Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Addictively Haunting Persona of Leontine Sagan's '31 Proto-Lesbian Masterpiece Maedchen in Uniform

The following is my humble contribution to Garbo Laughs' Queer Film Blogathon.  And as fair warning, there may be spoilers ahead, for those who care about such things - ye have been warned.

Sure, Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel and Morocco, both starring the ever-iconic Marlene Deitrich may have come before it, and yes, there were several other bigger-named gay and lesbian themed films out in Germany prior to this, such as Dreyer's Michael, Pabst's Pandora's Box and of course William Dieterle's Sex in Chains, but still such an all-out, no hidden meanings kind of pro-lesbian movie as Leontine Sagan's Maedchen in Uniform was not exactly what one would call the norm in the Weimer Period German Cinema.  Once Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power though, such cinema, as living in the edges as it most certainly was, would be as they say, completely verboten, as the Nazi regime banned Maedchen in Uniform (and many others) as decadent.  Luckily for film lovers the world over, even though the Nazi's had destroyed all the prints they could find, several had already been sent overseas and thus would survive to be seen again.

The film was actually a groundbreaking work of cinematic art.  Sagan's use of employing an all female cast and her sympathetic views toward lesbian pedagogical eros (the name given to erotic attraction and/or love between a teacher and a pupil by German education reformer and free thinker Gustav Wyneken) revolving around the passionate love of a fourteen year old boarding school student for her teacher (and reciprocation of such so-called unspoken love) easily explain the cult following Maedchen in Uniform received in Germany, and eventually much of the world - even after Hitler's eventual banning and attempted destruction of the film (or more likely, partly because of such).

Maedchen in Uniform (or Maidens in Uniform if you will), adapted from Christa Winsloe's play Gestern und heute, is the story of a Potsdam boarding school for the daughters of poor Prussian officers who belong nevertheless to the aristocracy.  The all-girls school is run with the proverbial iron fist by its headmistress, its newest pupil, the sensitive Manuela, unable to fit into its structure as well as the other girls becoming the film's tragic heroine.  It is in this dynamic that the film takes on its most daring denunciation.  It is in this daring denunciation that we see the criticism of authoritative bevaviour by allowing us in turn, to see how such behaviour can destroy a young girl's mind.

The noted film theorist and social critic Siegfried Kracauer, in his famous (some would say infamous) book From "Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film", said of Maedchen in Uniform, "The film expresses the devastating effects of Prussianism upon a sensitive young girl." and then goes on to say that she "suffers intensely under a rule alien to her tender and imaginative nature."  It is Manuela's desire to be loved and her intense love for her teacher that is forced into suppression by this aforementioned alien rule and ends up destroying the poor, bewildered young girl.

When Manuela first arrives at the school and she hears all the girls speak of their intense love for Fraulein von Bernburg, the young girl listens with rapt attention at the possible pleasures lying ahead of her.  It is upon their first meeting and then the subsequent good night kiss the Fraulein gives to each of her girls but which becomes more intense in Manuela's case, that this innocent girl becomes rapturously consumed by the as-of-yet-unknown passion roiling up inside of her.  Yet it is not just Manuela's sudden and matter-of-fact love for her teacher (this daring love is never even questioned as odd by anyone but the aforementioned figureheads of authority) but also her teacher's just-as-sudden love for her young pupil that is at the heart of this film.

But daring storyline and social consciousness aside, it is the two lead actresses that make the film reach the intense and gothic romantic passionate ultra-realism that it most certainly does reach.  The beautiful Hertha Thiele as Manuela was described by Kracauer as a "unique compound of sweet innocence, illusory fears and confused emotions."  Her intense performance with the older but still with a twinge of lost innocence Dorothea Wieck, (her sharpened features seemingly created by God as an enticing siren song of sorts) is not only some of the bravest acting this critic has seen in film history (and yes, that is a damn bold statement!) but also some of the most tragically emotional as well.  It is this combination of bravura acting, brilliantly subtle mise-en-scene and darkly foreshadowed leitmotif that make this film one of the most memorable works of cinematic art of the early sound period.

Maedchen in Uniform is a film that was not only a sign of its times as they say, (the free-thinking Germany prior to the uprising of the Nazi Party) but also a film way ahead of said times.  To prove this timelessness in a way, the film was remade in France in 1939, in Spain in 1951, again in Germany in 1958 (probably the most well-known version) and then by the BBC in 1967 (not to mention the numerous "loosely based upon" versions throughout the years).  Beautiful and haunting, it is certainly a film this critic will never forget (subject matter or not, a stunning work of cinematic art) and a film that will always have a special place in Gay & Lesbian film history.


Stephanie Barbe Hammer said...

great write-up. a gorgeous movie, that everyone should check out, and keep an eye out for the play within a play, by wonderful queer-though-he-didn't-know-it, Storm and Stress German playwright Friedrich Schiller.

Kevyn Knox said...

Thank you. Yes, of what you speak is one of the highlights of an already highlight-filled film.

Caroline said...

Lovely review of a gorgeous movie. I agree with you that the acting is what really makes this film unforgettable, in addition to the beautiful cinematography. Thank you so much for contributing to the blogathon!

Kevyn Knox said...

It was my pleasure. I have only read a portion of the other contributors so far (but will get to all of them asap) but this seems to be shaping up to be a pretty impressive blogathon indeed.