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  Madchen in Uniform When She Kissed The Teacher
Year: 1931
Director: Leontine Sagan, Carl Froelich
Stars: Dorothea Wieck, Hertha Thiele, Emilia Unda, Hedy Krilla, Ellen Schwanneke
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: At this girls' boarding school, there is a new arrival: Manuela (Hertha Thiele), a sensitive soul who has recently suffered the death of her mother, and with nobody willing to look after her full time, has been passed to this institution instead. She is still not over her bereavement, and even breaks down in tears in the office of the headmistress but is assured she will soon shape up and fit in with their educational regime. What she does not anticipate is that in her search for affection now her parent has gone, she will fixate on the one teacher the students idolise, Miss Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck), the progressive but rather aloof tutor...

Madchen in Uniform is a landmark movie, there's no doubt about it, a product of the Weimar era of cinema in Germany that emerged between the end of the First World War and the coming to power of the Nazis, who soon put a stop to their pioneering ways. Although there had been gay characters in films before, they were often coded (i.e. not explicitly non-hetero), and relegated to supporting roles, which would more or less be the case after these German filmmakers retired thanks to the political nature of the times. But this work placed the lesbianism front and centre, as we are left in no doubt why Manuela is so taken with her teacher.

Crucially, we have to be clear whether this is reciprocated, since if Miss Bernburg had an affair with the fourteen-year-old, then that would render the film somewhat distasteful, so you will be glad to be told no, she does nothing to encourage the crush. Well, not specifically, as though she runs hot and cold with the pupils, she does make a point of kissing them all goodnight (on the forehead) which all the girls look forward to as just the tonic to get them off at bedtime - off to sleep, presumably, although there is an ambiguity there. When the love Manuela feels is revealed, they do not condemn her, interestingly, and are on her side all the way.

They sympathise with her, as if by there but for the grace of God they could have done the same, though that holds no water with the authorities. Here an intriguing thing happens: the lesbian affections become synonymous with the anti-fascist sentiment of Germany, those who opposed the Nazis, with the strict, humourless headmistress and her minions the embodiment of far-right dictatorship. Is it any wonder the film was banned there, and its main creators, including director Leontine Sagan (who was supervised technically by Carl Froelich, sound pioneer and sadly, a Nazi himself) and two leads were ostracised in their own country and had trouble getting employed thereafter? With its all-female cast, Madchen in Uniform struck a blow against the patriarchy of the fascists, never mind the lesbian angle.

Though naturally, as one of the first gay movies this has great importance as well, perhaps because it makes it explicit that one's sexuality can all too easily be turned into a political issue by repressive forces. While Thiele and Wieck were not gay, they appreciated the impact they made in history with this film, and happily when it was rediscovered nearer the end of their lives, they came to feel more valued. Sadly, for the author of the source play and screenplay, Christa Winsloe, who was a lesbian and based this on her early years, she was not so fortunate: the French Resistance murdered her before the end of World War Two, falsely accusing her of being a collaborator, a sobering reminder that even the most positive message can be a liability when there are those around to twist your words. Set aside the importance, however, and does the film pass as entertainment? More or less, yes, it is brightly played by the cast (even the baddies), it settles on an optimistic ending, and if it does not go as far as some would like, it goes pretty far for 1931. Music by Hanson Milde-Meissner.

[The BFI release this on Blu-ray with the following features:

Audio commentary by film historian Jenni Olson
Women and Sexuality in Weimar Cinema (2021, 12 mins): a new video essay by film critic Chrystel Oloukoï
The Kiss The Women Who Made a Movie Masterpiece (selected episodes, 2020, 108 mins): writer and journalist Bibi Berki takes us through the making of Mädchen in Uniform and explores the exceptional women who came together to make it in this podcast by Tempest Productions
A selection of treasures from the BFI National Archive to charm and delight: Tilly and the Fire Engines (c1910, 2 mins), Hints and Hobbies No.11- Hints to the Ladies on Jiu-Jitsu (1926, 4 mins), Day at St. Christopher's College and School (1920, 18 mins), 4 and 20 Fit Girls (1940, 11 mins)
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Illustrated booklet with new writing by So Mayer, Chrystel Oloukoï, Bibi Berki, Henry K Miller and Sarah Wood]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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