Saturday, May 11, 2013


Like the U.S., Germany had a "pre-Code" period of film production. They call it the Weimar Republic, and the repression that followed was considerably more sweeping than what befell America. During Weimar Germany was part of the global vanguard of cinema, and plenty of envelopes were pushed. One of the last milestones of the Weimar era was history's reputed first-ever "lesbian" film, Leontine Sagan and Carl Froelich's Mädchen in Uniform. For screenwriter Christa Winsloe, this was just the latest of many titles for her play, which started life as "Yesterday and Today" and morphed into "Sickness of Love" before acquiring its more familiar fetishistic label. The 1931 film survived Nazi suppression and its name endured enough in memories that there was probably no alternative to using the same title when Geza von Radvanyi remade the story in 1958. The uniforms are school uniforms, of course, but on first hearing the title you might expect something more military, and that impression wouldn't be entirely accidental. We first see the students of the film's girls' school marching in formation, and the faculty emphasizes repeatedly that the girls are being trained to be the wives and mothers of soldiers. That doesn't exactly make them Spartan women but it does impose a perhaps-unnatural discipline on the girls. Whether or not the definitive title implies that the militaristic discipline, not to mention the all-female environment, has something to do with Manuela von Meinhardis's dangerous attraction to her teacher Fraulein von Bernburg is open to question, but the story definitely looks like a critique of Prussian culture in general.

I've never seen the original film, and I can't say whether the remake is toned down the way a 1958 Hollywood film might be toned down from a Pre-Code original. But whatever your expectations might be for a "lesbian" film, the Radvanyi version comes across as little more than an adolescent crush. Manuela (Romy Schneider) is sent to boarding school after the death of her beloved mother. She's looking for another mother figure, and perhaps more, when she encounters von Bernburg (Lilli Palmer). She's not alone in her idolization of the stylish schoolmarm, who endears herself to the students by kissing each one of them on the forehead at bedtime. She feels she's getting special attention, however, when the teacher lends her a shift; Manuela sleeps with her head on top of the thing, while a slightly older student seethes with jealousy.

I've just taken a look at the 1931 movie and in the equivalent scene there Bernburg kisses Manuela on the lips. Not so here. Score one for Pre-Code German cinema.

Whatever Manuela's feeling is channeled in an alarming direction when she's cast as Romeo in the class production of the Shakespeare play. From what we see, the play's not only translated but bowdlerized, since it ends with Romeo and Juliet wed. It's a triumph for Manuela that turns to disaster as, intoxicated by both artistic success and spiked punch, she avows her love for von Bernberg in front of a scandalized faculty before passing out.

The remake creates a sentimental tragic mood from the beginning with Manuela's visit to her mother's grave, while a heartbreaking hymn plays constantly on the school's carillon. The very architecture of the school foreshadow's Manuela's fate. The main hall is dominated by a central staircase that winds up at least four floors. From the moment Manuela first looks over the railing to the floor far below, you anticipate someone taking the short way down. The payoff comes after Manuela is disciplined for her outburst and von Bernburg prepares to leave the school. Radvanyi milks the moment for every drop of suspense. Manuela sits dejected near the bottom of the stairs and looks upward to the top railing. The camera follows her all the way up the stairs as the soundtrack adds a sinister undertone to the carillon theme. Then what?

Not for this film the lethal catharsis of Hollywood's near-contemporary contemplation of lesbian attraction in The Children's Hour. While Manuela apparently takes the dive in Winsloe's original play, the Radvanyi film has a thuddingly anticlimactic wrap-up. Von Bernburg holds Manuela's attention long enough for her classmates to pull her off the railing. As she recovers in hospital, the stern headmistress softens and urges Von Bernburg to stay on, but the teacher refuses, arguing that she would only be an obstacle to Manuela's maturation. She leaves and that's the end. It leaves you wondering what the moral was, or if there is one. Palmer gives a necessarily enigmatic performance, while the 20 year old Schneider, already a star thanks to a series of films about Empress Elizabeth of Austria, is convincingly adolescent and earnest. You believe in her attraction to Palmer, and you could buy the attraction being mutual without that necessarily being the case. As time makes the story seem less daring, this version should at least endure as a colorful, sentimental, twofold period piece -- a reflection of the attitudes of 1910, when the story's set, and 1958, when the film was made.


Meredith L. Grau said...

So interesting! Thanks for the post. I have always found German cinema to be so bold in terms of sexuality. Have you ever seen Sex in Chains? It is pretty remarkable for a silent picture. Check it out if you haven't.

Samuel Wilson said...

Meredith, I haven't seen that one but thanks for the recommendation!

Belianis said...

In real life Palmer and Schneider were lovers when they made this movie. That fortunate circumstance adds mightily to the warmth and conviction of their performances.