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Before and After Hormones: Youth and the Eugenic Imagination

In Germany in 1923 everyone was talking about their hormones. This was, in large part, thanks to the popular release of a medical education film called Der Steinach-Film. Der Steinach-Film was sponsored by the Universum Film-Akiten Gescellschaft (Ufa), a German motion-picture production company known for producing artistically outstanding and technically competent films during the silent era, and which from 1918 onwards included a cultural division that produced and distributed medical education films in the name of public hygiene and social reform. Produced and directed by the internationally renowned endocrinologist Eugen Steinach, Der-Steinach-Film was an abridged and sensationalized version of the longer academic production Steinach’s Forskninger (Steinach’s Research). After it premiered in Berlin at the Ufa Palast am Zoo, Ufa’s flagship movie theatre, it quickly became one of the year’s biggest blockbusters, selling out completely for six months and touring across Germany and Austria. The film was part of a wider public relations campaign, and it was broadcast with the explicit aim of educating the public on the possibility of regenerating the body politic through glandular intervention, against the backdrop of wider fantasies of national renewal and economic progress in the interwar period (Fig. 1).

Animated illustration of the hormones moving around the body, screenshot from Der Steinach-Film (1923).
Fig. 1. Animated illustration of the hormones moving around the body, screenshot from Der Steinach-Film (1923). Reproduced courtesy of Filmarchiv Austria, Vienna.

Nominated for the Nobel Prize six times, Steinach was, by many accounts, the most famous endocrinologist of his time (Fig. 2). A committed social eugenicist, he dedicated his life to researching the relationship between the sex hormones, the development of secondary sexual characteristics, theories of racial degeneration, and the aging of the body. Der Steinach-Film’s popularity, however, was in large part due to public interest in his research on regeneration and rejuvenation, and, in particular, interest in the widely advertised “Steinach operation,” a vasoligature procedure he had developed that promised to visibly reverse the effects of aging and manufacture “youthfulness” through the excessive stimulation of the sex glands. “The number of Steinach-jokes, operettas, comedies, and novels about Steinach is legion,” wrote the gynecologist Ludwig Levy-Lenz in 1933.[1] Levy-Lenz was, in fact, a colleague of the sexologist Magnus Hirschfield, who not only performed the first sex change operations, but also had the Steinach operation himself. With high profile advocates in Germany and beyond—including Sigmund Freud, W. B. Yeats, and Gertrude Atherton—the Steinach Operation had, by 1923, became something of a transnational obsession. As the scholars Rainer Herrn and Christine N. Brinckmann put it, “in the Weimar Republic, everyone knew what it meant to have yourself ‘steinached.’”[2]

Portrait of Eugen Steinach from Steinach’s Sex and Life: Forty Years of Biological and Medical Experiments
Fig. 2. Portrait of Eugen Steinach from Steinach’s Sex and Life: Forty Years of Biological and Medical Experiments (New York: Viking Press, 1940). Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine.

The early sections of Der Steinach-Film offer an elaborate and extensive catalogue of bodily and sexual difference in an effort to explain Steinach’s theory of the natural bisexuality of all animal and human forms. This is immediately followed by a cruel and voyeuristic sequence of scenes documenting various “degenerate conditions” that draws on the codes of medical photography and Victorian freak shows. Each of these scenes are interspersed with crude animated illustrations that depict the hormones—or “internal secretions” and “juices” as they were called back then—moving around the body’s interiority, further underscoring the film’s central message: hormones hold the key to controlling the developmental teleology of the body.

Yet, despite the cruel weirdness of many of these moments and the comic crudeness of the animations, I’ve always been most interested in the film’s ending. Der Steinach-Film concludes with a series of case studies of male patients, each of whom have been “steinached,” returning months later to face the camera as living, breathing advertisements for the procedure’s supposedly miraculous effects (Figs. 3–7).

Stills from Der Steinach-Film, Man after Treatment
Fig. 3. Stills from Der Steinach-Film, reprinted in Paul Kammerer, Rejuvenation and the Prolongation of Human Efficiency: Experiences with the Steinach-Operation on Man and Animals (London: Methuen, 1924). Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine.
Screenshot from Der Steinach-Film, Man after Treatment
Fig. 4. Screenshot from Der Steinach-Film. Reproduced courtesy of Filmarchiv Austria, Vienna.

Each of these scenes is composed of a split screen. First we see the patient before he goes under the knife; shortly afterwards, the patient reappears on the other side of the screen. He is a new man, born again: youth reincarnate. That said, these moments lack the drama and reverie of evangelical Christianity. Instead, the diagnostic camera and its clinical gaze forces the viewer to adopt the posture of a medical examiner: scanning the faces, postures, expressions, and skin of each of the subjects for visual proof of the reversibility, and hence radical instability, of age and decline. No longer an inescapable endpoint, the aging of the body is immediately framed as a process through which the body’s malleability can be tested, manipulated, and moderated, in the name of individual advancement and species improvement. Simultaneously, the men’s sexual potency is presented as “restored” through the suggestion that time’s effects on the body can be magically undone through the restimulation of the sex glands.

