If this film had been made to be seen by a modern audience, something gives me a feeling it would only be ignored now just as it was considered to be taboo at the time of its release. Considering what Mädchen in Uniform did open its audiences to back in 1931, it would be easy to see why this was controversial (especially to the point where the Nazi party sought to burn every last copy remaining at the time) but there’s another level to where it’s also going to find a much greater significance in this day and age. And considering how it was among the earliest films to have explicitly portrayed homosexuality, the very best part about watching Mädchen in Uniform is a feeling that it still remains a concept that hasn’t aged a day because of how far we’ve come. Soon I realized why Mädchen in Uniform got to me as much as it did, because it felt so empathetic to the experience and presented it as universal rather than limiting.
The film’s story isn’t one that would have been easy to tell within the period where it was made: we are told the story of a soft-spoken girl who gets enrolled at an all girls boarding school and suffers at the hands of the strictness for they restrict her own sense of identity as a result. This girl is Manuela von Meinhardis, and her father is serving in the military whereas her mother has died during her own youth. She ends up developing a romantic interest in Fräulein von Bernburg, one of the teachers at the school based on her own compassion for the other students – something met with great resentment from the headmistress and the other teachers. It’d be easy to see why a concept like Mädchen in Uniform would have been viewed as taboo for the time period in which it was made but at the same time, there’s another part of society in today’s world that would also find a means of restricting such a film from reaching out to a greater length but there comes another lost cause in itself rising back up: empathy for the oppressed.
This film openly condemns the authoritarian nature of the society from the time by placing it all inside of a space that feels more confined, but it only highlights the restrictiveness of the boundaries it is set within. It’s so anti-authoritarian, but by any means necessary director Leontine Sagan only manages to create something so moving in how it portrays a sense of self-discovery within growing up. But it also caught me within the fact that the entire cast was all women where Mädchen in Uniform only found itself coming closer to the experience first hand – soon I have Tegan and Sara’s “Closer” playing in my mind as I think about what the song is about (unrelated to the film, but it’s an unbelievably delightful song although I’m quite an apologist for their music). Their music always had lesbian innuendos laced within their lyrics, but “Closer” just springs to mind because of how just like Mädchen in Uniform it feels so open in its expressions – something that only signified that I was set for something much greater on the spot.
Perhaps it can come off exploitative but coming back to Tegan and Sara’s “Closer,” the empathy being expressed within the content is what shines brightly. It tells a story about kindness and humility within the face of repression. In the core relationship between Manuela and Fräulein von Bernburg, what I saw was a sense of comfort being found in the fact that the two had remained within each others’ presence. From smaller hints whether it be an act as simple as a goodnight kiss, there’s something all the more moving coming along the way in how it portrays a sense of sexual growth within the character of Manuela. The fact that Mädchen in Uniform was open to show something like such within its time frame isn’t merely progressive for the time in which it was made but even to this day it still retains that quality, because it still shows us these people as they still are, human beings searching for a sense of their own selves.
In what’s also a moving coming-of-age story about sexual identity comes something all the more complex because of the time in which it was made, for it certainly carries a strong anti-fascism allegory from the school building itself. Everyone who works on behalf of the school building is against the concept of love and freedom. Perhaps this allegory was made even clearer from the crushing fact that the mostly Jewish crew would end up not surviving within the decades that had followed, because there’s another end of culture that was eventually killed off by Nazi Germany at the time from how they only saw everything one way. But director Leontine Sagan does something incredibly noble in how she still provides a sense of humanity on the end of the headmistress, whose final scene turns out to be one of the most touching scenes in the whole film. It’s a moment that defies the era where it was set within, thus it ends up leaving a stronger impact as a whole.
It still amazes me that this movie was made back in 1931 because it almost feels like something that could have come out today with how common LGBT films are, in a society that has only grown a more accepting outlook on the community as a whole. But even by today’s standards, Mädchen in Uniform still remains as progressive as it was back when it was considered taboo. It calls upon what is needed most when making films about these experiences, and what it’s standing up against. The feeling of bravery in Mädchen in Uniform is a kind that is so rare to find within this day and age, and perhaps that’s where it only moved me all the more. It takes the construct and soon turns the experience universal and human, it’s not hard to see why this film would be considered taboo from the day – but that’s only a fraction of why it has managed to retain its own importance. It’s simple from an outlook, but it’s breathtaking as a canvas in the best sense.
Watch a clip right here.
This film is in the public domain.
Directed by Leontine Sagan
Screenplay by Christa Winsloe, F.D. Wandam from the play by Winsloe
Produced by Carl Froelich
Starring Hertha Thiele, Dorothea Wieck
Release Year: 1931
Running Time: 98 minutes