Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Cinderella Becomes a Beard for Christmas

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Or: How one of my favorite Christmas movies, and a Cinderella story at that, turned out to be really, really gay.

There’s nothing like some long-standing family traditions to really get you in the mood for the holidays – even if that mood is vague annoyance about doing the same shit all over again every year.

And in my family, and from what I can tell most of Germany and a bunch of other predominantly eastern European countries, one of these long-standing traditions are related to a charming little movie called, well, Tři oříšky pro Popelku or Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel in Czech and German respectively, as this was a 1973 co-production between an east German and Czech studio. The literal translation would be Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella, though a UK release, which does exist, is called Three Wishes for Cinderella.

Starting around the first Advent Sunday, this movie is basically omnipresent on German television, and sharing the many, many air dates of it on Facebook has become my family’s very own tradition over the last years. Have an impression of what exactly I mean:

Those are this year’s official broadcast dates on public TV stations in Germany. I was actually surprised how few there are; usually there’s like 13 different dates on these lists.

So what’s the deal? Why is this a Christmas classic around here and several other European countries? It’s not even about Christmas! Just… Winter. Everything’s perpetually coated with snow, but not so much so anyone would be snowed in enough to suffer any consequences. And yet the broadcast dates and public opinion explicitly tie it to Christmas.

It is, if the name’s being too subtle for you, at its core, the Cinderella story. Girl is unfairly put to work and mistreated by her stepmother after her father dies. A royal ball happens. Girl sneaks to ball, dances with prince, runs away, and loses shoe. Prince is somehow incapable of recognizing her, but her feet are so tiny the shoe she loses fits no other woman in the kingdom. This looks like a totally legit way to find a wife for the prince to everyone, there’s a wedding, and everyone lives happily ever after. Unless you read the original version, in which the stepmother encouraged her daughters to cut off parts of their feet so the shoe would fit, and the pigeons inform the prince he’s not taking home to right bride because there’s blood in the shoe.

Which, to be honest, makes it one of the tamer original Grimm fairytales. Look up what happens to Sleeping Beauty originally.

Anyhow, that this narrative is somewhat lacking in agency or any sort of value has been done and redone to death, there are variants and subversions beyond counting. The most well-known, and one of my favorites, is probably Ever After, which has the ball and the shoe featured as an afterthought and focuses a lot on the action romance between the Cinderella stand-in and the prince.

Three Wishes for Cinderella falls somewhere in the middle between these two extremes.

We get the opening credits laid over a montage of the stead hold getting ready for the king’s arrival. The evil stepmother and sister walk around, berating everyone for being clumsy, which is actually a pretty legitimate concern considering, you know, the king is about to arrive. But I guess they’re just not very nice about it.

We get a glimpse of Cinderella as she sneaks away to meet her horse. It is, of course, a pretty fairytale horse, because no princess to be can be seen riding anything that’s not completely white.

Half of Cinderella’s dialogue is with animals, and half of that with this horse. His name is Nikolaus.

Here she tells us that she got the horse as a present from her dad, but isn’t allowed to ride it anymore.

The next establishing character moment is during a confrontation in the kitchens between Cinderella and her stepmother. A kitchen boy broke a bowl, and the stepmother was just about to beat him with a stick, when Cinderella owned up to doing it instead, sparing her the whipping. Because I guess we don’t hit servant girls here.

The stepmother then goes on ranting about what a hassle it is to have to take care of her, and what was her father even thinking teaching her how to ride a horse and shoot a crossbow as if she was a boy or a noble girl in the middle ages or something. Cinderella stares defiantly, so the stepmother pours a bunch of peas into a bucket of ashes and tells her to sort the mess out and then beg for forgiveness.

One of my favorite aspects of this movie, by the way, is the additional staff all around the house. Cinderella apparently stands up for them a lot, and they all seem to genuinely care for her, but don’t really do much to help with her situation. Maybe sometimes cover for her to go out riding, but the fact that their former employer’s daughter is now one of them is sometimes treated as a cruel act on behalf of the stepmother, but not exactly like a horrible tragedy.

Anyhow, birds come to help with her task/eat the peas instead, so Cinderella uses this opportunity to sneak out with her horse. When a servant who basically does everything around the house asks her whether she wouldn’t rather see the royal family, she says she saw them all last year. He then further prods her on how she’d liked the prince then, and she just goes “I like my horse best of all.”

