Mädchen in Uniform [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (7th March 2021).
The Film

"Mädchen in Uniform" (1931)

Manuela (played by Hertha Thiele) is a 14 year old, who has just enrolled in an all girls boarding school. Led by a very strict headmistress (played by Emilia Unda), the girls at the school abide by their rigid rules - no chocolates or sweets, no books, no sending out letters to home. Though the girls seem to know where to hide things where the teachers won't find them, and know what time they can bring out their magazines and other little joys. Though Manuela might be a new face, the other girls are quick to become friends with her, especially Ilse (played by Charlotte Witthauer), who is a bit of a troublemaker in the eyes of the teachers, as she tends to speak up more than the others. Though Manuela still has a hard time adjusting to a new life away from family, the one person who shines brightly for her is Fräulein von Bernburg (played by Dorothea Wieck), a teacher who is kinder and more understanding than the others. For Manuela, Von Bernberg's kindness is what brings her heart to comfort. But the feeling that fills Manuela is not just that of a pupil, but falling in love...

In 1930, German-Hungarian writer Christa Winsloe wrote the stage play "Yesterday and Today", which was her unpublished novel that reflected on her days at a boarding school. It was the first play to depict a lesbian relationship in Germany and was a success critically as well as with audiences. Gay characters on stage, film, books and other arts in Germany was not uncommon during the period, as films like "Different from the Others" (1919), "Pandora's Box" (1929) and many other works in silent cinema had homosexual characters and situations. Though a gay subculture was out in the open, Paragraph 175, a law that was implemented in 1871 to outlaw homosexual acts. Though there were convictions over the years and there were talks in the government to remove the law, homosexual culture being part of liberal culture was undeniable through the arts and the people. Soon after the stage play was a success, plans to adapt the story into a film was made by Deutsche Film-Gemeinschaft, with Winsloe serving as the screenwriter adapting her own work, and director of the stage version Leontine Sagan serving to direct the film adaptation. The two women had no experience with working in cinema, though experienced producer and filmmaker Carl Froelich supervised the production alongside.

One of the most unsettling aspects of the story is that of how to depict a love story when the subjects are of student and teacher, and especially when the student is only fourteen years old. The subject is taboo whatever the sexual orientation of the subjects may be, and there have been many tabloid news stories around the world featuring the scandalous subject over the years. For the film version, Hertha Thiele portrayed the character of Manuela, with the 22 year old first time film actress playing the young teenager. Dorothea Wieck portrayed the teacher that becomes the sight of Manuela's affection, and interestingly was the same age as Thiele at 22 years old. With makeup, costumes, and demeanor, the two same-aged actresses were able to play the characters accordingly, with Thiele looking much younger and Wieck looking much older. The character of Manuela is a lost soul, as her mother died years ago and her father, a military officer was not around much to take care of her. Her aunt is the one that enrolls her into the school, as she is concerned with the young teen's well-being. From the early scenes of Manuela entering the school, her mannerisms are not exactly girly nor are they ladylike even if she is wearing a dress. She's not shy about herself, but she is not hugely outspoken either. She is a girl that wants to express herself, though she is at the difficult age of finding who she is and she is in a difficult place where self expression is frowned upon. Her classmates seem to know what they want, as they hide photo albums of athletic men, plaster their lockers with magazine cutouts of male film stars with "sex appeal", as stated, though all being hidden from plain view when teachers happen to visit the dormitory. While the other girls are fascinated with the male form, Manuela feels slightly distant from those thoughts. Is her image of men coming from the father who is basically not in her life? Is it because she lost her mother that she has a longing to have a mother figure in her life? Manuela's fascination and infatuation for Fräulein von Bernburg is a confusing one. Not for audiences, but for the character herself. Von Bernburg does not show "sex appeal", but is restricted and restrained in showing straight emotion. She is straightforward and honest with not just Manuela but all students, though one thing that the students all look forward to is at night when she comes to the girls dormitory to kiss them good night. For Manuela, she sees her kindness and the kisses to be more personal than anything else, convinced that Von Bernburg has true feelings for her. But does the teacher share the same feelings?

