Monday, September 16, 2013

Viktor und Viktoria's Darling of the Gods

Before The Cafe, Lesser Ury, 1920s
Guest blogger Karin is a freelance technical writer living in the Austin, Texas, area. She has contributed to Reel Life in the past, treating readers to lyrical prose as well as a unique exploration of her subject in every case - from her two-part series on legendary art director Van Nest Polglase in 2010, to her entry on composer Bernard Herrmann for my Vertigo blog event early in 2012, to her contribution, "The Feminine Mystique of Mad Men," for my Mad Men blog event later that year. Karin's current fascination is Weimar-era Berlin's art, cabaret, cinema and music scene...
                                                                                      ~  The Lady Eve

Classic films offer the viewer an opportunity to glimpse, however briefly and dimly, the world in which the audience and the performer lived. Classic films can also provide an imperfect record of the psychological and sociological issues of concern to the public. For many of us, German cinema during the Weimar era remains frustratingly elusive, while art and auteur
Renate Müller performs "Castle in Spain"
 in Viktor und Viktoria (1933)
cinema rightfully have a place in the nation’s legacy, popular cinema has suffered neglect with critics and fans. Thomas Elsaessar, in Weimar Cinema And After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary, states this is due, in part, "to a bias on the part of the Weimar cultural elite for art films or American popular cinema, a scarcity of surviving examples from other genres, and a persistent myth that German cinema was incapable of producing really good comedies after Ernst Lubitsch left for Hollywood". The development of Weimar cinema coincided with the transition from silent films to sound pictures and German filmmakers excelled in making cabaret-style comedies and popular musicals. Most film fans are familiar with Viktor und Viktoria (1933) as the inspiration for not one but four remakes. The original material also acts as a small crack in the otherwise accepted perception of German cinema as a dark mirror reflecting a nation’s soul and authoritarian traits.

She Represents 
Jeanne Mammen (1927)
The film certainly reflects Weimar era sauciness in all its manifestations, but referring to the film as a spoof of Vesta Tilley, London’s famous male impersonator, is to ignore the influence of Berlin’s inclusive cabaret history. Berlin’s cabarets were home to some of Europe’s most creative and experimental individuals, encouraging a free exchange of ideas and influencing art, cinema, literature, music and philosophy. The cabaret scene brought into being an incisive and satirical world of humor and music, exploring fads and fashions, political ideologies and sexual mores in the city and Germany at large. In fact, the tension between conservative and liberal, experimental and quotidian made Berlin’s cabarets simultaneously attractive and a target to competing factions. Cabarets, most importantly, supported a tradition of male, as well as female, impersonators who fashioned stage personas meant to depict gender ambiguities, outwit censors and reflect life.

Fans of Blake Edwards’s 1983 version of the film will find many similarities in Reinhold Schünzel’s dynamic and provocative original. Susanne Lohr (Renate Müller), a young aspiring actress, is befriended by Viktor Hempel (Hermann Thimig) after both audition for but fail to get work. The pair consoles one another in a local café, Susanne sharing her aspirations to become a cabaret performer, Viktor revealing his ambition to be a serious actor. Viktor admits that he is presently working as a female impersonator, and when illness prevents him from performing his act, he persuades his new friend to perform in his place. Susanne and Viktor’s luck changes over night and the pair is launched on a European tour that eventually takes them to London. Susanne becomes the toast of society, and the object of Robert’s (Anton Walbrook, billed as Adolphe Wohlbrück) fascination.

The film rightly deserves acclaim for achieving in the early sound era what others such as Rouben Mamoulian were not. Schünzel’s use of sound and image to comic effect, and his integration of singing and dancing in the plot, foreshadowed the integrated Hollywood musical. The 1933 production of Viktor und Viktoria is not simply a brilliant example of the early sound era musical, but a joyous exploration of the rhythm of speech and music. The entire film is in blank verse, rhyme or sprechgesang (the spoken song), in combination with carefully orchestrated blocking, camera movement and editing. The film also reflects irony and nostalgia for operetta, once a part of the cabaret legacy and denounced in 1913 as ‘the worst enemy of German theatrical art’. The more optimistic film operettas of the late Weimar era reflect a myth that luck could bring overnight prosperity. Susanne’s discovery and instant fame integrate cabaret humor and the operetta myth in a post-Weimar era film.