Stills from Der Steinach-Film, Treatment Results demonstrated by portrait of man
Fig. 5. Stills from Der Steinach-Film, reprinted in Kammerer, Rejuvenation. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine.
Stills from Der Steinach-Film, Treatment results in four comparison images
Fig. 6. Stills from Der Steinach-Film, reprinted in Peter Schmidt, The Conquest of Old Age: Methods to Effect Rejuvenation and to Increase Functional Activity (London: Routledge, 1931). Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine.
Stills from Der Steinach-Film (1923), results of treatment for man with moustache
Fig. 7. Stills from Der Steinach-Film (1923), reprinted in Kammerer, Rejuvenation. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine.

What fantasy of futurity is reproduced with the appearance of the second screen? How exactly did Steinach and his contemporaries perceive the relationship between race, sex, and youthfulness? As I argue in this essay, to frame this visual archive as primarily a training device, in line with the educational purpose of Der Steinach-Film, reveals how modernist representations of the endocrine body demanded that publics learn to visualize youthfulness as synonymous with regimes of racial and sexual differentiation, and specifically models of whiteness and gender conformity.

Looking Before-and-After

As Jordan Bear and Kate Palmer Albers have noted, “the ‘before-and-after’ gimmick is a strategy so commonplace that virtually every disparate photographic discourse has enlisted it.”[3] Now it could be said that Steinach’s deployment of the tactic most closely resembles the Victorian genre of social reform photography that, as Bear and Palmer Albers suggest, promulgated fantasies of social mobility by depicting the transformation of street urchins into “proper little bourgeois gentleman” (“Photography’s Time Zones,” 4). Where the before-and-after sequences in Der Steinach-Film differ from convention, however, is in their demand that the viewer finds evidence that contradicts their expectations of the genre and its central trope, that is, a visual change that indexes time’s passing. The purpose of the split-screen images is to document the operation’s defiance of time’s effects, even as those images require and rely upon a viewer’s imaginative investment in the temporal chronology of the visual exchange. In other words, in Der Steinach-Film a predetermined logic of degeneration versus regeneration is played out through a trope of doubling that compresses—indeed, denies—the passage of time that is nevertheless essential to it. It is with this deliberate contraction of time that the image of the “rejuvenated” white male body is given an impossible task: to fulfil the fantasy of embodying progress in the present tense. Evolutionary time in real time, if you will.

Given how ambitious this sounds, there is something remarkable in just how unremarkable these images are. Indeed, looking at them now, the most tempting response is surely incredulity—not least when it comes to the before-and-after sequences that feature nonhuman subjects (Figs. 8–9). Strain your eyes hard enough and perhaps you can convince yourself that you see fewer wrinkles on the men’s faces, some signs of weight gain on their bodies, better posture and more confident affectations, all enhanced by better lighting that casts away the shadows. Nevertheless, as advertisements for Steinach’s life work, the sequences would seem to offer relatively poor proof of the radical alterability of living morphology.

Photographs of the effects of rejuvenation on a dog, reprinted in Steinach, Sex and Life
Fig. 8. Photographs of the effects of rejuvenation on a dog, reprinted in Steinach, Sex and Life. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine.
Photographs of the effects of rejuvenation on another dog, reprinted in Steinach, Sex and Life
Fig. 9. Photographs of the effects of rejuvenation on a dog, reprinted in Steinach, Sex and Life. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine.

Yet in our (understandable) skepticism about the images’ status as proof, we risk ignoring how Steinach’s audience was primed to invest emotionally and psychically in the temporal sequences—and not only in the sequences itself, but also, I’d argue, in evidence that would refute them. It’s the very impossibility of the promise to reverse time, in the name of progress, that guarantees a libidinal investment in its foundational conceit.

Instead of asking why would anyone believe this, then, I believe we’d do better to bring some other questions into view. Namely, how did these sequences teach audiences what to look for and what to see? What attachments, affects, and fantasies are interpellated in moments when the interpretation of youth has been entirely predetermined? And, most importantly, what patterns of engagement and epistemic commitments were cultivated by the circulation of these images? It’s worth noting that in the widespread coverage of Steinach’s work, which saw the New York Times alone publish over a hundred articles on the “sex glands” between 1927 and 1929, journalists made countless references to the before-and-after images.[4] My point is that it’s a direct result of the fantasy necessary to the before-and-after gimmick that viewers are taught to think of youth as an aesthetic state and visual sign that exists apart from any indexical relation to conventional life stages. To commit to the bit and to search for evidence of youthfulness is implicitly to concede that age and youth might have no necessary correlation to linear or chronological time. What matters most in this exchange is not what the viewer is predisposed to see, or even what the viewer thinks they see. What matters most is the very fact of having been made to look.

