What We're Watching

What We’re Watching – July 2022

This month, we’re sharing a broad variety of films including lesser-known LGBT films as well as classic favorites from directors such as The Coen Brothers and Steve McQueen. Read below to see what we’ve been watching:

Mädchen in Uniform (1931)

Mädchen in Uniform tells the story of Manuela (Hertha Thiele), a young girl who is sent to an all-girls boarding school and struggles to adapt to the strict rules imposed by the school’s headmistress (Emilia Unda). Feeling lost and out of place, she meets the teacher Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck) and is taken by the warmth and compassion she displays. While kissing the girls goodnight, Fräulein von Bernburg unexpectedly kisses Manuela on the lips and the young student falls madly in love, convinced that Fräulein von Bernburg feels the same way. But given the school’s oppressive atmosphere, as well as the impropriety of a student-teacher relationship, their relationship is headed for tragedy.

Leontine Sagan’s beautiful, tender and quietly sensual tale of romantic longing is not only a pioneering work for its groundbreaking portrayal of lesbian eros and all-female cast but also a respectable visual achievement, the film’s lingering closeups and shadowy, angular shots of the boarding school’s stairwell occasionally recalling the heightened sensibilities of German Expressionism. When the film released in 1931, it made quite the impact in Berlin’s then-thriving lesbian clubs and saw the cast receive fan mail from all across Germany. As the Nazis took power, however, the film was at first edited to discreetly pander to the new government’s sensibilities, before being banned altogether. 

Adapted from Christa Winsloe’s play Gestern und heute, Sagan’s film is a beautiful portrait of adolescent romance and teenage solidarity, the girls often supporting each other in the face of the headmistress’ iron fist and indulging Manuela’s romantic fantasies, not with mockery but with genuine care and affection. While Sagan’s uncanny ability to evoke this level of sexual and romantic tension with (almost) no overt displays of sensuality is extraordinary, 90 years on, it’s Mädchen in Uniform‘s defiant anti-authoritarianism, as well as its willingness to portray queer love in an authentic and complicated way, that stand out most. – Fred Barrett

Muscle (1989)

4gILdxszHU5iqJnDVSLZw83B4LRRyuzaki (Takeshi Itô), the editor of the homoerotic Muscle Magazine, begins a relationship with a man named Kitami (Simon Kumai) but their liaison soon devolves into an outlet for Kitami’s intense sadism. His torture intensifies until Ryuzaki finally retaliates by cutting off Kitami’s arm with a sword. After being released from prison, Ryuzaki has only two things on his mind: procuring a VHS copy of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom and finding Kitami.

Muscle is a dark Pasolini/Mishima whirlpool, chronicling the self-destructive pathology of sadomasochistic obsession. As expected, Satô is more or less unconcerned with conventional morality and instead plunges himself into the darkest depths of his characters’ psyches, rendering their perverse death drive as an outgrowth of queer desire in an oppressively restrictive culture. It’s a dynamic seen in works like György Pálfi’s 2006 body horror black comedy Taxidermia as well, one where individualized acts of subversion and desire leave the already damaged characters as shadows of their former selves – although in the world of Satô’s seemingly all-encompassing transgressive eroticism, there is no polite society to co-opt these acts, existing more as a nebulous abstract than a tangible thing, a realm far removed from the seedy, amoral and desire-driven sphere his characters occupy. And as opposed to Taxidermia‘s navel-gazing ending, Muscle opts for something almost bittersweet, its mutilated, Pasolini-obsessed main character finding his own strange version of peace in a warped moment of tenderness, as the sinister, icy arpeggio of Coil’s ‘Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)’ plays ominously in the background.

Incredibly twisted and raw – a far cry not only from the infantile, Disney-poisoned squeecore of so much of today’s queer stories, but also from many of the gay films of its era. – Fred Barrett

Hunger (2008)

f9yR1QQeKA3T3qUIsKstXSqhHb5Before Michael Fassbender went on to starring in random roles for inexplicable reasons (yes, I think he wasted a lot of potential), he starred in quite praise-worthy roles. One of them is Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen, where Fassbender takes on the role of the Irish republican Bobby Sands.

