Spotlight: Leontine Sagan
What you call sin, I call the great spirit of love which takes a thousand shapes.
Fräulein von Bernberg, Mädchen in Uniform
Timing is a funny thing.
We’ve known for months that our November spotlight would focus on Leontine Sagan, an Austrian director best remembered for her debut film. Mädchen in Uniform (1931) is a key work of Weimar cinema, a dazzling all-female lesbian romance and anti-fascist fable about the dangers of authoritarian rule. What we didn’t predict was that we would be revisiting this film after a week in which the world would be watching as a real-life demonstration of the horrors of authoritarianism unfolded over the US. As the word “fascist” gained a terrifying 2020 gloss, it suddenly felt like the perfect moment to be looking backwards.
What we found when we did look back, was ironic, tragic, incomplete. We searched, and read and dug, but found only snippets that could tell us about the woman we thought would be at the centre of this piece. Leontine led a long life, travelled the world, and built a successful career. Yet the biographical titbits we found were fuzzy and often contradictory. It was hard to get a grasp of even basic facts – where she was born, the key dates in her life – let alone who she was. But, as we dived into this research, another, related figure began to emerge. What we came to understand is that the story of Mädchen in Uniform centres on two semi-obscured women. Told in parallel, the story of their interlinked lives spans a century, drawing a line from Weimar Germany to our turbulent present.
Our story begins with a motherless child. Christa Winsloe, the daughter of an army officer, was born in Darmstadt in 1888. When her mother died unexpectedly, Christa was sent to the Kaiserin-Augusta-Stift school in Potsdam. An all-girls military establishment, the school’s sole goal was to prepare these daughters of soldiers to be future mothers of soldiers. The regime of iron-fisted discipline and unquestioning obedience had a profound effect on the teenage Christa, and in later life she was to revisit these years through her writing. Shortly after graduating from the academy, Christa married wealthy landowner Baron Ludwig Hetvany. For a decade or so they lived as a society couple in Munich, but Christa’s queerness ticked away beneath the edifice of respectability. She funnelled her emotions into art, pursuing her passion for sculpture (an “unfeminine form” she had been warned against as a girl), and writing articles, stories and plays, most of which went unpublished.
The story that became Mädchen in Uniform was repeatedly reworked by Christa into a number of different forms. It’s likely first iteration was as a novella, Das Mädchen Manuela (The Girl Manuela), although that was not published until 1933. By then, Christa had already experienced success with a play and then a film that adapted and expanded the novel’s central story. The play went by various names - Knight Nerestan, Gestern und Heute (Yesterday and Today) and Krankheit der Liebe (Sickness of Love) - but despite this confusion it was performed across the country and caught the eye of a young, ambitious director. Her name was Leontine Sagan.
Details of Leontine’s life are scant. An Austrian of Jewish descent, she was born in 1889 in either Vienna or Budapest. Her upbringing was peripatetic, and as a child she toured Europe with her mother, before spending her teenage years in South Africa. After finishing school and working as a secretary in Johannesburg, Leontine moved back to Europe in her early twenties. In Berlin she studied with legendary Austrian theatre maker Max Reinhardt, and began her career as an actress, touring the world and appearing in films, including roles alongside Leni Riefenstahl in The Holy Mountain (1926) and The Great Leap (1927).
At some stage along the way, Leontine married the publisher Dr Victor Fleischer. Although some sources identify Leontine as ‘a lesbian director’ and there is much speculation about her relationships with women, there is little detail to be found. At the very least, she was embedded in a queer scene, with many “out” friends and collaborators. What is undeniable, is that Leontine had talent, spirit and ambition. In the 1920s she broke into the male dominated Austrian theatre scene as a director and developed a reputation for working with female writers. When she decided to turn Christa Winsloe’s successful play into a movie, the stage was set for a radical collaboration.