Degeneration and its Discontents

If youth and aging are no longer understood as chronological and temporal phenomena, what then do they signify? Here it is helpful to further contextualize the Steinach operation against wider scientific developments and the rise of what Fae Brauer calls the “eugenic imagination.”[5] Steinach was the research director of the Department of Physiology at the Institute for Experimental Biology of the Academy of Sciences in Vienna and an active member of a community of socialist eugenicists committed to improving the racial “stock” of the working class. His program of social reform and reproductive engineering depended on the conviction that flexibility in sexual development—which he believed stemmed directly from the regulation of the sex hormones and glandular intervention—could be utilized to combat “degeneration” and “deviance” in the general population. The production of youthfulness, which also produced, in Steinach’s words, “sexual reactivation,” was fundamentally a eugenic aspiration designed to regenerate the body politic in the name of racial and national progress.[6]

It is important to remember that Der Steinach-Film was released to a public audience that would have been well acquainted with theories of cultural and social degeneration prevalent since the mid-nineteenth century. Popularized by Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892), as well as by the work of other theorists such as the criminologist Cesare Lombroso and the psychiatrist Bénédict Morel, degeneration was a quasi-biological pathology and a theory of human retrogression that registered the impact of modern life on the individual. Human civilization was falling into disrepair, or so the proponents of degeneration theory claimed, as a result of modern industrialization and racial miscegenation. As the scholar William Greenslade has written, degeneration theory reflected “a growing sense in the last decades of the nineteenth] century of a lack of synchrony between the rhetoric of progress . . . and the facts on the ground, the evidence in front of people’s eyes, of poverty and degradation at the heart of ever richer empires.”[7]

As Greenslade suggests, cultural and social discourses of degeneration arose out of a sense of material and, importantly, visual dissonance in modern life: people’s inability to reconcile what they experienced and saw with what they had been told to believe regarding so-called “human progress.” In turn, degeneration theorists actively cultivated new modes of looking in an attempt to resignify evidence of individual decline and decay, as well as to find new ways to distil and accelerate evidence of progress. In this context, signs of the body’s deterioration came to be understood not as a fait accompli, but as symptomatic of the individual’s “contamination” from industrialization, urbanization, and interracial mixing. Conversely, the healthy, rejuvenated, youthful body became an organicist symbol for the health of the biologically advanced, economically prosperous, and racially homogenous nation.

Critically, degeneration theory emerged alongside the rise of social and cultural anxieties about the inability to visually detect signs of racial difference. For instance, Sander Gilman’s work explores the rise of anti-Semitism in this period and argues that, as the “reality” of the physical difference of Jewishness came more and more into question, “skin colour as the marker of Jewish difference joined with other qualities which made the Jew visible.”[8] We see this process at work in much anti-Semitic visual production of the time, which, as George Lachmann Mosse documents, depended upon ideas of deformity, delinquency, and dependency to represent Jews and “so-called perverts” as “fragile, close to death and victims of premature old age.”[9] In response to anxieties about the impossibility of seeing racial difference, new tropes—such as despondency and decrepitude—developed in order to render racial (and sexual) difference newly legible. This in turn trained publics to visualize youthfulness as the distinct property of whiteness, and to see old age not as an inevitable life stage, but instead as a symptom of racial inferiority. To put this in no uncertain terms: the eugenic imagination cultivated ways of seeing that marked certain populations as the embodiment of futurity, whilst relegating others to premature death. 

Consider what follows the before-and-after sequences in Der Steinach-Film. Two of these sequences are followed by long scenes that depict the patient either happily back at work or exhibiting evidence of renewed physical fitness. In one scene, we see a barkeeper return to his workplace, grinning at the camera as he lifts his beer barrels with enthusiasm and vigor (Figs. 10–11). The didacticism of this moment is clear: rejuvenation has not only made him look younger, but has also reconciled him to the demands of urban life and increased the efficiency of his labor.

Screenshot from Der Steinach-Film, Man Before and after Treatment
Fig. 10. Screenshot from Der Steinach-Film. Reproduced courtesy of Filmarchiv Austria, Vienna.
Screenshot from Der Steinach-Film, Man moving barrels
Fig. 11. Screenshot from Der Steinach-Film. Reproduced courtesy of Filmarchiv Austria, Vienna.

