Last month, a new restoration of Leontine Sagan’s 1931 lesbian classic Mädchen in Uniform finally arrived on Blu-Ray and streaming from Kino Lorber. Despite being known as the first ever lesbian film, for years Mädchen has only been available on bootleg copies periodically uploaded to YouTube. This is a monumental release and it’s accompanied by a fantastic audio commentary from filmmaker/curator/historian Jenni Olson.
I am thrilled to share this conversation I had with Jenni about Mädchen that inevitably branched off into all sorts of facets of queer history and queer film history. If you like gay movies and gay history I think you’re really going to enjoy this!
Jenni Olson: Hey Drew!
Drew Gregory: Hi Jenni!
Jenni: How are you?
Drew: I’m good! I’m really excited about this. I was reading over my notes and fully geeking out just like I did the entire time I was listening to the commentary.
Jenni: (laughs) Oh good. I’m so excited to talk to you about it. This was my first ever audio commentary and I feel like they’re so cool but I always wonder who even listens to them.
Drew: You know, I don’t think that’s an unfair question to ask, but the answer would be… me! And that has been the answer for many years.
Drew: But it’s so rare to get a commentary on a film like this!
Drew: This is something I think about a lot — what types of films get that sort of treatment. Even if most people don’t listen to audio commentaries I do think it adds a certain level of prestige to a release. It’s a level of importance that reflects the larger culture.
Jenni: I loved doing it. It felt like I was teaching a class on this film or teaching a queer film history class and this was my lecture.
Drew: Yeah! I literally had that thought! I wanted to pause and watch everything you referenced and read all the books and letters or whatever. It could’ve lasted a whole semester with all the offshoots about queer history and queer film history.
Jenni: It’s a syllabus in itself!
Drew: Totally. I would love to start by talking about your personal connection to the film because I really appreciated that aspect of the commentary.
Jenni: Well, it was the first film that I ever programmed as a curator. I started a LGBT film series in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota back in January of 1987 called Lavender Images. It was a gay and lesbian film series and then it kind of morphed or merged with what became the Minneapolis LGBT Film Festival. I was co-director of that festival in the late 80s and early 90s and then I came to San Francisco to be co-director of Frameline, the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival. And Mädchen in Uniform was the very first film I ever curated. It was the opening night of that film series and was completely sold out. It’s just an amazing film.
When we look at pre-code films it’s always so surprising to see the gay things and the explicit things we’ve learned not to expect from older films. It’s similar here. This is a German film so it’s not about the code, but this time in history had such a vibrant gay community, Berlin in particular, and that’s reflected on screen. It’s amazing to see how truly queer the narrative is and it’s exciting to watch it as a contemporary viewer and look back and see that history.
Drew: I think there’s a conservative impulse to frame history as linear and to frame certain liberal progress as linear. But looking at queer history in general and even just looking at queer film history that’s simply not the case.
Drew: When did you first see the film? How did you find it and decide to curate it?
Jenni: Well, actually, in the case of Mädchen in Uniform I hadn’t actually seen the film. In 1986, I read Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies and there were all these films that Vito wrote about that I wanted to see but couldn’t because they weren’t on video yet. That was was the impetus to start this gay film series. I just wanted to see the films and I figured other people would want to see them too. I programmed all the films that first year without having seen them — including the most challenging one I showed: The Killing of Sister George.
Drew: (laughs) Oh no.
Jenni: A lot of women were very mad at me.
Drew: (laughs) Sure.
Jenni: I mean, it’s such a great film! It’s such a crazy, crazy movie. But it’s easier to watch now because it’s farther away from the moment. The film came out in 1968 and this was in 1987 so it wasn’t that old and the women who came to see it were like what is this homophobic obnoxious mainstream lesbian movie and how could you show this to us? They were really mad and I had to say you know I’m sorry I hadn’t actually seen the film. I thought it was important that we see it because we’ve read about it, we’ve heard about it, and everyone is curious what it is.
Drew: That’s really funny. I mean, I saw that movie for the first time only a few years ago and even I found it painful. It is very unpleasant and very harsh. So I can imagine at the time being even closer to it that people would not be pleased. That’s really funny though.
