Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Queer Film Studies

For the next 6 weeks, WOC will be chronicling my current class-- "The History of Homosexuality in Film."
Our first feature:
Madchen in Uniform
Madchen in Uniform Talking films had just been invented and this is a fascinating early film (1931) that tells the story of a love affair between a teacher and student trapped in a militaristic boarding school. Blooming between the destruction of the Prussian fascist regime and the rise of Nazi Germany, the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) is known for it's liberal atmosphere, and produced a wealth of provocative, thoughtful and experimental films that were embraced throughout Europe. Homosexuality was open and accepted, especially in Berlin, the center of this artistic movement.

Although the central story of lesbian love is certainly intriguing, the film is easily interpreted in anti-fascist and anti-authoritarian terms. The forbidden love is portrayed as a revolutionary gesture and unites all the girls in their struggle against the oppressive Prussian headmistress of the school. The incredible lighting design makes the boarding school into a prison, both of mind and body, forcing conformity and obedience when the hearts of the young students want to soar freely. Innovative and masterful use of sound and camera works marks the film as truly avant-garde. In addition, a woman wrote the screenplay, a woman directed the film and the cast is made up entirely of women. The film is ground-breaking on so many levels.

The film is as moving and fresh today as I'm sure it was at the time. It enjoyed wide release throughout Europe. When it came to the USA, the Hayes office forced cuts of suggestive scenes and an alternate ending where the protagonist kills herself. Which is very interesting, given the anti-fascist theme of the movie, and how here in the US we should be supportive those types of things. Better to support a fascist dictatorship than a have bunch of lesbians running around, I guess. Madchen is a wonderful and important film. I give it 2 thumbs up!

Our second film was Victim (1961), a British film about the gay men fighting against the torment of blackmail.
During this time in the UK, male homosexuality was illegal and gay men were actively prosecuted by the police. This law made it possible for a whole industry to grow around the practice of photographing men in compromising circumstances and blackmailing them. In Victim, Dirk Bogarde plays a prominent young lawyer who, although married, is gay, or perhaps bisexual. His lover hangs himself in a jail cell rather than bow to pressure of the police to name names and Bogarde becomes embroiled in a battle to bring the blackmailers to justice, even though it means that he loses his career and marriage.

This is a film that presents Borgarde's protagonist in true heroic light and portrays the other gay characters as rounded and complex. Most men at the time would rather pay the money than suffer the humiliation of yet another trip to prison, and when they can no longer meet the blackmailer's demands, the results are tragic. The main character stands up against these criminals, and his very modern wife, who has always known exactly where his cards lay, vows to support him whatever happens. Part mystery, part crime story, all social commentary- another truly ground breaking and excellent film that loses nothing to the passage of decades.

1 comment:

chuck b. said...

Oh! cool! I loved both of these movies when I saw them in college! I've seen Maedchen several times, but Victim only once or twice. The enlightened corners of the past can be so amazing.