Watching Mädchen in Uniform today, the first thing that strikes you are the shadows. Weimar cinema is renowned for its shadows, the cornerstone of the expressionist aesthetic, exaggerated through looming sets and stark black and white. Mädchen uses that shadow to build a moody, hermetically sealed world. The opening shots introduce us to the school and it’s imposing architecture, a kind of fortress buttressed with stone eagles, the symbol of Prussia. Rows of girls march, like soldiers, in matching striped uniforms that chillingly foreshadow the concentration camps.
The first impression is of placid obedience, but we soon learn that the picture is more complicated. A beautiful teenager, Manuela (Hertha Thiele) is joining the school. She (like Christa) is the motherless child of an army officer. “Overly sensitive, and rather flighty,” in the words of her chilly aunt, Manuela is here to be toughened up. The school’s headmistress, Mother Fräulein (Emilia Unda), is anything but maternal, a cold hearted disciplinarian who sees it as her mission to restore Prussia to its former glory. “Everything is discipline and order here” she declares, outlining her philosophy, “through hunger and discipline, discipline and hunger, we shall be great again. Or not at all.”
Initially the iron regime seems to be working. Mother Fräulein’s girls march, sing military songs, and enforce. Manuela, deprived of her clothes and forced into a used uniform, is ushered into the dormitory where girls take away her contraband – books, money, chocolate. But it soon becomes clear that transgressive behaviour is everywhere. In choir the spirited IIse (Ellen Schwanneke) shouts her part over the music, anything but ladylike. The girls giggle over pictures of topless male pinups, hidden under mattresses and in cupboards. They sneak out illicit letters hidden in stockings and mercilessly impersonate their cruel headmistress after lights out. Mother Fräulein’s speech about “hunger and discipline,” is intercut with scenes of the girls talking longingly of coffee cakes, cream eclairs and stuffed roasts. Austere Prussian steel finds its match in Weimar hedonism.
These transgressions reach their apex around the figure of young and beautiful teacher Fräulein von Bernberg (Dorothea Wieck). ‘The Golden One,’ is the focal point of the teenage girls’ desire. While she, in her own gentler way, remains an imposer of discipline, her control is built on the girls’ devotion to her. They jostle for her attention, drawing hearts on their arms and filling their uniforms with her initials. Every night before bed, she kisses each girl lingeringly (“Wunderbar!” declares one as she awaits her kiss). Manuela is instantly infatuated. In drawn out closeups, Manuela’s face dissolves into that of von Bernberg, a suggestion, perhaps that the passion is reciprocated. While the film never explicitly names this desire, to modern eyes (and many Weimar ones) Mädchen is undeniably about the love between women.
The film’s ending offers us a victory of sapphic solidarity in the face of authoritarianism. A tragic incident is averted at the very last minute thanks to the brave intervention from the girls, who disobey their headmistresses’ orders, to save one of their own. Under the girls’ accusing eyes, the headmistress’s power is revealed to be an illusion. In films closing shots she walks away from the camera into the shadows, a disgraced despot banished into exile.
Mädchen is steeped in radicalism. As a favourable portrait of lesbian desire (with a happy-ish ending) it is audacious, as is its anti-fascist, anti-military message during a period of resurgent nationalism. The boldness of that all-female setting is reflected in a creative team centred on a partnership between a female writer and a female director. Even the production history is radical – it was the first film to be made using a cooperative profit sharing arrangement between the cast and crew (although in the end that deal collapsed when a male producer ran away with the profits).
Nonetheless, the freedom of that female team seems to have been constrained. Leontine directed, but her work was overseen by a male director, Carl Froelich. Carl made changes to the script and casting, that took away some of the more explicit lesbian references from the play. Leontine also struggled with resistance from her cast. In a further ironic twist, the sisterly solidarity around which the film’s plot hangs seems to have been absent from the set. While her working relationship with Dorothea Wieck was harmonious, there was tension with the other lead actor Hertha Thiele. In a 1980 interview, Hertha is dismissive of Leontine’s contribution:
It was well known that she put her signature to the film as the director, but she did not have any idea about the medium… I found Sagan to be too intellectual. From Froelich’s side, I felt a kind of love, and even though it was a man’s love I never felt that from Sagan… she had a callous attitude towards people, and at that time I could not cope with that at all.
