Two german films, different histories

Last week I attended a film presentation at the London Reviews of Books bookshop by the novelist Ali Smith (her novel ‘How to be both’ is extraordinary, try to read this). The film was Mädchen in uniform (Germany 1931 dir: Leontine Sagan).

I mention this as the film was an interesting descendant of the expressionist film making from the previous decade, in many of the same ways that ‘M’ (Germany 1931 dir: Fritz Lang) was. Both films were popular in their day but history has been kinder to Lang’s, Mädchan in uniform acquired an immediate following in the lesbian clubs of Berlin at the time of its release but has been more or less overlooked since, Wikipedia states that it suffered in comparison to the continuing status of Der blaue Engel (Germany 1930 dir: von Sternberg) Sagan’s film, being less of a spectacle, its success was more limited.

In some ways ‘M’ and Mädchen in uniform represent polar opposites, in the ways they seem to explore the potential freedoms and anxieties of Germany under Weimar, but both seem to anticipate the rise of Nazism. The popularity and longevity of both films fortunes were also skewed through changing attitudes in relation to their subjects. M exploits the unifying power of popular revulsion, a trick which some Nazi propaganda films seem to ape (eg. Der Ewige Jude Germany 1940 dir: Fritz Hippler), meanwhile Mädchen in Uniform offers a critique of militarism (fascism) confonting vulnerable humanity, through positive representations of lesbian relationships, (a minor trend in German art and movies during the Weimar republic). Both films demonstrate the finely honed craft of their makers, with Mädchen in uniform feeling much more contemporary in the performance styles, the eloquent exploitation of setting, lighting and montage sequences all of which feel very modern.

I guess M survived partially because Lang did, joining the pantheon of great German film makers who eventually made their way to Hollywood. Christa Winsloe, the writer of Mädchen in uniform didn’t. Unlike Lang she didn’t flee far enough from Nazism, dying in France in 1944.

This film has had such a chequered history, that it remains a complex undertaking to determine if the versions currently available are definitive prints, by definitive I suppose I mean a print which actually represents the intentions of the film makers.

Much about this is revealing of film as an institution (both in Germany and elsewhere), The Nazi propaganda ministry tried to destroy all prints, but some had made their way to the US, where the film was first re-cut due to nervous production code censorship of positive representations of same gender relationships, even though these are largely innocent, gentle and quite beautiful. So the film was quite butchered by the US censor, that is until Eleanor Roosevelt became intervened and the cut scenes were restored. However, the stage play which the film was based on had a much darker ending and the final scenes in the third act of the version I saw, which had a positive ending, in the failure of authority, don’t quite ring true or consistent to the quality of staging, performances or editing seen in the rest of the film. So whether or not this was definitive is open to question.

What this does reveal is the issue of how societal attitudes impact on what we as film audiences actually get to see.   Thankfully the Nazi propaganda ministry were unsuccessful in their attempt to eradicate this movie, due to its success in other territories, but censor’s fear of positive takes on same gender relationship leave this a problematic and somewhat irresolute movie.

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