“Mädchen in Uniform”: Girl-on-Girl Culture Circa 1931

Once upon a time in Hollywood and Berlin, there was a New Woman running around.

Sometimes she looked like a flapper, like Lousie Brooks, and sometimes she looked like sex bomb Marlene Dietrich.

Whatever she looked like, she was inspired by movies and gender nonconformity, just like you. And like the two actors pictured above, a lot of New Women would have gone for you in a big way.

Yes, they were the sewing circle queers of classic cinema who acted in movies with titles like Pandora’s Box with little to no irony. Today, we celebrate them; the ghosts of gay girls past whose imaginations and feelings were once rendered cinematically.

To kick off this sweet history lesson of queer proportions, I’m going to be talking about Mädchen in Uniform (1931). It’s not the first girl-on-girl kiss of cinema (Marlene Dietrich snagged that one in Morocco in 1930) and it’s not the first time the idea of a real life lesbian had been portrayed (see aforementioned Pandora’s Box, 1929) But it WAS the first time something this lesbian graced the silver screen. Seriously you guys this movie is called Girls In Uniform and it’s not a porno.

Spolier alert: From here on out i’m going to be breaking down this early German film like it was an episode of Pretty Little Liars. I’m not trying to ruin things for you, but like the sun to a creamsicle I might spoil a bit of the fun. Tbh, it’s nearly impossible to get a good print of the film anyway  because when the Nazis came to power, they banned the film and attempted to burn all existing copies… so this recap might be the closest you can get. Has anyone seen it?

Anyway, it stars (regretfully straight, but oh so cute in a tieHeitha Thiela as Manuela, and the unknown sexual preferences of many other school girls.

Though probs because they pass love notes we can assume  some of them are totes super gay.

Unfortunately for The Rules and luckily for Manuela, one of the Professors, Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorthea Wieck), is a total babe.

While Manuela is surprisingly upfront about her feelings, Fräulein von Bernburg is rocking out to Katty Perry’s “Hot and Cold.” One minute she’s gifting Manuela her blouse, the next she’s saying things like “the other girls will be jealous”.

No duh, von Bernburg, no duh.

While there is sexual tension throughout the film and shadows of doubt as to whether Manuela’s feelings are requited, we learn pretty early on that von Bernburg doesn’t quite kiss the other girls goodnight like this:

Though she does kiss the other girls goodnight, too.

The truth about Manuela’s big lesbian crush gets out after she drunkenly proclaims her feelings from a balcony dressed as a man (as we tend to do). Granted, she was only in drag because of the school play, but to be fair, the school play was only there as a device to get her into drag.

I can’t find a picture, of the outfit she wore, but I remember it looking a lot like this:

It was cute. And you should probably check out this blog anyway because I think you could like it. Oh and look, I just found a picture for you. I was close.

Anyway, they quickly send her to the infirmary  because she is suffering from a hangover and “emotionalism”. Emotionalism is what happens when you realize you’re a lesbian. It’s pretty sinful and definitely against Rules so the all-powerful headmistress quarantines her from the world.

Things don’t exactly end happily for Manuela, but depending on which version you watch (there are two), at least they don’t end tragically. Just as she’s about to end it all by throwing herself from the top of the stairs, all of her Prussian girl friends including her hot mentor damn The Rules and come to her rescue and tell her it get’s better / they don’t five a f*ck. More or less.

Leontine Sagan directed Mädchen in Uniform and Christa Winsloe wrote the book it was based on. The book itself was based off of Christa’s real life lesbian feelings for Dorothy Thompson. Yes, all three women loved the ladies.

You didn’t think old school cinema was this adorbs, but it is.

The sad thing is, a lot of the literature about this film doesn’t like to delve into how lesbian it is. They speak of it in the background, saying that The Real meaning  “expresses the devastating effects of Prussianism upon a sensitive young girl” (Siegfried Kracauer, I’m looking at you). And while I’m sure there’s bound to be a good dose of Higher Meaning in there somewhere because these women seem pretty intelligent to me, that doesn’t negate the fact that they don’t also have hours of footage of girls in nightgowns holding hands and talking about their hearts and feelings. You know what I mean? Just embrace it.

The movie went on to win at the Venice Film Festival and was a big hit in Berlin’s gay scene. It also inspired a “stockings and kissing” cult in Romania. So, that happened.

For more enlightenment:

Ruby Rich

ALSO apparently there’s a really hot 1950s German remake I haven’t seen but would love to project.

Where’s my Autostraddle film club at?

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I'm Becky. I write about style because I think anybody can look great and I think everybody usually does. I'm into self-expression. I'm into being expressive. When I'm not writing about style for Autostraddle I'm usually trying to make a film. I'm also a dancer, so I will Gahu with you anytime, anywhere.

Becky has written 23 articles for us.


    • Awesome! Thanks for finding this.
      Though I will try to cover up the subtitles because I definitely need the listening practice. :)

  1. We watched this in my queer theory class in college. It’s an excellent film for the subject matter; both queer and political. It was made just as the Nazis rose to power and wasn’t just banned in Germany. It never premiered in the US because of its content either. The alternate ending was created for foreign markets that thought the original ending gave too much forgiveness and hope to the protagonists. Even with that ending, the US still shut down distribution. We’re pretty lucky that there’s still an actual print. It’s really fascinating on so many levels.

    For anyone who can’t get their hands on the original, Loving Annabelle did a nice job modernizing it.

  2. I’ve been meaning to track down this film for years, I should probably go ahead and do that so I can discuss it with the lovely people of AS.

  3. Oooh, my school library has this on video. I checked it out once but never got around to watching it. Maybe now I will! I should before I graduate, anyway, so I can get a chance to see it at all.

