Classic Film Review: “Madchen in Uniform,” a landmark in the Queer Cinema

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Its notoriety may be more historical than erotic, almost ninety years after its release. But the German drama “Madchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform)” retains its subtle power to move, a dated but still impressive landmark in queer cinema history.

The sexuality is implied, the repression overt, the style may not be stodgy or stagey but is plainly dated. Yet that one big speech suggesting that what the world long knew as “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name” wasn’t the abomination religions had long decried it to be still packs a punch.

Set in a German girls boarding school just before World War I, it chastely relates the sexual awakening of an orphaned teen of the ruling Junkers class. And the woman who unintentionally drives that awakening? The teacher all the girls have a crush on.

The headmistress (Emilia Unda) preaches “Discipline, not a life of luxury” (in German with English subtitles) to her staff and her large student body. “Hunger and discipline will make us great again!”

She’s a dictator, and with her martinet assistant, presides over a school of lectures in the classics, languages, drama and the Bible, of hymns and privation and rules.

“No letters without prior approval…Hair must be tight.” Uniforms, with aprons must be worn at all times.

And “Books are verboten!

Sad-eyed Manuela (Hertha Thiele) takes all this in. But her classmates mock the authoritarians behind their backs. Ringleader Isle (Ellen Schwanneke) gives Manuela the real skinny. You’re in Miss von Bernburg’s dorm? Lucky thing!

“Just don’t fall in love” with her. ALL the girls do.

Every longing gaze from the kind, softly-lit von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck) provokes silent sighs. But that kiss on the forehead good night?

“Wunderbar!”

And no matter how many warnings the headmistress lays on her staff, to “keep your distance” and how fraternizing “leads to infatuation,” Miss von Bernburg won’t be hard on her kids. She’s not listening to the rhetoric.

“The Fatherland needs people of steel!”

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As daring as “Madchen” (and its 1958 Franco-German remake) are supposed to be, there’s not so much as a lip bitten in unspoken desire. But the signals are all here — girl-bonding in the locker-room, a motherly swat on the bottom that registers more delight than surprise, moon-eyed close-ups.

OK, that touch by director Leontine Sagan (“Showtime”) is obvious.

Tame as it now seems, “Madchen,” restored and re-issued via virtual cinema streaming (check your local art cinema’s website) is still a movie of prescience, poetry and honesty, essential viewing for anybody interested in the cinema as bellwether of change and indicator of the cultural cutting edge.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Hertha Thiele, Dorothea Wieck, Ellen Schwanneke and Emilia Unda.

Credits: Directed by Leontine Sagan , script by Christa Winsloe and Friedrich Dammann, based on the play by Christa Winsloe. A Kino Classics/Virtual Cinema release.

Running time: 1:30

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