there should’ve always been a category in the oscars for films you thoroughly enjoyed despite having had such low expectations coming into it. Mädchen in Uniform would have won that award for the year 1958. and if i could grossly abbreviate this film’s plot in terms of The Sound of Music (1965): it’s that but with less singing, altogether more german, and altogether more gay. these differences are, in my opinion, tremendous improvements on The Sound of Music. even their stories are similar, it’s quite possible Mädchen in Uniform was one of the guiding inspirations for that musical—at least for production design, and especially for costume design.
it’s a simple story that begins when Manuela (romy schneider) an upper class, recently orphaned fifteen-year-old girl, is unwillingly enlisted into a strict prussian boarding school in potsdam (on the border of berlin). the stringencies of religious fervour that might discipline a nunnery is instead portrayed as a secular convent ruled by the twinship of an obsessive fastidiousness and a domineering matriarchal order—at the apex of which is the portly and huskily rotund headmistress (therese giehse).
this month marks the 60th anniversary of the film’s release and it is a compliment to it’s aesthetic identity that it has aged well. though the same can’t be said about its subject matter—lesbian love as a taboo—which remains elevant in most places not in the western hemisphere, and even then...
this 1958 production is a remake of a film by the same name made in 1931 (directed by leontine sagan) which was itself based on a play that debuted in 1930 under the title Gestern und Morgen—this play was then turned into a novel in 1933 under the title Das Mädchen Manuela.
at just over 90 minutes, the story is monothematic and makes little room for a subplot. the arc of Manuela’s development benefits from this one-track storytelling. her confessions of love are sudden and abbreviated, too many interruptions by subplots would have made her climactic confession less believable and, even worse, inexplicable. the isolation of the boarding school too helped focus our attention on the rigidity of this disciplinary order as a microcosmic hint at the larger german society over which a more demanding—and more flamboyant—patriarchal cultural hegemony held its tight grip. it would as well have been much more difficult to maintain an all-female cast without an isolated setting.
despite this isolation, and especially because of the expositional monologues delivered by the headmistress, there are intimations all throughout of the consequences of a cultural obsession with a terrible standard of neatness in all matters, including emotions. simultaneously, there is a mute constraint in the film’s reference to the rising approval of the reichstag that must have been popular just beyond the school’s gate at that time (the story is set at the end of the 19th century). nevertheless the allusions to the persecutions perpetrated by nazi germans (of which homosexuals where an official category) hung over every significant dialogue throughout the film.
(romy schneider)———romy schneider’s performance in the lead role (of an all-female cast btw) was a revelation. her Manuela is soft, bombastic, at times harsh, sharp eyed, but timid and effusive in the presence of her crush, yet in every other scene her face is seemingly only moments away from a wicked and knowing smirk. at the film’s climax, Manuela is in drag as Romeo—surrounded by a flock of Juliets!—and her masculine and boyish charm is let loose. to get a sense of how brave this german film from 1958 was: she comes out to the headmistress, in front of the whole school, whilst in her Romeo drag and also intoxicated—hot damn! in potsdam, i dare say.
as usual when i discover a brilliant actor, i rush to their iMDb page to begin my new obsession—i learned to my surprise that this was actually the second film with romy schneider that i saw in the month of august. earlier that month watched orson welles’ 1962 film The Trial, starring anthony perkins and jeanne moreau—and a list of disposable characters who materialize in and out of this dreamscape of a film. one of those characters was romy schneider’s Leni, an assistant/attendant to a man known as ‘the advocate’ (played conveniently by orson himself). it’s an older character than Manuela, one that speaks a fluent but accented english. her performance as Leni had the same biting stare and hinting smile as Manuela—and it’s remarkable that her portrayal of seduction is as convincing with a woman as with a man (in this case, anthony perkins’ bumbling and bewildered Josef K).
it is also remarkable that an artist like her is able to master their craft in more than one language and social arena. the likes of solveig dommartin (Wings of Desire) come to mind, and are a breed of transatlantic actors whose talent surpasses any one film industry. save for a few exceptions (juliette binoche, marion cotillard, ) we don’t have much of that kind of multinationally dynamic artistry in the film world as much as in the previous century.
(forgive me, first love)———i’m also reminded by this film of the much more recent depiction of lesbian love/coming of age in abdellatif kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013). (not about to mount my sjw soap box here, but can that please be the last film about lesbians made by a man. that’d be great). Manuela reminds me very much of Adele (adele exarchopoulos), they share that same intoxicating infatuation with their older love interest—though Adele enjoys much more success at reciprocity.
there is as well in both films, especially in Blue is the Warmest Colour, a celebration of the humanism inherent in discovering one’s sexual identity. the sexual revelations are simultaneous with aesthetic revelations; aside from all the blue, and the comically awkward sex scenes, abdellatif’s film was also an aesthetic education, with topics ranging from bob marley to jean paul sartre’s ideas on chance. the one direct instance of an aesthetic education in Mädchen in Uniform was a scene wherein a gang of three girls, Manuela included, make a trip to an abandoned shed to take a very brief peek at a rendition of botticelli’s The Birth of Venus—her nudity was the tantalizing subject of discourse.
(that terrible neatness, that terrible headmistress)———Mädchen is also a sentimental salt lick for those who can still recall their formative private school days. i was raised in a private school in a small village-town on the southwest coast of nigeria. one that was modelled on the british public school system with all its pomp and artifice, though with very little of actual cultivation. the spirit of the curriculum was seemingly to train you for life elsewhere, in case you ever manage to make it out of nigeria. and the facade of this curriculum was a lousy replica of the mannerisms which the british exported to us on horseback: prefect this, headmaster that. you were scolded if: your hair was unkempt, high white socks were anything less than angelic, or any sustained imperfections on your checkered red and white uniform with its blue sailor’s bib. of course this ‘scolding’ was at every opportunity an orgiastically executed flogging.
these mannerisms, namely the terrible neatness which it espouses, are the centrepiece of the film’s production design: from Fraulein Van Bernburg’s impossibly corseted torso to the perfectly tensioned braids of her tucked and buttoned student body. these fastidious mannerisms, and the hypocrisy of the brutality which its underbely perpetuates, is as well the subject of terence davies’s film Children (1976). in it he meditates on memories from his childhood growing up in liverpool and attending a strict private school, with all the attendant meanness suffered by a queer adolescent boy coming of age in the 40’s.
more recently, nicholas hytner’s The History Boys (2006) is in that same family of films. it’s topics range from pedophilia in the faculty to the miseducation perpetuated by the public school system’s obsession with the headcount of students accepted to either oxford or cambridge university.
(in summa summarum)———i give this film 8.14 taut braids out of 10 bloated and myopic headmistresses.