October 05, 2007

Not on DVD: MADCHEN IN UNIFORM (1931) decades ahead of MEMENTO MORI

(1931, Germany, Girls in Uniform)

This isn’t the kind of film that I normally mention in the Black Hole, but by the end of it, I felt like it was worth mentioning for the similarities with Memento Mori (reviewed here), which I’d also seen recently.

In both films, the setting is a girls boarding school, the story never leaves this location, the girls (and presumably the filmmakers) have anti-establishment sentiments, there’s a pivotal lesbian relationship, attempted suicide (also by jumping from a great height), overly strict teachers, and a hysterical-schoolgirl chaotic climax.

All that’s missing is the ghost story. And for a 70 year-old German film, it’s so ahead of its time that it’s still progressive today!

In fact, more progressive than the South Korean Whispering Corridors series, where the lesbian subplot could be read as causing the deaths and unhappy hauntings. In Madchen in Uniform, the other girls don’t even give them a hard time, but rally round in defence. When one girl is victimised by the headmistress for declaring her love, the rest of the dorm propose to help her - using a boycott, going over the head’s head to complain, and finally an all-out revolution!

For the most part it’s a mix of humour and drama, centred on the girls and their relationships with the different teachers, particularly their favourite who many of them have a crush on. A new girl, Manuela, has something more than a crush… When her feelings are discovered, scandal rocks the school.

Today, I guess there’d be much more focus on the motivations and consequences of the teacher, who kisses all her girls goodnight, and counters the headmistress's wishes by treating them all humanly and fairly.

The head is in favour of strictness, discipline, and getting the girls ready to make lots of babies strong enough to be soldiers! Considering that this is Germany before WWII, it’s prophetically worth rebelling against!

There have been a variety of stories about the German censors insisting on a fatal, unhappy ending for the film, but I’ve not seen this confirmed satisfactorily.

Gay-themed movies in early German cinema were allowed to be astoundingly open before Adolf rose to power. As early as 1919, Conrad Veidt (star of Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and The Thief of Baghdad) appeared in Anders als die anderen (Different from the Others) about gay blackmail – 40 years before Britain dared tackle the subject in Victim. Also, the first film version of Victor and Victoria was made in Germany in 1933, fifty years before Julie Andrews put trousers on in Victor/Victoria.

Considering the historical importance, and the fact that it’s still both powerful and entertaining today, makes for another not-on-dvd mystery. The last home video releases I can find are on VHS in both the US and UK (both pictured). It's not even on DVD in Germany! But the 1958 remake is (starring Lilli Palmer and Romy Schneider), which I'm looking forward to watching soon...

If you want to read a lot of academic exuberance about the 1931 film, try this article on Jump Cut.

OK, don't worry, now I'll go back to films with blood and ghosts...

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