Today is the 90th anniversary of Leontine Sagan’s lesbian classic Mädchen in Uniform! The revolutionary German film premiered in 1931 and remains one of the most strikingly feminist movies to this day. It follows a young girl sent to an all-girls boarding school who develops a romantic attachment to her teacher. It is based on a play by Christa Winsloe titled Yesterday and Today.
Not only does Sagan’s debut boast an all-woman cast, but it also deals heavily with themes of sexual repression and lesbianism that were not widely discussed in popular film culture during the time of its release. In fact, the film was almost banned in the United States before garnering the approval of Eleanor Roosevelt and was censored regardless until the 1970s. The original version was not shown again in Germany until 1977.
Mädchen in Uniform received the audience referendum for Best Technical Perfection at the Venice Film Festival in 1932 and the Japanese Kinema Junpo Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Even amid so many awards, perhaps the most valuable response that arose from its release was the influx of German films centered around intimate relationships among women. Although many were quickly banned, these films drew inspiration from the boldly feminist approach of Leontine Sagan and her crew and included Eight Girls in a Boat and Anna and Elizabeth, released in 1932 and 1933, respectively.
To bypass the banning in Germany, Mädchen in Uniform was re-released with an alternate ending that pandered to Nazi ideals despite having many Jewish members of the cast and crew. In an article for FF2, Katusha Jin explored the effect of critics on the film and its perception during Nazi Germany. She found that “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 lesbianism — 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.”
In another article on the film by Katusha Jin, she describes the film as “a very ground-breaking piece because it had a strong lesbian theme. The writers had already made it more conservative as compared to the original stage play. This film was produced at an impressively low budget, and although it was eclipsed by the success of Der Blaue Engel from 1931, it garnered a large body of fans across Germany and Europe. We can now look at it as an example of a past treasure that can encourage us to be more fearless in telling stories, even at the risk of discomforting viewers.” Furthermore, she notes “the wide variety of women characters. As an all-female cast, portraying women in a set few stereotypical roles would have been a disaster… As for the women in Mädchen in Uniform, they are distinct in their sensuality, femininity, and how they think and speak.”
You can watch Mädchen in Uniform streaming on the Criterion Channel or YouTube today!
©Anna Nappi (9/20/21) Special for FF2 Media
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Hertha Thiele and another student. Screencraft Pictures.
Top photo: Leontine Sagan. IMDb.