Georges et Georgette (1934)
During the early sound era, the practice of filming additional versions for foreign markets was common in both Europe and Hollywood. The same year Viktor und Victoria was filmed in German; Georges et Georgette (1934) was filmed for French language audiences. Anton Walbrook reprised his role as Robert, Meg Lemonnier took over the role of Susanne and Julien Carette (La Grande Illusion) appeared as Georges. In 1935, Jessie Matthews, the dancing divinity, princess personality and the girl Bette Davis called ‘England’s greatest star’ appeared in a British Gaumont-Gainsborough remake.

First A Girl (1935)
The plot of First A Girl (1935) is expanded to include a job in a dress shop for Elizabeth (Matthews), which allows for additional song and dance numbers. Viktor und Viktoria (1957) is an Agfacolor quality film and strays the farthest from the original. Erika (Susanne in the original) invents a brother as part of her "cover story", and when Erika can no longer maintain the charade, she tells Viktor she has “killed” her brother, Erik. Through a comedy of errors, Erika is arrested for the “murder”, and her beloved Jean (Robert in the original) confesses to complicity in the murder. A comparison of the double-exposure travel montage from Viktor und Viktoria to the same from First A Girl reveals the latter's faithful adaptation (the quality of the first is a bit squiffy, the dialogue is in German, but Susanne sings "Castle in Spain" in English).

Robert and Susanne get "uncomfortable"
Schünzle’s film is certainly available for gay and gender film scholarship, but in its charmingly prim manner, the premise extends few invitations. The material for Schünzel’s Viktor und Viktoria becomes a sophisticated adult comedy and adds levels of gender ambiguity, when the traditional plot of a woman dressing as a man evolves to a woman passing for a man. The film also expands the notion of pre-code films and takes the screwball comedy to levels Lubitsch and Mamoulian would not have been permitted to explore, in which feelings are present but denied or thwarted. However, contemporary audiences and non-German speaking viewers are at a disadvantage in appreciating the film’s allusions and nuanced jokes. The most skillful effort of translation can take the viewer only so far in understanding an element of humor uniquely rooted in Berlin joke-telling. In his book Berlin Cabaret, Peter Jelavich recounts an experience of a visitor to the city, “No gestures, no wry faces, no smirks: the Berliner is dry and cold-blooded when he jokes. He displays an intentionally deadpan countenance, which stands in such contrast to his words that it never fails to provoke laughter” (many cabaret performers stood absolutely still while performing). This aspect of Berlin and cabaret style humor is reflected in Robert and Susanne’s inexplicably tense manner of flirtation, which initially seems counter-intuitive to notions of joke delivery.

Viktor und Viktoria's ensemble cast
Robert’s bemused fascination quickly turns to gleeful torment after discovering Susanne’s secret and realizing the many ways he can use this against her. Although a visit to the barber and a visit to a seedy cellar cabaret play-out ironically, Susanne remains a sweet, if baffled, young woman in over her head, showing no hint of the transparent sexuality Dietrich displays in her Lola-Lola or Amy Jolly characters. This is hardly surprising given the political climate in Berlin at the time. Work on the film began, and the film's premier occurred, within month's of the Nazi accession to power. In October of 1932, Berlin’s chief of police ordered a ban on same-sex couples dancing in public. In January of 1933, the process of gleichschaltung (“the forcing into conformity”) brought artistic organizations under state control while eliminating objectionable artists from the field. The hugely popular Eldorado cabaret became the headquarters of the Sturmabteilung (SA), and in February of 1933, Hermann Goering ordered closure of similar establishments and instituted the arrest and imprisonment of gays and transvestites.

Renate Müller
In the absence of a definitive biography, Renate Müller’s life and early death have acquired legendary proportions. However, a search of available publications makes it possible to sketch a less sensational portrait of the actress’s last days. Renate Müller's skills as a singer and her knowledge of foreign languages made her the ideal actress for musical comedies. The actress made twenty-five films between 1929 and 1937, and her role in Reinhold Schünzel’s Peter der Matrose (1929) was the first of seven comedies in which she appeared for the director. Her sister, Gabriele Müller, described Renate’s screen appeal and why she captivated Weimar era audiences, “A new type of character was born in German film: after the ‘vamp’ and the ‘cute girlie’, there appeared a girl with heart who wasn’t a sweetheart, who was smart but not a bluestocking, charming yet not coy – a down-to-earth and bracingly natural girl.” Her trip to England in the summer of 1931 to film Sunshine Susie, as part of a British Gaumont-Gainsborough-Ufa film exchange, was reported widely in the cinema related press, and her personal appearances drew large crowds of fans.

