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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Classics Review: Mädchen in Uniform (1931)

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

Mädchen in Uniform is a film that creates and bends its own rules. It’s a film that is not only a groundbreaking piece of queer cinema, it is also an important historical document in the context of its time - a film that works as both a time capsule of its era as well as being a biting piece of anti-authoritarianism that still rings true today. Mädchen in Uniform is deceptive in its simplicity, showing more of its technical and narrative complexities through each viewing experience that proves it’s a film of infinite lasting power from its camera techniques to its bold thematic choices.

Widely considered to be the first lesbian film (at least in terms of mainstream cinema), Mädchen in Uniform wasn’t the first film to tackle homosexual themes and ideas in mainstream filmmaking. Legendary Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer most notably approached these ideas in 1924 with Michael, proving to be one of his masterpieces and an important footnote in queer cinema. Mädchen in Uniform is most certainly as important as Dreyer’s Michael, as it approaches themes and ideas not very prevalent in films of the time, not just in terms of conventional heteronormative films and stories, but also in how it makes use of the camera and the power editing has in driving the film’s thematic messages and ideas.

Manuela (Hertha Thiele) is sent to a strict boarding school that runs on tight rules run by an autocratic headmistress. As Manuela struggles to truly fit in with all the other girls, she soon finds herself opening up more once she encounters the kind, beautiful Elizabeth von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck), a teacher. These feelings of love and infatuation begin to overflow from Manuela, as these thoughts and feelings allows for herself and those around her to realize who she really is.

Despite some of the technical team being men, the film was directed and written by women (director Leontine Sagan, co-writer Christa Winsloe adapting the script from her own play), with the entire cast comprised only of women. It's essentially a film about women made by women. It’s unheard of for films of its time, and unfortunately, that is still the case in 2021. It teems with a feminist strength that refuses to step down from its convictions, and considering the historical context of its time, makes it a film of towering bravery and poignancy.

The film doesn’t just have strong messages about sexual identity and self-worth, it’s also a powerful piece of anti-authoritarianism. Made and released just two years before the Nazi party won the elections in Germany, Mädchen in Uniform found itself amid the backdrop of hatred and bigotry sweeping the nation as the Nazi party continued its rapid rise to prominence among its citizens. So it’s fascinating seeing a film making sharp observations of the political and social landscape of the time. Sagan and her writers in Christa Winsloe and Friedrich Dammann draw attention to this climate through smartly placed dialogue and interactions between characters and their superiors. One notable moment that stands out to me has Manuela getting prepared for life as a student in this school. Manuela, sporting a striped uniform eerily reminiscent of those worn by prisoners in Nazi death and labour camps, has a teacher tying up her hair, pulling it back as it tightens her scalp and hairline.

“But it hurts” cries an anxious Manuela. “You will get used to it."

Mädchen in Uniform is overflowing with subtext and with this moment, it tackles themes and ideas of identity, personal freedom and conformism (just to name a few) for the students but most notably for Manuela. An environment forcing itself upon her by denying her identity and sense of individuality; holding her down and hurting her natural growth literally and metaphorically. Every girl is going through some sort of oppression within this environment dictated by authoritarian ideals. Pair the subtext within the scene of this film to the overall context of what was happening in Germany at the time, and you then have a scene that hits even harder when you understand the route Germany found itself heading towards.

“But it hurts." “You will get used to it."

The Nazi party's rise to power meant life-altering shifts within every social and cultural circle within the region. Despite the film being made in Berlin, which at the time had a thriving gay and art scene, a lot of the cast and crew had to flee Germany after the film's production and release as Nazism’s growing popularity meant that a lot of the Jewish, gay and generally liberal cast and crew found their lives in danger. The director Leontine Sagan, a Jewish woman fled to England, while the writer Christa Winsloe, an openly bisexual woman, eventually fled to France where she joined the French Resistance. Some cast members died during the holocaust, while others fled after refusing to perform and work for the Nazi propaganda machine.

“But it hurts." “You will get used to it.”

For some they had to get used to it, while for others, they really just had to get out of there. For Manuela, it will inevitably be something she simply can’t get used to as she will soon find herself confronting and accepting feelings she never knew existed.

Sagan smartly establishes the setting within her world of story by pointing out the restrictive parameters set up by the male-dominated world around these girls and their teachers. Although there are no male actors or characters found within Mädchen in Uniform, their unwelcome presence is felt through setting and ideals alone. Most of the students are daughters of important military figures. Sagan shows how it’s nearly impossible for these girls to run from these strict upbringings by showing us establishing shots of military monuments dominated by male generals and soldiers. Even throughout the film, we see male statues feeling each scene where the hard-nosed rules dictate each girl’s behaviour. These images of society dictated by the needlessness of war and strength through male dominance also plays a part in the burgeoning sexuality of the students.

Although these girls are subjected to conforming to strict militaristic traits set up by the school (marching in lines, uniforms, etc.) that don’t encourage individuality. They find their own individual, unique identities when they are banded together, away from the prying eyes of their superiors and the male-dominated art and statues found within the school. They flourish in their individuality here, with the character of Ilse (the brilliantly charming Ellen Schwanneke) in particular being that of a complete subversive to the prim, proper and stern behavioral expectations of the school. She’s fun, eccentric and openly mocks the authority that constantly hovers over them. Although Manuela is welcomed with open arms, she doesn't seem to truly fit in with them as they showcase their sexual preferences through cut-outs of male movie hunks pasted in their locker doors, girls swooning over shirtless, macho men in their magazines. Even though these items would be deemed as contraband by the school, the male-dominated infrastructure firmly slots the girls' preferences within the sexual norms of the time that is still prevalent today. These are the very ideals that the school secretly wants to implement within these girls, and through that, we see Manuela really doesn't fit in with them, doing her best to relate to their infatuations. But despite not being able to relate much to the girls around her, Manuela gravitates to Ilse, who is popular among all the students. Ilse welcoming Manuela on board just makes her transition to the environment that much more intriguing and what the ramifications could be once Manuela begins to confront her sexual identity.

