Personally, I hate putting labels on movies. Terms like "chick flick" and "fun-stupid," while useful to lazy critics and unimaginative marketing departments, are more often than not designed to say to the ticket-buying public (or Oscar voters) "it's safe to skip this one." Plus, a label like "gay cinema" creates certain story expectations that, in the case of Mädchen in Uniform at least, have nothing much to do with what's on the screen.
I could just as accurately label Mädchen in Uniform "boarding school cinema" and lump it in with Diary of a Lost Girl and Dead Poets Society. But failing to note that a movie made in 1931 treated the subject of homosexuality with seriousness and sensitivity would be like an archeologist failing to note that he found a television set buried in King Tut's tomb.
Images of gays in the movies of the early sound era were few and far between; and positive ones? Forget it. One of Clara Bow's last films, 1932's Call Her Savage, included a scene in a gay bar, the first and last such scene in a Hollywood movie until Otto Preminger's 1962 movie, Advise and Consent, but otherwise gay men existed at best as foppish creatures of ambiguous sexuality and at worst as "sissies" subject to ridicule and broad comedy.
Lesbians fared a little better—think of Marlene Dietrich kissing a woman in Morocco (1930) or Greta Garbo proclaiming she'd "die a bachelor" in Queen Christina (1933)—but a lesbian relationship was never front and center in a Hollywood movie. More often, Hollywood simply pretended that gays and lesbians didn't exist, for example, turning the lesbian relationship at the heart of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour into the heterosexual triangle of These Three.
That's why seeing a movie like Mädchen in Uniform feels so much like stepping into a time warp—there wouldn't be another movie like it for decades. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that it came from Germany; film critic Ruby Rich in talking about the film, noted that Berlin under the Weimar Republic was remarkably open to gays and lesbians such as Christa Winsloe who wrote both the script and the stage play it was based on, and Leontine Sagan who directed both versions of the story. The movie "comes to us directly from that era," Rich said, "and shows us the kind of scene that flourished there."
Mädchen in Uniform is the story of a fourteen year old orphan girl, Manuela (Hertha Thiele in her film debut), the niece of a wealthy aristocrat who warehouses her at a prestigious boarding school. The school's elderly headmistress (Emilia Unda) is the proud daughter of a Prussian officer and modeling her school on that military tradition, is regimented, authoritarian and cruel.
"Through discipline and hunger we will become great again," she says as she dismisses student complaints of malnutrition and mistreatment, "or not at all!" The movie was filmed just two years before Hitler took power in Germany and the school and its principal were swipes at the rising Nazi tide and its threat to a free society. At this school, books outside the classroom are forbidden, letters are censored and the girls' striped uniforms bear an uncomfortable similarity to those later worn by concentration camp inmates.
Indeed, life at the school is so regimented, the only warmth its students know is a nightly kiss on the forehead bestowed by their favorite teacher, Fraulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck). "Don't fall in love!" one of the girls teases Manuela when she arrives. "All the girls are crazy about Fraulein von Bernburg."
Manuela sees in her teacher a substitute for the mother she lost many years before and as she is overwhelmed by a confusion of emotions—loneliness, homesickness, her own budding sexuality—she develops a crush on Bernburg so palpable her feelings are soon obvious to everyone. Manuela's story, that of a lonely girl searching for something, is the film's strength—loneliness, ironically, being one of the chief traits all human beings share.
Fraulein von Bernburg's feelings are more ambiguous —she expresses concern for Manuela and the girls, displays maternal affection, and yet the first time she lays eyes on Manuela descending a staircase, the look is as frank as Rhett Butler's as he pictures Scarlett O'Hara without her shimmy on. And indeed, the first night, as Bernburg kisses each girl on the forehead, Manuela impulsively throws her arms around her teacher—and Bernburg responds by kissing the girl on the lips.
"What you call sin, Frau Principal," Bernburg says, "I call love which has thousands of forms."
Later, when an act of kindness is misconstrued, the simmering tension between the authoritarian principal and the compassionate teacher comes to a boil.
The film's ending, in stark contrast to that of the play, is hopeful. Whether Winsloe and Sagan settled on the changes for artistic reasons or to appease German censors, I can't say, but at least, as Ruby Rich put it, they spared us the cliche of "lesbian suicide."
The film also spares us the cliche (or is it the reality?) of Mean Girls-style conflict between the students. The girls here are refreshingly supportive of one another and rather than turning on each other in the face of oppression, they rally together. Indeed, they are seen as Germany's greatest hope to avoid the coming disaster. In light of what soon after transpired in Germany, however, the filmmakers' optimism proved to be nothing more than wishful thinking.
Mädchen in Uniform premiered in Germany on November 27, 1931. It was initially banned in the United States until Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of New York governor Franklin Roosevelt, interceded on its behalf and in September 1932, it played briefly in New York City. While audiences of the time—and certainly censors—were shocked at the film's subject matter, I'm not sure a modern audience would react any differently today. While we may now be open to the characters' sexual orientation, I suspect most of us would look askance at the hints of pedophilia, an issue the filmmakers seemed blind to.
As with every other director of quality in Germany in the early Thirties, there was no place for director Leontine Sagan in Hitler's new regime. Unlike the case of directors such as Fritz Lang (whose own M would make an interesting double feature with Mädchen in Uniform), there was no room for Sagan in Hollywood either. She directed only two more movies, both for Alexander Korda in England, then moved to South Africa where she founded the National Theater of Johannesburg.
Playwright and screenwriter Christa Winsloe also left Germany when the Nazis took power and joined the French Resistance during the war. On June 10, 1944, four Frenchmen mistook her for a spy and shot her; they were later acquitted of her murder.
Dorothea Wieck made a couple of Hollywood films, neither a success, then returned to Germany where she continued to work in supporting roles for another forty years. Hertha Thiele resisted offers by the Nazi party to perform in propaganda films and in 1937 emigrated to Switzerland where it took her five years to find work. After the war, she worked in East Germany as a nursing assistant before returning to acting in the mid-1960s.
As for the subject matter itself, with enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, portrayals of gays and lesbians were driven even further underground. Gays and lesbians would have to be satisfied with the occasional Mrs. Danvers or Joel Cairo, characters ambiguous enough to slip past the censors, if not audiences. Not for another thirty years would Hollywood again openly address the issue.
Postscript: Unfortunately, Mädchen in Uniform is not available on DVD. It pops up periodically on cable (I taped it off the Sundance Channel years ago), or if you don't mind watching it on YouTube, you can see it here.