Jenni: I know. These women were like this is horrible, we lived this. It’s still hard to watch, but at least now you can get a campy quality from it.
Jenni: But back to Mädchen in Uniform.
Drew: Something I didn’t know that I learned from your commentary was that for decades Mädchen was only discussed in the context of its cinematic achievements and its anti-authoritarian message — not its queerness.
Before coming out I projected my gender feelings onto watching a lot of movies directed by women, so I first saw the film as like an early work by a woman filmmaker. But even in that context it was framed very much as a classic of queer film — to the point where it was almost more a piece of history than an actual movie. So when did that shift happen? And why as a culture do we have such a hard time holding both things at the same time? It feels like there’s a very clear delineation. Either the film is a cinematic accomplishment and a work of protest art or it’s a classic of queer cinema. But it’s actually all those things.
Jenni: I think there are many films that get categorized as identity based films. It’s like anything that’s not a cis straight white male film — which gets to be called “a film” — is like “a (fill in the blank) film” and that’s all it is. It’s maddening. It minimizes the significance of people’s experience by saying anyone that is at all marginalized is only their marginalization. And so I like to say Mädchen is a lesbian film, it’s a film primarily made by women, and also it transcends those categories. A film can be a queer film, a Black film, and have themes that are universal to all humans. This seems more and more obvious as the days go by.
Jenni: It is an astounding film in the respect that it’s a 90 year old movie that is so relevant right now. It was really powerful to do the research and put it in that framework. This is a year before Adolf Hitler rises to power and the people who wrote this and produced it and made it are similar to where we are right now.
Jenni: They’re trying to navigate what’s about to happen. It has this incredible message about authoritarianism and this kind of sense of dark and light or oppression and freedom. It does get centered around queerness but it’s also about a broadened universal sense of love and respect for people vs. cracked down rigid authoritarianism. It has this allegorical quality to it that’s really sophisticated and it’s such a powerful film.
Drew: It really is. And it’s not a film that’s talked about a lot in mainstream cinephile circles — and by mainstream I guess I mean straight and male — but it should be. Even some queer people when I wrote my piece about it last summer seemed resistant to viewing the film as an allegory for Nazism or really anything outside its queerness — as if those things aren’t connected! It was just so interesting to me this inability, even among some queer people, to hold these different things at the same time. I think this happens a lot and I try in my writing and just in talking to people to fight against it. Like yes it’s amazing that Desert Hearts has such a great sex scene in 1985 but ALSO it’s an incredible film so can we talk about it technically? I find that very frustrating with Mädchen specifically. But like you say in the commentary when it first came out it was the opposite!
Jenni: Right, right. Well, I think it has to do with the time. I mean, it’s still the case today where people accuse us of thinking everything is gay. There’s a tendency to play down the queerness of certain work. But more so back then. There were all these reviews at the time that were like this is an innocent portrayal and people are turning it into this perverted thing and seeing something that’s not there. Of course, they don’t dare say that this terrible thing is homosexuality.
When it was released in the US a bunch of the lesbian stuff was cut — the more explicit moments were edited out — so then mainstream critics were watching this censored version saying oh it’s just a schoolgirl thing and it’s just this innocent film. But even with the most explicit scenes cut out you could still see it.
Drew: Yeah, I can’t imagine. It’s just such a part of the film. Like, sure, the kiss can get cut and things like that but it’s still so obvious.
Jenni: It’s also interesting when you think in terms of historical understandings of sexuality and gender. Even in say the early 90s trans identity was very different — what categories were available or the way that we talked about things — let alone looking back at 1969 and how people thought of themselves and described themselves and experienced themselves then. So in 1931, I think we have a sense there was such a thing as a lesbian identity that resembled lesbian identity today and in Berlin specifically there were dozens of lesbian bars and all this lesbian culture. But in terms of the mainstream understanding of what that meant it wasn’t like you had like The L Word and Rachel Maddow. So any mainstream understanding or even self understanding of what lesbian identity meant was just completely different than anything we understand today. But there was such a concept of a schoolgirl crush and so there was an effort to see it in that innocent kind of way.