The story is ambiguous as to how Von Bernburg truly feels. As the story is told mostly through the eyes of Manuela and even the scenes when the teachers all gather to discuss the progress of students including Manuela's integration, she is just as restrained in her emotions. There are a few examples that the audience sees Von Bernburg's feelings, with cross dissolves between her and Manuela's faces, but again are these because there is more than just a feeling of pupil and teacher between them? Or is she reflecting on how Manuela is reacting to everything? This is not a traditional love story at all. It is a one direction infatuation, and one that causes quite a scandal within the school, causing grief with both Manuela and with Von Bernburg. The two main actresses do an excellent job of portraying the two characters, without any campy or cartoony performances, and rather relying on the strain of being in a strict environment and having emotions repressed. It well represents the anxieties and sexual awakening of a young teen, which is basically what every person goes through in one way or another, but coupled with her troubled home life and family relations, there is a lot to be studied in the process of breaking down the character of Manuela psychologically.

Spoilers!
The ending of the film actually differs greatly from the original play. In the original ending, Manuela is crushed that Von Bernburg has turned her down in accepting her love, which leads to Manuela leaping from the tall central stairwell corridor and killing herself. For the film, Thiele was strapped with wires for the sequence for the leap of her character's death. But after viewing the shot ending, it looked too phony and it was decided for the ending to be changed to Manuela surviving with the classmates pulling her to safety before she could take the leap. Considering special effects like wirework were a long ways away from being perfected, it was one reason to change it, but it was also a way to have a more hopeful ending for the characters. Winsloe's writing of the leap was not at all from her imagination but one that referenced an actual incident that led to a paralyzed classmate. Winsloe herself had similarities to the Manuela character, as she lost her mother when she was 10 years old, and that she was a lesbian in a strict all girls school.

"Mädchen in Uniform" was released on November 27th, 1931 in Germany and then in other countries in 1932 and 1933, including an English dubbed version entitled "Girls in Uniform" receiving praise around the world. From Best Technical Perfection at the Venice Film Festival to Best Foreign Language Film by the Kinema Junpo Awards in Japan, the critical attention was high, as well as audiences around Europe and elsewhere. There was a close banning of the film in the United States due to religious circles in power, but it was the blessing of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her positive support for the film that led to its screenings across the country, though in dubbed and partially shortened form. After the Nazi government seized power of Germany in 1933, many works including "Mädchen in Uniform" was labeled as indecent and banned. While prints were ordered to be destroyed, that would prove to be impossible with so many countries around the world already having the film distributed. While the film would retain its subcultural landmark status around the world, it would not be screened in Germany until 1977 when it aired on television for the first time. Christa Winsloe would not live to see her most well known work receive its reappraisal. She couldn't find much success as a writer in Germany or elsewhere as she traveled between the United States and around Europe. With the rise of the Third Reich, it became more dangerous for an openly gay writer to survive. She settled in France in 1939, where she started a relationship with Swiss author Simone Gentet, but their lives ended tragically in 1944, being shot and killed by four Frenchmen that accused them of being Nazi spies.

It was only a brief period of time that early German talkies had the freedom of expression that other countries dreamed of with their artistic merit and subject matter. It was only a few years later that Germany turned everything upside down not just for art but also for mankind with their strict control and insistence of fearing anything that was not "pure" in their eyes. The dangers of a fascist government, a totalitarian leader, as well as a propaganda educated population has proved to be incredibly dangerous, yet seemingly easy to mimic as long as the public is given the "right" information. "Mädchen in Uniform" is one of the rarest of the rare: Directed by a woman, written by a woman, and a cast entirely of women. Although Carl Froelich took much of the credit for the film being the supervisor overseeing the production and his name being much bigger, it really was the women that made the production happen, and it certainly cannot be forgotten or censored by future generations.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray / region 2 PAL DVD set

