By Sarah Williams
It's not that LGBT stories have been completely absent from film history, but they're often buried or have gone without restoration. Whether censored by their home countries and subsequently lost as so many in Germany were, or censored before production like many in the United States to become merely subtext, it's a struggle to piece together an accurate early queer cinematic landscape. In recent years as interest has risen, many of these films have slowly returned to public consciousness, letting film history fill in the gaps of what the so-called ideals of decency tried their best to hide. Now available through virtual cinemas, Kino Lorber presents three "Pioneers of Queer Cinema", three new restorations of should-be classics are packaged
Carl Theodor Dreyer's Michael came in a particularly prolific era for the renowned filmmaker. Unlike later years when the auteur was creating a film for every ten years, the early part of the roaring twenties was a time of frequent releases. 1924's Michael is one thought to have been lost for years, and the new restoration is stunning. The silent gay romance isn't any less sweeping than it would be in sound, and it's eerie to see an explicitly gay film this early on but with so little reputation to its name, especially with the silent era having been filmmaking at it's most innovative technically, while only the beginning of narrative innovation. An artist falls for his model, but the young man posing falls in love with a woman, and the artist struggles to fight how he feels. While it does fall into the vein of melodrama, it's as balanced as a later Sirkian melodrama, letting its ambiguous ending gently send off the characters while still feeling real for the time. Male homosexuality was criminalized instead of ignored or looked upon as insanity due to men being seen as the sole active sexual being, and though the power dynamic is clearly unbalanced by their places in society, Dreyer is searingly honest in showing how passion fights against loneliness and later wanes, and his depiction of a gay man shut off from society never feels less than truthful.
Mädchen in Uniform comes as a first for lesbian film, a first to distinctly show romance between two women. Like all firsts, it sets a precedent for tropes prevailing in lesbian cinema, specifically the outline of the boarding school film. Produced in Germany during the rise of Nazism, it's a miracle the 1931 film still exists past censorship to be spoken of today, and even besides its radical existence as a piece of representation, it maintains a fantastic film. The intimacy between the leads in the story of a young woman in boarding school struggling to adjust to discipline as she falls in love with a teacher is wonderfully performed, and the tenderness between the characters is stunningly realized in Leontine Sagan's gentle forbidden romance. Like any love between women, this romance is forbidden, and the threat of being forced to leave the school is palpable, yet never feels overly cruel. The later American remake is far more chaste, and shies away from much of the love aspect, but the 1931 original is groundbreaking, especially as the start of the tropes of the school girl romance and the age gap that have been prevalent in lesbian cinema since.
Unlike the other two that fit more neatly into easy definition as LGBT cinema, Victor and Victoria blurs both sexuality and gender boundaries. The lightest of the three, and the weakest for the lack of emotional weight, this gender-bending comedy twists its characters enough times that it covers nearly all the ground for decency code-breaking. Reinhold Schünzel's 1933 story of a woman in disguise as a man, and the man she plays who must disguise himself as a woman to take her place is an outlandish one, and though being hard to believe at times, has enough heart for the cross-dressing humor to land. The two on drag as one another are cleverly disguised, and while the audience can clearly see the woman in masculine clothes, which is played for comedy, it's a wonderful early idea that gender roles are a set of performances one puts on. For years, largely in Hollywood, gay representation was largely indicated as subtext, and the common way to do so was through wearing the opposite gender's clothing as to indicate the idea of being "improper" for one's sex. Here this trope is played as the plot, and though it never gets as clearly gay as many expect of the Weimar Germany era, the play on gender tropes is more than enough of an established "queerness" for early cinema.
Kino's Pioneers of Queer Cinema collection is now streaming online in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.
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