Keep that in mind, it’s going to be hilarious later.

During the ruckus of the king and his entourage actually arriving, Cinderella sneaks out with the horse – don’t question how, she just does – and goes to visit the closest analogy to a fairy godmother this one has. An owl in an abandoned barn, where Cinderella stashes a saddle for her horse, and some small trinkets that are strongly implied to have belonged to her mother.

She then takes the horse for a ride, and the maybe most characteristic sequence of this movie ensues.

It features shaky cam roughly 40 years before it was cool, and also the title music which is probably a large part of the reason this movie is part of the popular consciousness and much as it is. It’s just so pretty!

On her trip through the forest, she encounters the prince and his entourage. The prince in this movie, as always, is not the sharpest tool in the shed, and kind of plays the part of the rebellious Disney princess. As in, instead of attending his lectures on how to be a prince and behave in polite society, he gallivants through the woods, hunting with his friends, and color coordinating their outfits.

I like how the one dude got away with not matching his pantyhose with his hat. I also like how they’re traipsing through snow in nothing but these flimsy tights; this is how you, even as a guy, get UTIs.

They’re on the hunt, and come across a fawn. Being a friend to all things living (and yet also an established hunter), Cinderella throws a snowball at the prince before Bambi can go join his mother, causing the prince and entourage to chase after her. A chase sequence ensues, followed by a brief and very uncomfortable stare down, and Cinderella escapes. The prince is totally turned on by her impertinence and cleverness, or so we are led to believe.

Meanwhile, the stepmother is sucking up to the King and Queen to score invitations to “the ball”. Not a very specific ball, just that one ball that has to happen because Cinderella story. The King and Queen are visibly exasperated by this but relent anyhow. The stepmother then tells her daughter Dora, and also the audience, about her plans.

“Who knows, you might just attract a man at that ball. Maybe even the prince! I mean, you’re not that ugly…”

Smart thinking in a dynastic society, but I object. Dora is hella cute. Not the wild and unkempt super beauty that Cinderella is allowed to be, but still, cute. Oh, well.

And not just the stepmother is thinking about wedding plans; when the prince returns to the royal procession, his father scolds him and threatens to marry him off so he’ll mellow out soon. The prince reacts with complete horror. Who knew the heir to the throne would have to get married in his late teens/early twenties! Completely unheard of!

This does, of course, bring up the question why the prince isn’t married yet, and why there aren’t a gajillion princesses in line for him to marry over Cinderella, who has maybe a claim to her dad’s stead hold, if that.

I mean, granted, part of the reason that most Grimm fairytales have kings and princesses aplenty is that they’re more or less loosely set in medieval Germany, which was not Germany at the time but up to 300 kingdoms and baronies and duchies and what have you, sometimes more or less united as the Holy Roman Empire, sometimes not, so there were a bunch of nobles and royals around, which means both that a royal title is not quite as big of a deal as, say, being the King or Queen of England was, but also that there are plenty of noble families of similar rank to choose from.

Hell, this movie was filmed around Schloss Moritzburg close to Dresden/Saxony, which has at some point been the seat of the King of Poland… But let’s just say trying to attach it to reality anywhere and anyhow will only lead to headaches. It’s a fairytale!

Case in point:

Family Fun Times!

The costumes are the greatest thing about this movie, truly. But never, ever try to sort them into any kind of historical context, ever. That way lies madness. Just enjoy the campyness…it is the only saving grace of this prince, really.

These glorious vestments are worn during a family council session in which the ball is planned. Apparently, only women are invited, as the prince is expected to marry one of them before the evening is over. I could have sworn I’ve seen this set-up somewhere recently. The prince, rebellious and free-spirited as he is, would rather… Well… Frolic around the snow with his companions. Also go hunting, but mostly frolic.

I… Can’t overstate the homoerotic subtext of this scene. They practice wooing ladies at a ball on each other, slow-dance a little, and then roll around in the snow. The fact that the prince is still wearing his sparkly Vegas hat doesn’t help at all.

This is such a straight movie, you guys.

Meanwhile, the royal family isn’t alone in preparing for the ball. The stepmother has sent the perpetually drunk stable hand out to go fetch them all of the supplies for their ball gowns. This stable hand is at least as much of a fairy godmother in this as the owl.

See, some versions of the fairy tale do indeed incorporate this part, just that it’s usually the father who asks what to bring Cinderella from his trip. Here it’s the stable hand who asks her, after finding her doing laundry while it snows, in a small stream that is not frozen even though the giant lake surrounding the castle is.