Video

The BFI presents the film in the original 1.19:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The original negative is considered lost. A nitrate duplicate positive held at the Deutsche Kinemathek, the best surviving element was used as the basis for the restoration completed in 2018. At 2,415 meters, the element is slightly shorter than that of the German premiere which was 2,480 meters. A previously missing scene was comprising of 10 meters was added to the restoration version, totaling the restored version to 2,425 meters. Scanned at 2K at Omnimago in Ingelheim, Germany, the restoration was done under the supervision of Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum. The BFI's transfer of the 2018 restoration edition looks absolutely wonderful, though imperfections are going to be the case considering the age of the film and the elements used. The digital restoration removed much of the speckles, cuts, and other debris in the frame, for a fairly clean looking appearance though minor damage marks are still visible. The image is stable with little to no flickering or warping of the frame. The black and white contrast is fairly stable, though greyscale is only on the fair side. Overall, it's a wonderful looking transfer and a great restoration of the classic film in which future generations will be able to appreciate in great condition.

The restored film's runtime is 88:45 on the Blu-ray and 85:06 on the DVD accounting for 4% PAL speedup.



















Audio

German LPCM 2.0 mono
The original mono track has also undergone a restoration. Unfortunately there is a bit of a hiss that has not been removed. On the plus side, it is not incredibly loud, nor does it fluctuate from scene to scene. As for pops, crackle, and other imperfections, they have been carefully removed, keeping a clean dialogue track. Considering the elements, the dialogue may have some portions that are not as clear, but it certainly sounds good and well balanced. The music can be a little rough though, with instruments sounding a bit crushed with the limited fidelity of the track. Strangely, the first 30 seconds of the film's opening credits is without any music and then suddenly cuts in abruptly. This doesn't seem to be the fault of the BFI as the US Kino Lorber Blu-ray also has this issue as well. Missing audio in the sound negative perhaps? Overall it is fair, but not exactly exceptional.

There are optional English subtitles in a white font for translation. They are easy to read, well timed, and without errors to speak of.

Extras

This is a dual format set with the film and extras on the Blu-ray in HD and the same content repeated on a PAL DVD.


Blu-ray

Audio commentary by film historian Jenni Olson
Olson, a queer film historian gives a solo performance detailing the film's production, origin, and more. Discussed are about the visual motifs with the staircase setting, the use of shadows, historical information on the original "Yesterday and Today" play, biographies of the cast and crew, information on other gay themed German films of the period, the gay subculture of the period, about the changed ending and much more. Note this commentary was previously available on the US Kino Lorber Blu-ray.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"Women and Sexuality in Weimar Cinema" video essay by Chrystel Oloukoï (13:02)
In this new essay, film critic and curator for the Is That Jazz Movie Club in Lagos, Nigeria Chrystel Oloukoï discusses the impact that Aufklärungfilms - works that emphasized the human form in German cinema at the time had, the portrayal of sexuality in their works including gay cinema, with clips of many German films of the early twentieth century, including "Mädchen in Uniform", "M", "Pandora's Box", "I Don't Want to Be a Man", "The Blue Angel", and more. The film clips are sometimes in excellent quality, while others are upscaled from lesser masters. The video essay has also been uploaded to YouTube by the BFI and is embedded below.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.37:1/1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English HoH subtitles

"The Kiss - The Women Who Made a Movie Masterpiece" podcasts by writer/journalist Bibi Berki (with Play All) (103:27)
- Episode 7: The Outsiders (21:38)
- Episode 8: A Question of Casting (27:39)
- Episode 9: The Lola Lola Effect (26:42)
- Episode 10: Twenty More Metres of Kissing (30:43)
Included here are four episodes out of a series of podcasts by Berki highlighting the making of "Mädchen in Uniform". She discusses Winsloe's biography in detail, as well as the stars, the process of bringing the stage play to the screen, production details, the success the film had and the aftermath, and more. While the podcasts play, the screen has an automated slideshow of stills from "Mädchen in Uniform"
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles


