Mädchen in Uniform (1931)


(director: Leontine Sagan; screenwriter: Friedrich D. Andam/based on a play by Christa Winsloe; cinematographer: Reimar Kuntze/Fritz Weihmayr; editor: Oswald Hafenrichter; music: Hansom Milde-Meißner; cast: Dorothea Wieck (Fräulein von Bernburg), Hertha Thiele (Manuela von Meinhardis), Ellen Schwannecke (Ilse von Westhagen), Emilia Unda (The Principal, Fräulein von Oberin), Hedwig Schlichter (Fräulein von Kesten), Erika Mann (Fräulein Fräulein von Attems); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Carl Froelich; Filmchoice/Janus Films; 1931-Ger./In German with English subtitles)

“Its content is still provocative.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

One of the earlie talkies out of Germany. An emotionally draining melodrama with an all-female cast. It’s about an authoritarian Prussian boarding school for the daughters of officers and the bourgeoisie, whose ideological aim is to strengthen character through strict discipline and blind obedience. It is directed by a former Austrian stage actress Leontine Sagan with sympathy for the girls’ plight and to show how their friendship warded off their oppression. It is based on a play by Christa Winsloe. The outcry against the unmerciful authoritarian Prussian educational system (a precursor to fascism) is apparent, as its subtle argument is mainly seen through the sharp visual expressionist images (such as a winding school staircase used only by staff and guests, but off-limits to the girls).

The story revolves around a vulnerable and sensitive 14-year-old orphan, Manuela von Meinhardis, whose aunt places her in the school and the popular teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg, who is more tender and loving than other staff members and therefore gains the affections of all the students. The girls are desperate for some affection (they await her nightly kisses on their forehead before bedtime with eagerness). Von Bernburg offers Manuela her love in opposition to the school’s policy of forming no emotional attachments with the students. This love is hinted at as more than motherly, and directly opposes the icy sterness of the martinet principal Fräulein von Oberin. The student-teacher relationship leads to but never goes that far as to show it as an active lesbian physical one, except for lots of warm touches and a warm kiss on the lips of Manuela by the teacher.

The principal has bad feelings for the unhappy Manuela and through various disciplinary ploys acts to squash the girl who has a crush on the only staff member who is concerned about her well being. When removed from performing in the school’s Don Carlos play and forced to be isolated from her teacher, the melancholy Manuela attempts suicide. It is only the concern of the other girls that saves her.

It certainly was a film with a lesbian theme and one of the earliest to hit on that topic, probably as many critics have said a precursor to a call for a radical lesbian agenda. “Mädchen” suffers because its strident style is passe, though its content is still provocative and the film is a more sweeping indictment against their oppressive country than it is a film just about lesbianism. The fearful girls who are kept in check by the discipline they are under don’t complain openly but try to smuggle out letters (letter-writing has been banned) telling how the school is starving them. The film’s value remains as both a rare film about women’s issues and as an historical record of Germany in the 1930s. It also shows how the Weimar Republic reacted to homosexuality, or at least brought that issue to the public’s attention in a constructive way without silly melodramatics. What struck me as being particularly eerie, was the school’s striped uniforms looking similar to the ones worn by the concentration camp inmates.

The film was originally banned in Germany and because of increasing government pressure on director Leontine Sagan, she became an exile two years after the film was completed. The theme of how depressed conditions were in Germany as love was squashed and the only way out seemed to be suicide, gave the film a power that still resonates.