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Kino on Video presents
Sex in Chains (1928)

"The laws men make are bad and brutal—they mercilessly plunge us into the depths."
- Steinau (Gunnar Tolnaes)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: December 13, 2004

Stars: William Dieterle, Gunnar Tolnaes, Mary Johnson, H.H. von Twardowski
Other Stars: Paul Henckels, Hugo Werner Kahle
Director: William Dieterle

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, suicide)
Run Time: 01h:47m:21s
Release Date: December 14, 2004
UPC: 738329039028
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
D+ BC-B D-

DVD Review

Sex in prison would eventually becomes a staple in countless exploitation pictures, almost always for purposes of shock and titillation. But human urges of men behind bars are treated sympathetically, if not always seriously, in this silent German social drama from 1928.

Unemployed engineer Franz Sommer (director William Dieterle) comes to the aid of his wife Helene (Mary Johnson) when she is harassed by an obsessive admirer. Unfortunately for Franz, he socks the stalker too hard and winds up serving a three-year prison sentence after the man dies. He meets industrialist Steinau (Gunnar Tolnaes), who is being held briefly on trumped-up charges, and Steinau promises that he'll look after Helene. Steinau does so, but soon develops an unhealthy interest of his own. Meanwhile, despite his best intentions of fidelity, as a result of separation from Helene, Franz finds himself unable to resist the temptations of the flesh and becomes involved with Alfred (H.H. von Twardowski), causing inevitable difficulties in the marriage.

Dieterle would go on to become an esteemed Hollywood director, but his work here in Weimar Germany is rather overdone. The performances are all extreme and hammy, including his own. Johnson is the guiltiest party, however, with extreme histrionics being called for throughout. The Steinau story is injected with tedious melodrama that really detracts from the message (that conjugal visits are a good thing) at times. The pacing is leaden, with little onscreen of interest during long passages; the picture takes far too long to get going and when it does there's hardly any payoff, while the ending feels completely arbitrary and out of keeping with what has gone before. Dieterle also overuses double exposures as Franz and Helen drive themselves mad with imagined images of each other throughout the film. There are some redeeming elements of German Expressionism present here, including the original decorative German intertitles. A clear nod to Caligari is present in the preaching of the minister; his pulpit and gestures echo Werner Krauss gesticulating at this lectern.

In an effort to be sensitive, Dieterle makes the prison sex completely laughable. A delicate hand-holding is as explicit as it gets, should anyone be anticipating a primitive gay roughie. Perhaps the most outrageous example is Alfred's passing notes linking his name with that of Franz, like an adolescent schoolgirl. The situation takes on a juvenile innocence that seems completely at odds with modern conceptions of prison sex. The result is of interest primarily as an eyebrow-raiser. It's hard to imagine this film being made today, when the punitive is emphasized above all else. The picture does include what may be the earliest prison shower scene, an element that would be picked up wholeheartedly by its exploitation progeny.

Rating for Style: D+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame image generally looks decent enough in the 1996 restoration. There is the expected frame damage of nicks and scratches throughout, but the detail and texture are reasonably good. Unfortunately, this appears to be a PAL/NTSC conversion since there are interlacing artifacts that unnecessarily blur nearly half of the frames. Some of the titles have been reconstructed; these are rendered in plain text, with no effort being made to match the stylish originals. The title cards are thoughtfully windowboxed.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)no

Audio Transfer Review: The piano score by Pasquale Perris doesn't quite seem to belong to the film; the moods onscreen seldom coincide with the music, which continues blithely in its own mode regardless of the action. The end of the second act features an abrupt halt that's quite jarring. The sound quality is fine, however, with a modicum of hiss that's not a serious issue, and there's a decent surround effect to the music.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: There are no extras, unless you count removable English subtitles. Chaptering is less than adequate.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Sex in prison gets a rather dull and often silly treatment in this plea for understanding and conjugal visits. It's certainly unique, though it shows little of the director's talents. The transfer could have been better, and there are no extras.


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