- Director: Leontine Sagan
- Writers: Christa Winsloe and Friedrich Dammann, based on the play Gestern und heute by Winslow
- Starring: Hertha Thiele, Dorothea Wieck, Emilia Unda, Ellen Schwanneke, and Erika Mann
- Accolades: Banned by the Nazis
- Where to Watch: Free streaming (with cable subscription) on Turner Classic Movies App
I started this blog as part of my watch of the American Film Institute Top 100 films, but I always wanted to include other worthy movies from outside the list. Not just because I’d like to do way more than 100 of these articles, but also because the AFI list, and others like it, tends to be voted on by white dudes and as such has a strong tendency to feature mostly movies directed by and about white dudes. I am a white dude myself but one of the reasons I like movies is because they help me feel things outside my own personal experience. The 2007 AFI list only one film by a Black director (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which we featured yesterday, comes in at #96), and no movies by female directors. It also, as a list of the greatest American films, leaves out, you know, the rest of the world.
It is with this in mind that we come to Madchen in Uniform (“Girls in Uniform”), a German drama from 1931 (at the height of the artistic flowering under the Weimar Republic) set in a strict girls’ boarding school. It is hard to say these things with certainty (especially given that so many early films, particularly from outside Hollywood, are now lost), but it is thought that it may be the first feature film in any language to center on themes of homosexuality. It was the first film directed by Leontine Sagan, who had directed the play upon which it was based. She retained much of the cast of the play, though the lead girl Manuela was recast with Hertha Thiele because it was thought that, though in her 20s, she could play a 14-year-old girl more believably than the stage actress.
The story centers around Manuela (Thiele) who arrives at a very strict, old-style Prussian girls boarding school. “Books are forbidden!” she is told, which seems like a dumb policy for a school. The girls are all much hornier than you’d expect in a 1931 movie (old foreign films not subject to the travails of American censorship often contain little shocks like this), not just putting up pictures of actors and ogling men in their swim trunks in the newspaper, but also sending each other notes confessing “crushes.” All the girls have “crushes” on one beautiful teacher, Fraulein von Bernberg (Dorothea Wieck), and Manuela soon falls in love with her. The Fraulein kisses each of the girls in the dorm goodnight on the forehead (causing many of them to swoon) but then kisses Manuela on the mouth. This may be the first scene with two girls kissing in movie history.
Unfortunately for everyone, after successfully starring (as the male lead) in the school play, Manuela gets drunk on spiked punch and loudly confesses her love for her teacher to the whole school, along with the fact that she gave her “an undergarment” (the teacher saw that her petticoat had holes in it) and “I’m wearing it right now!” Horrified, the strict headmistress (Emilia Unda) threatens to expel Manuela, and eventually fires von Bernberg after she pleads with the headmistress for leniency (“All I’m hearing is to help her!” “She’s a human being!”). Manuela then tries to kill herself by throwing herself from the top of a staircase, but is stopped by her fellow students.
Madchen in Uniform is also notable for having an all-female cast, and no men appear in the film whatsoever outside of photographs. The author of the stage play, Christa Winsloe, was a lesbian herself, and knew an actual girl named Manuela at her own boarding school who had, in fact, thrown herself down the stairs, but survived and walked with a limp the rest of her life. In later interviews she did push back against the idea that Madchen is solely a movie about lesbianism, saying that she wanted to honestly show the draconian Prussian educational system.
It is unknown whether Sagan herself was a lesbian (though some have assumed so, based solely on the themes she chose to tackle), but she was definitely Jewish, as were several members of the cast of the film. What no one involved could know when they made this movie was that in January 1933, less than two years after the its release, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis would come to power in Germany. Sagan herself fled to England, where she spent much of the rest of her career directing West End musicals in London. Several members of the cast died in concentration camps. Meanwhile, the Nazi party banned the film as “decadent” and attempted to destroy every print they could find. Fortunately, many had already made their way to other countries and the film thus survives today. It was initially banned due to its subject matter in America, but did eventually gain a limited release after Eleanor Roosevelt said she saw the movie and liked it. According to the film’s Wikipedia page, it was particularly popular in Romania, where it “sparked a craze for longstockings and kissing among schoolgirls.”
What I’m struck by now, watching this movie, is how surprisingly contemporary it feels. Perhaps because it is a non-Hollywood film, the acting and situations feel more naturalistic. The environment portrayed, a boarding school so strict that the teachers don’t even look at each other during teacher meetings (they just stare straight ahead), doesn’t prevent the characters from feeling very lived-in and modern. I particularly thought Ellen Schwanneke, who plays the outgoing Ilse (I wonder, now knowing that the playwright wrote it based on her own experiences, if Ilse is based on her) did a great job. She could easily step into a movie in 2020 and you wouldn’t notice a difference. Despite all the changes since 1931, the way the movie treats its themes doesn’t feel particularly dated, either. Ilse dreamily discusses which hunky actors have the most “sex appeal” (to my surprise, they use the phrase in English, which I assume means it had made its way into the German vernacular that long ago), while showing off the montage of cute guys she’s made on the inside of her locker door. Meanwhile, the Headmistress yells at Manuela that she’s “cursed” and that “society shuns people like you.” There’s no talking around the issues or mincing of words. Would a conversation like that go so differently at some religious schools today?
Madchen in Uniform would not be shown again in Germany until the 1970s. However, today its place in film history is secure, and with a cable login you can watch it for free on the Turner Classic Movies app. I think movies like this are important as more than just some sort of historic curiosity. I think that there’s a tendency today for some people to act like various groups, whether they be ethnic minorities, independent women, or LGBT individuals, are “new” in some way. These people think that because they were raised in small circles and grew up watching Leave it to Beaver, or the equivalent thereof. But all of these people have always been here, though they might not always have used the terms or been in the same sets of circumstances. Just because Hollywood wasn’t making movies about lesbians in the 1930s doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist, and not just as villains or “deviants” but as, as this movie would say, “real human beings.”