Before there was “Loving Annabelle” or “Bloomington”, there was “Madchen in Uniform”; the story of a female student who falls in love with her female teacher. There’s two versions (both German) of this movie. There’s the 1931 black and white version which is presumably the first feature film produced with an openly pro lesbian story line and then there’s the 1958 Technicolor version which this post will cover.
The story takes place in 1910 Potsdam, Prussia at an all-girl boarding school (Yeehaw! Sapphic breeding ground!) Although the school is referred to as a convent and is presumably Catholic , I didn’t see any women wearing a habit, and the head of the school is called Sister Superior rather than Mother Superior …. I’ve never heard of such a thing as “Sister Superior”. In any case the school resembles a citadel rather than a convent and Sister Superior is an authoritarian drill sergeant if ever there was one. In fact she herself refers to the school as a citadel where their job (as she sees it) is to make their charges strong German women whose sole purpose in life is to make good, obedient wives and produce strong German soldiers; yeah, charming place to send your daughter. This is obviously a cold, cheerless place where no affection is ever shown to the students, and except for the cook and the lovely Miss von Bernburg, the rest of the staff may as well be androids.
Into this environment arrives Manuela Meinhardis (played by a very young Romy Schneider before she went on to international fame) Manuela has recently lost her mother and is placed in the school by her bitter cow of an aunt (she’d fit right in with the staff). Manuela, who until very recently, was coddled and doted on by her mother is not accustomed to such a loveless environment. As soon as she sets eyes on the beautiful and gentle Miss von Bernburg, it’s obvious to the audience that Cupid has sprung his bow and Manuela is smitten. But Manuela isn’t the only student in love with teacher. There’s the blonde Alexandra (envious of the attention Von Bernberg gives Manuela) who will aggravate the situation towards the end of the film.
Although Manuela’s love for von Bernburg is more than obvious, the film is ambiguous about the teacher’s feelings for the student; understandably so. The fact is no matter how beautiful the lead characters or their feelings, Manuela is a minor and von Bernburg is an adult….and one in a position of authority over her student. Therein lies part of the difficulty with these types of story lines. How do you present this type of “relationship” without the teacher coming off as predatory? In any case, von Bernburg’s conduct is always proper and while it may seem as if her feelings towards Manuela are more maternal, I couldn’t help but notice in a few scenes (especially the kissing scene) that the teacher does have feelings for her student that are not of a maternal nature. It was evident to me that von Bernburg realizes this and it is the overriding factor in a decision that she makes at the end.
I enjoyed the film very much and I’m glad that it’s finally available on DVD for U.S. audiences. In fact, in the US DVD, “Loving Annabelle” director, Katherine Brooks, discusses how “Madchen in Uniform” was the inspiration for her own film. Both the 1931 and 1958 versions have achieved cult classic status amongst some cinephiles. And although there’s no explicitness as we see in today’s lesbian-themed movies, it’s still a wonderful addition to any LGBT DVD library.