Pioneers of Queer Cinema: Three Restored Gems from Kino Lorber

In celebration of Pride, Kino Lorber has released three early landmarks of queer cinema for streaming via its Kino Marquee initiative, which creates “virtual cinemas” for temporarily closed independent theaters. From Michael, a silent examination of heartbreak from master filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer, to Mädchen in Uniform, a tale of Sapphic attraction at an all-girls boarding school, to Victor and Victoria, the original version of the cross-dressing musical comedy, all three films — all of which are in German — explore queer themes through different lenses. While some have stood the test of time in better stead than others, all three are worth watching as examples of how daring and delightful early cinema, particularly of the Weimar Germany era, could be.

Michael (1924)

While Carl Theodor Dreyer is the most famous of the three filmmakers whose work is highlighted here, Michael feels the most dated of the films. That isn’t to say that it is not beautifully crafted, with plenty of the intense close-ups that became a Dreyer signature in later classics like The Passion of Joan of Arc. But the story, a tragic tale of an older man whose young lover betrays him for a conniving woman, relies on tropes that modern cinema has moved beyond.

Pioneers of Queer Cinema: Three Restored Gems from Kino Lorber
Michael (1924) – source: Kino Lorber

Adapted from a novel by Herman Bang, the film centers on a great painter named Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen, the Danish actor, and filmmaker best known for directing the witchy silent opus Häxan). Zoret falls in love with one of his models, a much younger man named Michael (Walter Slezak). For a time, the two live together contentedly as partners, but as Zoret ages, Michael grows restless. When Countess Lucia Zamikow (Nora Gregor) comes to Zoret to have a portrait painted, she ends up absconding with Michael.

Bankrupt and desperate for money, the Countess takes advantage of Michael, first urging him to sell a painting that Zoret gifted him, and then to steal and sell sketches made during a trip to Algiers that Zoret describes as one of their happiest times together. In the meantime, Zoret begins painting his masterpiece, a gigantic portrait of an anguished man lying alone on a beach — his heartbreak over Michael’s betrayal rendered vividly as art. But once the work is presented to the public with great fanfare and acclaim, Zoret’s health begins to fail; he has left everything on the canvas and no longer has a reason to live.

Michael remains a landmark in early queer cinema as one of the first mainstream pictures to deal with homosexuality, albeit implicitly. It also has great artistic merit as an early example of Dreyer’s work. Yet the storyline is rife with cliches that make it obvious this film was shot almost a century ago. Where the film thrives is the raw performance of Christensen, whose aging Zoret is a creature of great empathy. His face, composed almost entirely of sharp angles, is one that was made for silent cinema — especially Dreyer’s close-ups, which highlight his barely suppressed anguish. When Christensen is not on the screen, the film inevitably drags, for the supporting actors, including Slezak in the titular role, cannot match his charisma.

Mädchen in Uniform (1931)

Adapted from a play by Christa Winsloe and directed by Leontine Sagan, Mädchen in Uniform tells the story of Manuela (Hertha Thiele), a teenage girl sent to a harsh Prussian boarding school. Here, she falls in love with one of her teachers, the compassionate Fraulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck).

Fraulein von Bernburg is the object of many of the students’ affections, who speak to each other openly about their crushes on her. The reasons are obvious: not only is she the youngest and most attractive of the teachers at the school, but she is also by far the kindest, treating them with sympathy rather than strictness. She even kisses each of the girls in her dorm on the forehead before they go to bed; the girls all eagerly jump to their knees and wait obediently for her to make the rounds on this nightly ritual.

Pioneers of Queer Cinema: Three Restored Gems from Kino Lorber
Mädchen in Uniform (1931) – source: Kino Lorber

When Fraulein von Bernburg reaches Manuela on her first night at the school, her kiss goodnight is different from the others; she kisses Manuela, whose face is streaked with tears over being abandoned by her family at this school, on the lips. When Fraulein von Bernburg realizes that Manuela’s undergarments are old and tattered, she gives her one of her petticoats to wear instead. Later, Fraulein von Bernburg learns that Manuela is top of every class except for hers; Manuela’s infatuation with Fraulein von Bernburg is so irrepressible that it leads her to forget every line of literature that she memorizes for her beloved teacher’s class.

At first, Fraulein von Bernburg’s affection for Manuela feels driven by sympathy, but as the film progresses, one senses something deeper in her feelings for the beautiful new girl at school, who the headmistress notes does look mature for her age. Indeed, when Manuela gives a vibrant performance as the titular role in Schiller’s Don Carlos on the occasion of the headmistress’ birthday, Fraulein von Bernburg sits in the front row, positively enraptured. Alas, this is where things take a turn for the worse for Manuela.

