Susanne Lohr (Renate Müller) is a talented young soprano—a triple threat, in fact—who’s not having much luck at auditions. Fortunately, an experienced if much less talented actor named Viktor Hempel (Hermann Thimig) takes her under his wing. Viktor fancies himself a serious actor (he’s got the photos to prove it, although one suspects they might have been staged in a studio far removed from any theatrical production) but does some drag on the side, because one must pay the rent, mustn’t one?
Then Viktor has an inspiration—Susanne should sub for him—which she does to great acclaim. In fact, soon she’s the toast not only of the Weimar stage, but of all Europe (an ascent signaled by a splendid montage of a type common in films of the day). Offstage, things are stickier: Susanne has to pass as a man in civilian life, and the demand for that “performance” increases along with her fame. Lohr, who would certainly have rivaled Marlene Dietrich had she lived (more on that below) is positively adorable in her tailored suits and close-cropped hair, but things get more complicated when she falls for a man (Robert, played by Anton Walbrook, then known as Adolf Wohlbrück) who’s definitely only interested in women. Then somebody tips off the police that the leading “man” in Victor/ Susanne’s famous Carmen number might not be the real thing…and of course everything works out in the end, because Victor and Victoria (Viktor und Viktoria, if you prefer the original German title) is a frothy backstager whose only desire is to please you. It certainly did the trick for contemporary audiences, as Victor and Victoria was the most popular film in Germany that year.
If the plot sounds familiar, that’s probably because this film served as the basis for Blake Edwards’ 1982 film Victor, Victoria, starring Julie Andrews, Robert Preston, and James Garner. Whether you care for that film or not (I think it’s great, but other opinions are certainly available), it’s worth giving this one a look, especially if you have any interest in the history of German film. Victor and Victoria is a marvelous comedy which never lets you forget that you are viewing a created object (not the least because much of the dialogue is sung, making this film something of an operetta) and which thus has no need to adhere to the dictates of naturalism.
Everything in Victoria and Victoria is done well, beginning with the performances of the actors, many of whom had substantial stage experience. The technical aspects of this film are also delightfully assured, including cinematography by Konstantin Irmen-Tschet, music by Franz Doelle, editing by Arnfried Heyne, production design by Artur Gunther and Benno von Arent, and costume design by Luise Leder, Ida Revelly, and Willy Schlick. As an added bonus, you get glimpses of life on and offstage in a variety of circumstances, including an automat (a type of restaurant invented in Germany) and the cabaret where Susanne gets her star, sharing the stage with geese, clowns, strongmen, and dogs in German folk costumes.
You may recall that 1933 was the year Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, marking the end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of the Nazi era. That brought an end to experimentation with gender roles, on film or in real life, and some of those involved in Victor and Victoria had, like many of their countrymen, to flee Germany or come to an unfortunate end. Director Reinhold Schünzel enjoyed success in Hollywood as a director and actor (he played the sinister “Dr. Anderson” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious), Walbrook starred in both English and American films (most notably as Boris Lermontov in The Red Shoes), but Müller remained in Germany, dying mysteriously at age 31 in a fall from a third-floor hospital window. Just about everything is murky regarding her death—was she being treated for a knee injury or drug addiction? Did she fall due to inebriation, or was she murdered due to her relationship with a Jewish man, her refusal to play ball with the Nazis, or her plans to flee the country?—but one thing is clear, that the world of entertainment lost a rare talent with her death. | Sarah Boslaugh
Victor and Victoria is distributed on Blu-ray, DVD, and streaming by Kino Lorber. There’s only one extra on the disc, but it’s a good one—an audio commentary by film historian Gaylyn Studler.