If The Police had been around a few decades earlier, their hit “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” would have made an excellent theme song for the 1958 German-language film Mädchen in Uniform. As in the song, Mädchen in Uniform deals with a “young teacher” who’s “the subject of schoolgirl fantasies”—but with a twist. While the film’s plot does indeed involve a schoolgirl, the teacher she’s lusting after is, as it turns out, a woman.
Set in 1910 at a Prussian all-girls’ Catholic boarding school, Mädchen in Uniform—a remake of the 1931 film of the same name—is centered around the relationship that develops between new pupil Manuela and her teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg. The headmistress of the school and her cronies run a tight ship—after all, the girls are expected to grow up to be the mothers of soldiers, as our dear Senior Superior points out when her monocle-wielding sidekick says the students have been complaining of hunger. Indeed, Fräulein von Bernburg is the only teacher who shows any affection or nurturing to the students in her care. Manuela, whose mother has recently died, clings to this affection, developing an obsession with the Fräulein. One night, after having a little too much alcoholic punch at the Senior Superior’s birthday party, Manuela declares her love for von Bernburg to the rest of the school and scandal ensues . . .
I won’t spoil the ending—let’s just say the film ends on, well, not the most satisfying of notes, but certainly on a less depressing note than Loving Annabelle, Katherine Brooks’ 2006 modernized, English-language take on Mädchen in Uniform. But more on that in a minute.
Mädchen has long been hailed as a lesbian classic, and this movie is rife with homoerotic vibes. Several students have seemingly romantic relationships with one another, everyone has all the feels for von Bernburg, and none of this is presented as being at all out of the ordinary. However, while Manuela’s affections for Fräulein von Bernburg are of a romantic nature, von Bernburg’s affections for Manuela seem more maternal than anything else—and as this review of the 1931 version of the film points out, the theme of women loving women (which again, is completely normalized in the film) seems to actually be secondary to the film’s overarching commentary on the expression/repression of emotion and affection.
Which brings me back to Loving Annabelle. Although it gets its basic storyline from Mädchen, it places far more emphasis on the theme of sexual identity—specifically, the navigating of same-sex desires in a hetero-normative environment. In this case, the feelings between Simone, the teacher, and her student, Annabelle, are mutual and decidedly sexual. (As After Ellen’s review of the film points out, though, the sexual relationship between Simone and Annabelle brings up the issue of Annabelle’s age—although we don’t know exactly how old she is, she’s definitely a teenager and possibly still underage.)
All in all, if you’re in the market for a good queer film, both movies have their merits. Mädchen in Uniform offsets Manuela’s plight with lots of comic relief (the students are all kinds of hilarious, and did I mention there’s a monocle? Just beware, the English subtitles are not always the most accurate). Loving Annabelle is very sensual, but brace yourself for all the long, anguished gazes of inward turmoil and torturous lust.
*At the time of this posting, both Loving Annabelle and the 1958 version of Mädchen in Uniform are available on Netflix, and the 1931 version can be found on the YouTube. For my German-speaking readers out there, you can find a cool German-language comparison of both film versions and the book (yes, there’s a book!) here and a German-language review of Loving Annabelle here.