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Muchachas de Uniforme, a feat of Mexican cinema

Long before Mexican films with homosexuality as a main theme, like They Call Him Marcado (1971, dir. Alberto Mariscal) or Hell Without Limits (1978, dir. Arturo Ripstein), a group of German exiles adapted a film forbidden by nazism to the Mexican context. Both versions of Girls in Uniform are remarkable because they deal with lesbianism in social contexts in which sexuality was limited by prejudices, instead of being defined by the human condition. These films, among the first of their kind in their countries, exist today as a testimony of bravery facing its environment through cinema. Societies may ignore some of their members but filmmakers can make them visible and become part of change.

Towards 1931 the National Socialist German Workers' Party was becoming an electoral force capable of casting the democratic parties aside. Its armed wing, the Storm Detachment, was close to having 400 thousand members and Adolf Hitler was considered the leader of the opposition in the German political scene. But on the other hand the cabarets, Expressionism and the literary works of Bertolt Brecht and Alfred Döblin suggested an opposite world that was born out of death and defeat. If those were the things that meant being German after World War I, then the natural reaction was to live. Christa Winsloe, the novelist and playwright who wrote the work on which Girls in Uniform (dir. Leontine Sagan) was based, as well as the film’s screenplay, surfaced in that milieu. Winsloe appears in a photograph dressed in a suit and tie to suggest the sexual orientation that would inspire her to write about the love of a 14 year old girl for her teacher. The film was made a year after the play was staged and became a success that made six million marks. Unfortunately, when the nazis came to power they censored it along with other films that dealt with lesbianism. They were considered decadent.

Muchachas de uniforme (1951, dir. Alfredo B. Crevenna) Muchachas de uniforme (1951, dir. Alfredo B. Crevenna)

In the original version Manuela tries to commit suicide but is saved in time. In Crevenna’s film the girl dies. Probably this was a decision made to please the catholic censors who, back then, would not have accepted the success of a homosexual girl. By dying, Manuela becomes once again part of divinity and receives forgiveness and grace for her sins. She becomes a christian martyr instead of a human being like everyone else, free as our aspirations.

This denouement, though, does not reduce the film’s challenge. Maybe it even underscores it. In the midst of repression Girls in Uniform pleases the censors with some minutes of its footage while the rest of the film represents the pain of being oppressed for not following the social norm. The sole idea is nothing but a feat. The making of the film and its permanence in Mexican cinematic memory are history.