And there is a level of discomfort to it. I mean this woman is her teacher and there are ethical issues. Hertha Thiele who plays Manuela is supposed to be 14 years old. Thiele is really 22 years old and Dorothea Wieck who plays her teacher is actually the same age. But that’s not in the plot of the film. In the plot of the film they are significantly different in age and there’s the teacher/student power dynamic so it’s uncomfortable. But as I say in the commentary it’s helpful to remember that the actresses are the same age.
Drew: That was actually the next thing I was going to ask about because I think it complicates the film itself and also its influence. I don’t know if you would say it started this trope or just continued this trope from other mediums but the student/teacher dynamic is a very prominent part of the first hundred years of lesbian cinema. I make excuses for this film because of the time period but feel more complicated about it as a trope. Do you think it can be attributed to Mädchen?
Jenni: Yeah definitely. I mean, it’s based on a play which was then also adapted into a book subsequent to it being a movie. I’m only a film historian, not a general queer historian, but I would imagine there must be a history of literature where you have this kind of dynamic. Even just in gay history in general going back to the Greeks you have this teacher/student or mentor/mentee dynamic. But in terms of lesbian film history Mädchen was the thing that spawned any number of remakes of the film itself and then Olivia and Loving Annabelle and so many others.
Drew: I only saw Olivia for the first time last summer when I was able to watch the new restoration and I really appreciate the way that film takes a much more critical look at this dynamic. Mädchen romanticizes it but that film is very critical and shows the ways in which it’s toxic and wrong. Obviously something like Loving Annabelle has… very different goals. (laughs) But it’s interesting that the two actors are the same age here. Was there any discussion of why that choice was made?
Jenni: I think it’s just because they were the original stage actors. The whole cast is women in their 20s other than the headmistress and her henchwoman who are obviously much older. Everyone else, like all the teachers and the students, are pretty much the same age. They’re just a troupe of actresses and some are pretending to be young girls. Although I should say the woman who played the teacher Frl. von Bernburg in the original Berlin production was different. She was also in her 20s but she was actually super butch. Which makes it even better. (laughs) Like you can see from looking at her that it would feel more…
Jenni: Yeah, like she seems more of a lesbian. Whereas Dorothea Wieck… I mean, you have these moments where you’re like, wait is she really into Manuela, is she struggling with it, what’s happening? Mainly you come away feeling like she does have feelings for her but she’s saying to herself, I’m a teacher, I have to resist, I can’t make it too obvious. There’s that scene in the office when Frl. von Bernburg is like we have to cure you, you shouldn’t have such strong feelings for me, and Manuela is like why? And she just refuses to answer.
Drew: That’s an amazing scene.
Jenni: And I think all of those subsequent films kind of play with that. Olivia is so amazing.
Drew: Yeah it’s incredible. Something you mentioned in the commentary that I thought was hilarious was that German lesbian audiences at the time thought Mädchen was too childish! They were obsessed with Marlene Dietrich and were like her movies are queerer, we don’t care about this. I obviously love this movie so much but I think it’s hilarious. Audiences at the time were acting as if Mädchen in Uniform was like 1931 Love, Simon.
Drew: They were like oh that’s not real queer cinema, that’s the childish stuff and we’re gonna go hang out with Marlene Dietrich.
Jenni: Exactly! Which is so crazy. They were like whatever we have dozens of lesbian bars, we have magazines, we have all of this culture, we have Marlene Dietrich and her grown up movies, we don’t need this little girl thing. Love, Simon, that’s good.
Drew: I do love the fact that Marlene Dietrich wore a suit to the US premiere of Mädchen. That’s a fun thing that I feel like needs to be mentioned. But what that response tells me is maybe at the time — correct me if I’m wrong — the desire to find representation in cinema wasn’t much of a concern?
Jenni: Well, I should qualify that by saying the thing I talk about is a quote from Hertha Thiele. She’s saying that was her impression and she was not a lesbian, she was a straight woman. But clearly she had lots of lesbian friends and was totally comfortable talking about it and her opinion was that the lesbian crowd of that time in Berlin was just more sophisticated. They were more interested in Marlene Dietrich who was a movie star and was hot and was playing a lot with gender and was maybe the like… Jodie Foster of the time? Or maybe I’m dating myself.
