Try Eine Kleine Tenderness… MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM Reviewed.

BD / DVD. BFI. Regions B/2. PG.

“You may forget but let me tell you this, someone in some future time will think of us… ” Sappho (620-570 bc), from The Art Of Loving Women.

Mädchen in Uniform could easily have been dreamed up by The Poetess herself, on the original Love Island of Lesbos and its themes would fit comfortably into a movie released in 2021 (though one doubts that any such picture could be anything like as compelling). In fact it dates back 90 years to the fertile flux of the Weimar Republic, when Germany was teaching Hitchcock, Hollywood and everybody else how to make films…

Having recently lost her mother, 14 year old Manuela von Meinhardis (Hertah Thiele) is deposited by her Aunt in a strict girls’ boarding school, an establishment dedicated to grinding out compliant wives for Prussia’s ruling military caste. She gets a pretty friendly welcome from her new dormitory mates, who warn her against a) climbing the imposing central staircase and b) falling in love with Frau von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck), the beautiful, kindly teacher on whom they’ve developed a massive collective crush. Troubled Manuela thrives under the nurturing care of von Bernburg (whose goodnight kisses seem to suggest a particular fondness for her) and she’s ecstatic when the teacher gifts her one of her undergarments. After a successful school production of Schiller’s Don Carlos, plenty of punch having been consumed, Manuela tipsily and loudly declares her great love and her belief that it’s reciprocated. Unfortunately this is overheard by one of the crusty old staff members, who relays news of it to the formidable Principal (Emilia Unda). She carpets von Bernberg, who accepts the inevitability of resignation but protests: “What you call Sin, I call the great spirit of Love, which takes a thousand forms”. Devastated, Manuela climbs that staircase with the intention of jumping from the top…

This enchanting film was adapted from Christa Winslow’s autobiographical stage play Gestern Und Heute (“Yesterday And Today”), its cast mostly made up of actors (notably Thiele) who had already trodden the boards performing it. With audition and rehearsal time thus minimised, it was (astonishingly) shot over a period scarcely exceeding three weeks and co-operatively funded. Predictably, most of its participants / investors went empty handed as the film’s popularity took off around the world. You’ll scour the (all female) cast in vain for a bad performance but undoubtedly much of that international success was down to the onscreen chemistry between Wieck (for whom Hitler himself reportedly had the hots) and Thiele. Offscreen, these actresses (who were actually both 23 when the film was shot) didn’t get on so well. The appeal of Thiele’s performance, all soulful eyes and heart convincingly worn on her sleeve, is patently obvious but it’s Wieck’s von Bernburg who becomes the cynosure of our fascinated attention. In a milieu of suppressed (to the point of hysteria) homoeroticism, we can only speculate on where she personally draws the demarcation lines between duty, compassion and passion. Although the film never descends into exploitive prurience, vB’s attempts to discourage her young admirers are so weedy, they’re tantamount to encouraging an itch that can never legitimately be scratched and (as Sappho also said): “What cannot be said will be wept”.

Dorothea Wieck

Mädchen in Uniform takes the commonplace Sturm und Drang of unfulfilled romantic yearning and inserts it into a pivotal historical moment, when Germany had a choice (much like the one facing us today) between renewed nationalism and militarism and a more humane, open and inclusive society… and took a wrong turn. The arch humanist Schiller seems to be an odd choice for a performance in Emilia Unda’s authoritarian establishment, which in real life was the Potsdam Military Orphanage, founded by Frederick The Great (and came with oodles of inbuilt atmosphere, plus the requisite staircase) but how better to illustrate the conflicting tendencies nestling cheek by jowl in the German psyche? The symbolism of the stern old headmistress slinking away into the shadows is clear enough (“a better world is possible”) but we we all know how things actually turned out and the girls stripy uniforms would be given an unfortunate unintended retrospective resonance within a decade. In reality the makers of this film had no more chance of influencing the catastrophic events that were about to unfold than Sappho and her students had of averting the rise of the Tyrants, the Persian incursions or the Peloponnesian War…

… ah yes, the makers of this film. Here lies the rub for those who have championed Mädchen In Uniform as a clarion call for inclusivity and acceptance while cheerfully writing its co-director Carl Froelich (and his male assistants) out of the story. Bibi Berki’s podcast series, pointedly entitled The Kiss – The Women Who Made A Movie Masterpiece (several episodes of which are included among the bonus materials here) does mention Froelich but wastes no time demoting him from co-director to producer (contradicting Thiele’s own reminiscences) and seeming to suggest that he wanted to turn the film into something a bit saucier (as though there’s some kind of link between it and Wolf C. Hartwig’s titillating Schulmädchen-Report series from the 1970s). While this might fit Berki’s feminist take on MIU, there’s little in Froelich’s subsequent filmography to lend the notion any credence. Similarly, when we peruse the further screen-directing credits of the other credited (and Berki’s favoured) director, Leontine Sagan, we find that she made just two more films and on each she worked with a co-director (each of whom happened to be a man). However this gels or fails to gel with Berki’s grand theory, the weight of the evidence suggests that Sagan and Froelich directed the film together, that she predominantly directed the players and he was mostly concerned with the film’s technical aspects… a collaboration which worked splendidly. Is Froelich dismissed because of his gender or did he become infra dig because he later threw in his film making lot with Goebbels? Worth remembering that Sagan herself wasn’t exactly beyond reproach in this context, concluding her theatrical career in Apartheid-era South Africa.

Lest we forget…

I’ve no room or inclination here to pursue arguments about Exceptionalism and “separating the Art from The Artist”. Suffice to say, if you can manage that separation, Mädchen In Uniform emerges as, obviously, “a milestone in Queer Cinema” but more than that, as an exquisitely beautiful film. There are times when the jaded hack has to lay aside their trusty critical tools and the only possible reaction to the film he (or she) is watching is to swoon! Does that make me sound like a big girl’s blouse? If you don’t get it, then I take it you’ve never enjoyed / endured the raptures / miseries attendant on remotely adoring another human being… for which you have my sincerest commiserations / congratulations.

Other supplementary materials include an audio commentary by film historian Jenni Olson, Chrystel Oloukoï’s video essay Women and Sexuality in Weimar Cinema and “a selection of treasures from the BFI National Archive to charm and delight”, a nifty collection of shorts comprising Tilly And The Fire Engines (1911), Hints And Hobbies No.11: Hints To The Ladies On Jiu-Jitsu (1926), Day At St. Christopher’s College And School (c. 1920s) and 4 And 20 Fit Girls (1940)… anyone who forks out for Mädchen In Uniform in the misguided hope of onanistic accompaniment will find the latter as bemusing as he finds the main feature. The first pressing only comes with an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by So Mayer, Chrystel Oloukoï, Bibi Berki, Henry K Miller and Sarah Wood.

Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Reviews | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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