Mädchen in Uniform Blu-ray Review
Manuela (Hertha Thiele) arrives at an all-girl boarding school, run by the very strict and traditionalist headmistress (Emilia Unda). With her possessions taken away from her and put in the same uniform as the others, Manuela feels very out of place. She then meets Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck), whose kindness and compassion often set her at odds with the school authorities. Manuela soon develops a considerable crush on her...
Mädchen in Uniform (often known as Maidens in Uniform, Girls in Uniform or, with the a-umlaut anglicised, Maedchen in Uniform) is a cinematic landmark: a pioneering work of lesbian cinema and of women’s cinema. Ninety years later, it remains a beautifully made and affecting film.
The first German film to be directed by a woman, Leontine Sagan, Mädchen in Uniform is a rarity then and now by having an all-female cast. Other than the marching soldiers at the very start (a stock shot, presumably), the only man you will see is the groundsman watering the lawn in one of the very few exterior shots in the film. Mädchen in Uniform is a product of the Weimar era, which spanned a decade and a half, from the end of the Great War to the rise of Nazism. The era was marked by an increased liberality of thought and, in the major cities at least, the license to convert it to liberality of actions and lifestyle. In bohemian/artistic circles, people could be openly homosexual or bisexual. This atmosphere was reflected in the films of the time. Germany made the cinema’s first (male) gay film in 1919 with Anders als den Andern (Different to the Others). Others followed: Countess Geschwitz in the 1929 Pandora’s Box is one of the silent era’s most overt lesbians, with her attraction to protagonist Lulu (Louise Brooks) not in doubt. While there’s nothing particularly explicit on screen in Mädchen in Uniform, it’s quite clear that the attraction is there. The famous kiss between Manuela and Fräulein von Bernburg had as much an impact in its way as the one that their fellow countrywoman Marlene Dietrich, dressed in a man’s top hat and tails, had bestowed on a woman the year before and an ocean away in Morocco.
Mädchen in Uniform was based on a play, Gestern und heute (Yesterday and Today) by Christa Winsloe. She had based the play on her experiences in a strict boarding school for daughters of the aristocracy in Potsdam in the early years of the twentieth century. Winsloe wrote the screenplay with Friedrich Damman. The film was shot in Potsdam at a military orphanage, in three weeks on a small budget. The real-life model for Manuela attended the film’s premiere.
Leontine Sagan began her career as an actress before moving into stage directing. She only directed three feature films, this one and two in England after she relocated there, but Mädchen in Uniform is the one on which her reputation stands. You’ll notice the often mobile camerawork – not as frequently mobile as that of her compatriot Max Ophüls, but certainly belying the reputation early talkies have for being static. Sagan also has a keen eye for facial closeups, a vehicle for the film’s considerable emotional impact.
Mädchen in Uniform premiered in Germany on 27 November 1931. It was a success, but its subject matter also provoked calls for censorship. In the US, it would have been banned if it had not been for the intervention of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. However, the film didn’t appear to trouble the British Board of Film Censors who gave it an A certificate (whether cut or uncut is not currently recorded on the BBFC database). Among its earliest audiences were several characters in Anthony Powell’s novel series A Dance to the Music of Time and presumably Powell himself. However, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, they set out to ban the “decadent” products of the Weimar era, including this film. They also sought to destroy all copies of it, but given its sales abroad that was impossible. The film was not shown in Germany again until a television broadcast in 1977.
The BFI’s release of Mädchen in Uniform is dual-format, a Blu-ray encoded for Region B only and a PAL DVD for Region 2. A checkdisc of the former was provided for review. The film carries a PG certificate. The original negative is lost and the film has been subject to cuts over the years. The version on this disc is the longest available – fifty-five metres (just over two minutes) shorter than the version which premiered in Berlin in 1931.
Shot on 35mm black and white film, Mädchen in Uniform is presented in the early-talkie ratio of 1.19:1. The transfer is based on a 2K scan and restoration from a nitrate duplicate positive with a missing scene reinserted from a duplicate negative. The results are excellent, with plenty of detail and filmlike grain. The facial close-ups are often soft-focused but that’s more to do with the filmmaking convention of the time than a fault with this transfer.
The soundtrack is the original mono, presented as LPCM 2.0. It is what you would expect from an early talkie, with not much in the way of dynamic range and quite a lot of treble, not only because all the voices we hear are female. English subtitles are available.
The commentary is by film historian Jenni Olson, newly recorded and maybe a late addition as it isn’t listed in the booklet with this release. Either way, it’s a thorough look at the film, beginning with the backgrounds of Christa Winsloe and Leontine Sagan (the former openly bisexual, the latter sexuality unknown though she did marry a man later in her life), and the film’s making and release and later suppression by the Nazis. As Olson is a specialist in queer theory, there is an emphasis on that aspect of the film, as you might expect. It’s an informative commentary, with my only quibble being that it overlaps quite a bit with other extras on this disc.
One of those is “Women and Sexuality in Weimar Cinema” (13:02), a visual essay by Chrystel Oloukoï with hard-of-hearing subtitles optionally available. This gives an overview of the two subjects of the title, separately or overlapping, as they are seen in the cinema of the period. While some of the films are familiar (Dietrich in The Blue Angel especially so), others certainly aren’t, so it’s good to see what Anders als den Andern, for example, looked like rather than simply what its subject matter was.
Mädchen in Uniform is the subject of The Kiss, a fourteen-part podcast series by Bibi Berki. This kind of deep-dive into film genres, or as in this case one film which can bear analysis such as this, is a field not over-represented as disc extras, so it’s welcome here. In fact, it’s just episodes seven to ten (21:38, 27:39, 26:42, 30:43 respectively, audio over stills), with a Play All option, but in-depth it certainly is. All fourteen episodes are available here.
Finally on the disc is “How to be a Woman”, a series of archival pieces not specific to the main feature but taking particular tangents from it, again with a Play All option. Tilly and the Fire Engines (2:26), from 1911, is another of the adventures of the anarchic teenaged Tilly (Alma Taylor) and her sister Sally (Chrissie White). If you are accosted by a strange man in the street, Hints and Hobbies No 11, from 1926, gives you some tips on how to defend yourself – “Hints to the Ladies on Jiu-Jitsu” (3:34), said martial art having become quite fashionable in the first quarter of the twentieth century. We move to India for a look at a missionary school in A Day at St. Christopher’s College (year unknown but mid-to-later twenties, given that the school was founded in 1923, 19:05). Although it is a school intended to educate young women, the message seems to be (in what was then British India) that submissiveness is the desired end result. Finally, 4 and 20 Fit Girls (11:22) is an inventive 1940 short by Mary Field promoting the virtues of exercise in wartime.
The BFI’s booklet, for the first pressing only, runs to thirty-two pages. It begins with an essay by So Mayer which is a useful discussion of the film itself, less about its background. For that, we have a biography of Leontine Sagan by Chrystel Oloukoï and one of Christa Winsloe by Bibi Berki. “Eric and Elsie” by Henry K. Miller is a look at the Academy Cinema in London’s Oxford Street: originally opened as The Picture House before taking its most famous name in 1928. The essay concentrates on its most famous managers, Eric Hakim and Elsie Cohen, under whom the venue became synonymous with arthouse cinema, especially European, establishing the reputations of many of the great names of the period. Its closure in 1986 marked the end of an era for arthouse distribution in the UK. Mädchen in Uniform was one of the Academy’s early successes, in the cinema’s first year under Cohen. There are also credits for the extras but instead of notes on the “How to Be a Woman” items, an article by Sarah Wood instead.