotic. A notable exception to this being Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (1953). The cross-dresser wears clothes of the opposite sex because his/her clothes were stolen or damaged (Bringing Up Baby [1938]), there is a desperate financial predicament (Viktor and Viktoria [1933], Victor/Victoria [1982]), or a disguise is necessary (Sylvia Scarlett [1935]). In the cinema women usually cross-dress as an act of rebellion against tyrannical laws, as is the case with Ossi. The films make fun of the awkwardness the cross-dresser displays and feels in these new accoutrements. Men having trouble walking in high-heels is the comic staple. The cross-dresser is commonly shown forgetfully slipping back into behaviour appropriate to their ‘real’ gender. For example, Ossi is shown absent-mindedly powdering her face while at the ball. There are often also scenes of potential discovery in many cross-dressing comedies, the most common location utilised being the toilet. In I Don’t Want to Be a Man! Ossi is confronted by the dilemma of which toilet to use, when, in a drunken state, she needs to recompose herself. Undecided on whether she should go to the men’s or women’s she decides to go into neither. In the unthreatening gender-preoccupation of commercial cinema the central character reverts to sexual ‘normalcy’ by the end, the cross-dressing exercise, if anything, ultimately reinforcing established sexual stereotypes. There is no space for eroticism or sexual ambiguity (or fluidity). But why, in I Don’t Want to be a Man!, does Lubitsch, so aware of appearances, show Ossi wearing court shoes with stockings, and make little attempt to conceal the contours of her breasts? Ossi’s actual gender is so obvious that the guardian’s valet displays no surprise at the apparent contradiction between Ossi’s feminine behaviour and her male attire.

So what are the guardian’s designs for the cross-dressed Ossi, when he passionately kisses and furtively gropes her when they drunkenly dress to depart from the ball? This withholding of vital information creates a situation whereby great ambiguity arises. Does Ossi attract the attention of the guardian at the ball because she wishes to teach ‘the stupid guy’ a lesson, or is she attracted to him? Is the guardian bisexual or does his ‘lewd’ behaviour arise from his intoxicated state? Perhaps he is aware of the cross-dressing scam. Certainly, once Ossi’s ruse is exposed, the guardian seems more shocked that the ‘young man’ is his ward rather than by the gender ruse that has been perpetrated.

One’s immediate perceptions are further questioned when the coach driver confuses the identity of the two characters (they are accidentally wearing each others jackets) and delivers the guardian to Ossi’s home and Ossi to her guardian’s lodgings. When the guardian is awoken by Ossi’s governess he is wearing Ossi’s night cap. Is this further cross-dressing? This swapping or confusion of identity is a standard Lubitsch plot device. This also raises the puzzling issue of the film’s title. The title comes from Ossi’s pronouncement in the final inter-title. However, with Ossi as the heroine, encountering obstacles to her quest for self-gratification as a woman, the film should be called “I Don’t Want to be a Woman.” The actual title seems to be a double negative. This stated, the actual title could be a subliminal, almost subversive cry for help on behalf of the guardian. Lubitsch is notorious for his refusal to close his narratives. A sexual relationship has formed between Ossi and her guardian but how will the previous night’s behaviour, on both their parts, effect this relationship? There is no pat answer. Such open questions allow for an ongoing dialogue on the issues of representation of gender, sex and desire outside the film that can and never will be resolved.

Endnotes

  1. The credits for Lubitsch’s German films are quite fluid, varying from source to source. Amazingly, even the lists for the well-known, much researched features seems to shift. The credits for I Don’t Want to be a Man! are taken from the film’s opening credits, except for Paul Davidson – I assume he was the producer as Union was his production company – and Theodor Sparkuhl, Kurt Richter and Victor Janson. Sparkuhl’s contribution seems very likely as he worked regularly with Lubitsch from 1916, but the other two, especially Janson’s involvement, seem much more tenuous. The three names come from Herman G. Weinberg’s important, but academically and factually loose The Lubitsch Touch: a Critical Study (New York: Dover Publications, 1977).
  2. To avoid confusion the character will be referred to as Ossi and the actress as Oswalda.
  3. Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary (London & New York: Routledge, 2000) p. 204
  4. Max Grempe, “Against Female Idiocy in the Cinema,” as quoted by Jörg Schweinitz, “Prolog vor dem Film,” Nachdenken über ein neues Medium, 1909-1914 (Leipzig: Reclam, 1992) 121 in Elsaesser p. 205

About The Author

Michael Koller is the executive programmer for The Melbourne Cinémathèque.