  4. I’m super embarrassed by the fact that I haven’t watched this yet. I’m German and I’m the leader of the Gay/Straight Alliance and the Film Club at my school. There is really no reason for me not to have watched this yet.

  5. Torrenting it as we speak. I am so excited about this, it combines my love of schoolgirl romances and German cinema.

  6. so, this christmas (like every other christmas) I watched the movie ‘Sissi’ at my grandparents house but this christmas (not like every other christmas) my grandma said that she just loves Romy Schneider (staring in ‘sissi’) and she especially loved her in ‘Mädchen in Uniform’.
    I should watch it, is what she actually said several times.does she know sth I still ought to tell her?!

    (also it’s Hertha Thiele not Heitha…I know this because Hertha is also my other grandmas name.coincidence?…well,yes.)

    • I have an original framed picture of Hertha Thiele. Getty images sells it for 499.00. would you be interested?

  7. I’ve only seen the 1950s remake once – tuned in to it accidentally one night – and totally loved it!

  8. Nice article, but I feel like you really should have mentioned Katherine Brooks’ Loving Annabelle (based on Mädchen in Uniform) from 2006 in addition to the 1950’s version.

  9. Both versions of Madchen In Uniform are terrific and have remarkable chemistry between the women. There have always existed strong rumors that Romy Schneider, who is superb, and Lilli Palmer had a romance during and for a short time after the making of the remake.

    There is an old biography of Dorothy Thompson which has further pics of Winsloe. None are portraits. They are pics of her and Thompson on a winter vacation with friends.

    As for the two actresses, Brooks and Dietrich, most everyone knows Dietrich was bisexual. However Brooks, who identified straight, had at least 3 confessed sexual rendezvous with women – Peggy Fears, Pepi Lederer (the only one which did not work for her – they were already best friends) and Greta Garbo.

    • Yeah, I remember reading that she had flings with women but said they didn’t do much for her. And if I remember correctly, Brooks was pretty bi-phobic.
      Beyond that, though, she’s pretty much my “Neue Frau” hero.

    • Two years later, but still hoping you see my reply here.
      Do you have a source for the above claim about Lilli Palmer and Romy Schneider having a relationship? An online article or…?

  10. Wow Dora! Thanks for alerting us to that video on YouTube — what a great resource. I’d like to put this movie into a little cultural context, in case anyone’s interested in it (this brushes up against my dissertation topic). This movie is really fun because it is responding to popular literature of the time. Boarding school novels were THE most popular genre of books for girls / teenagers in the second half of the 19th century in Germany, and almost all of those books feature masculine heroines or heroines with some other sorts of unruly behavior who go to school to be cured of it (although this often doesn’t work, or doesn’t work all the way). So the filmmakers were taking a genre most people thought of as old fashioned by the ’30s but which EVERYONE had read as a child, and reevaluating it — asking, what is the lesbian potential of this story? It is, of course, also a response to repressive Prussian values, which included Paragraph 175. Kracauer isn’t so good on the queers, though, you’re right. So glad you profiled this film!

    • I find that very interesting indeed! didn’t know about those boarding school novels, even though I deal with that kind of thing (who read/reads what when etc.) in my studies too.
      though about §175, wasn’t that only intended for sexual acts between males?? at least that’s how I remember it …

      • Yes, Paragraph 175 did only explicitly apply to sex between males (although the unified German state did consider expanding it to apply to women as well on at least one occasion). But as lesbian communities began to form they wrote quite a bit about it — questioning whether it might someday be used against them as well, and questioning what their relationship exactly was to male homosexual movements — whether the battle against the law actually concerned them or not. Some lesbians were active against Paragraph 175, but others seemed uninterested in it.

        What are you working on?

        • Right, I remember seeing a documentary about the whole issue.
          I’m working on something quite different now, art book publishing and business history in publishing. But I worked on the first and second so called “Leserevolution” (reading-revolution, I don’t really know a proper translation), which also deal with what people where reading at the time …

  11. This movie and Aimee und Jaguar are my favorites. All I want is a lesbian who can speak German. Help me out here, Autostraddle. I know the world has one for me.

    It must also be noted that Mädchen in Uniform was the inspiration for Loving Annabelle, written & directed by Katherine Brooks.

    • Thought about visiting? You could even learn a bit of German yourself. It’s actually quite sexy (I just spent the best part of 8 years in Hamburg). And yes, you do learn faster if you have a German GF.

  12. OOH. can articles like “queer film history” be a thing on autostraddle, please? i’ve watched both versions of the film, and needless to say, there is no shortage of cute.

    “Anyway, they quickly send her to the infirmary because she is suffering from a hangover and “emotionalism”. Emotionalism is what happens when you realize you’re a lesbian.”

    UM. THIS IS ME WHENEVER I GET DRUNK (not that i realize i’m a lesbian every time but, um, yeah.)

  13. I watched both versions. Thanks uploaders on YouTube!

    I wish I could have a nice with someone about this movie at a nearby cafe. :/

  14. This combines my love of women AND the b&w era of film. I vaguely remember reading something on this but now that I’ve got the full lowdown, there’s definitely no excuse not to go find this and watch intently. :)

  15. Pingback: Weimar to postwar links | Limpid Lech's finds

  16. Louise Brooks is one of my favorite actresses of all time. Many of her films are downloadable for free. Check out her dance with Alice Roberts in Pandora’s Box (1929).


    Also, in Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), there is a brief scene of two girl kissing and bedding down in the reformatory dorm. The whole film is available on youtube.

  17. Pingback: The Lesbian Flick Banned by the Nazis | Jewniverse

  18. Pingback: Throwback Thursday: Mädchen in Uniform | EUROKULTURE

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