This is how we get to the three hazelnuts from the title; Cinderella first jokes that she could use a ball gown as well, then tells him to bring her just whatever he happens to come across. What he comes across is a small twig with three hazelnuts on it, and by coming across, I mean the prince thinks it’s funny to shoot a nest containing this twig down to hit the stable hand, because scaring sleeping drunk drivers half to death is fun times.

…This technically means that the prince, too, kind of takes the part of the fairy godmother, doesn’t it? Huh.

Well, as much as this Cinderella needs a fairy godmother anyhow. Even with the stepmother, she’s just a bit more feisty than, say, either Disney version. It’s more about actively resisting than hanging in there for survival, since there don’t seem to be any repercussions for acting up, outside of stupid menial tasks.

Not only does Cinderella constantly sneak out to go riding, she also talks back to her step other on occasion. Then there’s the scene in which Dora tries on her fancy new fabrics for the dress, and Cinderella is tasked to sweep up ashes in the background – why anyone thought this would be the right place to unwrap fancy new fabrics, I have no idea, but Cinderella responds to teasing by sweeping a little too enthusiastically and engulfing them all in a cloud of cinders.

And somehow, she is never punished for this behavior. Or maybe I’m just too used to grimdark pseudo-realism here, and that’s why I find this odd.

Dora is actually really pretty, okay?

Anyhow, Cinderella’s next joyride happens while Dora and her mother go to town on their own to get more fancy stuff. She goes to visit the owl first, though, and wonders when she’ll ever get to see the prince again. You know, the one who she almost got into an actual physical confrontation with and all that. But I guess they were both into it?

But, alas, she can’t quite approach him dressed in rags, she believes. After all, he might just recognize her, though messing with the prince and his hunt has no repercussion for peasant girls as long as they’re pretty and feisty, I guess. Yes, all the grimdark has definitely gone to my head. Suspend yourself, disbelief! Go! Do it!

This is how the hazelnuts’ magical abilities are discovered; after bemoaning her lack of finery and wishing for a way to approach him, one of the nuts falls down, cracks open, and reveals… And outfit. That will allow her to get close to the prince. I am not making any of this up!

The prince, of course, is busy doing what he does best. Frolicking through the snow with his guy friends and hunting. Just that this is a fancy, official hunt, with dogs chasing after a fox, and a King of the Hunt to be declared after shooting down the one single bird of prey left in the forest or something. And who would be declared King of the Hunt other than our established super huntress Cinderella? She got the fancy matching outfit and everything!

On Wednesdays, we wear earth tones. That don’t work as camouflage because of the snow, but stick to the theme, dammit!

Not pictured: They’re all wearing pantyhose as pants again. Cinderella and the prince match, because they both have differently colored legs.

Yes. To better approach the prince, Cinderella was given a hunter’s outfit. And a wig. It is strongly implied that the prince thinks she’s a guy for this entire sequence, at least in the German version, and she makes a series of impossible shots which all the guys admire. And as King of the Hunt, the prince gives her a fancy, fancy ring to wear. Putting it on her finger. While thinking she’s a guy.

After distracting the guys with her amazing aim, Cinderella decides it’s time for another chase sequence. I am starting to understand why her horse had to be literally snow white – makes for better camouflage given the circumstances.

Both her clothes and her wig seem to fade away during this chase, since the next  time we see her, she’s high up in a tree, goading the prince to come up and join her, while looking like the peasant girl who ruined his last hunt again. The prince is dead-set on finding the strapping young hunter that just escaped him, though, and both he and his companions explicitly use male pronouns and the male term for hunter when asking about it. Cinderella hides out in the tree some more, and the royal party abandons the hunt for the hunter. They have a royal ball to get to, after all.

Cinderella helps stepmother and stepsister to get dressed, is teased all the while, even though she completely unironically told Dora how pretty she was (damn straight!). She’s really sad about not being allowed to just peek into the window during the ball, and the stepmother wastes precious corn and lentils just so she can give Cinderella some completely unnecessary work. And while this never made sense in the source material, either, given that this is the middle of winter and they’re perpetually snowed in, you’d think they’d be a little more careful with food resources.

Anyhow, the ball is well on its way, and I finally figured out why we all love watching this movie for Christmas so much.

Family Fun Times 2! Spandex Boogaloo!

