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Lesbian Movie Reviews: Died / Recanted / Unhappy/ Came out - Mädchen in Uniform (1931, German)

Friday, November 20, 2015 - 08:00

I’m re-posting (sometimes in expanded form) a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies that I originally drew up in answer to a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions will necessarily involve some spoilers, but since I'm not reviewing any current releases, I think the statute of limitations has expired.

Many of these items are not currently in print. I'll link each to their entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

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Mädchen in Uniform (1931, b&w, German, subtitled)

Title translation: "Girls in Uniform"

There has been more than one version of this movie made, and I believe they differ somewhat in the aspects considered under this review series. So this review only applies to the specific version listed here. Trigger warning for (unsuccessful) suicide attempt.

A student at an authoritarian girls school develops a crush on a sympathetic teacher but her public declaration of love triggers an untenable situation when the teacher stands up for the students and is forced to resign. Although she saves the student from tragedy at the end, there is no clear indication of any "happy ending" available for either of them. Nobody dies (barely). It doesn't follow the typical "coming out" plot, as the emotional relationship between the student and teacher is (barely) deniable as "just a schoolgirl crush". Indeed, it's the reactions of those around them that frame it as being more significant than that. But as the lesbian themes are (barely) subtextual, one can't really evaluate the story arc on the "(no) turning straight" axis. Let's sum it up with "no happily ever after."

One of the fascinating aspects of this movie is that it was made at all. Compare this movie--actually made in Germany in the early 1930s, with Cabaret which portrays the same era (although obviously not the same social setting!) from the safe distance of decades later. The suggestion of sexual open-mindedness reflected in different ways in both films are the more poignant for knowing what was to come under Nazi rule (which is explicitly depicted in Cabaret). The lesbian themes in Mädchen are, in some ways, incidental to the message about the need of human beings, and especially children, for loving connections. In the setting of an all-female institution, those connections will necessarily be between female characters. But the authorial choice to use that setting, and therefore to present the message via intense emotional relationships that cannot help being read as "lesbian", is not one that could have been made in many times and places. In 1931, it almost certainly could not have been made in the USA under the Hayes Code.