Girls in Uniform

Girls in Uniform ★★★★

Mädchen in Uniform by Géza von Radványi is a visually rigorous yet exuberantly acted all-girl boarding school drama buoyed by political and social undertones that are relevant even to this day. The film is a biting critique on authoritarianism and patriarchal supremacy. At the time it is highly unconventional for its supportive stance on homosexual relationships. It strikes me as a German version of the steamy, lesbian themed Cracks, the Juno Temple/Eva Green vehicle where a student develops an unbridled infatuation for her ravishing schoolmarm, although this one is a lot less lurid and profane, but equally intense. There is sinister shades of The Magdalene Sisters as well in the film’s portrayal of convent life under the iron rule of a headmistress, who commands with Gestapo-like repression and distorted discipline. The movie’s best feature is a fresh faced and youthful Romy Schneider whose sheer vitality carries the whole production. My first Schneider film was That Most Important Thing: Love, by the way. After witnessing her tour de force performance in there I became totally convinced that she is a European acting giant. As a younger woman, she is just as fantastic in this tale of doom love.

Set in 1910 Prussia, the story concerns the admittance of the modest and shy Manuela (played by Schneider) to an elite, ultra-strict boarding school for girls after the death of her parents. The loss of parental affection leaves Manuela psychologically hungry for love and acceptance. Her schoolmates are a diverse bunch, but most of them warmly greeted the new girl on the first day. The teachers are expectedly draconian in their methods—firmly abiding by the belief that a woman’s ultimate duty is to be a good wife to her husband—with the exception of one empathetic soul, Fräulein von Bernburg (played by Lilli Palmer). Manuela soon realized why all her classmates deeply admire von Bernburg and some even compete for the schoolmarm’s attention to become her favorite pupil. One night, a simple, innocent gesture by von Bernburg galvanizes Manuela, turning her adoration into insatiable lust. When jealousy is thrown into the mix, the stuff of high drama is borne out.

The film is aesthetically bare and its frames are filled with neutral, Technicolor-esque hues that appropriately implicates an oppressive atmosphere. Even the grayish school uniforms blend perfectly well with the dull background, almost like a camouflage. Bright and warm colors only appear during the lively school play of Romeo and Juliet in honor of the headmistress for her birthday. I love this part and Schneider is absolutely resplendent as Romeo. The colors form a symbolic visual touch as the subsequent scene is a revelatory epiphany. Moreover, a Max Ophüls-like camera crane sweep up a staircase is employed later on to heighten the suspense, which is well executed. The climactic build-up is a little predictable and melodramatic though.

Mädchen in Uniform is an under-seen German classic that also functions as an acting showcase for a prolific and emotional powerhouse of a performer. This film treats its themes and message delicately and it is never heavy-handed. What a fantastic surprise this was and quite the treat for Schneider fans.

Block or Report