After drinking too much alcoholic punch as part of the birthday celebrations, Manuela loudly confesses her romantic feelings for Fraulein von Bernburg to her fellow students and brags about the petticoat she was given, claiming it serves as evidence that Fraulein von Bernburg returns her affections. When the headmistress overhears, there is hell to pay. But the students, who have for too long been subject to the headmistress’ cruel behavior, use the hefty punishment dealt out to Manuela — she is placed in isolation in the hospital ward and threatened with expulsion — as an excuse for an uprising.

Mädchen in Uniform is an extraordinary film, from its all-female cast to its depiction of lesbian love to the bold dressing-down it gives the strict Prussian style of schooling. The film’s focus on being true to oneself and keeping hope alive in the face of totalitarian oppression provides shrewd commentary on the rise of the Nazi party in Germany at that time.

A great deal of the power of Mädchen in Uniform lies in the timeless depiction of the girls at the school, who are undeniably teenage girls from the photos of celebrities they pin inside their lockers to their cheeky attempts to sneak letters critical of the school out to their families. Chief among these girls is Hertha Thiele, whose sensitive performance as Manuela is the heart and soul of Mädchen in Uniform. While she was actually 23 years old at the time of filming, her wide eyes and round face suggest a fittingly girlish innocence. A compelling and charismatic beauty, it’s easy to imagine Fraulein von Bernburg falling for her and her schoolmates rallying around her.

Throughout the film, Manuela and her classmates maintain a sense of girlish joy that adds a bright streak of coming-of-age comedy to Mädchen in Uniform while also emphasizing the horrors that these bright young women are put through by their cruel headmistress, who treats these giddy young women more like convicts than schoolgirls. Their ability to joke and tease and eventually rebel in the face of what amounts to fascism will make you want to stand up and cheer, a thrilling reminder that teenage girls are made of stronger stuff than so many can imagine.

Victor and Victoria (1933)

Produced at the tail end of the Weimar era, on the cusp of the Nazi takeover of Germany, Victor and Victoria is a musical comedy about the shenanigans that ensue when a woman decides to masquerade as a man masquerading as a woman. (Yes, you read that correctly.) And while this first version of the story is nowhere near as well known as the 1982 Blake Edwards remake starring Julie Andrews, it’s nonetheless a delightful romp — and by far the most upbeat of the three early queer films being presented by Kino Marquee.

Pioneers of Queer Cinema: Three Restored Gems from Kino Lorber
Victor and Victoria (1933) – source: Kino Lorber

Susanne (the delightful Renate Müller) is struggling to find work as a music hall singer. After another failed audition, she runs into Viktor Hempel (Hermann Thimig), a down-and-out stage actor who now makes a living as a female impersonator known as Mr. Viktoria. As the two of them bond over their shared misfortune, Viktor convinces Susanne to step into the shoes of Mr. Viktoria for a night while his voice recovers. Susanne is naturally incredibly convincing as a woman, which means when she reveals herself as a “man” at the end of the show, the audience goes wild.

Soon, Susanne has secured an agent and become a sparkling star of the European stage — as Mr. Viktoria. This means that in her private life, she has to continue masquerading as a man, sporting slicked-back hair and tuxedos as she awkwardly stands around with a glass of whiskey while women fawn over her after every show. However, when she meets a man, Robert (Anton Walbrook), with whom she falls in love, Susanne begins to wonder if fame and fortune are worth it if she can’t be with the one she truly wants. Viktor, however, is not keen on Susanne giving up the gig that has earned both of them a great deal of money.

Written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel, who shot a French version of the film as well, Victor and Victoria focus on the comedy hijinks that naturally come with Susanne being torn between her two identities, and as a result really only flirts with the idea of same-sex romance. The real chemistry here isn’t between any of the various romantic pairings, but between Müller and Thimig as the two unlikely friends who team up to create a character that makes them both rich. As Susanne and Viktor, the two of them play off of each other to hilarious effect. Müller, in particular, is a marvel, boasting a natural screen presence and a penchant for looking fabulous in a tuxedo that rivals that of Marlene Dietrich. Müller tragically passed away only four years later at the age of 31; as the centerpiece of her all-too-short career, Victor and Victoria is a must-see for her alone.

Conclusion

I found Mädchen in Uniform to be the most compelling of the three films, and Victor and Victoria to be the most fun. But whatever direction your taste in cinema leans, there’s bound to be something you’ll love about this collection of pioneering films.

What do you think? Which of these films sounds most appealing to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Michael, Mädchen in Uniform, and Victor and Victoria are all available for streaming via Kino Marquee as of June 12, 2020.

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