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Thread: THREE PIONEERS OF QUEER CINEMA (Kino Marquee)

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    THREE PIONEERS OF QUEER CINEMA (Kino Marquee)



    THREE PIONEERS OF QUEER CINEMA (Kino Marquee)

    For Pride Month, thanks to Kino Lorber's Kino Marquee for offering virtual theater release of handsome restorations of three 1930's German gay-related films deemed to be "pioneers of queer cinema." They will be available on virtual theater via cinemas across the U.S. starting June 12, 2020 (Laemmle Theaters, Los Angeles), and including that frequent sponsor of such releases, Film Forum in New York, from July 3. (Ticket purchases help support theaters while they are closed.)

    The three films are:

    MICHAEL (Carl Theodore Dreyer 1924), silent.
    MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM (Leontine Sagan 1931), sound.
    VICTOR AND VICTORIA/VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA (Reinhold Schünzel 1933), sound.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-14-2020 at 11:50 PM.

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    MICHAEL (Carl Th. Dreyer 1924)

    CARL TH. DREYER: MICHAEL (1924)


    BENJAMIN CHRISTENSEN AND WALTER SLEZAK IN MICHAEL

    A tale of sad gay love

    As you run through the Kino Marquee-selected three "queer classics" chronologically, they grow brighter and cheerier but emotionally thinner till the last one, the basis for the 1982 Blake Edwards/Julie Andrews Victor Victoria, is larky and fun but has no emotion at all beyond pleasure or pique. Michael, which aside from gorgeous sharp 2K restoration images and new font titles, has a chamber music score added and a haunting feeling. Michael is a film that relates to the great German silent tradition, even though Dreyer is Danish. The other two, bright, handsome talkies, are more glittering entertainments.

    Michael is a ponderous, touching and enigmatic melodrama of an older man's gay frustration. It revolves around an older artist known as "The Master," Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen), who's successful and rich and lives in solemn imperial splendor. The "suffocatingly sumptuous" sets by production designer (actually architect) Hugo Haring are one of the stars of the show. Michael (Walter Slezak, Hitchcock's Lifeboat) is an attractive young man who submits his drawings to the Master. The Master isn't that impressed but has him stay to pose for a painting. Several result, large, and nude, and one, called The Victor, is praised by critics the best thing Zoret has done. He gives it to Michael. And he gives Michael anything he wants or needs, and when the young man overdraws on his account, the Master covers for him. In his Slant review Eric Henderson suggests "'gay for pay' is about as much as Dreyer was undoubtedly allowed to suggest, and even then only indirectly." I don't think he suggests anything, except that Zoret adores Michael and will give him anything he wants. Henderson's review is informative, but he exaggerates a bit to jszz things up. I don't think it's fair either to say Walter Slezak, whho plays Michael, "looks distractingly like Eraserhead's Jack Nance." That set me to thinking who he does look like, and I realized: an appropriate comparison is Van Cliburn, the 23-year-old American pianist who became a national hero for winning the Tchaikovsky Award in Moscow, got a tickertape parade when he returned, tall cherub-faced, curly-haired, adored by everyone, and, as it turned out later, gay.

    Unfortunately for the older man, the bankrupt Countess Zamikoff (Nora Gregor, star of Renoir's Rules of the Game), shows up to persuade him to do her portrait, secretly intending to swindle him out of his money. He agrees to do the portrait, but is indifferent, of course, to her advances. But Michael is responsive, and she proceeds to monopolize him. As soon as they meet, they kiss: no beating a bout the bush.

    Zoret paints another big tall full length portrait of the Princess - his paintings are made to go with the grandeur of his house. But there's one detail that eludes him: he "can't get the eyes right" and calls in Michael to do them, and he does them right. I was surprised to learn that by now Michael can paint, and the Master respects his abilities. (The film leaves things out.) Gradually we learn Michael has his own apartments, not too shabby either (funded by the Master, no doubt?), and he has his own painting studio there. A scene where the Master is visited by the Baron Eugéne de Klotz, a Paris banker, reveals that Michael has been spending money wildly. No matter: Zoret has another account opened in his name, to cover his debuts. That is, and remains, the pattern.

    The Master has a portly, mustached, cigar-puffing close older friend, Kunstkritiker Charles Switt (Robert Garrison) who's an art expert, sort of to him what Henry Geldzahler was to David Hockney, but more than that, perhaps, since he harbors an unrequited love. Switt is jealous of Michael for stealing all the Master's attention, and seems to relish the moments when Michael is out of sight. But he respects Michael's importance at the end because not to have done so would have meant to be cast out.

