Seminar on ‘Scientific Respectability and Popular Disseminations of Sex Research in Interwar German Film’

In October 2017 Dr Katie Sutton (Australian National University) spoke to us on ‘Scientific Respectability and Popular Disseminations of Sex Research in Interwar German Film’.

In the socially progressive and politically tumultuous interwar period, researchers in the German-speaking lands were world leaders in the study of sex. Increasingly, sexologists such as Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin and Eugen Steinach in Vienna were turning not only to photography as a seemingly more ‘scientific’ evidential medium than the narrative patient histories upon which they had once relied, but also the cutting-edge technologies of film.

Followers of Freudian psychoanalysis likewise began to explore the potential of cinematic media at this period. Historians have noted the lack of research on how photographs function ‘as mediators between scientific and popular culture’ (Tucker, Nature Exposed, 2005). Extending this impetus to moving images, this paper will focus on two films, one documentary and one fictional, that deal with questions of deviant sexualities and personalities in ways that aligned with the important Weimar-era genre of the social hygiene film. The Steinach-Film (The Steinach Film, 1923), a documentary detailing Viennese physiologist Eugen Steinach’s pioneering sex organ transplant experiments into the workings of the sex hormones, explores the physiological basis for a potential ‘cure’ for homosexuality and other ‘intermediary’ sexual forms. G W Pabst’s Geheimnisse einer Seele (1926), written by Freudian followers including Karl Abraham and Hanns Sachs, presents a thriller narrative as a means of popularizing the still-new methods and theories of psychoanalysis. This paper argues that sexologists and psychoanalysts not only worked with filmmakers to disseminate their research and methods to broader publics, but also used the medium of film to reinforce the scientific respectability of their still fledgling disciplines.

Dr Sutton’s research and teaching interests focus particularly on German 20th and 21st-century culture, literature, and history, from the social and cultural upheaval of the Weimar Republic to the German cinema revival of the 2000s. Dr Sutton is currently working on a monograph that examines the interdisciplinary relationships and debates between sexology and psychoanalysis from the turn of the 20th century through to the interwar period. She is the author of The Masculine Woman in Weimar Germany (New York: Berghahn Books, 2011, pb. 2013), which explored the widely-discussed ‘masculinization of woman’ in 1920s German popular culture, in areas such as fashion, sport, literature, cinema, and magazines produced by newly emerging sexual minorities.

This seminar is hosted by the University of Exeter’s Centre for Medical History and the  Rethinking Sexology project, and is part of the Medical History and Humanities seminar series (details of which can be found here)

If you have any questions about the event then please get in touch with either of the co-conveners: Dr Ina Linge ( or Dr Sarah Jones (