Mädchen in Uniform (1931)

Mädchen in Uniform, a surviving document of Weimar Germany’s gay rights movement, is a film made almost entirely by women. Based on a play by the German-Hungarian writer Christa Winsloe, it was directed by Leontine Sagan, and stars an all female cast. Almost banned and heavily censored in the United States until the 1970s, Mädchen in Uniform would probably qualify as a lost film. It was re-released in the United States in a low-quality VHS edition in 1978, and was shown in feminist groups in the 1970s and 1980s, but nobody really knows how much of the film is missing from its surviving 83 minutes. The only reason I know about it at all is because it was mentioned, but not shown, in a history class I took at Rutgers as an undergraduate in the 1980s. So when I noticed it on YouTube, I decided to watch it before Google took it down. It seems almost impossible to get anywhere else in the United States, although it is available as a Region 2 DVD in Europe.

Having watched Mädchen in Uniform twice, I can say without hesitation that it fully deserves its status as a “cult film.” Its not only a surviving document of the gay rights movement in late-Weimar Germany. It’s a great anti-authoritarian work of art, probably even better than Jean Vigo’s similar, but much more widely known Zero for Conduct. Hertha Thiele and Dorothea Wieck, its two stars, deserve to be better remembered, especially Thiele, whose career was effectively destroyed because of her refusal to make propaganda for Joseph Goebbels. Sadly, both women were 23-years-old in 1931, just coming into their prime the year before the Nazis took power. If it were more widely viewed, Mädchen in Uniform might even be controversial today. In an age of “sex panic,” where corporatist, neoliberal universities like Harvard and Northwestern ban sexual relations, even between consenting adults, a college professor without tenure might think twice before showing it to his or her undergraduates.

Mädchen in Uniform it set at a boarding school for the daughters of Prussian army officers. As you can probably imagine, it’s not exactly a “progressive” institution. On the contrary, it’s more like a prison. Upon arrival, the girls are required to turn in their money and civilian clothes, which are replaced by striped uniforms. Mail is heavily censored. The girls are always hungry. The headmistress, a grimly authoritarian, middle-aged woman named Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden, believes that deprivation builds character. “You are the daughters of German soldiers,” she tells her students. “I hope someday that you will be the mothers of German soldiers.” Any resemblance to the Kinder, Küche, Kirche ideology of the Nazis was, I’m sure, purely intentional. Winsloe and Sagan, one of whom was Jewish, and both of whom were gay, wisely left Germany after Hitler was appointed Chancellor.

If Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden represents the “bad cop,” then you can’t have a “bad cop” without a “good cop.” As the American film-critic B. Ruby Rich, who’s written what might be the only comprehensive study of Mädchen in Uniform, has pointed out, the young, beautiful, but stern Fräulein von Bernburg, a popular teacher played by Dorothea Wieck, is as important to maintaining the authoritarian power structure as the headmistress. If Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden creates a sense of emotional neediness by keeping the girls hungry and confiscating their personal possessions, then Fräulein von Bernburg exploits their emotional neediness by giving just a little back every day, a goodnight kiss on the forehead before they go to bed, a hand-me-down article of clothing, an occasionally wink at some petty gesture of rebellion, like love letters or photos of movie stars on the inside door of a locker. There is nothing explicitly sexual about Fräulein von Bernburg domination of the girls under her charge, but the sexual undercurrents are obvious to everybody but herself, for Fräulein von Bernburg is deeply in the closet.

The school is thrown into an uproar by the arrival of Manuela von Meinhardis, Hertha Thiele. Manuela is a charismatic, yet emotionally needy rebel, an adolescent girl with “no filters.” When she’s told to “curtsy” to the headmistress’s assistant, she shakes her hand instead. She impulsively blurts out “why” whenever she’s told about some arbitrary regulation. She’s a free-spirit and a natural actress. The other girls, especially Ilse von Westhagen, the school’s most vocal malcontent, are immediately to Manuela, who is the disruptive influence they’ve all been waiting for. Manuela is also quite openly gay, making no secret of her raging crush on Fräulein von Bernburg from the first moment she arrives.

Mädchen in Uniform is one movie where the worn-out cinematic technique of “shot reverse shot” works perfectly. The contrast between Thiele and Wieck is illuminating. Even though both actresses are 23, Wieck looks 35 and Thiele looks 14. Wieck is lordly and aristocratic, cold, Prussian, yet dominatingly beautiful with her black hair and chiseled features. Thiele is needy, vulnerable, devouring, a revolutionary, disruptive force underneath the blond school-girl. While Manuela and Fräulein von Bernburg are both individuals, it’s hard to miss the symbolism. Manuela is the German people under Wiemar, starved, defeated, needy. The headmistress von Nordeck zur Nidden is the old imperial order, the Prussian aristocracy. Fräulein von Bernburg is Adolf Hitler, the new charismatic leader, ready to step into the power-vacuum created by fall of the German monarchy.

The climax, and utopian moment, of Mädchen in Uniform comes after Manuela dazzles the assembled students and teachers as the star of the school play, a German knockoff of Romeo and Juliet. The kitchen staff, in celebration, spike the punch with alcohol, a well-intentioned, if misguided gesture on their part. Manuela loses all control, continuing her performance after the play is over, loudly declaiming her love for Fräulein von Bernburg in the presence of all the students and teachers, and, most importantly, the head mistress. If this were a boy’s school, the headmaster would probably just get a few of the older boys to beat up the troublesome rebel, and make him learn his place, but it’s a girl’s school. So the headmistress orders the teachers, and the other girls, to “shun” Manuela, not to speak to her, or associate with her in any way, a cruel punishment that drives the poor girl to the brink of suicide.

But the revolutionary moment has come. The other girls refuse to obey. Sisterhood is indeed powerful. After Manuela climbs up 8 flights of stairs, and threatens to jump to her death, her fellow students run after her and pull her back from the brink. What’s more, Fräulein von Bernburg, realizing that she’s almost caused a 14-year-old girl to kill herself, resigns her position. She loudly denounces the headmistress in front of the entire student body, giving up her emotional control over the girls, even as she admits to herself that she’s gay. The twisted Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden walks off into the darkness, her reign of terror at an end. Outside we hear the sound of bugles and marching, the men we never see in the film, reminding us, as B. Ruby Rich points out, that the rebels of Mädchen in Uniform have won a battle, but not the war.

A final note: Joseph Goebbels never outrightly banned Mädchen in Uniform, but he did demand that the film be edited to include an “unhappy ending,” Manuela’s suicide. Much of the film stock was destroyed anyway. What’s left of it largely survives today because Eleanor Roosevelt, yes that Eleanor Roosevelt, spoke up for its artistic merit and prevented it from being banned in the United States. Whatever that says about Mrs. Roosevelt’s own sexual orientation will, of course, remain in the realm of pure speculation.

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