    A beautiful moment is an early evening out when Michael and Priincess Zamikoff go the the ballet when Swan Lake is the featured event. It is a small stage, framed in lush darkness, which creates a jewel box effect, one of the most beautiful theater sequences in films.

    Michael steals things, or appropriates them, taking advantage of the Master's quiet adoration. When the countess likes the special "English" glasses he has brought in to impress her, Michael has them transferred to his own digs. Later, he steals the Master's Algerian sketches, and also decides to sell The Victor, the large portrait of himself by Zoret, having learned the countess' secret: that she has huge debts. Zoret learns of the portrait sale when he calls on a notable art dealer to sell his Cesar and Brutus painting and is told it's not a good time, because another major painting of his has just come on the market.

    The Master completes an ambitious final work, a triptych. It's a large painting of himself, reclining, nude, flanked by a painting of a young man and one of a woman, with scenes from the Algerian trip in the background. The execution of these paintings has a facile muralist quality, but their conception is grand. A crowd comes for a viewing and the critics hail this as Zoret's best work. One woman declare's it's the work of a man who has lost everything.

    After this celebration, Zoret falls ill, never to recover. At this point Michael has told him he has no use for him and h's not coming around. He's not even present for the Master's greatest moment of triumph. Things swiftly move toward the deathbed scene, with only Switt present, loyal to the end. Zoret smiles at the end, declaring he is happy because he has known true love, "Ech habe eine grosse Liebe gesehen!" Even told the Master is dying, Michael stays home, in bed with the countess. But the final scene is of him alone, when he learns of the Master's death and we see desolation in his face. At the end, he is shocked and devastated. The game is over. Of course he has known no greater love himself, than the Master's.

    It's a thought-provoking film. Everything about it is solemnly grand and beautiful. Of course the events and personalities are writ very large. But this is silent film. A very impressive early "queer" film indeed, though its focus allows some to interpret it as not about homosexual passion at all, but about something else, like envy, manipulation, loneliness, or fraud. There is also an unrelated subplot of the married Alice Adelsskjold’s affair with the Duke of Monthieu, which leads to a duel. This Henderson thinks is designed to throw more conservative viewers off the scent of the homosexual content. The New York Times reviewer was unimpressed, and isn't wrong in saying that the countess "does not screen well" and Slezak's acting isn't impressive. Garrison and Christensen are, though. Those who see Dreyer's 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc have to see the value of this earlier work, which has trademarks like the use of extreme closeups to convey emotion without words.

    Michael, 93 mins., debuted 26 September 1924 at Berlin, and came to London and New York. Viewed on a screener of the recent 2K restoration for the Kino Marquee presentation from June 12-25, 2020 benefiting multiple movie theaters across the US that are closed due to the coronavirus pendemic.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-12-2020 at 11:54 AM.

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    MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM (Leontine Sagan, Carl Froelich 1931)

    LEONTINE SAGAN, CARL FROELICH: MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM


    DOROTHEA WIECK AND HERTHA THIELE IN MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM

    Crushes and excessive indulgence at a girls' school in Weimar Germany

    The chronologically second of the Kino Marquee trio of "Pioneers of Queer Cinema" films on offer June 12-25, 2020 is the opposite of the somber, sad drama of gay frustration, Michael, which is about the loneliness of a rich older artist misused and ignored by the young protégé he adores. That film is grand, sumptuous, and rather dark. This one, which concerns a sensitive girl sent to an all-girl boarding school who falls for a teacher, is bright, spare, and giddy. Based on the play (Then and Now by Christa Winsloe and adapted by her, it too is bold for its time. We're in the world of talkies now, and the noisy laughter of all the girls highlights one of the film's best features, its great ensemble work. The girls seem always to be running around, with some dramatic diagonal shots of them on the dramatically important, angular stairways, and their action is brilliantly choreographed. In a key early sequence, the camera pans around a locker room, discovering girls in various poses and actions. Often it follows them moving around in groups. Even in the mostly bright scenes, light and shadow are always artfully used.

    This is the best known and most seen in repertory of the three: I heard about it a long time ago. The fun is about the end as the Weimar Republic gives way to the Nazis in two more years. In hindsight for us that's part of the giddy pleasure. It was to be long censored as well as overshadowed by von Sternberg's The Blue Angel/Der blaue Engel, and revived and restored in the 1970's.

    The title seems to me deliberately misleading, conjuring up as it does titillating images of S&M bondage. In fact the girls' loose-fitting striped smocks and aprons aren't what you think of when you hear the title. It's said this is a critique of the excesses of "Prussian discipline." The headmistress Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden (Emilia Unda) tries to impose it; the adored teacher, Fraulein von Bernburg, played by Dorothea Wieck (everybody is a "von" here - it's a snooty school), breaks the rules all the time with the girls who all have a crush on her. The headmistress says the girls are children of Prussian officers, raised on "hunger, discipline and order." This is to justify the skimpy meals.