Enter Governess von Bernburg, the beautiful, kind, nurturing teacher with which every student has a small crush on. Von Bernburg establishes herself as one of the few authority figures in the school that is kind and fair, opting to nurture rather than punish and scare each girl into submission like the others choose to do. This rare, delicate flower in the harsh environment of the school naturally has every girl besotted with her, developing little crushes on this rare instance of kindness in their lives. Von Bernburg loves these girls, going as far as to giving them each a kiss on the forehead good night, giving them that ounce of motherly love they seem to be missing in their daily lives. It may be inappropriate, but in the grand context in terms of story and real-world events of the time in Germany, it is needed by each one of these girls, most notably Manuela. As Manuela waits for her goodnight kiss on the forehead, the film begins utilizing highly subjective filmmaking techniques through editing, shot compositions and lighting. This is where Mädchen in Uniform tends to bamboozle audiences with its simple storytelling methods by using incredibly complex technical and narrative tricks in evoking specific responses and even interpretations from its audience. As von Bernburg approaches Manuela, soft lighting gives us an impossibly dreamlike feel to the moment. It all seems so unreal as Manuela receives a kiss on the lips instead, before she heads to sleep. Soft lighting makes its subject look fluffy and even ethereal as they glow under a heavenly light. Films of this era often used it to give a romanticized sheen to specific moments in films, most notably romantic kisses between the hero and the damsel in distress or even just making the female lead of the film that extra bit spectacular and desirable to its viewers. One could see this scene as using soft lighting as a means to simply do just that: elevate the romance. But once you see and understand various intentional camera movements and framing throughout the film, it’s hard not to read deeper into this scene and interpret it as wish fulfillment from Manuela that is ultimately a sexual awakening for her. Finally, there is some sort of hope in her dreary time at the school, with von Bernburg being her saviour. The other girls have meaningless crushes on her, whilst Manuela has something that appears to be more genuine, confirming her sexual orientation going forward that is a defining moment of self-discovery for her.

Mädchen in Uniform’s complex ideas are on the page, but the way it is executed through phenomenal direction in each frame and cut elevates it to another level entirely. There are tracking shots that almost feel handheld scattered about as a still unsure Manuela anxiously wanders through the group of girls, trying to find some sort of stability in both her identity and place within this environment. However, the most stunning use of unconventional techniques are used in the most effective ways when Manuela shares the first series of encounters with von Bernburg. After the ethereal headrush of Manuela’s romantic fantasy with her, the rest of their scenes together are experienced directly through the perspective of Manuela. These moments are shot and cut erratically, playing around with performance continuity as we cut between different shots that are unconventional for its time through framing and camera placement. As the scenes continue, things begin to settle as the butterflies in Manuela’s stomach calm down along with us.

A great scene between the two of them in von Bernburg’s office is a wonderfully acted and technically precise scene that deserves to be studied for how it breaks the conventional rules of camera placement and editing. The 180-degree rule in filmmaking essentially places the camera on one side of an imaginery axis where we capture the scene from as characters interact with each other and their environment. Just as an example, when we cut between characters as they converse, one will often stay left of frame (left looking right), while the other is right of frame (right looking left). Wides and other coverage shots will also take place on this side of the axis. This is often done in order for audiences to easily follow along with the scene. But when filmmakers intentionally cross the line, its purposes range from switching power dynamics between characters or giving audiences the sense that something strange is happening. By disorienting the audience through subliminal techniques like this, is the work of smart filmmakers fully aware of their intentions. Sagan completely smashes the 180-degree rule in this scene, shifting perspectives between each of them regularly. It gives us the same feel of young, dumb, even irrational love that Manuela is feeling as her emotions are at odds with each other, quickly giving in to von Bernburg’s captivating presence. Sagan also opts for the breaking of the fourth wall as Manuela talks to von Bernburg with a lovestruck glee. She wants us to feel the same disorienting sense of infatuation and even obsession that begins to wash over Manuela as she tries to regain her composure. As the scene plays out, Sagan slowly returns to more conventional methods as Manuela’s nerves settle. It’s an excellent example of subliminal trickery that has you gasping for air once the glitter settles. In saying that, Hertha Thiele as Manuela is outstanding in this scene, showcasing a very convincing and visceral response to this young love she appears to be tripping all over.

Unbridled, passionate and even primal lust is often the norm in pretty much any and every LGBTQ+ related film. It makes sense as these films often have characters coming to terms with their sexual identity for the first time when someone comes along and ignites these feelings. What makes Mädchen in Uniform an interesting exercise is that it never feels like lust from Manuela. Instead, it feels like she is just using it as a means to understand who she really is. Von Bernburg understands why Manuela “loves” her, but tells her she isn’t allowed to feel that way, creating another poignant observation of the world around us as the hierarchy in place chooses to suppress the revelations of self-discovery Manuela has found herself achieving. Her entire story represents the personal and spiritual needs of each student and even von Bernburg, as they yearn to escape from the restrictive confines of their environment and become the individuals they need to be.

Mädchen in Uniform remains a landmark in queer cinema that is deservedly finding its audience all over again. It’s a film that has earned its keep, earning its status as a vital snapshot within an important period in history. It shows the necessity of storytelling amid political and social backdrops that teach us about our past, present, and most importantly, what the future potentially holds for us.

Where you can watch it: YouTube (Worldwide), The Criterion Channel (USA)

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