Renate Müller 
in Sunshine Susie (1931)
Her girl next-door persona and her wide-ranging popularity would prove to have a darker responsibility once the Nazis reached power. She is said to have been brought to the attention of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who saw in the actress a Hollywood style star, and one who could fill the void left by Marlene Dietrich after she emigrated from Germany. She continued to play coquettish and self-confident females, however, in 1937 when UFA became "the most horizontally and vertically intergrated German film conglomerate under the Nazis"; she found her career increasingly sidelined and she was forced to take a role in Togger (1937), a blatant propaganda film. In May of the same year, People Of The Studios, reported “O.E. Lubitz, once producer-manager for Bavaria and Atlantia films, has formed a company with Styria-Film of Vienna, with offices in Berlin. Renate Müller, one-time English star takes the lead in a film version of the Strauss operetta, Die Fledermaus", in fact, the role went to another actress. The mystery surrounding Renate Müller’s death on October 7, 1937, officially attributed to a cerebral hemorrhage, lead to increasingly wilder speculation including a rumored suicide.

A musical number from Liebling Der Götter
Phil M. Daly reported on May 20, 1947 in his column, Along The Rialto (The Film Daily), director Henry Wilcox and his wife, actress Anna Neagle, would produce a film “based on the life and exploits of Renate Müller”. The reporter proceeded to refer to the actress as a “Nazi spy, film actress and musical comedy star” and the proposed film as a “spy thriller”. The actress's biography would eventually receive the cinematic treatment, over protests of surviving family members, in Liebling Der Götter/Darling of The Gods (1957). Tim Bergfelder in International Adventures: German Popular Cinema and European Co-Production describes the film's grim opening, “Even audiences previously unfamiliar with Müller’s fate would have known not to expect a happy ending after an introductory, and rather didactic, caption at the beginning of the film informed them that the narrative would 'portray the life and death of an artist in unfree times'. Contemporary viewers hoping to find a dramatic re-creation of the actress’s life will undoubtedly be disappointed (a bit a trivia, Peter Van Eyck, who plays Renate’s love interest in the film, is said to have been romantically involved with Jean Ross).

I would like to thank Lady Eve for her gracious invitation to contribute to her always elegant blog. I would also like to acknowledge the invaluable help provided by DocTom (Thomas) in understanding certain nuances of the German language.

Reference Material: Berlin Cabaret, Peter Jelavich; Film and the German Left in the Weimar Republic: from Caligari to Kuhle Wampe, Bruce Murray; International Adventures: German Popular Cinema and European Co-Production, Tim Bergfelder; The Film Daily, December, 1930, March 1932, May 1947; Weimar Cinema And After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary, Thomas Elsaessar; World Film News and Television Progress: People Of The Studios, May 1937.
Click here for all of Karin's contributions to Reel Life.


  1. "However, contemporary audiences and non-German speaking viewers are at a disadvantage in appreciating the film’s allusions and nuanced jokes. The most skillful effort of translation can take the viewer only so far in understanding an element of humor uniquely rooted in Berlin joke-telling."

    this is a brilliant & insightful statement...I have seen V&V twice (auf Deutsch) & still did not get all the jokes...there is noway I could translate this into English sub-titles...& an English dub would be grotesque...

    thanx for the shout out & a well-written/well-researched blog!!


    1. DocTom, thank you for your enthusiastic feedback on my review of VuV, which evolved into something of a labor of love. Your knowledge of the German language proved invaluable when considering the notion of "humor lost in translation".

  2. First and foremost, I am so delighted to get to read another wonderful Whistling Gypsy review! I always admired and looked forward to them. I've never seen Viktor Und Viktoria, only the American version with Robert Preston and Julie Andrews. The clips were great. Anything with Anton Walbrook is aces with me -- I just love that man! I'd like to see the whole thing just to watch his performance, if nothing else. Excellent as always, Karin!

    1. ClassicBecky, thank you for your encouraging comments; I always enjoy hearing from you. I haven't seen the Julie Andrews/Blake Edwards version; I always assumed seeing Mary Poppins in the role would require a bit more suspension of disbelief than I possess. If you are a fan of Anton Walbrook, the earlier German version will not disappoint. I can't imagine another actor bringing the right mix of delectably menacing presence to the character (not quite the same as Boris Lermontov in The Red Shoes, but you get the idea).