    The focus is on Manuela von Meinhardis (Hertha Thiele), a new girl, sent there because her mother has died; she's half an orphan. She's very emotional and undisciplined; Pauline Kael calls her "willowy." By the luck of the draw, she gets assigned to Fraulein von Bernburg's dormitory, and when Fraulein goes down the line of beds at bedtime and bestows her usual kiss on each girls's forehead, on her first evening Manuela throws her arms around her. In return, she gets a kiss on the mouth. Manuela immediately falls madly in love and soon tells the Fraulein so. The Fraulein is very nice. Manuela gets the lead role when the girls put on a production of the play Don Carlos. She's harshly censored by the Headmistress when it's discovered she has tried to send a letter home complaining about the food.

    Manuela is nonetheless around for the play and a great hit in it. At the after-party at which all the girls get deliriously drunk on some real punch (this time, the kitchen comes through) and Manuela proudly confesses that Fraulein von Bernburg has kindly given her some of her own underwear because hers was too worn. The Headmistress von Nordeck is scandalized, and von Bernburg is called on the carpet - but refuses, in action, to back down in her endless kindness to the girls. Even now, when she's in trouble herself, she remains close to Manuela.

    But von Bernburg speaks of her being "cured." "Cured. . . of what?" Manuela asks.
    "You're not allowed to love me in that way," says the Fraulein.

    The girls's distress almost leads to tragedy, involving the stairway, whose dangerous potential we've already anticipated, but it's averted by the girls. Headmistress von Nordeck's slow descent of the stairway is very much a silent film moment. Manuela has really also been saved by a visit from the Princess, sponsor of the school, who turns out to have known Manuela's late mother, and asks specially to see her. With her new visibility, she's save from the Headmistress, after all. It's also clear in the later scenes that Manuela, who's been heralded as an excellent actress for playing Don Carlos, is capable of being manipulative, and her weeping and swoons are drama.

    Pauline Kael in her summary comments that while von Burnberg's "special consideration" toward Manuela is "ambiguous and certainly sensual," but "is not viewed as decadent, or even naughty; she appears to be on the side of the liberal, humanitarian angels, yet she is unmistakably lesbian. " Kael points out this is "one of the few occasions in history when a woman writer's material has also been directed by a woman." And adapted. And it's a film without a single man in evidence, even when the Princess comes to visit.

    Mädchen in Uniform is bold in its treatment of lesbian feelings, but notable for its moderation. The usual hostilities and dangers of boarding school stories are avoided, or downplayed. The Headmistress is certainly severe, but not a monster. Fraulein von Bernburg is indulgent, but she imposes discipline on Manuela too. This film, in Kael's words again, is "always described as sensitive, and it is; it's also a rather loaded piece of special pleading." This time there is a New York Times contemporary review of a new foreign film that that was extremely sympathetic and approving. Mordaunt Hall, the paper's first regularly assigned film reviewer, from 1924-1934, wrote this was "a film which pleases the eye constantly, for one envisions not only the characters, but also their surroundings, whether they are in halls, rooms or in a garden." And this is true.

    Mädchen in Uniform, 87 mins., released in Germany Nov. 27, 1931. It had a complicated history, with censorship and even the Nazis' effort to burn all existing prints (there were prints abroad, so it was saved, but it wasn't seen again here in its full version till the 1970's. For full information see the detailed Wikipedia article, Madchen in Uniform. Screened for this review as part of Kino Marquee's June 12-25 "Pioneers of Queer Cinema" virtual theater release of three early German films, also including the 1924 silent Michael and Reinhold Schünzel's 1933 Victor and Victoria.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-12-2020 at 03:31 PM.

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    VICTOR AND VICTORIA (Reinhold Schünzel 1933)

    REINHOLD SCHÜNZEL: VICTOR AND VICTORIA/VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA (1933)


