In honor of Pride Month, the film and video distribution company Kino Lorber has released restorations of three early LGBTQ+ films: Victor and Victoria (Reinhold Schünzel, 1933), Mädchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan and Carl Froelich, 1931), and Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1924). Theaters across the country are releasing these films for streaming either as a package entitled Pioneers of Queer Cinema or as individual films. This “virtual cinema” experience is a way to enjoy these otherwise extremely difficult to find movies from the safety and comfort of your own home while supporting your local theaters suffering from financial losses due to COVID. Some theaters are choosing to have in-person releases with pricing similar or less than that of the e-tickets to purchase for home viewing. Whichever way you choose to acquire these films, the cost is low and fair. The release dates vary based on theater (some are about to stop showing the films and some will not start until this Friday), so make sure you check multiple websites if you are concerned that you have missed your opportunity to view the carefully restored and subtitles Pioneers of Queer Cinema. This is a great way to support your local art houses, expand your cinematic horizons, and celebrate Pride Month all at the same time.
These might sound like positive but abstract concepts and I hope this article makes these statements a little more concrete. What actually are these three films about? How are they in conversation with one another? Why is it worth your time and a little money to watch Pioneers of Queer Cinema?
Victor and Victoria, Mädchen in Uniform, and Michael are all black and white German films that premiered between WWI and WWII and break from traditional heteronormative storytelling in some way. Each of the films defies heteronormativity differently, and it is in identifying these differences that an audience can appreciate viewing these films together as a more rich and nuanced experience than viewing any one of them by itself.
The LGBTQ+ aspects of Michael exist primarily in subtext and are complicated by the paternal role that Master Claude Zoret serves in Eugene Michael’s life. While the romantic attraction between Zoret and Michael is present throughout the film, there are clear barriers to the exploration of those feelings such as Michael’s relationship with a woman and Zoret’s self-proclaimed position as foster father to Michael. While I find the latter to be extremely problematic, I appreciated the depth of character development and storytelling accomplished in this 90 minute silent film. This is one of the successes of Michael. It is an artful film as a whole and not just because of the homoeroticism for which it is lauded. In fact, I believe it is the art within this film which earned Michael its place in Pioneers of Queer Cinema. This film is a significant member of this collection not because of the interactions between Zoret and Michael but instead because of its depiction and treatment of the deeply felt pain inherent in forbidden love. The audience experiences this pain most poignantly in moments involving Zoret’s paintings and his experiences creating and sharing them. At the core of the entire film is the power of art as a means of revealing what is difficult to admit to oneself and expressing what is unacceptable to share with others. This is not only true in the scenes where Zoret paints. Most of the film takes place in Master Zoret’s home, which is a personal museum of paintings, sculptures, musical instruments, and more (much like Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu, although Citizen Kane did not premier until seventeen years after Michael). This eclectically decorated mansion reflects the glamorous and unexpected characters within it.
So yes, Michael does contain troublesome romantic attraction within the father-son dynamic of Zoret and Michael, however it also contains a princess, a duel, an artist, a ballet, a biographer, and an exploration of death. It explores the beauty in loving someone despite an inability to express this love. As such, it is a wonderful utilization of the silent film. The inability for the audience to hear the characters communicate and the consistent dissonance of the movie’s score reflects the painfulness of desire that must remain forever unspoken. (Note: if you are unfamiliar with silent films, this term can be misleading. A silent film is not silent, as it has music playing throughout the movie that contributes to the audience’s tonal understanding of what we witness on screen. It also includes dialogue in written intertitles.)
Unlike Michael, Mädchen in Uniform gazes unflinchingly at romantic attraction and love between people of the same sex. I appreciate and admire how this film never presents homosexuality as abnormal. When an inappropriate connection forms between Miss von Bernburg and Manuela, their interactions are admonished solely because they are between a student and a teacher and not because they are between two women. In fact, there are no male characters in the entire film. Mädchen in Uniform (translated as Women in Uniform) takes place in an all-girls boarding school with an all-female staff. Many of the girls talk to each other about having crushes on Miss von Bernburg and slip one another love notes with the same nonchalance as they do when discussing the “sex appeal” of certain male actors. No one cares about the sexuality of these young women, and they talk seriously or in jest about attraction without the burden of a belabored conversation about each character’s preferences. Furthermore, I applaud how the film communicates the freeing and powerful experience of sisterhood between the students without any romantic or sexual undertones. Mädchen in Uniform shows these young women as complete and vibrant characters. They are comfortable feeling and discussing attraction to women or men, they are nonjudgmental to one another even in the face of mistakes and embarrassments, and they are capable of embracing the deep bond of platonic sisterly love. The openness of the conversations surrounding desire in Mädchen in Uniform contrasts interestingly with the complete lack of openness of such conversations in Michael.
Victor and Victoria differs from both of Michael and Mädchen in Uniform because it defies heteronormativity not through relationships but through drag. This musical comedy follows aspiring performer Susanne and her unlikely colleague Viktor as she is pulled into a multi-layered deception that begins as a one-time show to earn some much needed money but becomes an exciting new adventure. This film hinges on its twists and turns, so I hesitate to give anything away that might spoil the viewing experience. The film’s comedy and musicality remind me of the 1968 musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the layers of deception surrounding gender connects to Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. Interestingly, Orlando was first published in 1928, just five years prior to the release of Victor and Victoria. Beyond that, I will only say that I found the ending of the film to be highly satisfying and believe that Victor and Victoria rounds out Pioneers of Queer Cinema with its lightheartedness and musicality.
This is all to say that I recommend watching all three of the films included in Kino Lorber’s Pioneers of Queer Cinema. If you only have the time to watch one of them, I hope this article helps you decide which film to select. Happy Pride Month and happy viewing!