Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Lost Island of VHS...XI

Mädchen in Uniform - Leontine Sagan, Carl Froelich - 1931

This German film was one of the first big foreign language 'art' films to play in the United States. It tells the tale of a 14-year-old girl named Manuela (Hertha Thiele) who is enrolled in a very strict boarding school by her aunt after the death of her mother.

While there she makes some new friends. But she also grows attached in both a romantic and a mother/daughter sense with one of a sympathetic teacher - Fraülein von Bernburg - whom all the girls have a crush on. This forbidden relationship leads to trouble for both her and the teacher.

If this film were made today the 'sensitive girl falls in love with a female Nazi teacher' angle would be played up as an exploitative steamy lesbian tale. No doubt in 1931 it was controversial as well. But seen today it is rather tame on the ‘lesbian’ angle and instead more of a solid story about a young vulnerable woman trying to make sense of the strict boarding school in the emerging militarized world of the Weimar Republic. Indeed, the lead actress years later was quoted as saying: "I really don't want to make a great deal ...or account for a film about lesbianism here. That's far from my mind, because the whole thing of course is also a revolt against the cruel Prussian education system."

I personally did not feel the film was any more a lesbian film than it was a 'heterosexual' film. It is pretty evident that the girls are rather harshly treated by all the teachers and most particularly by the school's Principle - who is as unsympathetic as you would expect a 'Nazi' character to be. And so the girls take a liking to Fraülein von Bernburg because she is so much fairer with them. In one scene one of the girls shows elation and relief when she realized that von Bernburg will be doling out punishment to her. It is not that von Bernburg will grant her some tenderness but rather the penalty will simply be less severe.

Fraülein von Bernburg becomes the equivalent of a mother, a sister and someone who relates to them. And they love her for that. It is also worth noting that there are no boys around. So any tenderness the girls show toward the teacher and she toward them need not necessarily be lesbian in nature. And, despite the one affectionate bedtime kissing scene, that is my reading of the film.

The film was remade in 1958 with Romy Schneider as the school girl.

A good long article here. And a review from After Ellen here. The original 1931 NY Times review is here.


Allison said...

Cool article. I didn't know about the Romy Schneider remake, so I'll have to check that out.

Matt said...

Thanks Allison
I have yet to see the remake. I'm guessing the relationship is presented in stronger terms.