Mädchen in Uniform (1931) Is Heartbreakingly Perfect

In 1929, the German Reichstag voted to repeal Paragraph 175, a homophobic law that had been in place since 1871. It had been a part of German criminal law almost as long as there had been a country called Germany on the map. Predictably, the implementation of this repeal was halted by the rise of the Nazi party, and even more heartbreakingly, it was enforced on survivors of concentration camps at the end of World War II. It’s worth noting that capitalist West Germany actually upheld additions Nazi Germany made to the law while communist East Germany repealed those additions almost immediately. However, there were no real heroes here, as the law wasn’t actually repealed in its entirety until the reunified German government finally did so 1994.

It’s easy to imagine the atmosphere of guarded hope under which this film may have been made, but it’s also a cautionary tale that I find chilling. Already, I’m seeing my government go after sex workers (always the first front of wars on women and queer people) with little to no reaction from the media or public at large. Remember when no one anywhere on the internet would shut up about net neutrality through like five or six different distinct legislative attacks on it? Where was that reaction for FOSTA/SESTA, bills literally designed to censor the internet? Bills that even the fucking Justice Department recommended against enacting?

It’s tempting to feel like everything is just gradually getting better, that the victories and protections we’ve fought so hard for are always going to be there, but the reality is there’s nothing to stop all of it from being taken away at a moment’s notice. The filmmakers and actresses that made Mädchen in Uniform had to have felt relatively safe doing so at the time that they did. It won awards in multiple countries. None of that saved it from being edited with a pro-Nazi homophobic ending and later banned altogether, including a deliberate effort to try to burn every print of it that existed. A lot of the people involved in the production of this movie were Jewish, as well, so you can imagine how that went.

None of us is safe. Not really. But all we can really do about that is fight, and win, and keep winning. Don’t wait for them to come and take everything away from us. Don’t expect anyone to help us, to protect us. And don’t be satisfied with a world where our rights and safety and freedom are constantly hanging in the balance.

For this reason it’s even more poignant to me that only her peers kept a despairing Manuela from taking her own life. Not even her beloved Fräulein von Bernburg was there for her in that moment. She was too busy fighting with the headmistress. And while she eventually realized that her position wasn’t worth being a part of the environment of abuse the headmistress fostered, that realization would’ve come too late were it not for the intervention of the other schoolgirls. There is no refuge in authority.

I wouldn’t be comfortable with this film if it were advocating acceptance of teacher/student or adult/child relationships, by the way, but it’s not doing that. Von Bernburg rejects Manuela’s advances as inappropriate, but she does so without condemning Manuela herself. It would be nice if it were explicitly stated that such a relationship would be inappropriate due to the age/power disparity and not because they’re both women, but I believe in my heart that’s what the movie was trying to convey. And the portrait of Manuela is so sympathetic without being patronizing.

Most of all, it is just so damn refreshing watching a movie made by women where there isn’t a single man in sight on the screen. There is a sort of camaraderie and sisterhood between all the girls that’s paid off so perfectly by the film’s conclusion, and every time I see a film that’s all or nearly all women, I find myself just desperately wishing such a thing were more common.


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