    HERMAN THEMIG AND RENATE MÜLLER IN VICTOR AND VICTORIA

    A glittering musical comedy of cross dressing

    Elaborate Buzby Berkeley-style production numbers alternate with rhymed, sung and chanted dialogue and joyously choreographed Marx Brothers-worthy slapstick physical humor. Two losers meet and bond after getting turned down at a theatrical agency, They are Viktor Hempel (Hermann Thimig), a failed but energetic middle-aged ham (whose overdone Hamlet soliloquy is excruciatingly boring) and Susan Lohr (Renate Müller) a pretty, ambitious young woman with no performance experience. Viktor gets laryngitis and can't do his music hall female act, so he pushes Susan to do the job. Her pratfall-intense performance before a large and enthusiastic café-theater audience is a hilarious success. The payoff is when Susan pulls off Viktor's wig - making it look like she's a man performing in drag, adding a gendre-thrill to the comedy. At Viktor's insistence, Susan signs a contract she's immediately presented with in the dressing room by tall, cigar-smoking impresario Francesco Alberto Punkertin (Aribert Wäscher), a deliciously music hall character himself whose generous double-breasted suit is like cosy, thick upholstery. Proviso: she must perform in the language of each of the countries on the tour. Ironically, the puffed-up Punkertin declares he's "as safe as the Weimar Republic." (It wasn't very safe: see below.) Viktor accompanies her and splits the munificent take. A sparkling double-exposure montage signals the act's international success. The implication is, the world loves a cross-dressing act.

    Not much of a plot beyond that. All the fun comes from Susan having to pretend off stage as well as on, that she's a man, a charade Viktor, to protect the gimmick behind his money cow, makes sure is never neglected. What makes this a "Pioneer of Queer Cinema" is the cross dressing. What makes cross dressing cooler in the early 1930's is the clothes. Everybody in the theaters is in white tie, pretty much. Women can look really great in white tie, so stylish, and this is the time when white tie was de rigeur. The greater preponderance of gender-defining clothing differences at this time makes cross-dressing really a thing much easier and more visual to play with, especially in the female-as-male version.

    There is a long section set in London, where everybody conveniently but implausibly speaks German, and Victor/Victoria is the toast of the town. The act is seen by the upper class, and in the front row are Sir Douglas Sheffield, his beloved, Elinor, and the serial seducer Robert, played by the very handsome German actor Anton Walbrook, with whom Elinor is also flirting. All three fall for Victoria, whom the men hail at sight as "a very pretty girl." In the ambiguity, Elinor is interested too.

    Robert overhears Vikktor and learns Victoria's a girl, and begins showing her around London, teasing her with difficult male rituals such as smoking a cigar, heavy drinking, a rough pub where they must flirt with prostitutes and fight their way out, and so on. He takes her for a barbershop shave where, oddly, she seems not to get found out as having too smooth a jaw by far. Eventually the vice squad comes in, tipped off that this is a drag show (hello? was there any doubt?) - and somehow, Susan is forced to hide and Viktor takes over. He's ugly, but his "Lady of Seville" turn is just as well received, and so he gets signed up to do the show.

    This film is little known as anything other than the source of Blake Edwards' 1982 remake Victor/Victoria, which is bland but more "serious," less pure, gloriously mindless entertainment, than this. It's probably, for completists, worth seeing both versions. The German one glitters and charms. Somehow, though it's almost endlessly entertaining, its plot devices and routines lack significance. As I said, of the Kino Marquee three German Queer Pioneers, it's for me by far the least emotionally involving, hence rendering all the skillful business and ensemble work and festive mood a bit wasted. At the center of it is Feydeau-style light sexual comedy that seems dated today. It does however have interesting links with contemporary Hollywood work of Ernst Lubitsch, and later, of Mitchell Leisen, Gregory LaCava, the designers of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers comedies of manner, and even George Cukor's 1935 Sylvia Scarlett with its parallel plot gimmick.

    More than that, Schünzel's musical film, as an artifact of its time, represents a touching, nostalgic look back at a sad turning point in German history. It's not a spectacular film, it hasn't got much bite, but think of the moment when it comes. It was the biggest hit in Germany, number one at the box office, of the pivotal year of 1933, the end of the Weimar Republic. Imagine what the Nazis who came into power the next year thought of this. Decadent! Unacceptable! Lock them up! This represents a gaudy, gay, glorious last fling. After this, the deluge, the Nazi era and Hitler's inexorable rise to power begin. Maybe Weimar intellectuals had been unfriendly to popular entertainment, but the coming of talkies at the end of the 1920's brought a rush of such pleasures - comedies, operetta movies and musicals blending Hollywood and German theatrical influences, such as we see here. And this is significant for a reveling in sound as well as for visual showpieces.

    Victor and Victoria/Viktor und Viktoria, 84 mins., debuted in Berlin Dec. 23, 1933, opening theatrically also in Denmark, Hungary, Finland and Sweden, coming to the US Jan. 27, 1935. Watched on a screener (again a beautiful digital restoration) as part of the Kino Marquee trilogy of pandemic "Pioneers of Queer Cinema" films starting Jun 12, 2020.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-14-2020 at 11:14 PM.

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