Saturday, 26 January 2013

Weimar Lesbian exposé ? Mädchen in Uniform

Mädchen in Uniform (1931) is one of the great classics of Weimar film. Beautifully framed and shot, it's a work of art in sheer visual terms. But even more importantly, it was the first major film to depict lesbian love. Whatever your orientation, though, this film is so good it needs to be seen by everyone: it's a key moment in film and social history.

The script was written by Christa Winsloe, who also wrote the original play the film is based on. Winsloe was also openly gay, and circulated in avant garde circles in Munich and Berlin in the liberal days before 1933. It's partly autobiographical, since Winsloe was herself a motherless child incarcerated in a disciplinarian Prussian school. Boys were sent to military schools like this from an early age, so the story could apply just as well to men as to women.  One thinks of Frederck the Great, brutalized by his father, his artistic soul turned to steel.

The school is run by a tough old headmistress. Perhaps she was traumatized herself by the kind of society that placed duty, honour and self-sacrifice above all else. The girls wear strange uniforms and are subject to constant rules and inspections. Nonetheless, their natural vivacity wins out. They play, intrigue and concoct plans to beat the system. Into this milieu comes Manuela von Meinhardis (played by Herta Thiele), who is sensitive and dreamy. Desperate for any kind of affection, she falls hopelessly in love with a teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck) who shows her a little basic kindness. This story could apply to any unhappy, neglected child, even without the lesbian context.  When I first saw the film in its post-war release, I didn't pick up the gay connotations at all. Even the notorious kiss scene came over as perfectly natural, which is as it should be.

Christa Winsloe's original play ends with Manuela's suicide. In the film, Manuela is rescued by her classmates as she hangs over the precipice over the staircase, which resembles a "well of loneliness", though Winsloe's play long predated Radclyffe Hall's novel of that name. While Fräulein von Bernburg in the play dares not stand up to the system, in the film she defies the headmistress and makes the keynote statement "What you call sin, I call the great spirit of love, which takes a thousand forms".

The reason for the change isn't because the film was produced by a man, as is sometimes suggested, but because the film was part of the socio-political aesthetic of Weimar cinema. Winsloe sanctioned the change to emphasize the difference between the values of the past and the "new" German spirit.  The producer, Carl Froelich, later became a Nazi, but the star Herta Thiele, associated with Berholt Brecht and Ernst Busch. She's the star of the socialist flagship movie Kuhle Wampe (1933)  (full download here) with music by Hanns Eisler. Thus, in line with socalist idealism,  Manuela is saved by her comrades and justice prevails. If only real life was as straightforward.

Hanns Eisler's music for Kuhle Wampe is so brilliant that it almost eclipses the film. I'll write more about it later, but there's quite a bit about Eisler on this site. The music for Mädchen in Uniform was written by Hansom Milde-Meißner, a name that rings bells but I can't track on Google (which is NOT a substitute for real learning). The music is atmospheric, evoking the bells of Potsdam, military trumpets and mysterious undercurrents. Listen to the final scene, where the headmistress walks away from Fräulein von Bernburg and her defiant outburst. The old lady is dignified, walking stiffly and slowly down a corridor. But the music goes berserk, wavering madly. Will the headmistress crack up, or will she further suppress her instincts and those whom she controls?

There is a remake of  Mädchen in Uniform from 1958, starring Romy Schneider. It's pretty good, but softer focus. The girls in the 1931 version stage Schiller's Don Carlos, while the girls in 1958 stage Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps this says something about the decline of modern popular culture. Good, well-educated Prussians would have realized what Don Carlos meant. Tyranny and the theme of thwarted love, absolutely the theme of Mädchen in Uniform.

If you like this read Franziska zu Reventlow, Queen of the Munich Secession,  Gay Salomé 1923,
Das blaue Licht -Leni Riefenstahl . Kuhle Wampe - full download and lots more on early Weimar film.

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