Mädchen In Uniform

Germany (1931) Dir. Leontine Sagan

Teenage crushes are a funny thing. They can strike at any time, on anybody, and with anyone as the subject of this unrequited love. Unfortunately, there will always be people ready to snuff out these flames of desire through moral objection or duty of protection. After all, what do these Killjoys know anyway?

14 year-old Manuela von Meinhardis (Hertha Thiele) is enrolled in an all-girls boarding school by her aunt, since her mother is dead and her father is serving in the army. The headmistress, Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden (Emilia Unda), runs the school with an iron fist and expects her staff to do the same. There is a lone dissenter in Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck) who believes in showing compassion.

When Manuela meets von Bernburg for the first time she is scared of her, but later realises she is falling in love with her teacher as many of the other girls have done, and Manuela starts to wonder if von Bernburg feels the same. Knowing this is a forbidden love and inspired by the kindness of von Bernburg, the other girls rally around Manuela, even if it means rebelling against von Nordeck and her strict regime.

A title that might sound more suited to a 70s British sex comedy, Mädchen In Uniform (trans. Girls In Uniform) is a daring and groundbreaking film for many reasons. First, it has an all-female cast which was practically unheard of in the 1930s, as well as a female director. Second, it was one of the earliest films to explore same sex love between women, and finally, it was a veiled attack on the austere German education system that seemed interested in creating good comrades not good people.

Originally a stage play Gestern und Heute by Christina Winsloe and directed by Leontine Sagan, film director Carl Froelich thought it should be made into a film but felt it needed a women’s perspective to make it work. He encouraged Sagan to take the director’s chair under his supervision, and whilst Sagan makes a good job of it, evidence that she couldn’t leave her stage background behind is on display in many scenes.

Despite its lurid sounding premise, this is a very chaste film compared to what can be shown today, but in 1931 it was incredibly risqué, and despite its success among the gay community in Berlin and across Europe, it naturally had its detractors. Unsurprisingly, when the Nazis came to power two years later, this film was deemed decadent and all copies were destroyed, surviving only through those in international hands.

Hardly the rogues of St Trinian’s, the students of this boarding school are a lively bunch despite the deprivation forced upon then by von Nordeck. Denied healthy food portions, books, money, and letters from home, it is only their camaraderie and illicit yearning for movie stars and that keep them going – that and their love for von Bernburg.

Being a joyless old Prussian, von Nordeck doesn’t believe in happiness and treats her pupils like soldiers, hoping one day they will be mothers to soldiers – and this was before the Nazis took over! One of the feistier girls is Ilse (Ellen Schwanneke), always ready with an impression of von Nordeck to lighten the mood, and the ringleader for much of their mischief.

For Manuela, her love for von Bernburg is perhaps more psychological, given how she grew up without a mother and this show of warmth has Manuela see von Bernburg as the mother she never knew. Whilst von Bernburg is hardly a succubus in this scenario, the homoeroticism is strong – every night she kisses he girls in her dorm on the forehead before bed; when she came to Manuela, it was a kiss on the lips.

Granted, it was a blink and you missed it kiss because of the editing, but for 1931, this must have rocked quite a few prudes sideways. Later, von Bernburg gives Manuela some underwear since she has none of her own, which Manuela took as a personal gift to bring them closer. The delusion is clearly Manuela’s but von Bernburg doesn’t exactly correct her either, allowing her to bask in this Erotomania fantasy if it makes her happy.

Such an irresponsible attitude would be vastly problematic were it not for the oppressive environment it was born from; this isn’t to dismiss von Bernburg from nurturing – deliberate or inadvertently – romantic feelings in her pupils, but at least she is nurturing something positive in them. The film’s third act is based around a potential tragedy to drive home the message about compassion over constriction.

Considering this was made during the final years of the Weimar Era, the classic template of German expressionism can be found in the aesthetic and framing of many shots. The hallways of the school are very angular and sparse, the staircase reserved only for the teachers has a sense of foreboding that it leads to danger, and the use of low and high camera angle to denote authority and status is very effective.

No prizes for guessing the actresses playing the pupils weren’t actually 14 – most were in their twenties. Interestingly, Hertha Thiele, who is excellent as Manuela, and Dorothea Wieck – also great as von Bernburg – were both 23 at the time, whilst Ellen Schwanneke was 25! And Emilia Unda has to be one cinema’s most underrated villains as the tyrant von Nordeck.

Remade twice, by Mexico in 1951 and Germany in 1958, one has to wonder if this could translate into the modern world. Not because cinema is more explicit these days, but because the prevalent issue of child abuse would warrant a complete re-write, if not a hard pass. Therefore, Mädchen In Uniform works from being a product of its time, its open sensuality and defiant sensitivity towards gay love having a greater impact through the restrictions put upon it.

A unique landmark film in need of rediscovery.

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