Despite these internal tensions, Mädchen was an instant hit. In Germany, the film wowed critics and packed cinemas. Even Josef Goebbels was impressed, describing it as “Magnificently directed, exceptionally natural and exciting film art,” in a 1932 diary entry. Contemporary critics embraced the film as a political parable, but generally ignored or minimised its lesbian subtext. Lotte Eisner’s review from 1931 typifies this perspective:
The almost unbelievable, a film only with woman actors grips us. A film concerning all of us because it socially goes to the bottom of a human theme, unsentimentally exceeding private interests. The film is about humanity, about the backgrounds of the system. A past world? It is yesterday and today…
But while official reviews did not acknowledge its queerness, the fan cult that instantly sprang up around Mädchen suggests that audiences were not naive. The film was screened all over the world, across Europe, even in Japan, to an alternately rapturous and scandalised reception. In the US, the film was almost banned until the intervention of Eleonor Roosevelt, who personally spoke out to get the film a limited release. Hertha Thiele received thousands of fan letters from women, outlining their fantasies about Manuela. The fan worship went a step further in Romania, where ‘Manuela stockings’ were sold on the high street. The Romanian distributors even wrote to the filmmakers asking for “twenty more meters of kissing,” to please the demands of cinemas.
Yesterday, today… but also tomorrow. Only two years after the hugely successful release of Mädchen, the Nazis were in power. By the mid-1930s the film had been banned in Germany, and both Leontine and Christa were living in exile.
In the 1930s, with Mädchen at the peak of its popularity, Christa’s marriage fell apart. In the aftermath Christa embraced her lesbian identity. Her relationships with women included a relationship with influential foreign correspondent Dorothy Thompson, who became the first American journalist to be expelled from Berlin in 1934 after writing a dismissive book about Hitler. Dorothy was still married when the two women first met, and Christa in the process of finalising her divorce, but the passion was instantaneous and even after the relationship ended they remained close.
1930s Berlin was a contradictory place to be queer. In the city gay bars were booming, coded (and not-so-coded) lesbians could be seen on screen in Mädchen, The Blue Angel and Pandora’s Box, and the Institute for Sexual Research was publicly advocating for trans and homosexual rights. At the same time, as fascist movements gained traction a backlash was emerging, apparent in a surge of violent attacks, vandalism and hate crime. Wealth initially provided some insulation from this turbulence and during this briefly permissive window Christa openly worked through themes of queerness in her writing. Her novel Life Begins (1935), centres on a young sculptress who gains the courage to live openly with her female lover, while unpublished Half the Violin (also 1935) is the sympathetically told story of a gay man forced to marry.
Hitler’s rise to power drew a line under the permissive Weimar age. The Institute of Sexual Research’s library became one of the first victims of Nazi book-burning in 1933, sending out an ominous signal to Germany’s queer community. Unwilling to comply with conditions enforced by Goebbels’s Literature Department, Christa was forced to publish her work abroad. Increasingly alienated in her home country, she travelled to the US with Dorothy and tried unsuccessfully to pursue a Hollywood writing career, before returning to Europe. By the mid-1930s Christa’s books were listed on the Nazi’s “undesired” index of degenerate art, and in 1939 she finally fled Germany for good. She spent the war living with the Swiss author Simone Gentet in the French countryside. The two women joined the resistance and offered shelter to those fleeing the Nazis. Christa continued to write, setting her hopes on a new life in peacetime. “Of course, you think yourself ridiculous to hide your head in the sand of your imagination,” she wrote to a friend in 1944, “but after the war, there must be books and plays.”
