Review – Madchen in Uniform

by James Olsen for

This film tells the story of Manuela von Meinhardis (Romy Schneider) who has lost her mother and is sent to a girls’ school run by the strict Sr. Superior (Therese Giehse) who is determined to ensure all the young women in her care learn how to follow orders: “Obedient women – good wives” as she tells the other teachers in a meeting at one point. Manuela is placed in the house run by Fraulein von Bernburg (Lilli Palmer), whom she is immediately attracted to. While von Bernburg has the prim and proper demeanor expected of all women in this home, she shows a willingness to let transgressions slide in order to be considered a friend as well as a teacher. A production of Romeo and Juliet in honour of Sr. Superior’s birthday leads to a forced confrontation that will have drastic impact on all the parties.

Before even watching the film, the fact that such a frank look at lesbianism was filmed with mainstream actresses in 1958 Germany is impressive on its own. It is actually a remake of a film from 1931, also German, that was eventually banned. Both are based on a play written by Christa Winsloe.

As Manuela, Schneider provides a touching portrait of a young girl dealing with the changes forced upon her life, both in her new surroundings and within herself. However, while the teacher’s early on use her mother’s death to explain her difficulty, we are never actually given a chance to see her grieve beyond a brief establishing shot in the cemetery as the film begins. Lilli Palmer turns in a strong showing as von Bernburg. In some ways, she made me think of Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins in the way her character would switch from the stern authoritarian to the shoulder to lean on for the girls as needed.

Arriving 13 years after the end of World War II, Madchen in Uniform came at a time when East Germany had started making its way to a more liberal, LGBT-friendly (for the times, anyway) society, while West Germany was still under the same laws towards same sex relations that had been in effect under the Nazis. Beyond the acceptance being shown by this film, the conflict between von Bernburg and Sr. Superior also details a rejection of the rigid structure of everyday life in favour of a more diplomatic approach.

Madchen in Uniform is a solid film that still works today without feeling out of date. Strong performances from its leads to carry the film, as well as the rest of the actresses to support them, make this film well worth checking out.

James Olsen is an avid photographer who loves film, TV, music and just about anything in the arts. He hails from out East but calls Toronto his home.

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