Drew: (laughs) I mean, look Jodie Foster is great, but yes you are.
Jenni: Well, whoever everybody is hot for now! But I would imagine Mädchen was a huge thing for some lesbian audiences at the time. There’s this one New York Mirror review where the straight critic writes “Whisperings among the peculiar citizens of our community” — meaning lesbians — “identify Mädchen in Uniform as the celluloid Well of Loneliness” which was code for lesbian, because you couldn’t say lesbian but everyone knew what The Well of Loneliness was. And then he describes how these people came out to see the premiere but he thinks they were disappointed because the film is “a simple clean wholesome little tale of schoolgirl crushes.”
Jenni: But reading that I picture people coming out for it the same way I went and saw Personal Best in 1982. I was like oh my god because there were all these lesbians who I would not have been able to meet otherwise — I wasn’t even out yet. Anyway this is a bit of an aside but I have this original wire service news photo from 1933 of the Queen Christina premiere in Hollywood of the crowd waiting for Greta Garbo and they’re all lesbians.
Jenni: You’re like oh there all these women, wait they all look like lesbians!
Drew: That’s so funny.
Jenni: And they’re like oh my god there’s Greta Garbo playing a lesbian! Of course they came out to see it!
Drew: I wonder if there was a difference between the way that Mädchen was received by a wider lesbian audience vs. the more radical queer circles in Berlin.
Jenni: Right, I think it’s important to note that the circles Hertha Thiele was in were unique to Berlin in this particular moment — and then they were wiped out. There’s a certain amount of primary history around New York City queer community and LA and San Francisco and other bigger cities, but it was for the most part extremely underground. It wasn’t like Berlin. I mean I get a little carried away on the commentary with how obsessed I am with Erika Mann who plays the drama teacher.
Drew: Oh my God, no. I was so thrilled about that. I didn’t even know who she was! So listening to all that and then doing some deep dive Googles. It was amazing to learn about her.
Jenni: That was the most exciting thing to me in a lot of ways. This is an actual lesbian and here she is talking on screen. And she’s this really significant historical figure.
Drew: It was also great to learn about the writer Christa Winsloe. Is it possible to read the unpublished novel or the play? Do those exist somewhere?
Jenni: The play I don’t think there’s a printed version of it anywhere. I feel like the book there might be like an archive.org public domain version or something. (The only options I found were very expensive secondhand copies or the library.)
Drew: Also Leontine Sagan, do we know anything about her sexuality?
Jenni: I made myself a little chart — I was like who is actually gay and who’s not and also who’s Jewish and who’s not. There were so many of them who had to leave. Leontine Sagan was Jewish but we don’t really know her sexuality.
Drew: Yeah my research always showed that we don’t really know — but that sounds gay to me!
Jenni: I mean, the most important thing is Christa Winsloe was definitely a lesbian and was actually out and had to flee the Nazis because of that.
Drew: It’s interesting the dynamic between these two women, the writer — a lesbian— and the director — a Jew — and then you have the producer, Carl Froelich, who went on to make Nazi propaganda films and was just in it for the money. And he was the one who said that Frl. von Bernburg had to be more femme so it would be less gay! Even in the work we make for ourselves going back this far there’s still usually a man who gets in there and impacts it to some extent — and sometimes he’s a Nazi. But also it was his technical knowledge that allowed the film to be accomplished in certain ways.
Jenni: It’s interesting to read the interview with Hertha Thiele because she actually does give him a lot of credit and acknowledges that Leontine Sagan was a theatre director, not a filmmaker, and didn’t really know anything about directing film. And Froelich brought that knowledge. We don’t know exactly what choices were made by whom but it does seem like he had a cinematic influence. And the film really is so interesting cinematically in terms of the cinematography. And oh my God what about that discovery? That it was shot by two DPs — one of them shot Berlin: Symphony of the City, one of the most famous German films of all time, and then the other one went on to make Triumph of the Will with Leni Riefenstahl.
