Saturday, September 11, 2010

MADCHEN IN UNIFORM: Lesbian classic with Lili Palmer & Romy Schneider on DVD!

All girls, all the time, with nary a man on view (there was one behind the camera, however: Hungarian-born director Géza von Radványi), MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM (Girls in Uniform, should you need a translation) sounds like a camp classic, and truthfully the idea of it may be. Yet the film, which itself is a remake of the original 1931 German movie, is good enough to escape that fate. Herr von Radványi was a journeyman filmmaker who, after WWII, worked in Italy, France and Germany before returning to Hungary, where he died in 1986. In this film, at least (the only one I've seen of his), he places the camera front and center and just shoots.  The result may lack style but certainly captures the story in front of our eyes.

A high-spirited adolescent (Romy Schneider), having lost both her parents, is enrolled in a German school for girls, where she makes friends (and an enemy or two) among her peers and the staff and develops a crush on one of her teachers (Lilli Palmer). She is not the only girl who has this same crush, and jealousy pushes the button that leads to the film's interesting finale -- one that goes neither too far nor not far enough toward its thoughtful conclusion. The film resists over-the-top melodrama, relying instead on a modicum of understanding and possible change to come -- and on the performances of its two leading ladies, and a third, Therese Giehse, who plays quite well the school's stern and (nearly) unforgiving headmistress.

Ms Schneider (above, just left of center and below, right), one of the most popular international stars of her day (whose untimely death at age 43 was a shocker) makes a delightful Manuela, and she is more than matched by the gracious and reticent Palmer (below, left) whose large dark eyes, great beauty and ability to communicate deep feelings were screen staples for decades. Looking at this film today, it appears to be an interesting transition between the tamer, earlier version and a tell-all/show-all modern work such as Loving Annabelle, supposedly inspired by those mädchen. 

The film captures life in a girl's school of this time quite well, and the movie ends up a period piece for -- actually -- two different periods. One is circa 1900, when the tale takes place; the other is late-1950s Europe, when the movie was being made.  As usual with movies set in past time, the hairstyles, make-up and body types (but not the costumes, which seem pretty accurate) tend to reflect more the time in which the film was shot than the time is it supposed to depict. Yet this odd mix works because both periods will seem pretty ancient to today's younger viewers. Consequently, everything may appear equally "historic."

Mädchen in Uniform makes -- at last! -- its American DVD debut this coming Tuesday, September 14, from Wolfe Video --  the premiere source for LGBT films.  Available at this point for sale (from Wolfe or Amazon, to name two sources) and for rental via Blockbuster (and perhaps the few remaining independent video stores), the film should have been picked up by Netflix and Greencine, as well. You might want to give either or both rental sources a emailed kick-in-the-butt and tell them to order it, fast. (You can "save" it to your Netflix queue, but that does not guarantee that it will be ordered by the company.)


To find out more about how this film finally arrived on DVD (in this country, at least: It's been available in Europe for some time), we had a chat via email with Jenni Olson, shown at left, director of e-commerce at Wolfe Video, as well as a longtime LGBT film historian. Below, TrustMovies' questions appear in boldface, while Jenni's answers are in standard type.

How do you think the time frame holds up in this film -- from the standpoint of audiences who see the movie now? To my mind there are actually two time frames to consider: how we, today, view the real historic period (around 1900) in which the film is set, and how the filmmakers and audiences of the period in which the film was made (the late 1950s or mid-60s when the final was finally released here in the U.S.) imagined this historic period to be.

Yes, it is a complex set of time frames to be aware of. The most interesting thing to me is why this German production company decided to remake this particular film at that particular time. The original 1931 version is considered to be the first lesbian film ever made and, although it depicts the homophobic and repressive environment of the school authorities, it ultimately expresses sympathy for its lesbian protagonist. This 1958 version similarly comes away as a plea for understanding and is even more interesting because the role of the strict headmistress is played by German-Jewish (and "out" lesbian) stage actress Therese Giehse. It is so fascinating to watch her performance as she expresses her disgust of Manuela's lesbian tendencies ("She loves you in a very sick way," she says to the teacher, Miss von Bernburg) and then to see her come around to a more compassionate perspective in the end of the film.

Does the film make a nice transition point between the original  Mädchen in Uniform and later movies like Loving Annabelle, in which so much more can be shown and told?

Of course it has much more in common with the original than it does with Loving Annabelle. And Katherine Brooks is very articulate about the fact that Loving Annabelle is not in any way a remake of Madchen but rather is inspired by it. She really had the vision and imagination (and courage) to explore a contemporary version of the story and to try to make it even more satisfying for a modern lesbian audience. But of course Loving Annabelle also confronts the ethical/moral dilemmas of a teacher-student relationship as it delves deeper into the romance.

How was the 1958 version greeted critically and by audiences when it was first released? Was it seen to be a “lesbian” film in the same way that The Children’s Hour (original and remake) were also seen?

I know that it was unfavorably reviewed by Bosley Crowther in The New York Times when it had its delayed theatrical release in 1965. Mainly he goes on and on about he thinks the original (VHS art shown at right) is much better than this one and he barely says anything substantial about the film itself. I have never seen any other reviews of the film and obviously it was not widely released like The Children's Hour and other films of that era.

Are there any other “classic” films that you would like to see given a second chance, as Wolfe is doing with Madchen in Uniform?

What a wonderful question! There are so many important LGBT films that have never been released on consumer formats. The original 1931 Madchen came out on VHS long ago and I would love to see that available again. But it is not very likely. It is increasingly difficult for a vintage DVD release to make financial sense (with the possible exception of the Criterion Collection which does such a wonderful job of unearthing archival treasures). For all of you classic film enthusiasts, please do whatever you can to support the release of these films (including adding them to your Netflix queue to demonstrate that there is a demand for them).