I mean, look at them! Isn’t that just how we all feel when we’re forced to spend time with awkward family dinners? Truly, the royal family scenes are a delight. The prince is moping about having to be a prince and interacting with, ew, girls, the king tells him to suck it up and how much better he himself behaved when he was his son’s age, and the queen rolls her eyes at both and snarks at them for the entirety of the scene.

Speaking of which, the ball scene before Cinderella crashes it provides us with the vastest amount of the movie’s greatest source of comedic relief yet: Costumes!

Look at them! All of them! But don’t look or think about it too hard, trying to link any of these costumes to any time period at all will only result in madness and tears. This is an alternative universe during the age of multicolored pantyhose for pants and literal umbrellas as headdresses and anything goes.

The ball starts, and the prince accidentally dances with a very… Enthusiastic fat woman. The only fat woman in the room, so let’s make as much fun of her as possible, why don’t we?

Besides that, the dance sequence is kind of fun, Dora even gets an admirer, and the absolute best thing is the king leaning over to the queen going “I guess I have no idea what my son is actually into.” The queen cracks up, because she knows. She knows.

Cinderella has, once again, used this opportunity to sneak out of the house. And let’s just say, in a nice twist from the usual tale, the owl or the stable hand aren’t the ones who talk her into going to the ball. She’s always wanted to go. And she consciously makes the decision to use one of her magical nuts to that end, ending up with the most disappointing costume of the movie, but a matching saddle for her magically appearing horse.

No midnight deadline though. Odd.

She arrives at the palace just in time to peek through the window, unperturbed by the guards directly next to her, to see that Dora did indeed score a dance with the prince after all. And she catches the exact ten seconds in which the prince is marginally entertained by her, before ditching her since all she can talk about is how much she adores him. It’s okay, Dora, of course you’re eager to please. You’re just doing your dynastic duties.

Cinderella runs back to her horse, distraught until she gives herself and the horse a pep talk, and then she goes back in. Without an invitation, and without being stopped by the guards or anything. And it’s not that she’s sneaky; everyone sees her and just stares. Probably because her dress sucks so much.

I mean, just look at it! The colors are washed out and don’t mesh well, the cut makes it look like a nightgown, and it is easily, easily the ugliest dress in the room.

Nevertheless, everyone is smitten by her. Even the prince, who seconds before was just about to go quit this whole royalty thing and become a lumberjack. Nobody can keep him from frolicking through the woods then!

But then, after causing minor accidents due to people staring at her horrible dress, Cinderella walks in and he does a double take. And just when already in the room, she remembers that there are people there who maybe shouldn’t know who she is, like the prince who might just want her for impertinence, and the stepmother and stepsister. But Cinderella is on her game, and her game is remembering everyone in this movie except for her, and especially the stepmom, Dora, and the prince, are idiots.

I mean, okay, it’s a better disguise than glasses or something, but come on. This is extremely suspicious, and just works to make the ugly outfit even uglier. Oh well.

Romantic dancing and awkward banter ensues. Everyone is trying to figure out who she is, no one demands she introduce herself or produce an invitation. The king wants to invite her up on the dais because she carries herself so well. It’s wish fulfillment! Suspend yourself, my disbelief!

The prince keeps prodding for her identity, because the veil isn’t see-through enough, and declares, where technically everyone can hear, that he has fallen head over heels for her, and he wants to get married immediately.

Cinderella is less than impressed, and pointedly reminds him that maybe he should ask for her opinion on the matter first, but does eventually agree to marry him if he can support her sudden turn into a sphinx, I mean, answer her riddle.

“Cheeks dirtied with ash, but it’s not a chimney sweep.

A feathered hat, a crossbow on the shoulder, but it’s not a hunter.

A dress with a silver train, a tiara on the head, but it’s not a princess.”

Due to the fact that he’s kind of an idiot, he doesn’t get it, and she runs away, again, because we haven’t had a chase sequence in the last 10 minutes. I can literally not think of a different reason for her to do this. There’s no midnight deadline, and she already knew beforehand that the prince is on the slower side of things.

Anyhow, credit where credit is due, again: the prince runs after her himself. He’s the one to collect the shoe, he’s the one to follow her to the stead hold, and he’s the one to put the shoe on the foot of every woman he can find there, while all the peasants make fun of him, no less.

Oh, and they also poke fun at the shoe, saying it’d be too small to fit a doll.

