THE EMANCIPATION OF OSSI OSWALDA: I DON’T WANT TO BE A MAN (1918)
“You are a dream; I hope I never meet you.”-Sylvia Plath
Reliable biographical information on German silent movie actress Ossi Oswalda is scant. Even worse, the crumbs that do exist often conflict with one another. To be blunt: facts are on particularly unreliable ground here. Matters are further gummed up by the early-film habit of naming characters after their actors. Ossi was often Ossi, or, to add variety, Össi. Who was who was who? Does it matter? Fortunately, since the focus of this essay is on her incredible comedic performance in I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918), I’m not particularly concerned with the trajectory of her personal life, or to what extent her true personality coursed through the veins of her screen selves. Even though her off-screen circumstances, opportunities, and choices undoubtedly affected her career, an understanding of them is not a fundamental component to enjoying her remarkable gifts. It would benefit us to take a page from her delightful films, and, at least for the duration of this piece, leave the logical, workaday world behind in favor of the magical hinterland of the imagination. Let’s travel to a place, then, where time and reality don’t matter, where Our Heroine, in her various fictional disguises, is forever brave, scampish, and determined to grab every experience within her reach.
To sheltered twenty-first century viewers, Ossi Oswalda can seem like a young woman ahead of her time. Her screen characters embrace values that we chauvinistically claim as exclusively ours: they are full of physical courage and a feminist resolve to be treated as equal to all comers, have spicy senses of humor, are confidently attractive, take chances as if they were made for risk, and rebel against the mundane as a matter of principle.
Silent film fans know better. Continue reading