Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski finds two things she loves here: boarding school lesbianism and umlauts.
Teacher: "Only strictness can cure you."
This exchange between a kind teacher being pressured to adopt a stricter persona and a sensitive student who is deeply in love with her evokes the twin themes of the German Mädchen in Uniform: the perils of a too-rigid society, and the alluring escape from it that lesbian desire may offer. A remake of the 1931 original—itself adapted from a play—this 1958 Mädchen is compelling and also surprisingly progressive and erotic for its time.
Facts of the Case
In 1910 Prussia, Manuela (Romy Schneider, Christine) is a withdrawn teenager recovering from her mother's death. It seems this process will be stalled by her enrollment in a terribly harsh boarding school, but she grows to love certain parts of life there: acting in a play, forming friendships with the other girls, and especially being a pupil of Fräulein von Bernburg (Lilli Palmer, The Boys from Brazil). Unfortunately, a close relationship with Fräulein von Bernburg is verboten, and the teacher is already being scrutinized closely by the tyrannical headmistress who thinks she is too lenient.
No phrase seems to spark the lesbian imagination better than "all girls boarding school." It's kind of the female equivalent of the military: a regimented environment where the opposite sex is nowhere to be seen, people sleep and shower in close quarters, and the assumption of wholesome homosocial bonding makes all the homosexual desire pulsing beneath it that much sexier. Whether romance develops between students, between teachers, or across the taboo boundary between them, audiences have seen it happen in plenty of features both classic and recent: Mädchen, The Children's Hour, Therese and Isabelle, Lost and Delirious, Loving Annabelle, and so on. On screen, the 1931 Mädchen in Uniform is the grandmother of them all—a fascinating testament to both German cinema and German sexual progressiveness between World Wars. The original doesn't seem to have DVD distribution at the moment, but luckily this 1958 remake is being released on DVD for the first time by Wolfe, courtesy of 35mm print recently recovered by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Mädchen's story uses a clash of pedagogical styles to reflect on German society. The headmistress wants her pupils to march like soldiers, go without butter on their bread, and basically live in fear. Fräulein von Bernburg—who actually appears quite strict from a modern American perspective—tries to sway the school's administration to a marginally gentler attitude, which comes across as dangerously radical in this environment. As one girl's mother writes in a letter to the daughter: "The Fatherland needs people of iron." Hearing that line, another says sulkily, "I don't want to be of iron." It's fascinating to think about these topics in their historical contexts: as a darkly prescient warning in 1931, just before Hitler's rise to power (probably also as a look back on WWI, which began just after the film's 1910 timeframe), or as a 1958 retrospective consideration of the attitudes that birthed so much tragedy in Germany.
This backdrop of a stringently regimented and repressed environment is perfect for heightening the emotions and transgressions already inherent in teenage lesbian desire. Schneider plays these emotions exceptionally well: with hard-fought restraint throughout most of the film and then a powerful release in one great scene. On a high from the success of the school's Romeo and Juliet play and drunk on spiked punch, a blissful Manuela loudly proclaims her love for her teacher—in the presence of all her classmates and the terrifying headmistress. Modulating her voice and deploying a sly smile carefully, Schneider is electrifying in this scene, letting Manuela's sensuality burst out and also the power that comes with it. All of this, wonderfully, is done in drag as Romeo.
Palmer's performance is, necessarily, a bit more inscrutable. Her situation makes it impossible for her to really explore any romantic or sexual relationship with the smitten Manuela: she's a teacher and authority figure being crushed on by a teenage girl in 1910 Prussia (and on top of that, she's in a 1950s film). So clearly, passionate confessions of mutual attraction or steamy make-out sessions are not in Palmer's playbook. In her scenes with Manuela, a well-rendered reigning in of affection is definitely apparent, but Palmer leaves it up to the audience to sort out what type of affection she's struggling with. For this particular viewer, there certainly seemed to be an erotic charge to the way Fräulein von Bernburg would command Manuela to do things, like turn around so that she could look her over. Helping Manuela rehearse her Romeo lines in a deserted classroom by playing Juliet probably isn't the best way for Fräulein von Bernburg to ward off her advances, either. Come to think of it, this is a teacher who inspects her students in the shower, ostensibly to determine if they're getting clean enough…
Put all these elements together and you get a classic combination of queer cinema pleasures from yesteryear: extra-forbidden love, interactions that walk the line between innocent and erotic, school plays that require girls to wear drag, and, of course, the uniforms. If the ending feels strangely tacked-on, be glad of it. Things usually built to a much more upsetting finale for twentieth-century lesbians on screen.
Director Géza von Radványi infuses the film's look with a starkness appropriate to the setting and themes, but it's hard to appreciate on this DVD. While the print used shows little dirt or scratching, I think the colors may look even drabber than intended as the overall appearance of the image is washed out. More distracting, the transfer shows compression artifacts and also blurs when there is movement on screen, thus lacking clarity and detail. Sound suffers less, though there is some faint crackling on the audio track. English subtitles are burned on, so if you speak German and want to watch without them, you're out of luck.
The one substantive extra on the disc is a 15-minute interview with Katherine Brooks. Who is Katherine Brooks, you ask? She helpfully lets you know in the first five seconds: "If you don't know who I am, I'm the girl that brought you Loving Annabelle and that great sex scene." Having reviewed that film for DVD Verdict, I can at least appreciate that Brooks knows the part she got really right. Unfortunately, this extra treats the 2006 Loving Annabelle as the true classic and Mädchen as just a point of inspiration—which is hardly the reality of this dynamic. Brooks' interview should have been on the Loving Annabelle DVD, and Wolfe should have offered something better about the quite interesting place of the Mädchen films in the history of queer cinema (for those curious, I've included a link in the Accomplices section to an essay on the 1931 version). There's also a short PSA (narrated by Jane Lynch) for the Outfest Legacy Project, which admirably works to preserve LGBT films.
While Wolfe could have done a better job with the extras and transfer of Mädchen in Uniform, fans of queer or German cinema should be pleased as (spiked) punch to have this film on DVD.
Guilty of making me feel left out for never having had a boarding school romance—though the other aspects of this education didn't look so great.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wolfe Video
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