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June 09, 2020

Viktor und Viktoria


Reinhold Shunzel - 1933
Kino Classics BD Region A

Of the various versions that were taken from the same basic premise, I went about things in backward order. First seen was Blake Edwards' Victor/Victoria at the time of release in 1982. Then a few years ago, when Netflix had a wider selection of older films available for streaming, I saw the British First a Girl (1935). It should be noted that at the time of production, Reinhold Shunzel's film was also filmed in a French language version, also featuring Anton Walbrook, at that time still known as Adolf Wohlbruck. There is also a 1957 West German remake, and an Argentinian version from 1975 that originally was set to star an actual cross-dressing star. What is also interesting is that while the 1935 and 1982 films acknowledge being based on Shunzel's film, aside from the main characters being a woman gaining show business fame impersonating a man impersonating a woman, the details of the respective narratives are different.

Contemporary viewers looking for gender-bending comedy might be happier with Edwards' film, where what was barely hinted at in the first film gets boisterously pushed front and center. There's a more gentle comedy at play here when Shunzel films the look of London's high society men infatuated with the performer, "Mr. Viktoria", assumed to be a woman on stage, until the climax with "his" wig removed. This is followed by a scene at a restaurant where several older, wealthy women hope to gain the attention of who they assume is the boyish young man. The British 1935 version has a marginally more suggestive moment of sexual confusion, although of films made during this era, neither compares to various cross-gender antics of George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1935).

Remove the female as female impersonator plot, and Viktor und Viktoria remains a remarkably funny comedy. There is Renate Muller taking pratfalls in her stage debut as Mr. Viktoria. Her partner in this deception, the failed actor and original Mr. Viktoria, played by Hermann Thimig, is first seen hamming it up in an audition with virtually every Shakespearean monologue he can remember, stumbling over furniture, almost literally bringing the house down. One of the best gags is at the beginning of the film - the camera pans past a group of various actors waiting to audition, we hear the voice of a female singing an aria from an opera, the voice seems to be coming from one of the women standing along the wall, only for the camera to continue past her, and the mouth open wide with song actually was an undisguised yawn of boredom.

The film has plenty of traveling shots as well as inventive uses of sound. Shunzel also knows when to keep the camera stationary, as in a delightful shot of Muller, dressed as a male, seen in long shot trying to discretely watch Anton Walbrook walk away from her down a hotel corridor, darting away when Walbrook looks back. Renate Muller's big dance number shows the obvious influence of Busby Berkeley, with its chorus girls filmed from above, albeit with fewer dancers. Shunzel seems to have had the full artillery of technical resources at the legendary UFA studio to make a film as accomplished as anything from Hollywood in 1933.

The blu-ray is sourced from a 2013 German restoration that shows some wear, but nothing substantial. The commentary track by scholar Gaylyn Studlar points to the connections the director and stars had with Ernst Lubitsch, Max Reinhardt and Gerd Oswald, both professionally and with transgressive narratives. The stories of the several of the cast and crew are equally compelling. By 1937, when the Nazis totally took over the German film industry, Renate Muller, was no longer a top star due to her relationship with a Jewish man, death officially by suicide. Anton Walbrook, gay and Jewish, emigrated to England, with a continued successful career. Being gay and Jewish did not stop Reinhold Shunzel from being offered the title of Honorary Aryan due to his popularity as both an actor and director. Shunzel had greater confidence in the dictatorship of Louis B. Mayer and directed three films for MGM in the late Thirties, with the rest of his American career as an actor. Hermann Thimig managed to get through World War II and post-war Germany relatively untouched, continuing to act continuously in films through 1967. What makes this even more impressive is that his sister, Helene, had left Germany with husband Max Reinhardt, indicative of stardom that could even dazzle Adolf Hitler.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 9, 2020 07:31 AM