Mädchen in Uniform (1931, 89 minutes, 16 mm), is a German feature-length film based on a novel by Christa Winsloe and directed by Leontine Sagan with significant artistic direction from Carl Froelich, who funded the film. Winsloe also wrote the screenplay and was on the set during filming.
It is noted as the first feature film to be produced with an openly pro-lesbian storyline and remains a cult film among lesbians.
Having mostly played the same roles on stage, the cast was able to produce the film at speed and on a low budget of 55,000 marks. It was largely shot at the Potsdam military orphanage, now a teacher training college for women. Carl Froelich's studio in the Tempelhof was also used. The film's original working title was Yesterday and Today but this was thought too insipid and changed to increase the chances of box-office success. Although sound had only been used for two years in cinema, it was used artfully.
The film was groundbreaking in a number of ways: firstly for its all-female cast; secondly for its sympathetic portrayal of lesbian pedagogical eros and homoeroticism revolving around the passionate love of a fourteen-year-old (Thiele) for her teacher (Dorothea Wieck); and thirdly for its co-operative and profit-sharing financial arrangements (although in practice these ultimately failed).
During an interview about the film decades later, Thiele said:
The whole of Mädchen In Uniform was set in the Empress Augusta boarding school, where Winsloe was educated. Actually there really was a Manuela, who remained lame all of her life after she threw herself down the stairs. She came to the premiere of the film. I saw her from a distance, and at the time Winsloe told me, "The experience is one which I had to write from my heart." Winsloe was a lesbian.
Thiele also said, "However, I really don't want to make a great deal of... or account for a film about lesbianism here. That's far from my mind, because the whole thing of course is also a revolt against the cruel Prussian education system."
After many screen tests, Winsloe had insisted that her friend Thiele play the lead role. Director Sagan would have preferred Gina Falkenberg who had done the role on stage in Berlin, but along with having played Manuela in Leipzig, Thiele had already played a young lesbian in Bruckner's stage play Kreatur and although twenty-three years old when filming began, she was considered to be more capable of portraying a fourteen-year-old.
From its premiere at the Capitol cinema in Berlin until 1934 the film is said to have grossed some 6,000,000 marks. Despite the collective nature of the filming for which cast and crew received only a quarter of the normal wage, none saw a share of the 6,000,000 marks and Thiele later hinted that the profits had been mostly retained by the producers.
The film was distributed by Weissenbach outside Germany and was a huge success in Romania. During a 1980 interview Thiele said the school play scene caused a "longstockings and kissing" cult when the film was first shown there. It was also distributed in Japan, the USA (where it was first banned, then released in a heavily cut version), England and France.
Mädchen in Uniform won the audience referendum for Best Technical Perfection at the Venice Film Festival in 1932 and received the Japanese Kinema Junpo Award for Best Foreign Language Film (Tokyo, 1934).
Later, an alternate ending which subtly pandered to pro-Nazi ideals enabled continued screening in German cinemas but eventually even this version of the film was banned as 'decadent' by the Nazi regime, which reportedly attempted to burn all of the existing prints but by then several had been dispersed around the world. Sagan and many others associated with the film fled Germany soon after the banning. Many of the cast and crew were Jewish and those who could not escape from Germany died in the camps. "You were only first aware that they were Jewish when fascism was there and you lost your friends," said Thiele, who left Germany in 1937. Assistant director Walter Supper killed himself when it became clear his Jewish wife would be arrested.
Despite its later banning, Mädchen was followed by several German films about intimate relationships among women, such as Acht Mädels im Boot (1932) and Anna and Elisabeth (1933), which also starred Wieck and Thiele but was banned by the Nazis soon after its opening night, along with Me for You, You for Me (1934).
The film is said to have inspired the 1949 novel Olivia by Dorothy Bussy, which treats very similar themes. There was a German remake in 1958, directed by Géza von Radványi and starring Lilli Palmer, Romy Schneider, Therese Giehse.