Muchachas de Uniforme, a feat of Mexican cinemaBy: Alonso Díaz de la Vega @diazdelavega1
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.
20 years later, Mexico had a very different political landscape but cinema was screened under the vigilant gaze of the Catholic church. Since 1934 there had been a commission, called the Mexican Legion of Decency, which made recommendations to filmmakers so that their films fit the parameters of what was considered decent. In 1941 the Legion received recognition before a public notary and became an official censorship agency. In its production code —practically identical to the Hays Code, which dictated the moral limitations of Hollywood cinema— the Legion included a section that forbid any representation of homosexuality in motion pictures. In spite of that the Mexican version of Muchachas de Uniforme appeared in 1951, directed by Alfredo B. Crevena and starred by Marga López.
Crevenna left Germany as the nazis rose and obtained his Mexican citizenship in 1941. Except for this film and some others starred by El Santo, his contributions to Mexican cinema are barely remembered even though he made around 150 films. Two other German exiles, screenwriter Egon Eis, and producer Rodolfo Lowenthal participated too in Girls in Uniform. This suggests that on the one hand there was a desire to repeat the success of the original version, and on the other, perhaps, there was a will to fight the notion of public morality after the experiences they ran away from. In order to address the circumstances of their new context the filmmakers changed the original setting of the film, a boarding school, into a catholic convent run by a hardened mother superior who believes in punishment and discipline, played by Rosaura Revueltas. López plays the liberal teacher who becomes the infatuation of the protagonist, Manuela (Irasema Dilián), who shares her name with the German version of the character but unlike her is a poor orphan among wealthy girls. This adds to the theme of social isolation and reinforces the misfortunes at the end of the film, which also change.
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.