Like Gray Gardens, Eat the Document, and Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story, Mädchen in Uniform is one of those rare films whose only availability in the pre-Internet days came through the grainy bootleg copies that film buffs passed around hand to hand. Examples of female directors from the Weimar years are almost non-existent. The first one often discussed is the technically-gifted, politically-clueless Leni Riefenstahl, an actor until 1932’s The Blue Light, her directorial debut. She is of course better known for aggrandizing the Nazi rally at Nuremberg in her Triumph of the Will (1935) and was handpicked by Hitler to accompany the Wehrmacht into the invasion of Poland to get action footage for newsreels; the first “objective” embedded journalist I suppose.
Luckily, for a little leftist balance, we have Leontine Sagan. Sagan started her career with Max Reinhardt, acting and directing for the stage before turning her attention, albeit briefly, to filmmaking. Of the two feature films she directed, Mädchen in Uniform (1931) is her only surviving work, released just at the launch of German sound film; and while not as sonically groundbreaking as Fritz Lang’s M, it nevertheless stands as a great achievement from that difficult transitional period and pushes boundaries in other areas.
Upon release, Mädchen in Uniform was a huge success in Germany and the most acclaimed film by a woman director to date. It also sold well in most countries that chose to import it, although an initial U.S. ban was purportedly only lifted after the direct intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt. Part of its German popularity surely stems from its being an adaptation from a novel, The Child Manuela by Christa Winsloe, which is based on her own boarding school experiences. While it remains unclear how Sagan was brought on board to direct, the film is one of those rare occasions where both director and screenwriter were women, as was virtually the entire cast. Since Sagan had zero experience in filmmaking, the experienced director Carl Froelich was brought on board to supervise the technical aspects and act as a “consultant.” To this day his influence on the film is still a point of considerable debate among film historians, particularly with regard to how much pressure he exerted on the narrative. Feminist film theorists tend to undermine any positive contribution, or at least remain leery of his intentions, while actors like Hertha Thiele later sang his praises and offered belated insights into the onset dynamics between the cast, Sagan, Winsloe, and Froelich.
Looking back on the film’s critical readings, one sees an interesting shift through the decades. In 1931, while the underlying homosexual overtones were noted and commented upon, this was not seen as a particularly important aspect of the story, at least with regard to media attention. Perhaps this had much to do with context, given the over-the-top sexual liberation of Weimar Berlin, where a suppressed love affair between headmaster and pupil would have been quaint compared to Marlene Dietrich’s raunchy performance in The Blue Angel, the film that took the LGBT subculture in Berlin by storm, according to Hertha Thiele. Hence, until the 1960s, scholarship and critical reception focused almost exclusively on the film’s indictment of Prussian militarism and its dehumanizing and destructive influence upon German society, which was by far a greater concern among the nation’s cultural cognoscenti. Thiele says that this was also the narrative angle emphasized by Froelich, despite his later collaboration with the Nazi Party.
But times, and interpretations, change. And today, first and foremost, Mädchen in Uniform is seen as a landmark moment in lesbian filmmaking, not only because of its content, but also because of the team responsible for its creation, with the openly-lesbian Winsloe and somewhat-more-closeted Sagan overseeing all stages of the creative process. It was a fleeting moment not to be repeated by either of them. The following year, Sagan co-directed a watered-down male version for British audiences, Men of Tomorrow, an odd title given its retrograde ideals. She later moved to South Africa and directed for the stage for the next forty years. Winsloe’s end is more tragic: near the end of World War II, she was murdered in a French forest for “associating” with a suspected collaborationist. The four Frenchmen who murdered them said that they thought the two women were Nazi spies; Winsloe, a staunch anti-fascist with Communist leanings, was anything but. All four were acquitted of any crime.
As for the actors, the success of the film resulted in the hugely-popular teaming of Hertha Thiele – Dorthea Wieck being joined again for Carl Froelich’s Anna und Elisabeth (1933), where they again played lovers, albeit ultimately punished for their transgressions at the film’s end. More notably, Thiele had a significant role in Bertolt Brecht’s radically-progressive Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World? (1932). Although the Nazis had already banned most of the films in which she starred, Goebbels approached Thiele with an offer to work for the Party’s propaganda machine, to which she famously declared “I do not switch direction every time the wind blows,” and shortly thereafter left for Switzerland, where she remained for many years, working in medicine.
When interviewed shortly before her death in 1984, Thiele said that she still received fan letters weekly, not from her then-current television work in West Germany, but from new generations of lesbians deeply affected by her anguished performance as Manuela from fifty years before.