Girls on Film
Kennedy Wilson remembers a legendary, and controversial, film from 1930s Weimar Republic
Blocked by the censors and lionised by the LGBT community, the 90 year old German movie Mädchen in Uniform has, for decades, been celebrated for being one of the first movies to depict gay love and one of the few films to have a female director (Leontine Sagan) and a script adapted from an original work, also written by a woman, (Christa Winsloe).
In recent years lesbians seem to have been everywhere on the big and small screen. Think of the myriad seasons of Orange is the New Black, Carol, , or director Francis Lee’s new film Ammonite starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan which tells the (true) story of Mary Anning a famous fossil hunter who develops an intense relationship with another woman.
It’s difficult now to appreciate what a shock Mädchen in Uniform engendered when it was first shown in 1931.
Something that would probably have raised no more than an eyebrow in liberal Weimar Germany caused huge ructions when distributors attempted to release the film in America. From that point on the ‘scandalous’ reputation of the movie preceded it.
Vito Russo in his pioneering book, , quoted the US censor’s report: ‘Many intimate scenes show abnormal relationships’.
A contemporaneous school of thought was at odds with the US censors. What some saw as a simple story of gymslip crushes (and that only gay people would see a gay story), others saw as something much more subversive.
At the time, Cinema flirted with lesbianism in one way or another - Marlene Dietrich donned startling white-tie-and-tails in Morocco (1930) - but it wasn’t long before lesbians and gay men became either the butt of jokes or depicted as evil villains, or victims who were horribly punished in the last reel.
None more so than Mrs Danvers, the creepy housekeeper in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), recently remade by Netflix a mere 80 years later.
Notably, Mädchen in Uniform had alternative endings – one where the smitten heroine kills herself, and one where her old school friends save her. Countless subsequent films had similar endings where the gay character comes to a sticky end.
Coming out of pre-Nazi Germany the film is often seen as a touchstone for a new openness in European cinema where homosexuality, sex work and naturism were acceptable topics for film.
Mädchen is also often seen as a metaphor for the dangers of fascism. Ironically one of the uncredited cinematographers went on to film the notorious Hitler propaganda film Triumph of the Will.
According to film historian Jenni Olson, in part, the film “reflects the societal storm clouds that were gathering in Germany [in the 1930s] and all that was to come.”
Orphaned teen Manuela (Hertha Thiele) arrives at a boarding school for the daughters of Prussian army officers which is run along strict, authoritarian lines where order and discipline are all.
“The Fatherland needs people of steel,” says one of the girls ominously. The only colour in this spartan regime arrives when Manuela falls for a beautiful and sympathetic young teacher Elizabeth von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck). Things, of course, go awry when the nasty headmistress finds out.
Depictions of women’s experience have changed radically over the decades – no more so than in the recent MeToo years.
Helen O’Hara, author of the new book Women vs Hollywood writes: ‘Even if you don’t believe that diversity is a moral good, that people deserve to see themselves on screen or have a chance to tell their own stories without being reined in by people who don’t understand their identity… even if you think people talk too much about diversity these days it simply makes for better stories. If you truly love movies you should want to be transported into the lives of people quite unlike yourself’.
Even in the supposedly permissive 1960s gay women got the treatment. In 1961’s The Children’s Hour Shirley MacLaine hangs herself rather than be exposed as gay and one of the most notorious gay women in film, Rosa Kleb, the ruthless Soviet villainess in the Bond vehicle From Russia With Love (1963), was styled ‘the dyke with the spike’ in the press blurbs.
Thankfully things changed, with more accurate depictions of gay life – from Desert Hearts (1983) to more radical representations in the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s. In today’s enlightened times there is no holds-barred fare such as BBC’s primetime series Tipping the Velvet (2002), the long-running The L Word (2004-9) and the recent Netflix series Gentefied.
Last year Disney/Pixar announced its first official lesbian character in its animated feature Onward. A one eyed, Cyclops cop – another girl in a uniform – who was called out by audiences for being the least normal looking character in the story.
Many fans have long held up Elsa in the Frozen franchise as a queer icon, partly because of her lack of interest in finding a Prince Charming. In 2016 there was even a popular hashtag on social media… #GiveElseaGirlfriend
Info: Mädchen in Uniform is released by the BFI on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD, Helen O’Hara’s Women vs Hollywood £18.99, is published by littlebrown.co.uk