There was no after the war for Christa and Simone. On 10 June 1944, 11 months before the declaration of peace in Europe, the two women were shot by four Frenchmen. Winsloe was 55 years old. Later in court, the men claimed the killing had been “on order of the resistance” and that the women were Nazi spies. This story was later discredited. No one was ever prosecuted for their murder.
Leontine was more fortunate. In the aftermath of Mädchen’s success she moved to London, where she was invited to collaborate with British-Hungarian director Alexander Korda. Together they made Men of Tomorrow (1932), one of the first films produced by Korda Studios, which became a significant player in the British film scene throughout the 1930s. Men of Tomorrow was a modest success but is now lost. Leontine was never to make another film, dedicating the rest of her career to theatre.
When Hitler took power, the Jewish Leontine settled into life in exile. She became the first female producer on London’s Drury Lane, and founded The Lantern, a refugee theatre which aimed to provide a creative home for fellow exiles. During the war years she moved for a period to South Africa, where she took a central role in developing the country’s theatre scene. Post-war she moved back to London for a period to work for the BBC, but South Africa clearly never left her heart. In 1949 she returned to the country, playing a pivotal role in the founding of their National Theatre. She was to spend most of the rest of her life based there, becoming something of a theatrical legend in the country. She died in Pretoria in 1974.
The other cast and crew of Mädchen were also hard hit by fascism. Hertha Thiele’s acting career was brought to a premature end when she refused to make films for Goebbel’s propaganda unit. She fled to Switzerland, and was unable to work again for several years. Her career never recovered. Worse fates awaited Jewish members of the creative team. Assistant director Walter Supper killed himself and his Jewish wife when it became clear that she was about to be arrested. “You were only first aware that they were Jewish when fascism was there and you lost your friends," Hertha later reflected. On the flipside Carl Froelich, whose artistic oversight Hertha so admired, became a party member and as Head of the Reich’s filmmaking union was responsible for ending the careers of former colleagues who refused to toe the party line (including, ironically, Hertha herself). Mädchen itself almost didn’t survive the war. After banning the film in 1934, the Nazis burnt all the negatives they could find, but failed to erase it completely. It was Mädchen’s international success that saved it. Prints had been shipped around the world, and it is thanks to these copies that we are able to watch the film today.
And Mädchen hasn’t just survived, it has thrived. It has been revisited many times on stage and screen, most famously in 1958 with a remake starring Romy Schneider. The fight for Mädchen as a specifically lesbian text continued for decades. As late as 1976, the plans of a New York cinema to host a “lesbian panel discussion” after a screening were derailed when the American distributor objected, leading to a boycott by women’s groups and the cancellation of the event. Ultimately, though lesbians won this battle for ownership, and the film is now widely regarded as a foundational LGBTQI+ text. Through this reclamation, lesbians resist the ongoing attempt to write their stories out of history. As B. Ruby Rich writes:
The first lesson of Mädchen in Uniform is that lesbianism has a much larger and finer history than we often suspect… we need to do ever more work on reconstructing the image of lesbian culture that has been so painfully erased. The second lesson is that, in looking backward and inward, we cannot afford to stop looking forward and outward.
As for the women that made the film, their lives (and in Christa’s case, death) remain shrouded in mystery. These gaps make it hard to get a grasp who these women really were, what they were like, how they felt. But at least, thanks to the film they made together they remain at least partially visible. For as long Mädchen continues to fascinate audiences – queers, straights and everyone in between – their legacy, albeit half-remembered, lives on.
Ilinca Iurascu, A Journal of Germanic Studies, “The Media Histories of Girls in Uniform.”
Hedi Schlüpmann and Karola Gramman, Screening the Past, “Mädchen in Uniform.”
Claudia Schoppmann, Lesbengeschichte, "Christa Winsloe.“
B. Ruby Rich, Jumpcut, "Mädchen in Uniform.”
So Mayer, "A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing.", Peninsula Press.