Complicating matters — and making things even more interesting — is an interview with the film’s producer, tucked away in the special features, which insinuates that stars Schneider and Palmer were engaged in a few extracurricular activities of their own. Artur Brauner says:
When you look at the film, or if you had been at the shooting, you’d have to admit that life seemed to imitate art. They had a wonderful rapport. Of course they had to hide it. I’ve no idea if anything was going on, something serious or intimate. All I know is that the atmosphere suggested there was. One could sense that they were not just acting, but living it out.
Far better than just a piece of juicy gossip, this informs any modern reading of the film. It weakens the ambiguity between the leads and creates a very interesting layer of meta-narrative. (As is so often true in movies, the drama behind the scenes is even better than the on-camera action).
Whether or not Brauner was right, the acting is excellent. Schneider brings Manuela’s fragility, her neediness, and indeed, her true love of the gorgeous, gentle Bernburg to life. Palmer is every bit the smart, warm, totally sexy teacher that so many of us had in high school. She’s genuinely rattled by her feelings for Manuela, though she has much more control than her young charge, and is certain to name Manuela’s affection for her “unnatural.”
The supporting actors are also excellent. Paulette Dubost is hilarious as Johanna, the kindly and rather goofy housekeeper and cook. Acting as comic relief, and also as a gentle voice for the girls (she sneaks out letters and advocates for better food), she’s the only other likeable adult in the picture. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Sr. Superior, the toughest woman this side of a drill sergeant and twice as mean. She continually admonishes the teachers who give anything other than the harshest treatment, and prides herself on turning out hardened, obedient women. Therese Giehse is spot-on in the role, with eyes that seem ready to bug out at the slightest hint of kindness.
As the obvious inspiration for the 2006 lesbian favorite/guilty pleasure Loving Annabelle, which is being re-released on DVD to coincide with the older film’s debut, Mädchen emerges as the slightly superior film, though it ends on a far less satisfying note. It also shines a light on just how deftly Katherine Brooks translated everything about Mädchen – from the repressive religious atmosphere and the student-teacher romance — into 2000s America. Of course, Annabelle is sexier and far more explicit in its treatment of the central romance, thanks to a fair bit of progress on the gay rights/queer awareness front since the 1950s.
Between the two films, it’s interesting to note that the teacher/student roles are almost flipped. In the newer flick, student Annabelle (Erin Kelly) is the confident, assured character. She knows exactly what she wants from her teacher and goes after the wavering, unsure Simone (Diane Gaidry). In many ways, young Annabelle is more mature than Simone, the adult character. In contrast, Manuela acts like a needy teenager, whereas Bernburg is logical and mature — clearly, she’s a reasoned, experienced adult.
Mädchen is masterfully shot and beautiful in a classical way; a Victorian period piece made in the 1950s, with the lush cinematography and precise acting that marked the era. It’s particularly fascinating to view the 1950s version, nestled between the even harder-edged 1931 original and the softer, modern, spiritual successor, as a sort of stopgap installment.
This is a lesbian classic that doesn’t need to rely on camp or nostalgia to be meaningful and powerful. Though it’s set in a time far removed from modern experience, the idea of forbidden love — particularly lesbian love — in a cold, repressive society still rings true for countless people in the contemporary world. The re-release of Katherine Brooks’ sexier retelling is a nice touch, and best enjoyed as a release after Mädchen’s buttoned-up affair.
Mädchen in Uniform is available on DVD from Wolfe Video.