We continue our look back at older films with a trip to 1931, and the quietly impactful Madchen In Uniform.
Spoilers lie ahead for Madchen In Uniform
“What you call sin, I call the great spirit of love. It takes on a thousand forms.”
This line from Leontine Sagan’s 1931 film Mädchen In Uniform feels as though it is forged in every coming-of-age love story. After all, when has love ever felt more pure and powerful, more foolish, and furious, more abundant and adulating than that of your teenage years? That dizzying time of young love and anguish is caught perfectly in Sagan’s work.
Based on the play Yesterday And Today by Chris Winsloe, who also wrote the screenplay, Mädchen In Uniform revolves around Manuela, a young girl who is sent to a religious boarding school in German, run by the iron-fisted Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden. During the day girls are disciplined, marching not too dissimilarly to the military as they are coldly handled. Yet at night, teacher Fräulein von Bernburg treats the girls with the compassion that they so crave. Manuela finds herself falling in love immediately and the film explores this.
You can instantly tell that Mädchen In Uniform is directed by a woman. There are simple touches of femininity and girlhood here that feel enduring. This 90-year old movie has not aged or become outdated because Sagan really masters portraying the young women as universal as possible.
It works from its opening, which really establishes the characters such as the rowdy head-strong Ilse, an immediate friend to Manuela. She takes her on a whirlwind tour of the school and students, especially their sexual appetites and their secrets. Of course, whilst they aren’t as explicitly shown as today’s films would, it is unbridled, giggling curiosity. They talk about actors they fancy, building shrines to those perceived celebrity soulmates. They swap tales and letters about boys they fancy, even marking themselves with their lovers’ initials. Under the pillows, they store saucy stories and graphic sexual images. In short, the girls are simply girls, with all the chaotic emotions heightened.
Later on, a changing room scene sees the girls examine their bodies together. They are never truly mean-spirited. In fact, they poke fun at a more buxom girl in their gaggle, only to exclaim “what a body!” with utmost glee. There is prudent examination, pouring over beauty magazines as they preen themselves in the fashion of today. Of course, the only way they can do so whilst trapped in their uniforms is through hairstyles and accessories. Not all of them, mind, there are a fair few crazed haired and sloppy girls that I could completely relate too.
What’s most prominent, a deftly captured here, is the development of Manuela’s crush on the teacher. Rumours of how most fall in love with the younger teacher von Bernburg swirl around Manuela upon her arrival. Yet it is when the two heroines meet for the first time, two pairs of beautiful glistening eyes come face to face, that Manuela instantly understands. The connection is palpable as the girl throws her arms around the teacher, embracing von Bernburg who suddenly returns the gesture with a quick kiss.
This crush drives Manuela – through joy and pain – as she tries desperately the earn the attention of von Bernburg and is slighted when it isn’t given. Or worse, returned in scorn and punishment. Hertha Thiele brilliantly portrays this wide-eyed awakening, moving with deep joy and bright, glimmering eyes that shimmer with obsession and yearning.
Though in adulthood, we now note how fleeting this fiery feeling really is, we also know that its ashes and smoke live within us forever. We never truly forget. That is what is so wonderfully portrayed here, causing my stomach to instantly turn with those memories of past crushes and lost relationships.
“Cured? Of what?”
Mädchen In Uniform may capture exquisitely the hazy, drunken-like fawning of young women but it also captures the intensity and pain of the falling afterwards.
Those feelings of love and adoration are tarred with shame and punishment as Manuela, and eventually, von Bernburg, try to fight against their sexuality and attraction in an oppressive situation. Though the illicit feelings von Bernburg has for Manuela can feel uneasy in a modern setting, Sagan handles the older woman’s burgeoning crush with sensitivity and understanding. Dorothea Wieck is great at portraying this also; a woman who, for many reasons, cannot completely let go though it is what she preaches.
“Manuela is not a bad person,” one of her classmates declares as Manuela is forced into isolation away from her peers because she dares to love a woman.
The final scene is, thus, a damning portrait of tradition and repression. The headmistress Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden turns solemnly to a staircase filled with the criticizing eyes of students; girls who, through their compassion, have thwarted a tragedy. Judgement has passed: it is clear that her time is passing. Her walk, as stony silent as the walls that now envelop her, can be observed as a gallows’ walk, especially as with the trumpeting score marking her doldrum state. Rather than her own neck being on the line, however, it is that of her archaic beliefs and her stagnating generation still laced in the bondage of their corsets and traditions.
Sagan constantly contrasts the squally students with the stuffy staff. At a time where attitudes were changing rapidly, Sagan’s film marks the tempestuous young women who were turning tides just by daring to be free, frivolous, and in love. The girls wear freer garments with lighter colours to showcase their innocence. Their giggles echo throughout the halls, their cheers disturb solemn dinners, and their secrets leave cracks in the stone. Sagan utilises the school like a pious jail. In some scenes, the shadows of the bannisters and metallic grate feel framed with an air of expressionism – like twisted claws of the society encaging them all. Yet it can never imprison the soul and spirit of our titular students.
Mädchen In Uniform stands firm alongside coming of age stories of more recent years such as Moonlight (2018) or The Miseducation Of Cameron Post (2018), especially in LGBT cinema. Sagan’s work here feels strikingly universal, capturing that universal of growing up with a thousand feelings rushing around and within you.
Most importantly, Mädchen In Uniform shows that whilst older generations may still supress, it is through the will and strength the youth that progress is made.
Mädchen In Uniform was huge in Berlin cabaret and night clubs but was eclipsed by Joseph von Sternburg’s The Blue Angel; a film that launched Marlene Dietrich to stardom – but more on that next time. It is available on DVD & Blu-Ray and is also on the BFIPlayer now.
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