Leontine Sagan Fought Fascism in ‘Mädchen in Uniform’

Today marks the 77th anniversary of the release of Showtime, the third film by acclaimed director Leontine Sagan. To celebrate, FF2 is looking back at the life and career of this innovative woman director, remembered today for her crowning triumph, Mädchen in Uniform—still thought of today as a foundational work of lesbian and feminist cinema.

Leontine Sagan was born on February 13, 1889 in Vienna. Ten years after her birth, she moved with her family to Johannesburg, South Africa. As a teenager, Leontine returned to Europe to pursue a career as a theater actress in both Germany and Austria, and even got the chance to train with Max Reinhardt, one of the most celebrated German stage directors of the twentieth century. Leontine herself soon discovered a passion for directing both theater and film, and is today remembered and celebrated for her revolutionary films.

Though the plot itself is boldly gay, everything from the background characters, the costumes, and even the lighting add to the richly sapphic atmosphere of the film.

The 1931 film Mädchen in Uniform, based on a play by Christa Winsloe, follows Manuela, a fourteen year old girl who has fallen in love with her female teacher while away at an all-girls school. Though the plot itself is boldly gay, everything from the background characters, the costumes, and even the lighting add to the richly sapphic atmosphere of the film. In her review of Mädchen in Uniform for The Hot Pink Pen, FF2 contributor Katusha Jin admits to being shocked by how blatantly Leontine films the lesbian relationships and feelings. “I, for one, was expecting a much more conservative portrayal of romantic interests,” Katusha writes. “But including dialogue pretty early demonstrated lesbian feelings clearly—ensuring that the audience would know that sexual awakening was prominent.”

In addition to forefronting queer relationships, Mädchen in Uniform created a boldly feminist set and legend. The entirety of the cast of the production were women, and the film was cooperatively produced, meaning the cast and crew received shares in the film instead of salaries. This reunification of the worker to the means of production is obviously rarely done even today, and since capitalism most harshly affects women, the knowledge of this decision can only deepen any feminist’s appreciation for the film.

In addition to its queer characters, Mädchen in Uniform also contains anti-fascist, anti-military, and pro-women’s empowerment themes. As the film released to theaters only two years before the appointment of Adolf Hitler to chancellor of Germany, it is not surprising that Mädchen in Uniform was labeled controversial, and censored. FF2 contributor Anna Nappi explains in her article on the film, “To bypass the banning in Germany, Mädchen in Uniform was re-released with an alternate ending that pandered to Nazi ideals despite having many Jewish members of the cast and crew.” Indeed, though the film’s plot was considered indecent, and members of its crew were Jewish, German audiences adored the film, and the Nazis wanted to keep it around in some capacity as it represented German grand artistic achievement. However, Mädchen in Uniform was not a propaganda piece or an attempt to pander to a German audience in this time period. Leontine and the rest of the cast and crew created a film boldly queer and anti-fascist—a film that would have been an uphill battle to get to theaters in today’s climate, let alone in the time immediately preceding World War I.

Outside of Germany, Mädchen in Uniform also underwent censorship in the United States. However, specifically thanks to the brazen support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the censorship was reversed, and, in the latter half of the twentieth century, the film could finally be enjoyed as Leontine intended.

Soon after the release of Mädchen in Uniform, Leontine left Germany for England. Once there, she directed her next film, Men of Tomorrow, in 1932, and then worked as a theatre director and producer. In fact, she served as the first ever woman producer for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London. The survival of Drury Lane through the 1930s itself is attributed to the wild success of the shows that Leontine produced. In 1946, Leontine directed her third and final film, Showtime. Interestingly enough, Showtime follows a man who buys a theatre in order to make a difference in the quality of entertainment that its patrons receive. In her later years, after returning to her childhood home of South Africa, Leontine co-founded the National Theatre in Johannesburgh—ensuring the artistry of theatre would continue to reach her home country even after her own death.

Leontine Sagan passed away on May 20, 1974 in Pretoria, South Africa. Fortunately, the director lived long enough to experience the grand resurgence of Mädchen in Uniform in feminist film circles in the 1970s. Though her film always had been praised and held up as some of the finest work in early cinema, it now made its way back into the mainstream in its initial queer, anti-fascist form—the form she had always intended.

© Reese Alexander (7/15/23) FF2 Media


Read Katusha Jin’s review of Mädchen in Uniform here.

Read Anna Nappi’s article on Mädchen in Uniform here.

Read Katusha Jin’s article on Mädchen in Uniform‘s reception by Nazi Germany here.

Visit Leontine Sagan’s Wikipedia page here.


Featured Photo: Leontine Sagan heads off to New York. (11/20/35) Smith Archive / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2BW3D63

Middle/Bottom: Thanks to IMDb for this fabulous poster created for the French language release of Mädchen in Uniform, release by Gaumont (with text by Colette).

Tags: Christa Winsloe, colette, Drury Lane, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leontine Sagan, Mädchen in Uniform, Men of Tomorrow, Showtime

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Reese Alexander is currently a student at Barnard College, where she studies English literature, creative writing, and French. Reese enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been published in multiple campus publications, including Quarto, Echoes, The Barnard Bulletin, and The Columbia Federalist. Reese is most passionate about medieval literature, as she believes it illustrates the contributions of women artists throughout the centuries.
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