The Einstein of Sex is a historical drama of epic scope that manages to pull off the surprising trick of achieving low-budget aesthetics. Veteran German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim (with more than 50 films to his credit) uses digital video in an entirely different way than his Dogme 95 contemporaries. Where the Dogme group (of which the most globally noted film probably is The Celebration) uses only natural light sources and sets in pursuit of its brand of realism, Praunheim highlights the artificial (through lighting and costume) to re-create a historical truth.
The film documents the intriguing life and work of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a German Jew who founded the Institute of Sexual Science in 1920. Von Praunheim depicts Hirschfeld's sexual awakening, from the young boy caught drawing animals copulating to the medical student doubting the superficial distinctions between hard sciences and emotional satisfaction. Sexuality was not something Hirschfeld believed should be a separate component of one's character. Ultimately an individual life can be a portal for viewing historical flux (the same can be said of a solid documentary). In this case that history is the rise of gay consciousness in Europe through the early part of the Twentieth Century. This particular portal (Hirschfeld) also lets us peer in on the gay underworld of Berlin a century ago.
The film's documentary feel is somehow where the film falters. On the one hand we have a German libido-pulsing Forrest Gump, whose liberated longings and social conscience guide a life that is six degrees separated from everyone from Oscar Wilde to Adolf Hitler. This film represents history as something happening outside Hirschfeld's reality, for Praunheim uses a series of black-and-white stills and archival b-roll footage to mark the passing of time. One is inclined to compare this choice (whether it is financial or political seems irrelevant) to the passing of World War II in Truffaut's Jules et Jim. History happened outside a relationship; it was something lovers did not have time to trouble themselves with.
Yet in Einstein, this Gump's awareness of history drives Hirschfeld's passion for changing consciousness. Perhaps the film highlights the contradiction inherent in Hirschfeld, a man who wanted to create sexual liberation but was cautious about holding his lover's hand in public.
The lighting and sound of the film, especially when interiors are shot, are often downright cheesy, with rooms appearing like soap opera sets where you can spot the sawdust and a "now it's time to feel really sad" score to match. Re-creating history cheaply is not offensive (witness Werner Herzog's "historical documentary" masterpiece, Aguirre, The Wrath of God); highlighting the artificiality of that construction without a sense of irony is.
In the end the film is both excessive and beautiful, a bit much and not quite enough.
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