It’s pretty mind-blowing that a film like Mädchen in Uniform even exists, never mind survived. It was made at the tail end of the Weimar Republic, and within a few years was out of circulation. It’s a shockingly frank film about lesbian desire, but also the rising threat of creeping authoritarianism. The film’s director, Leontine Sagan, left Germany soon after the film’s release for England, she only would direct two films there. She mainly worked in the theatre.
Hertha Thiele plays Manuela von Meinhardis, who is enrolled in a strict boarding school after her mother dies, as her father is off in the military. The school is run with an iron fist by Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden (Emilia Unda), but teacher Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck) has a real compassion for the students. Fräulein kisses all the girls on the forehead, but kisses Manuela on the lips, and Manuela soon develops a crush on Fräulein. Through the course of the film the girls start a rebellion against the conditions and authoritarian nature of the school.
The story of the film’s making and release are almost as fascinating at the film itself: it was a film made as a collective, and the plan was that everybody was to share the profits—but it seems like the producers just ran off with the money. Mädchen in Uniform was fairly successful across Europe, although as the Nazis gained power, it was quickly banned as “decadent,” even after they tacked on an ending that subtly pandered to Nazi ideas—this version is long lost. The film was almost outright banned in the US, and survived only because Eleanor Roosevelt championed the film. There are long-standing rumours about Eleanor’s sexuality, which may account for why she responded so well to the film. The film was popular in the lesbian clubs of Germany at the time, but The Blue Angel eclipsed its popularity with lesbians at the time. Over the subsequent decades, the film was occasionally seen in censored form; it wasn’t till the ’70s that a version as close to uncut as possible was released.
Mädchen in Uniform is a remarkable film, a real landmark in Queer and German cinema that has remarkably survived over the 90 years since its release. Visually, the film isn’t hugely expressionistic, but the shadow of German expressionism certainly hangs over it. If it weren’t for the fact that the Nazis came into power soon after the film’s release, Hertha Thiele would’ve been a huge star; years later she found some fame on East German TV. The film was actually remade in 1958 in Germany, but I doubt that take would be as subversive as the 1931 original. It would make a very good double bill with Zéro de conduit, a more anarchic take on a school rebellion.
The release from BFI includes the commentary track from the US Kino release from film historian Jenni Olson. The new extras include a video essay by Chrystel Oloukoï, a four-part podcast on the making of the film from writer/journalist Bibi Berki, and some “How to be a Woman” shorts from the BFI archives. The booklet includes writing on the film from the following host of writers: So Mayer, Chrystel Oloukoï, Bibi Berki, Henry K Miller and Sarah Wood.