Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 12, 2020 11:15 am 
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Crushes and excessive indulgence at a girls' school in Weimar Germany

The chronologically second of the Kino Marquee trio of "Pioneers of Queer Cinema" films on offer June 12-25, 2020 is the opposite of the somber, sad drama of gay frustration, Michael, which is about the loneliness of a rich older artist misused and ignored by the young protégé he adores. That film is grand, sumptuous, and rather dark. This one, which concerns a sensitive girl sent to an all-girl boarding school who falls for a teacher, is bright, spare, and giddy. Based on the play (Then and Now by Christa Winsloe and adapted by her, it too is bold for its time. We're in the world of talkies now, and the noisy laughter of all the girls highlights one of the film's best features, its great ensemble work. The girls seem always to be running around, with some dramatic diagonal shots of them on the dramatically important, angular stairways, and their action is brilliantly choreographed. In a key early sequence, the camera pans around a locker room, discovering girls in various poses and actions. Often it follows them moving around in groups. Even in the mostly bright scenes, light and shadow are always artfully used.

This is the best known and most seen in repertory of the three: I heard about it a long time ago. The fun is about the end as the Weimar Republic gives way to the Nazis in two more years. In hindsight for us that's part of the giddy pleasure. It was to be long censored as well as overshadowed by von Sternberg's The Blue Angel/Der blaue Engel, and revived and restored in the 1970's.

The title seems to me deliberately misleading, conjuring up as it does titillating images of S&M bondage. In fact the girls' loose-fitting striped smocks and aprons aren't what you think of when you hear the title. It's said this is a critique of the excesses of "Prussian discipline." The headmistress Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden (Emilia Unda) tries to impose it; the adored teacher, Fraulein von Bernburg, played by Dorothea Wieck (everybody is a "von" here - it's a snooty school), breaks the rules all the time with the girls who all have a crush on her. The headmistress says the girls are children of Prussian officers, raised on "hunger, discipline and order." This is to justify the skimpy meals.

The focus is on Manuela von Meinhardis (Hertha Thiele), a new girl, sent there because her mother has died; she's half an orphan. She's very emotional and undisciplined; Pauline Kael calls her "willowy." By the luck of the draw, she gets assigned to Fraulein von Bernburg's dormitory, and when Fraulein goes down the line of beds at bedtime and bestows her usual kiss on each girls's forehead, on her first evening Manuela throws her arms around her. In return, she gets a kiss on the mouth. Manuela immediately falls madly in love and soon tells the Fraulein so. The Fraulein is very nice. Manuela gets the lead role when the girls put on a production of the play Don Carlos. She's harshly censored by the Headmistress when it's discovered she has tried to send a letter home complaining about the food.

Manuela is nonetheless around for the play and a great hit in it. At the after-party at which all the girls get deliriously drunk on some real punch (this time, the kitchen comes through) and Manuela proudly confesses that Fraulein von Bernburg has kindly given her some of her own underwear because hers was too worn. The Headmistress von Nordeck is scandalized, and von Bernburg is called on the carpet - but refuses, in action, to back down in her endless kindness to the girls. Even now, when she's in trouble herself, she remains close to Manuela.

But von Bernburg speaks of her being "cured." "Cured. . . of what?" Manuela asks.
"You're not allowed to love me in that way," says the Fraulein.

The girls's distress almost leads to tragedy, involving the stairway, whose dangerous potential we've already anticipated, but it's averted by the girls. Headmistress von Nordeck's slow descent of the stairway is very much a silent film moment. Manuela has really also been saved by a visit from the Princess, sponsor of the school, who turns out to have known Manuela's late mother, and asks specially to see her. With her new visibility, she's save from the Headmistress, after all. It's also clear in the later scenes that Manuela, who's been heralded as an excellent actress for playing Don Carlos, is capable of being manipulative, and her weeping and swoons are drama.

Pauline Kael in her summary comments that while von Burnberg's "special consideration" toward Manuela is "ambiguous and certainly sensual," but "is not viewed as decadent, or even naughty; she appears to be on the side of the liberal, humanitarian angels, yet she is unmistakably lesbian. " Kael points out this is "one of the few occasions in history when a woman writer's material has also been directed by a woman." And adapted. And it's a film without a single man in evidence, even when the Princess comes to visit.

Mädchen in Uniform is bold in its treatment of lesbian feelings, but notable for its moderation. The usual hostilities and dangers of boarding school stories are avoided, or downplayed. The Headmistress is certainly severe, but not a monster. Fraulein von Bernburg is indulgent, but she imposes discipline on Manuela too. This film, in Kael's words again, is "always described as sensitive, and it is; it's also a rather loaded piece of special pleading." This time there is a New York Times contemporary review of a new foreign film that that was extremely sympathetic and approving. Mordaunt Hall, the paper's first regularly assigned film reviewer, from 1924-1934, wrote this was "a film which pleases the eye constantly, for one envisions not only the characters, but also their surroundings, whether they are in halls, rooms or in a garden." And this is true.

Mädchen in Uniform, 87 mins., released in Germany Nov. 27, 1931. It had a complicated history, with censorship and even the Nazis' effort to burn all existing prints (there were prints abroad, so it was saved, but it wasn't seen again here in its full version till the 1970's. For full information see the detailed Wikipedia article, Madchen in Uniform. Screened for this review as part of Kino Marquee's June 12-25 "Pioneers of Queer Cinema" virtual theater release of three early German films, also including the 1924 silent Michael and Reinhold Schünzel's 1933 Victor and Victoria.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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