Wednesday, December 17, 2008

An Antidote to Sexy Nazis: Mädchen in Uniform

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

An Antidote to Sexy Nazis: “Mädchen in Uniform”

For years Hollywood’s holiday season has been synonymous with Holocaust-themed films – see this year’s entries “The Reader,” “Defiance,” “Valkyrie,” etc. – or not. But only after reviewing The New Stage Theatre Company’s titillating “Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls!” did it hit me that revisiting the tragedy of WWII every winter makes no sense. For ‘tis the season to be jolly – not watch a Nazi! So I propose to start a new tradition: to stop equating Germany with SS boots and “Seig heil!” salutes every December, and instead go further back in time to when Deutschland was synonymous with sex, drugs, and decadent fun. Yes, this month let’s raise a toast to the high-spirited sleaze of the Weimar years; let’s celebrate the country that, before it gave the world the most notorious psychopath of the 20th century, birthed the first sexy, pro-dyke flick in 1931(!), Leontine Sagan’s “Mädchen in Uniform.”

The May/September romance of “The Reader” ain’t got nothing on this fairly chaste but nonetheless steamy affair between the older, seductress/school “mistress” Fraulein von Bernburg and her fragile, fourteen-year-old student Manuela. Set in an all-girl, Prussian boarding school, the film is adapted from a novel and play by (lesbian writer) Christa Winsloe and stars the raven-haired Dorothea Wieck, who seems to be carrying a dirty thought in her head at all times, and blond ingénue Hertha Thiele (who originated the role of Manuela onstage). From the start when Manuela arrives at the school after the death of her mother she’s taken under the wing of the rambunctious Ilse, (played by Ellen Schwanneke who appropriately captures the drama of adolescence) who guides her through the many rules of the strict institution, one of which is to not “fall in love” with the breathtaking von Bernburg, the woman all the girls lustily worship like a rock star. And these teens are not the least bit coy regarding their infatuation with their mistress – going so far as to sew her initials into a uniform, in one case even carve those initials into an arm! That the girls are all attracted to a woman and not a man doesn’t even seem to register. “Manuela, I demand absolute discipline,” the sexy Fraulein declares after shooting a lip-licking gaze upon the golden pupil when they first meet on the shadow-draped stairs. Von Bernburg transcends gender; she’s simply the essence of dominant hot.

“What do they call what all the movie stars have?” Ilse inquires as she shows Manuela her secret (male) pinup collection inside her locker. “Sex appeal,” another girl responds with embarrassed laughter before the dorm full of teens, hormones raging beneath those drab, striped uniforms, giggles over romantic pictures in a book. The heightened sexual tension is broken only when they’re reprimanded for causing such a stir. In fact, “Mädchen in Uniform” gracefully flows from “sin” in the form of lust and gluttony (the half-starved girls wax rhapsodic over favorite foods) to “salvation” through the discipline and punishment of military formations and drills, of forced group confessions – then back again. The prison guard-like principal warns that girls who misbehave will be deprived of their uniforms – even in the streets! The threat of nakedness (i.e., sexual humiliation) hangs heavy in the air like an aphrodisiacal perfume. Forever holding hands, hugging one another, playfully touching – these budding blossoms seem poised to burst even behind the metaphorical bars. “There’s a body, eh?” Ilse assesses admiringly after Manuela expands her chest, popping a button right off her dress with the force of her growing bust.

But, alas, impulsive Manuela makes the mistake of getting tipsy after a school play and declaring that love that dare not speak its name to the entire student body – and its warden. “What you call sin, Frau Principal, I call love, which can take a thousand forms,” von Bernburg stoically says in defense of Manuela who is punished through isolation. When von Bernburg encounters the sensitive blonde again she surreptitiously orders her to go to her room, to wait for her. But it is there that Manuela, expecting requited love, receives the harshest punishment of all at the hands of her idol, who decides it’s best if they never see each other again. Devastated the ingénue flees while von Bernburg bravely confronts the principal and resigns, having had enough of her cruel ways. Saying a prayer, Manuela ascends the winding staircase – and, inevitably, tries to jump – only to be saved by her schoolmates! No, there will be no “homo must die,” sacrificial dyke ending for “Mädchen in Uniform.” Indeed, the most subversive aspect of Sagan’s lesbian flick is its finale, a harsh indictment of the principal, that stand-in for all who judge love, who set the near suicide in motion. Yes, Manuela and von Bernburg will live while Frau Principal must face herself, come to terms with the lethal pain she has wrought. The final image of her wandering into those Expressionist shadows alone, fading to black, is worth a thousand wonderful Weimar words.

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