Stepmom and Dora arrive just soon enough to figure out who he’s looking for, and somehow manage to find Cinderella before anyone else in the keep does. We don’t really see what’s going on, but Dora emerges from the building draped in Cinderella’s cape which she wore to the ball, and that is the one thing the prince recognizes! Not the hair, the eyes, the rest of the face behind a see-through veil, not the voice or the horse. The cape she wore.

The stepmother has caught on to his buffoonery, too, and insists he put a ring on it before she reveals Dora’s face, and when the prince refuses, they flee the keep on a sled, because it’s been three minutes since the last chase sequence.

Look, Czech woods in the snow are pretty and all, but can we not for maybe, I dunno, twenty minutes at a time?

At least this chase sequence has a climactic ending, I suppose, as the carriage topples over and Dora and stepmother fall into a partially frozen pond. The prince comes to their rescue, but only until he sees Dora’s face, and then he’s like “you’re the wrong one!,” shoves her back in to drown or freeze to her death, and goes back to the keep.

I only save maidens that can pass for strapping hunters!

Dick move. Aren’t we supposed to like him at least a little? And find his stupidity endearing? Oh well.

The fairy godmother owl flutters around his head for a bit, which somehow tells him to go back to the stead hold, where everyone’s still excitedly running around looking for Cinderella. We hear her sing a bit, in something that the life action Disney version may or may not have copied, which also implies the main theme has not just been in our heads so far, but that she’s actually been singing it all the times it appeared.

Dressed down to her third layer beneath the ball nightgown, Cinderella makes her way to the abandoned barn just as the owl returns, and decides that now that stepmother and Dora are freezing to death somewhere along the way, the time has come to just go and get the prince, I guess. She uses her last magical nut, and it pops out the prettiest dress of the movie, which also happens to be a wedding dress.

Thusly adorned, she rides out into the courtyard, just as the prince has returned to continue his search.

Why couldn’t this be the ball gown? I mean, seriously! It’s so much prettier. And the only way the live action Disney movie can justify its entire existence is because the ball gown is so pretty!

Oh well. She rides up like the cocky boss ass bitch she is, attempts to give back the ring for the King of the Hunt in exchange for her shoe, and yet the prince still takes a minute to figure out the riddle, despite asserting that the ring is hers.

And to be fair, it’s not actually the prince shouting the solution in the end, it’s the kitchen boy from the beginning. “Our Cinderella!” He yells for everyone to hear. Followed by the prince saying something that’s actually sort of cute:

“And mine, if you will have me.”

She doesn’t exactly answer, she just smiles and he twirls her around, the peasants celebrate the impending nuptials, and they ride off into the sunrise together. Presumably back to the castle. Why did we need this detour? I don’t know! Chase sequences! Stupid ploys! Funny peasants!

And technically, we end this movie on a chase sequence as well. After riding through the freshly snow covered fields while holding hands, and due to their white clothes and horses being way better camouflaged than during the hunt, the prince is stopped by the guy who has been chasing him for the entire movie to get him back to his lessons. Cinderella doesn’t give a damn and just rides on ahead without him.

Which is kind of how I see their relationships from then on out – she goes on ahead and takes care of stuff, he gets to stay behind and frolic through the woods with his guy friends. It’s a pretty neat arrangement, all things considered.

Or, of course, you can take the less cynical approach and just enjoy that two people found each other and all turned out well. You know, the intended message of the movie. But, I mean, come on. The homoerotic subtext was not not there, okay? I didn’t make this gay, this movie has been gay for twenty years before I was even born!

It’s also just so incredibly charming, really. I snark about it, but I actually enjoyed the hell out of watching it twice this year, was sad that I couldn’t watch it last year, and if I can, will watch it next year. It’s silly in places, yes, but not any more or less so than just about any fairytale movie. In fact, it’s a bit smarter than most and awards both the Cinderella stand-in and the prince quite a bit of agency – for a Cinderella movie, of course.

It’s not even a guilty pleasure, really. There’s a bit of fat shaming, yes, but even that’s mostly harmless compared to what other movies do in that regard. And if that’s the biggest problem to have with a movie… Well. Yeah.

Silly, and all in good fun, and just so goddamn pretty. And unexpectedly gay and snarky in places. Fun for the whole family!

And since this will be stuck in my head for the next week or so, everyone, join in my suffering:

Images courtesy of DEFA-Stiftung.

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