Drew: Look there’s a long history of male theatre directors getting into film and their cinematographer is the reason their movie is accomplished so I don’t want to give Carl Froelich or any other man too much credit. But I do find it fascinating that you can look at a shot and say this is gorgeous but oh this person’s aesthetic eye and technical skills were being used on Triumph of the Will a few years later. That’s actually a big part of the film for me. I think specifically as someone who’s Jewish and queer my attachment to the film is… I think of it like telling the Passover story every year. Like rewatching it and thinking about it to never forget and to remember that what we have is fragile. As we were saying earlier, history is not linear. There have been these moments in time, different places, different cultures, where queerness thrived. It’s both really inspiring to be reminded that queer people aren’t new, trans people aren’t new, and it’s also a little bit scary. It’s something I think about a lot and part of my affection for the film comes from that.
Jenni: Yeah. I’m not actually Jewish but my wife and kids are and that aspect of the film — that there was a considerable amount of Jewish involvement and what was about to happen — it’s just so awful. One of the last things I say in the commentary is a quote from B. Ruby Rich. Ruby was the one who wrote about it in the early 80s and was part of reviving it as a lesbian film. Well, as a film that everyone should see that’s lesbian.
Drew: No! It’s absolutely a lesbian film!
Jenni: But the thing that it’s not just a lesbian film.
Drew: Right, but it is one! I want it to be known as a lesbian film. That was an important shift. It’s just like… lesbian films can have great cinematography. It’s not either/or.
Jenni: Right, right. So anyway one of the things Ruby says in her writing about it is: “Mädchen in Uniform emerges from such a review of Weimar’s lesbian subculture not as an anomaly any longer, but as a survivor.” Not as an anomaly, but as a survivor. Which obviously has these multiple layers of meaning. It’s such a beautiful thing. It’s a survivor. And looking back we can connect to some sense of our history, to who those people were and what they were grappling with and what we’re grappling with right now
Drew: Absolutely. That quote. When you read that in the commentary I was already sitting down but I had to sit down again. It’s really… it’s really… wow.
So I could talk to you literally for hours but this is probably a good place to stop. I did want to ask one last thing: Is the Mexican remake available anywhere? Just for my own viewing desire.
Jenni: Oh my God. I have had such a long journey with the Mexican remake. Well, first it’s worth noting that Mädchen itself has not really been available. That’s why it’s so exciting that Kino is doing this rerelease. It came out on VHS in the early 90s and that was from this crappy 16mm original that you could tell was patched together from all these different prints partly due to the censorship when it was originally released. It looked terrible, it was faded, it was really bad. And then all these years it hasn’t been available. It wasn’t on digital and I’m pretty sure there was never a DVD release.
Drew: No, I’ve only seen bootleg copies on YouTube.
Jenni: I was the marketing director at Wolfe video for ten years. And I worked years and years trying to do a rerelease but there hadn’t been a restoration. So people hadn’t seen it or they’d seen crappy copies and it just seemed kind of marginal. Access to films is a crucial part of the public awareness around them. Hitchcock’s Vertigo — which is now considered essentially the number one or two film of all time with Citizen Kane — wasn’t available for a long time and was totally dismissed as this marginal thing. Access is essential.
I did manage to get the 1958 remake of Mädchen starring Romy Schneider and Lilli Palmer. I made a deal with the producer in Berlin and we did a US release of that on DVD. And that is also a really amazing film. But the Mexican remake, Muchachas de Uniforme, I’ve been trying to get since the early 90s. For a long time I thought it was lost but then it reemerged a few years ago. The Mexican Film Archive did a restoration and working with the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project we were able to do a screening at Outfest a few years ago. But we weren’t able to figure out how to get a company to do an actual consumer release. I keep bugging the people at Kino to be like hey how about this one? There are any number of complexities around rights issues, but I’ll keep working on it.
Drew: Thank you. Yeah there are a handful of films that I know about that I haven’t been able to see. I mean, even when I talk about this film I’m always hesitant to say it’s the first because I can’t know that for sure. In the commentary you mention a few earlier examples where a character is hinted at or it’s not as explicit, but clearly there were queer people on screen and queer women on screen. But this is traditionally thought of as the first lesbian film. And I’m like… maybe! Or maybe there’s just something I haven’t seen! Maybe there’s something I haven’t heard of that we don’t talk about that predates it! That always feels not just like a distinct possibility but like a strong possibility. And because so much of the media that’s talked about here is specifically from the US and from Europe I often think about the whole world of film and all the things that I don’t know about yet.
