The title Les collines d’Anacapri refers to a mountain region on the Island of Capri. In 1889, when Italy became one of the first European countries to decriminalize sodomy, the country became the preferred vacation resort of those who favored homoerotic love. Italy offered refuge for the gay community and was known for its male prostitutes—often associated with the Venetian gondoliers and the Tyrolean peasants. Capri would become the scene of the Krupp scandal (1902) which culminated in the suicide of Friedrich Krupp, the wealthy head of the Krupp Company. Friedrich had moved from his native Germany to Capri to enjoy certain sexual freedom, but the media bullied him relentlessly for his homoerotic practices. Four years earlier, the British writer Oscar Wilde went to prison for two years because of his intimate relationship with Alfred Douglas. Having served his sentence, Wilde—bankrupted and socially ostracized—sought exile in Paris only to die soon afterward.
Three films accompany this prelude: The Gay Brothers (1895), starring a violinist and two male dancers, was one of the first films to feature synchronized sound through the simultaneous use of a phonograph and a kinetoscope; Wings (1927), set in the First World War, was the first film to show two men kissing; and Anders als die Andern Different from others (1919), which was considered the first pro-gay film in the world. Anders als die Andern bears a resemblance to the real-life experiences of Krupp and Wilde in that the main character is bribed and pushed to suicide by being threatened to reveal his lover’s homosexuality. The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Science) had funded this film to campaign for the abolition of Paragraph 175, the German law that criminalized homosexuality. Unfortunately, the scandal that followed the film’s airing not only failed to result in the revocation of Paragraph 175 (in effect until 1994), but also provoked an extensive public debate on the need for censorship by the newly founded Weimar Republic. Though the Republic initially defended free speech, it ended up establishing a censorship office whose first film to be reviewed was none other than Anders als die Andern.
The music of Les collines d’Anacapri serves as a luminous counterpoint to these films. As if celebrating love, we hear echoes of bells and rhythms resembling the pizzicas and tarantellas of Southern Italy. Since Debussy was known to be an avid reader of the works of Hans Christian Andersen, a bisexual author, the music could have been inspired by Andersen’s travelogue lI Improvisatore (1838), in which the novelist fictionalizes his experiences in Italy and Capri.