The effect of critics on director Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform and its perception during Nazi Germany

When someone considers whether to watch a film at the theaters, it’s standard practice to Google search the movie name and look at reviews. Reading the film’s summary and the reviewer’s feelings are usually enough to tip the balance on whether or not to purchase a ticket. However, these reviews are often not gender-balanced.

According to a paper published by USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in 2018, “Across the 100 top movies of 2017 and 19,559 reviews, male critics authored 77.8% of reviews and female critics authored 22.2%.” During the same year, stars such as Brie Larson, Mindy Kaling, and Cate Blanchett voiced their concerns about the imbalance in gender and diversity amongst film critics concerning the reception and criticism of their movies A Wrinkle In Time and Ocean’s 8.

A 2015 research paper by Jacob R. Penthy, “The Influence of Movie Reviews on Consumers,” looked into this. It turns out that the source and information in reviews affect the consumers (the audience), but the results about the exact effects of the research were inconclusive. So aside from the impact on box office numbers, what about the perception of the film?  In fact, I found that Mädchen in Uniform is an excellent example of how critics’ words can influence a film’s public perception.

Mädchen in Uniform was a first in two aspects. It was a German-language film directed by one of the first female directors in the country—Leontine Sagan. Released in 1931, it was also a film containing lesbian themes, making it a bold first amidst its kind! Mädchen in Uniform quickly drew attention to itself internationally. Sagan was a theatre director, film director, and actress of Jewish descent. What was surprising was that despite director Sagan’s Jewish roots and the lesbian themes, there is evidence that suggests that Nazi Germany did not ban the film.  At the time, the critics’ filtered reviews and skewed perspectives changed the narrative of the film’s message to the extent that it became a celebrated piece of German art.

The understanding from critics about the history of the film and the reception at the time is very controversial. There are still mixed messages about whether the film was banned or not during Nazi times and even about whether it involved lesbian themes at all. Despite what one expects from the oppressive Nazi regime, Valerie A. Weinstein, Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, argues otherwise. Dr. Weinstein brings up examples of screenings between 1939 and 1941  held during Nazi Germany that show that not only was it not banned, it was also allowed by the propaganda ministry. When Joseph Goebbels became the Minister of Propaganda at the start of 1933, he wanted to improve the German film industry economically and artistically. He needed to promote the Nazi Party’s values, but also curate programming into something the audience would enjoy—to make profits. Of course, his task was to make it seem like the film industry wasn’t only there to serve propaganda, that it had apparent freedom.

When first released in 1931, the film experienced great success in both the local and the international markets. As one of the most popular films amongst laypeople and critics at the time, not forgetting how well it did financially, the Third Reich welcomed it. As a result, instead of banning the film, the Nazi film connoisseurs saw it as a classic German art piece.

 The critics were so blinded by the film’s artistic qualities that the lesbian themes took a back seat. Soft lighting and suggestive looks between the women fill the film. To a modern-day audience educated on LGBTQ+ matters, themes of lesbian —plus romantic feelings between a teacher and student—are easily perceived. A hint is more than enough for an audience to draw a confident assumption. But to an audience in the 1930s, it was ambiguous because of the Nazi party’s official stance on homosexuality. The party’s stance on women’s same-sex sexuality did not outwardly declare it as illegal behavior. The driving force behind how the audience at the time viewed the critics guided the film. Some critics even suggested an interpretation of the film where Manuela’s sexual desires for her teacher stemmed from a failed education system.

Essentially it’s entirely possible that the Nazis did not ban the film because people were blind to some of its most important themes. When critics frame a film to be about one thing, it almost becomes a form of propaganda in itself—telling the audience how to watch a movie and what to draw from it. When watching a film, the audience should be wary of who is saying what about the movie. Of course, critics also have the responsibility of balancing out the diversity of their arena. Still, none of the Chinese whispers surrounding a film will do it the same amount of justice as watching it from the unique perspective that is your own.

© Katusha Jin (09/01/2020) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Hertha Thiele and Dorothea Wieck in Mädchen in Uniform (1931)

Middle Photo: Leontine Sagan

Bottom Photo: Hertha Thiele and Emilia Unda in Mädchen in Uniform (1931)

Photo Credits: Screencraft Pictures and IMDb


Tags: katusha jin, Leontine Sagan, Mädchen in Uniform, TCM, Turner Classic Movies, WomenMakeFilm

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As part of the FF2 Media team, Katusha Jin interviews filmmakers, write features and reviews, and coaches other associates. She grew up in the UK and studied briefly in Russia and China before moving to New York for college. Graduating magna cum laude from New York University, Katusha majored in Film and Television at Tisch School of the Arts with minors in Business and Philosophy. She has worked as a producer, director, writer, and composer for various award-winning projects including short films, branded content, independent features, and music videos.
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