The biography-drama focuses on the later days of Sands’ life, as he finds himself imprisoned in Northern Ireland. He then initiates a hunger strike – the famous strike that led to the Irish Republican Army regaining popularity and increasing activity – with a few other inmates, which ultimately leads to his death. As mentioned, Fassbender does a phenomenal job as the United Kingdom MEP, and Steve McQueen projects those days of Sands’ life with quite the tense and suffocating shots and sequences. One small thing to nit-pick about would be how Fassbender bears little resemblance to Bobby Sands, nor they seem to have implemented any big ideas regarding make-up, but all in all, Hunger is a great addition to 2000s catalogue of biography-dramas. – Alper Kavak

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

6QOZ7RGucRJLGvm7TH5k2BN0xSpRecommending a film written and directed by the Ethan & Joel Coen is, as most would agree, quite easy for a multitude of reasons. For one, they always manage to put out something entirely different each time, their films tend to be infinitely creative, and they are also rarely difficult to watch. Inside Llewyn Davis follows the same trajectory Coen brothers had up until then and delivers something completely new once more.

Depicting a week of a folk singer in the 60s, Inside Llewyn Davis is so devoid of colour that it brings a new perspective to the timeframe it takes place in. Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan and John Goodman, the film goes by so quickly with its great acting, Coen-esque dark comedy and stylish sequences that it is hard to believe the film is over already after its approximately hundred-minutes runtime. – Alper Kavak

Frantz (2016)

François Ozon has such a unique talent when it comes to storytelling, as he has proven time and again with extraordinary films such as 8 Femmes, Jeune & Jolie, and later with L’amant Double. Frantz, in terms of storytelling, is no exception for showcasing what Ozon is capable of.

8oKVwdB4S22SuSL4VGoYEVMxE4TThe plot revolves around a young German woman and a French man who cross paths in France shortly after the end of the First World War. As usual, Ozon is not only the director of the film, but also part of the writing team, which very clearly helps embrace his vision for Frantz. The film is aptly presented in black and white, contributing a lot to the heavy mood surrounding the film.

In a discussion with a film enthusiast recently, they described the film as a ‘multi-dimensional psychological drama’, which is actually an approach to the film’s essence that I had not necessarily overlooked but also had not considered it as the core of the film until I heard this. In any case, ‘multi-dimensional psychological drama’ fits Frantz perfectly, and it remains as one of the best films of the previous decade, one that’s worth revisiting every now and then. – Alper Kavak

Great Freedom (2021)

dbRQeJBEijV2GQuIW1vt8damC2CGreat Freedom‘s greatest strength lies in its willingness to both subvert the dominant cinematic portrayals of queerness in contemporary cinema and the very idea of freedom itself. Preoccupied with finding his idea of freedom in spite of the repression that power forces on him, main character Hans (Franz Rogowski) isn’t a gay martyr or a hero for the nebulous cause of “equality” but instead an individual driven by a desire to live an authentic life in a world (or a country, rather), insistent on punishing him for it. By flourishing inside of these restrictive circumstances, Hans defies not only Hollywood’s anodyne queer protagonists but also the flattening of gay liberation into a one-dimensional, assimilationist fantasy. Hans lives through decades of Germany’s persecution of gay men, surviving the concentration camps only to be imprisoned immediately after their liberation under the same law, carried over from the Nazi-era (the infamous Paragraph 175). He recidivates so often that Great Freedom is mostly set in prison, even though the outside world does occasionally bleed through via footage from home movies, as well as an alluring sequence set at an underground sex party.

Meise’s drama doesn’t blindly celebrate conformity, nor even acceptance by mainstream society but instead opts for something more complex and contradictory: in prison, Hans finds not just confinement but also exciting, taboo eroticism and genuine love. Can the world outside even compete? – Fred Barrett

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