This scene is immediately followed by a sequence featuring a civil servant who, after his procedure, is pictured climbing a mountain (Figs. 12–13). And so the film ends with a man, who we have been informed is an agent of the state, posturing on a mountain top gazing into the distance. The camera lingers on this image for a full ten seconds, conjuring fantasies of hegemonic masculinity and colonial conquest and, in so doing, offers clear evidence of an emerging fascist aesthetic in which body and body politic are coproduced as a function of mimesis.

Screenshot from Der Steinach-Film, Comparison Images
Fig. 12. Screenshot from Der Steinach-Film. Reproduced courtesy of Filmarchiv Austria, Vienna.
Screenshot from Der Steinach-Film, Man on Mountain
Fig. 13. Screenshot from Der Steinach-Film. Reproduced courtesy of Filmarchiv Austria, Vienna.

In the bar and on the mountain, as youth is constructed as a triumphant aesthetic and the extraction of labor and human capital is aestheticized, the audience is prompted to visualize national renewal, racial regeneration, and gender conformity under the abstract sign of youthfulness. The camera instructs: same, same, but a better worker. Same, same, but a better man. Same, same, but younger. Same, same, but whiter.

Youth Lives

For many years, Steinach’s work was largely unknown except to historians of science and sexology. Recently, however, scholars working in trans studies have returned to Steinach’s work, recognizing that it, as Jonah Garde has written, “paved the way for current understandings of hormone replacement therapies and medical transitioning.”[10] Garde, Jules Gill-Peterson, and Kadji Amin have each examined Steinach’s work in their interrogations of the eugenic and colonial histories of transgender medicine to expose the ways in which cisgender presentation and dimorphic sexual difference is an inherently racialized ideal. Nothing shows this better than Der Steinach-Film, where the production of a rejuvenated masculinity is inextricable from a program of racial improvement in the name of combating degeneration.

However, I think that it is also worth returning to Der Steinach-Film to explore another living legacy of the eugenic imagination, namely the look of youth. It seems especially important to reconsider exactly what it means to look youthful during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has only cemented the associations of old age with comorbidity, disability, and vulnerability—and naturalized the associations between youthfulness, able-bodiedness, health, and national well-being. Another way to get at what is at stake here is to ask: how old are each of the men in these before-and-after images? It doesn’t matter if this question is impossible to answer. For in each of these instances, to think of age as a chronological measurement is to neglect how the production of youthfulness as a eugenic ideal registers, first and foremost, as an entitlement to the future in the name of growth, constant accumulation, and national prosperity. Through the (re)circulation of these images audiences are made to engage in an exercise whose very premise requires the suspension of disbelief just long enough to contemplate the possibility that yes, these white men—and these animals—might embody youth itself. And to do so is to concede, if only for a moment, that the future belongs to them.


Notes

[1] Ludwig Levy-Lenz, “Die Bekämpfung des Alters,” Die Ehe 8.3 (1933): 10; cited in April Trask, “Remaking Men: Masculinity, Homosexuality and Constitutional Medicine in Germany, 1914–1933,” German History 36.2 (2018): 181–206, 203.

[2] Rainer Herrn and Christine N. Brinckmann, “Of Rats and Men: The Steinach Film,” in Not Straight from Germany: Sexual Publics and Sexual Citizenship since Magnus Hirschfeld, ed. Michael Thomas Taylor, Annette F. Timm, and Rainer Herrn (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017): 212–34, 212.

[3] See Jordan Bear and Kate Palmer Albers, “Photography’s Time Zones,” in Before-and-After Photography: Histories and Contexts, ed. Bear and Palmer Albers (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), 1–11, 2.

[4] See Julia Ellen Rechter, “‘The Glands of Destiny’: A History of Popular, Medical and Scientific Views of the Sex Hormones in 1920s America,” PhD diss. (University of California, Berkeley, 1997), 2.

[5] See Fae Brauer, “Dangerous Doubles: Degenerate and Regenerate Body Photography in the Eugenic Imagination,” in Image and Imagination, ed. Martha Langford (Montreal: McGill Queen’s University Press, 2005), 91–102, 91.

[6] Eugen Steinach, Sex and Life: Forty Years of Biological and Medical Experiments (New York: Viking Press, 1940), 12.

[7] William Greenslade, Degeneration, Culture and the Novel: 1880–1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 15. 

[8] Sander Gilman, The Jew’s Body (London: Routledge, 1991), 176–77.

[9] George Lachmann Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle-class Morality and Sexual Norms in Modern Europe (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020), 142.

[10] Jonah I. Garde, “Provincializing Trans* Modernity: Asterisked Histories and Multiple Horizons in Der Steinachfilm,” Transgender Studies Quarterly 8.2 (2021): 207–222, 216.