Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Mädchen In Uniform (1931)

When reading and subsequently making this list on Letterboxd of the BFI's 30 best LGBT films, I was surprised and somewhat ashamed to see how few I'd actually seen. One that did immediately catch my eye in that list was the 1931 German film Mädchen In Uniform on which the BFI had the following to say;

What would queer cinema look like now if the Nazis hadn’t stopped its first nascent flowering? This film is spot on about the intoxicating love that teenage girls feel, but I also admire how it handles Fräulein von Bernburg’s love for Manuela too. She is not immune to Manuela’s affections and has a hard time managing her own feelings.

—Tricia Tuttle

Revolutionary spirit borne of intense erotic lesbian attachment and female solidarity.

—Richard Dyer

A film so explicit yet made in the early 30s? Not only that, but an explicit film made just two years before Hitler became Chancellor in Germany and began to shape the country to his own fascist ideals. I had to see this, and thankfully I found a subtitled version of it on YouTube. Though admittedly the English subtitles really lessen the impact of this work - more of that later.

Sensitive Manuela (Hertha Thiele) has just lost her mother and is sent to a strict boarding school for the daughters of Prussian officers. Relieved to find her fellow girls are a rambunctious lot, she is informed by ringleader Ilse (Ellen Schwanneke) that she has been fortunate enough to have been placed under the care of Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck), a beautiful young teacher who elicits the budding teen passions of every girl in school.  The recently bereaved Manuela seems especially desperate for the affections of the idolised  Fräulein who, to her surprise, reciprocates by giving Manuela the nurturing she desires. What follows is a battle of wills between Emilia Unda's stern headmistress, who believes that her young girls would be best shaped for the glorious future of Prussia by strict discipline and hunger, and Fräulein von Bernburg’s softer, more caring approach that looks set to cross boundaries in Manuela's case at least.

The film was based on the novel and play by lesbian author Christa Winsloe. Directed by Leontine Sagan, it was released in 1931 to enormous success - clearly this polemic against the strict Prussian education system struck a chord - and now it seems culturally significant not just for its strong anti-fascist message, so vital as the nation faced the rise of Hitler, but for its innovative all-female cast and its unabashed pro-lesbian storyline. Watching many films made in the 1920s and '30s can be an arduous experience today as we wince at their creaky nature and strict adherence to the Hays Code morals of the day, so it really is quite an astonishing and somewhat mind blowing experience to view Mädchen In Uniform; a film which portrays lesbianism at an all girls boarding school as the unapologetic norm. The film never once goes down the route of this being a phase, of the girls indulging in such relationships simply because of the lack of men in their lives, it is what it is and it is introduced almost immediately and in the most refreshing matter of fact manner. Mädchen In Uniform is the kind of film you would imagine could only have been made in the Europe of the 1960s or '70s, and even then you would imagine its content would only be handled in a strange, experimental manner. Even today, in 2016, films as honest as Mädchen In Uniform are all too rare.

But it's important to remember that the conflict presented within Mädchen In Uniform is not borne of the fact that Manuela is expressing feelings of love towards von Bernburg (after all, all the girls freely admit they have a crush on her and all eagerly line up at bedtime to receive a kiss goodnight from her which they cherish)  but rather that she is expressing feelings of any kind. Under the headmistresses gimlet eyed gaze, all love appears to be forbidden and considered a weakness if their nation is to be string again with this new generation they are shaping. The film highlights how the education system in a fascist regime will crush all expressions of emotion and tellingly, thanks perhaps to the English language subtitles imposing their own meaning onto the events, it is Fräulein von Bernburg who comes into direct conflict with the headmistress for showing affection to Manuela, rather than Manuela coming under fire because she is a lesbian. 

In this subtitled version the film's pivotal scene, during a party following the successful performance of the works of Schiller during an open day, sees a drunk on punch Manuela declare "Our beloved Fräulein von Bernburg lives! Long may she live!" and therefore endure the wrath of the headmistress. When in actual fact the German translation of that scene, the original intention, is that Manuela declares her love for her tutor right there in front of everyone. Why this change, I do not know. It may be that the subtitles date from a period that was still morally aghast at depicting the explicit nature of this 'foreign film' - with all the implications that term can so often carry; how things are done 'differently' abroad -  or it may be that the lesbian theme was purposefully made second fiddle to the anti-fascist theme that, following the war, was probably deemed more significant. This meddling does not however detract from the fact  that Manuela’s feelings toward Fräulein von Bernburg are most unreservedly romantic; the two even share a kiss, as well as a petticoat.

Despite this, Fräulein von Bernburg’s own feelings towards her charge can be considered a little more vague at times, leaning towards affection and sympathy for this new girl who has so recently lost her mother. However, look at those final scenes; how she screams her name as the door opens, hoping it is Manuela once more but finding it to be the headmistress, or how plainly the link between them is made during the crucial denouement, thanks to some nifty camera trickery that briefly morphs her face to that of her student when she realises she may be in danger.

Mädchen In Uniform is a truly gorgeous film with some excellent and innovative cinematography, and some brilliant performances from the likes of Hertha Thiele, Dorothea Wieck and the mischievous Ellen Schwanneke that are far more authentic than some screen performances dating from this period. I heartily recommend this film.

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