It’s safe to say that there are more stories being told by queer filmmakers than ever before, and which are even more diverse in recent years not just in terms of representation, but also in narrative and form. But queer people have existed forever—even in film!—and it’s imperative to immerse ourselves in our own history. Pioneers of Queer Cinema, available through Kino Lorber’s virtual cinema Kino Marquee, highlights classic queer films that paved the way for our current landscape, many of which have been less than accessible to modern audiences—and which explore themes of gender and sexuality that ring just as true now as they did when they were made.
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Before there was Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent marvel Michael examined gay desire through the relationship between an artist and his muse. Based on Herman Bang’s 1902 novel Mikaël, the film follows a tenuous and intimate partnership between acclaimed painter Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) and his young assistant Michael (Walter Slezak) that becomes upended when Michael falls for a countess whom Claude is commissioned to paint. Michael is a delicate look at loneliness and loving someone as an expression of one’s art when that love cannot be reciprocated in reality, paralleled with mesmerizing cinematography from Karl Freund and Rudolph Maté that manages to encapsulate the fantasy of desire and art. Michael might be an overlooked gem in Dreyer’s extensive filmography—from The Passion of Joan of Arc to Vampyr to Ordet—but it holds its own not just through its stunning technical prowess, but also in its surprising cultural longevity.
Mädchen in Uniform (1931)
Directed by Leontine Sagan
Heralded as one of the earliest lesbian feature-length films ever made—and certainly the only one produced in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Party—Mädchen in Uniform is more than deserving of its radical cinematic legacy. Adapted from Christa Winsloe’s play Gestern und heute, Mädchen in Uniform explores a forbidden relationship between Manuela (Hertha Thiele), a new student at an all-girls boarding school, and one of her teachers (Dorothea Wieck). Rumors of their relationship wreak havoc on the boarding school’s elite image—and they are forced to face the consequences of the love that has been deemed shameful by the institution, be it through expulsion or treatment of this supposed illness. Mädchen in Uniform is an interesting piece of the classical queer film canon as it refuses to lean into the territory of unrequited love—a trope that has only gained in popularity in recent years. Instead of one woman pining over the other to no avail or at the risk of being seen as predatory, the film ruminates on the complexities of a first love that is returned. The film doesn’t critique their relationship but the persecution of it, and the fundamental inequities that stem from someone being allowed to wield power over another.
Victor and Victoria (1933)
Directed by Reinhold Schünzel
If you’re a consumer of queer and transgender cinema, you may already be familiar with Blake Edwards’s Julie Andrews-fronted musical Victor/Victoria (or the 1995 stage musical also fronted by Andrews). But the original 1933 version from German filmmaker Reinhold Schünzel—which tragically did not get much circulation in the United States at the time—is just as delightful as its sequin-clad remakes. Susanne (Renate Müller) is an aspiring entertainer, but can’t seem to get any work despite her burgeoning talent. Her opportunities explode, however, when she pretends to be a man doing drag as a woman, but juggling her personal life, her career, and her various identities becomes overwhelming, especially when she finds herself falling for her producer, who has only seen her as a man. Victor and Victoria is charming as a musical comedy, but it is also a remarkably poignant commentary on the performance—and illusion—of gender far before the likes of Judith Butler and other feminist scholars would do the same. v