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