A landmark of interwar European cinema, Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform (1931) is a remarkable film in many respects – first and foremost in that it was produced at all. Not only was a female filmmaker at the helm (directing an all-female cast, no less), but it is also one of the first truly significant queer films ever made.
Despite several decades of censorship and suppression, it survived to become an enduring touchstone for generations of queer filmgoers, and the tropes and themes the film established came to define much of the LGBTIQ+ fiction and film that followed in its wake.
Over a decade prior to Mädchen in Uniform, the very first explicitly and politically queer-themed feature had also been a German production: Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others) (1919). A well-intentioned but slightly creaky morality play, the film had been co-written by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, whose Berlin-based Institute for Sexual Science had partly funded the production.
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Thanks to the tireless work of Hirschfeld and others, Germany (and Berlin in particular) had become something of a LGBT mecca, engendering a cultural climate conducive to an emergent queer cinema’s first baby-steps. But whereas Anders als die Andern had presented the plight of poor Conrad Veidt in a sympathetic but straightforwardly polemical fashion, Mädchen in Uniform would consciously shift on-screen queerness further into the realm of the intimate and the sensual.
The film follows Manuela (Hertha Thiele), a perpetually melancholy army brat, as she is unwillingly shipped off to a stiflingly repressive all-girls boarding school. A particularly sensitive girl of 14, Manuela immediately finds herself at odds with the militaristic discipline demanded by the school’s hard-hearted headmistress, Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden (Emilia Unda).
It seems the institution has little to offer Manuela until she is introduced to one of her teachers, the striking Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck). Unlike the school’s older, more traditional matriarchs, Fräulein von Bernburg values compassion and even ‘love’ in teaching as much as she does discipline – so much so that, according to one of Manuela’s classmates, “all the girls have a crush on Fräulein von Bernburg.”
Sensing that Manuela is in need of a nurturing, maternal presence (she lost her mother as a young child), Fräulein von Bernburg seems to lavish special care and attention on her new charge, at one point even gifting her petticoats. Manuela soon becomes infatuated with her teacher, an adolescent rumbling that is galvanised into a full-blown crush in the film’s most iconic scene.
On her first night, Manuela witnesses a bedtime ritual peculiar to Fräulein von Bernburg’s dormitory: the teacher sends each of her students off to sleep with a gentle peck. With Manuela last in line to receive her goodnight kiss, director Leontine Sagan suffuses the sequence with a queasy, tentative eroticism. By the time Fräulein von Bernburg reaches Manuela’s bed, Sagan has brought the sequence to a fever pitch. As the music swells, she brings her camera in close and then, finally, the crescendo: not a kiss on the forehead or the cheek, but a kiss on the lips.
Mädchen in Uniform is, first and foremost, romantic; not only in its text but also in its form. From its impressionistic, close-ups of a forlorn Manuela (reminiscent of Carl Dreyer’s famous close-ups in his 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc), to its use of dissolves that imply an almost psychic connection between student and teacher, Sagan’s direction often emphasises the ineffable over the material, and the unsaid over the permissible.
Although it’s undoubtedly a socially conscious film – it ends with a fairly unmissable plea for tolerance and understanding – it deftly obfuscates its political goals with this palpably hormonal depiction of young love. What’s even more impressive is the way it seems to have been consciously constructed to reflect a universal experience (the pangs and pain of a teenage crush) without ever losing sight of the narrative’s queer specificity.
The question of whether or not Manuela’s feelings for Fräulein von Bernburg are reciprocated is left ambiguous, just as the moral quandaries that this would raise are left unexplored. Moreover, unlike in Anders als die Andern, words like ‘homosexuality’ never appear in Mädchen in Uniform.
The waters of Manuela and her classmates’ burgeoning sexualities are continually muddied; it might initially seem that the sapphic camaraderie and talk of crushes on teachers are merely for the lack of boys. But when Manuela tipsily announces her love for Fräulein von Bernburg after her rousing, cross-dressed performance in the school play, the stunned silence of her peers makes it clear that a taboo has been transgressed. By the film’s denouement, the true nature and depth of Manuela’s feelings are unmistakable, as is her fear of how they might dictate the course of her life.
The phenomenon that Mädchen in Uniform manages most effectively to elucidate is the extent to which a certain degree of homosocial affection had been expected and overlooked in the context of youthful, girlish exuberance. But, in turn, these feelings were not permitted to ‘mean’ anything, nor could they be carried into womanhood.
“They are children of soldiers”, opines headmistress von Nordeck zur Nidden to a fellow faculty member, “and god willing mothers of soldiers too.” It’s easy to imagine this exploration of society’s restriction of sapphic impulses to a particular stage of life resonating with both openly queer women and those who, with the passing of time, had felt compelled to understand themselves as straight.