  3. Karin, Thank you for a multi-layered and intriguing post. You never disappoint and always leave one wanting more. Having read this most fascinating exploration of Viktor und Viktoria and its milieu, I realize that all I knew of film and entertainment during the Weimar Republic was mostly restricted to what I picked up from Cabaret, The Blue Angel, what I know of Marlene Dietrich's early life/career and slight exposure to the work of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. You have more than piqued my interest in going much deeper into the subject.

    I have seen but am not a great fan of the Blake Edwards remake, Victor Victoria - mostly because Julie Andrews seems to me both a bit long in the tooth and imperfectly cast. Meryl Streep or Judy Davis might've made hay in such a role. I'm hoping to see the original Viktor und Viktoria soon. It sounds delightful and I'm eager to see Anton Walbrook in one of his earlier roles.

    This a superb piece - many thanks.

    1. LadyEve, thank you for your always encouraging response to my writing. I knew very little about Berlin's history during the period between the wars when I watched Viktor und Viktoria earlier this year. My point of reference, like you, was Cabaret and The Blue Angel, Sally Bowles and Lola-Lola. I decided it was time I finally picked up Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, and the fascinating journey began.

      Your ideas for an alternate casting choice is intriguing; I particularly love the idea of Judy Davis in the role. I first discovered her in "My Brilliant Career" and her role as George Sand in "Impromptu" proves she is convincing in a pair of trousers. She also has an ironic sense of humor, for her character it was wearing the laces and ribbons that proved a challenge.

      I am interested to hear what you think of VuV once you've had the chance to watch the film.

    2. Karin, And so...I'm about to read Isherwood's Berlin stories. Finding a watchable DVD of VuV (with subtitles) has turned out to be a bit more complicated.

      I think Judy Davis would've been a superb Victoria - and she was the perfect age for the role at the time. I believe I first saw her in A Passage to India. What a very fine actress she is, with so many exquisite film performances to her credit (you mention two of my favorite films of hers). On television she was astounding as Judy Garland in Me and My Shadows.

      Agree with Becky on Robert Preston's performance. For the James Garner part - in the early '80s - William Hurt might've been interesting in the role (and opposite Judy Davis).

  4. Karin, I have to jump in again and second Eve's assessment of Julie Andrews' performance. She tried, but not only did her ultra-clean reputation hurt her chances, she just did not fit the role at all. However, Robert Preston was, in my opinion, magnifique! He is worth seeing. Thanks again for a great read.

    1. Becky, I find Julie Andrews in the role just a small part of what is "different" about the remake from the original. Thanks to your admiration and glowing support of the film, I discovered Julie Andrews was wonderful in "Star!" as Gertrude Lawrence. The extravagant staging and musical numbers work in the film, but VuV seems to require a less glossy, somewhat "seedy" element. I guess the "neo Art Deco" style of the early 1980s influenced the art direction, because I have vague memories of over-stuffed chairs and couches in a haze of shiny neon light.

      I agree with you regarding Robert Preston, who plays the Viktor role in the remake. James Garner, however, plays the role filled by Anton Walbrook (who was not a gangster in the original). Although I'm a big fan of Garner, mostly from the Rockford Files, I don't imagine he brought the same sense of sinister elegance to the role.

  5. Just realized I've never seen any version of this film. Thanks for a thoughtful review with lots of interesting background info.

    "Hermann Goering ordered closure of similar establishments and instituted the arrest and imprisonment of gays and transvestites." Goering was such a hypocrite!

    1. Ruth, hello and thank you for your comments on my “Viktor und Viktoria” post. It is a real pleasure to hear from someone new and to introduce you to a film you have not seen (especially considering the number of eventual re-makes).

  6. It's great to once again read one of your posts Karin, so thank you and Lady Eve for this opportunity.I have never seen the originals, which would be a great pleasure. Your piece reinforces how much cultural richness was lost in Berlin (and Vienna) as a result of the Nazis, in addition to everything else. Of course much of that talent fled to the U.S., to enrich American cinema, but some perished or was extinguished, as you also point out. Thank you for your excellent review.

  7. Thanks so much for this, Karin - it is probably the best piece of writing on 'Viktor und Viktoria' that I have yet come across. For those who can read German, there is a definitive biography of Müller, by Uwe Klöckner-Draga: 'Renate Müller - Ihr Leben ein Drahtseilakt' (2006) and there is of course the little bio by R.E. Clements, 'Queen of America' (1944). As for a biography of Walbrook - I am currently writing one, that will cover all aspects of his career. I am always delighted to see his performances being admired and enjoyed by others.