MÃ¤dchen in Uniform (1931)
“No picture in years has caused so much whispered discussion. First, it gripped Europe – now it has captured America.”
Director: Leontine Sagan, Carl Froelich
Cast: Dorothea Wieck, Hertha Thiele, Emilia Unda
Synopsis: German film in which a sensitive girl is sent to an all-girls boarding school and develops a romantic attachment to one of her teachers.
Madchen in Uniform is an oddity that can be difficult to track down these days, although at the time of writing (August 2013) a print was available for viewing on YouTube. It was well-received in its day, although initially banned in the United States, and the Nazis tried to destroy all the prints when they came to power in 1933 due more to its anti-disciplinarian stance than the lesbian theme. Viewed today, it’s pretty dry stuff, although its message seems remarkably prescient considering the dark journey upon which Germany was about to embark. In some ways, only a society which had embraced — at least in some quarters — the decadence of cafe society subsequently highlighted in films like Cabaret could produce such a provocative argument for liberalism and the freedom of expression while at the same time providing the breeding ground for the authoritarian powers that would soon constrain it.
The film takes place entirely in the grounds of a boarding school for girls in Potsdam, to which 14-year-old Manuela von Manhardis (Hertha Thiele) is sent following the death of her mother. The school is a cold, forbidding place, both in structure and philosophy. Everything is discipline and order, declares the tyrannical headmistress Frau Oberin (Emilia Unda), a stern, unforgiving woman who proves to be the antithesis of Frau von Bernberg (Dorothea Wieck), the school’s most popular teacher. Frau von Bernburg is loved by all the pupils simply because she cares about them in a way that none of the other teachers do under Oberin’s harsh regime. Each night, those girls lucky enough to have been assigned to her dorm eagerly await the moment when she kisses each of them on the forehead before bed. Manuela, however, receives a kiss on the lips which seals her devotion towards the attractive young mistress.
Madchen in Uniform appears to be a reaction to the German nation’s increasing need for a strong leader to free them from the depression that had plagued the economy since defeat in the First World War, and it’s easy to see the state of the nation reflected in the regime of a school in which the pupils complain of being underfed and forced to wear hand-me-downs. The uniforms worn by the girls unnervingly resemble those worn by concentration camp inmates, but are used here to emphasise the dehumanising effect of an authoritarian society in which individualism is frowned upon. This use of a school as a metaphor for society as a whole is an effective — if well-used — one, although the lack of any real antipathy between the pupils weakens the comparison to some degree. This is particularly noticeable in the way all the girl’s rally around Manuela after she reveals to them that Frau von Bernburg gave her a petticoat as a gift. Given that all the girls have an intense crush on the teacher, jealousy would surely have been the overriding emotion.
(Reviewed 4th August 2013)