November 29, 2007

MADCHEN IN UNIFORM (1958) - remake of the classic

Germany, 1958

German region 2 PAL DVD (Galileo)

I was searching for DVDs of the 1931 version of Madchen in Uniform (recently reviewed here), when I discovered this colour remake was already out. The 1931 adaption of this rather brave German novel was about the relationship between a teacher and a student at a girl’s boarding school. It dealt with lesbian characters in a matter-of-fact way that’s commendable even today. Though the 1958 version appears to be slightly cagier about the relationship. It's still a very early example of the sympathetic portrayal of lesbian characters.

It tells almost the same story, but the characters are less innocent about the matter, and recognise that a same-sex relationship means unheard of scandal. Everyone senses that lesbian love is dangerous to admit to, and panics accordingly. The original film was less judgemental because it was skirting the issue more, and became more romantic as a result. In black and white, it also looked more beautiful. The colour version has a tough time making the boarding school look drab, dressing the sets and all the girls in grey.

There’s a better sense that everyone is trapped in the school, within high walls, iron gates and bars on the windows. The headmistress is made of iron too, iron willed, unrelenting in her quest for discipline as the ‘be all and end all’ to the country’s problems (set at the turn of the century). Her tough stance, set against the schoolteacher’s progressive, ‘firm but fair’ attitude is the story’s strength, and the conflict is more energetically debated and dramatically dealt with, than the earlier film.

The romantic relationship seems less scandalous between teacher and student because there is less ambiguity about it. The girl, Manuela, is besotted with her teacher, and definitely in love with a woman. But her teacher, Elisabeth, has been misunderstood, and has more of a motherly love for all her pupils. This dodges the issue somewhat, but clarifies the teacher’s character. The scandal however remains and leads to an exciting, but not necessarily fulfilling, climax.

It’s interesting to contrast the two films, but I still need to read the novel before assessing if either film has been faithful. The 1958 version is very accessible and still looks like a modern production. The cast is superb, with Therese Giehse especially fearsome as the headmistress.

Lllli Palmer, as the teacher, is always good at playing strong characters, and has acted in German and English. Born in Prussia, she appeared in British films as early as 1936 (after fleeing the Nazis early on), but later returned to live in Germany before finally settling in the US. She notably appeared as an overtly lesbian schoolteacher in The House That Screamed (La Residencia), a marvellous Spanish horror film that I’ve already written about. It appears to be a ‘riff’ on her role in Madchen. You might also have seen her in The Boys From Brazil (1978).

But it’s Romy Schneider who shines here, and is still mourned in Germany as one of their most beloved actresses. She passed away at the age of 45, ironically even before Lilli Palmer. Her roles are so full of life, even in the English language comedy, What’s New Pussycat? (1965), a sexy romp (scripted by Woody Allen) where she is trying to marry Peter O’ Toole and tear him away from his busy life of bachelorhood.

This German DVD (pictured at top) marks almost fifty years since the film was made. The print was obviously in fairly poor shape, as a lot of electronic restoration has made the picture a little smeary in places. But the bright colours compensate and the soundtrack is very clear. The picture aspect is an acceptable 4:3 and the English subtitles are very readable, but don’t always translate visible text. The only extras are five other, quite racy trailers for Romy Schneider films that are also available on DVD. is a good place to find all of them.

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  1. Great review! Thought you might enjoy perusing my list of classic novels, perhaps especially the German ones.

  2. Discovering the german classics. I love lesbian movies. ans your page is great!!

  3. Great review, This film is really remarkable ! it is so suptile and yet strong in the message that is sending. There is another aspect of the movie adding to the romantic story.. it is the critic to the educational system and strict discipline imposed. A debate whether upbringing can modify individuality and control it. The writer of the play is breaking all taboos in one go. I read the play and found that the first movie is more accurate, however one major change at the ednding. (Spoiler alert) In the novel, Manuela commits a sucide by jumping off the building