"How to Be a Woman" shorts (with Play All) (34:53)
- "Tilly and the Fire Engines" (1911) (2:19)
- Hints and Hobbies No. 11: "Hints to the Ladies on Jiu-Jitsu" (1926) (3:24)
- "A Day at St. Christopher's College and School" (1920) (18:17)
- "4 and 20 Fit Girls" (1940) (10:53)

Four short films from the BFI archive are presented here, all with the underlying theme of “woman”. “Tilly and the Fire Engines” is part of a series of shorts featuring Tilly (played by Alma Taylor) and Sally (played by Chrissie White) in slapstick comedy situations. Here they steal a horse-drawn fire engine and have a little fun with the fire hose. "Hints to the Ladies on Jiu-Jitsu" is an episode in the “Hints and Hobbies” series of cinemagazine shorts, with this episode showcasing how Jiu-Jitsu can help women for self defense. The London Missionary Society’s documentary "A Day at St. Christopher's College and School" showcases the daily life of students at a girls school in India, from their time studying, eating, gossiping, playing, dancing, and more. "4 and 20 Fit Girls" was directed by the highly influential documentary filmmaker Mary Field, featuring a group of young women doing choreographed exercises to keep in shape with the male narrator EVH Emmett. From dances, to throwing a medicine ball, to back stretching, it looks and feels quite different from the modern day fitness videos we are used to seeing.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, Music Dolby Digital 2.0 with English Intertitles / in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles


DVD

Audio commentary by film historian Jenni Olson
"Women and Sexuality in Weimar Cinema" video essay by Chrystel Oloukoï (12:29)
"The Kiss - The Women Who Made a Movie Masterpiece" podcasts by writer/journalist Bibi Berki (with Play All) (103:25)
- Episode 7: The Outsiders (21:36)
- Episode 8: A Question of Casting (27:37)
- Episode 9: The Lola Lola Effect (26:40)
- Episode 10: Twenty More Metres of Kissing (30:4)
"How to Be a Woman" shorts (with Play All) (36:25)
- "Tilly and the Fire Engines" (1911) (2:26)
- Hints and Hobbies No. 11: "Hints to the Ladies on Jiu-Jitsu" (1926) (3:34)
- "A Day at St. Christopher's College and School" (1920) (19:05)
- "4 and 20 Fit Girls" (1940) (11:22)

The same extras are repeated on the DVD.


Booklet
A 32 page booklet is included. First is the essay "Something Forbidden in Your Closet: Mädchen in and out of Uniform" by author So Mayer, discussing about the time period, the gay subtext, and more. Chrystel Oloukoï contributes to a written essay as well with "Leontine Sagan, a Life in Movement: Careful Libertinage and Kaleidoscopic Selves", about the film's director. "The Winsloe Girl", written by writer/journalist Bibi Berki discusses about the writer of the story and her life. "Eric and Elsie" by Henry K Miller showcases some of the pioneers in art house cinema exhibition in the UK in the early twentieth century. There are also stills, full film credits, extras information, transfer information, and acknowledgements.


"Women and Sexuality in Weimar Cinema" video essay


A clip of the film has been embedded below, courtesy of the BFI.



The film was previously released on Blu-ray in the United States by Kino Lorber last summer, which included an audio commentary and that was the only extra on disc. The BFI includes that commentary and adds a lot more.

Overall

"Mädchen in Uniform" is one of the most important early gay cinema landmarks, as well as an all-female led work that has long been a subculture masterwork. The subject matter will surely raise eyebrows, but it is an honest tale of adolescence, sexual awakening, as well as a reflection on the more controlled environment that Germany was heading to. The BFI dual format set includes the wonderful 2018 restoration with a very lengthy amount of extras making this highly recommended.

The Film: A Video: A- Audio: B Extras: A Overall: A-

 


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