Jenni: Right where you’re like wow suddenly we’ve discovered there’s a Japanese lesbian film from 19whatever that “nobody” knew about. But people in Japan knew about it!
Jenni: That said… I’m pretty sure Mädchen is the first film.
Jenni: Partly because there’s at least a 20 year gap before the other movies we know about. And it’s not like there was any place else where there were tons of lesbians who were totally out and had access to a camera. So I think it probably is the first.
Drew: I will accept that, but I also still feel like, well, okay so if not predating 1931, certainly between 1931 and say 1990 there are probably a lot of queer films from around the world that I haven’t heard of.
Jenni: Yeah, I mean…
Drew: Okay maybe not a lot! But some!
Jenni: I think it’s good that you have this humility, but the Hungarian film Another Way? That was really impressive that you knew about that film and included it on your list.
Drew: Well, here’s the thing! I have that humility because whenever I think I’ve seen everything I discover something new. That project especially made me very aware of that. I’d be like cool I have this list and it’s every lesbian movie ever and then I would discover something else and be like oh wait this has to be added, oh wait this has to be added, and finally we just had to publish the thing. And then even you messaged me afterwards about a few movies I hadn’t heard of! And another thing that would happen is I would track down a lot of DVDs — often from Wolfe — and there would be trailers before the movie and I’d be like wait what’s that movie! I didn’t know that movie existed!
Jenni: (laughs) That’s so funny.
Drew: It’s happened so much, especially in the last three and a half years of actively seeking out queer films in this way. I’m constantly being surprised by stuff that exists and stuff I haven’t heard of. And, look, a lot of it isn’t good. Some of it’s made by men and it’s very bad. Obviously it’s a very special thing when you find something that has queer people behind it, that has women behind it.
Jenni: Or made by men but is actually good. And I think that’s the thing about Another Way. I haven’t seen it since 1990 or something, but I remember it being actually really good.
Drew: Oh it’s great. It’s brutal, but it’s a really good movie.
Jenni: But that’s a pretty rare thing.
Drew: I mean, like when I first watched Manji. Have you seen that?
Jenni: You know I’ve never actually seen it but I know it. It’s one of those where you’re like wait what? What is this movie?
Drew: Yeah! When I saw that movie I’d only vaguely heard about it and then I found it on YouTube. It shocked me. I was just like how is this movie from 1964? How is this a movie that exists? And that’s such a fun experience! So I guess I always leave open the possibility of more discoveries.
And, look, there’s the stuff that’s real and then there’s this sort of imagined film history that I think is important for me to hold onto also. I talk about this a lot in the context of The Watermelon Woman. Queer people have always been here but the details of our involvement in film history will never be fully known. Creating new work and speculating about the past feel like the same project to me. For example, because of the ways language has changed and visibility has increased when it comes to transness I assume statistically that one of the great male directors of the 20th century was a woman. It’s probable, right? That’s a very likely thing. There’s no way to know who so I’m not going to retrofit an identity onto say Ingmar Bergman but it is something I think about. (Also I came close in this essay. Whoops.)
Because film history has been written by the dominant cultures the rest of us have to search for things in creative ways. It’s validating when you watch something like Mädchen in Uniform because it’s so tangible. All the stories you told of different people from the crew and cast — they’re on screen right there. We can look at them and then we can read about their love affairs and it’s like an episode of The L Word but starring Erika Mann.
Drew: It’s incredible in itself and a reminder of what we’ll never know.
Jenni: Exactly. To be like this is real. It’s really there. This history is really there. We spend so much time going, oh I sensed subtext, I think it’s there, maybe that person was gay. But this is real.
Jenni: The last thing. Do you know the Japanese film Afternoon Breezes?
Drew: I don’t.
Jenni: Okay I’m sending you this. It’s another really weird film I’ve been obsessed with. It’s not that old — 1980. But it’s one of those films that makes you think there are all kinds of films all over the world that we just don’t know about yet.
Drew: Oh my God. I just googled it. This looks amazing. See! This is exactly what I’m talking about!