We have worked very hard to make this Madchen DVD release happen (it took more than a year to track down the German rights holder). And at this moment, in fact, Netflix has not yet placed an order for the DVD because (despite an intensive social network campaign we launched last month) they say there is not enough demand shown to warrant them carrying it. This is a really interesting thing that people should be aware of — that Netflx does not necessarily carry all new releases, and that in many cases it is the smaller films that are the ones to suffer and not get the circulation they deserve.

Anything else you would like to talk about on or near this subject, while I’ve got you, Jenni?

I just have to say that, as a film historian, I am so excited by the rediscovery of older LGBT films. There really is a unique thrill that comes when we see this kind of evidence of our existence — from so long ago, so clearly visible front and center as a theme in a work of mainstream cinema. All of the little elements of lesbian desire in this film are just amazing to me. Again and again we see references to the girls affections for their teacher (and for each other) alongside continual dialogue about the proper ways for the girls to behave and develop into heterosexual womanhood. And great lines like: “You’re such a peculiar child.” There is a ton of really amazing dialog!

The other most striking thing about the film is that even in it’s melodramatic moments it never descends into camp. It really holds up as a serious drama with a terrific 100 per cent lesbian hero. I hope other viewers agree and will find it as moving as I do.


diamondliaisons said...

Maedchen in Uniform is the best! Another good historic lesbian film is The House That Screamed which Lilli Palmer also stars in (as a head mistress...set in 1900s also...& there's even a bit where she supervises the girls while they shower, so weird seeing the parallels between Maedchen & House that screamed). There are 3 versions of it, 2 that are considered uncut however the most uncut version I haven't seen for sale anywhere & i only have it because someone sent it to me on a disk. I might upload on the net. Thanks for the article!

James van Maanen, said...

And thanks for your comment, DiamondLiaisons(love that name!). I think I saw THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED back in my youth, but don't much remember it. As I recall, it's a kind of "Giallo" but Spanish style, from the top-notch horror writer/director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, whose more famous movie, Island of the Damned (also called Who Could Kill a Child?), was released to DVD a few years back. He's a good movie-maker of this sort of film, so I will try to find The House That Screamed and watch it again. (I've always had a soft spot for the gorgeous Ms Palmer and for the also gorgeous John Moulder Brown, who plays her son).

alchimie11 said...

Thanks for the article! I am obsessed with this movie and I am writing about it too. I saw parts of "the house that screamed" nut not the uncut version: I'd love to find it because, yes, the parallelism with Maedchen is fascinating to say the least. Only one question: I see in this article continuous references to "the lesbian character", singular. Don't you think that beautiful, stunning Fraulein von Bernburg did feel something special for Manuela but just could not and did not want to admit it, not even to herself? I'd love to have your opinion. Thanks...I have a huge soft spot for beautiful Palmer, especially as Elisabeth von Bernburg. She IS she.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks for the comment, alchimie11, but I just re-read the whole article and don't even find one reference to "the lesbian character." Are you sure you were referring to this particular article and not some other one? In any case, of course there is a distinct possibility that von Bernberg is a lesbian -- probably more even than Schneider's Manuela -- who is so young that she may not know yet just what she is. And Ms Palmer is extraordinary, here as elsewhere. She was one of the great beauties and great actresses of the screen.

danabente said...

I am happy to be among those who admired this movie. Thank You all for Your opinions. Only one thing here- I am writing from my "womanhood" side. I am finding their relation deeper than classification for "hetero", "homo"- I do believe that we are meeting in life people who we love, without thinking about their sex. I am seeing here to women who in some way- maybe even in privat life, have a special place for each other. But it does not mean that they have "preferences". They LOVE EACH OTHER in a very very deep way, and looking at them I am reflecting again- how PURE love is. Their kiss is more like a kiss of the souls- I am not finding any erotical in it. But I am finding a kind of PROMISE that if people can love like this, life is or can be- really reach. At the end I so hope that now these to wonderfull friends are happy, in heaven, being with these they loved here. Palmer is absolutely a WOMAN all the girls would like to have for their "charm teacher". Schneider is amazing. Thank You all.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, danabente, for your thoughtful words. And I agree with you/them. You can indeed look at this movie and the relationship in it as something deeper and more profound than mere hetero/homo. Too bad more people cannot make this jump. I also do not believe that it makes much difference whether the erotic part is there or not. It's the relationship that matters, erotic or not. But if the erotic IS there -- and remember that back in the 1960s (when this movie was made), erotic homosexuality was a lot more closeted than it is now, and back at the turn of the earlier century (when the story takes place), it was even more so -- then, if present, that erotic connection should be all right, too.

kon ka said...

I watched the movie a couple of days ago and i watch it more than trhee times a day and i specially watch the parts in which bernburg and manuela talk to each other...i cannot believe how much these two actresses played their role like it was a real thing. Palmer in every scene was looking at
Romy like she was ACTUALLY in love oh god my heart melts almost every time i watch it😍. I am a very romantic person and i don't like to think about things further than the kiss they share. My fave scene is exactly after the kiss in which bernburg hugs manuela(she accepts the innocent love of manuela, so sweet!). The only thing that made me feel disappointment ,except of course of the fact that bernburg left😞, is that bernburg's character was much more preserved than the one on the original version 1931. I would love to see more affection from bernburg's part..anyway i love it and i hope to find and but the books!😃

James van Maanen said...

Thanks for commenting, Kon Ka. And who WOULDN'T be in love with Romy Schneider?! I certainly was, even as a gay young man. But I also loved Lili Palmer. What an actress! What a woman! It is nice to know that movies like this one still hold up with you younger viewers. Again, thanks for your thoughts.