February 13, 1889, is the birthdate of Leontine Sagan, the stage actress and director and filmmaker who is best remembered for the 1931 movie “Maedchen in Uniform,” which – before being banned by the Nazis -- exposed German audiences to edgy anti-fascist and lesbian themes.
Leontine Schlesinger (her original name) was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary (although some sources say Vienna, where the family lived during her early years). Her father had been an early gold prospector in South Africa, before returning to Budapest, and in 1899, he moved Leontine and her three siblings and mother back to South Africa. There, in Johannesburg, she was educated at the German School.
After studying acting in Johannesburg, Sagan relocated to Berlin to enroll in the acting studio of the legendary actor and director Max Reinhardt, whom she described years later to playwright Bernard Sachs as “a giant -- a god.” Moving between Germany and Austria, she established herself as a stage actress in the 1910s and 1920s; she also married Dr. Victor Fischer, the owner of a Berlin publishing house.
“Maedchen in Uniform” (Girls in Uniform), the first of only three movies Sagan directed during her long career, was based on a novel and stage play by the German writer Christa Winsloe. It takes place in a highly regimented Prussian boarding school for girls, and centers on a 14-year-old newcomer, Manuela (played by Hertha Thiele), who falls in love with the school’s only sympathetic teacher, Fraulein von Bernburg (Dorthea Wieck). The film is quite chaste in terms of what it depicts (or even suggests), and at the time was as bold for its critique of German authoritarianism as for its portrayal of “pedagogic eros,” the German term for the familiar phenomenon of attraction between teacher and student. The film, with an all-female cast, also attempted (with limited success) to implement a profit-sharing scheme for cast and crew.
“Maedchen in Uniform” was initially both a critical and box-office success in Germany, and also a sensation internationally, and has subsequently become a cult classic. But it was soon banned in Germany, and even an attempt to re-edit it so that it would be less offensive to National Socialists was not able to avert that fate. Abroad, too, the film was subject to substantial censorship, and it’s not even clear that the full version released in the 1970s and now available on DVD is truly complete.
By the mid-1930s, Sagan was in London, where she worked for several years with the producer Alexander Korda, most notably as co-director, with Zoltan Korda (brother of Alexander), on the 1932 movie “Men of Tomorrow,” about a supposedly enlightened novelist who discovers that he’s a male chauvinist when his wife takes a job teaching chemistry at Oxford. In 1946, Sagan also directed a segment of the British musical film “Gaiety George.”
Most of the rest of Sagan’s career, however, was dedicated to stage work. In 1939, she moved back to Johannesburg, which is where she spent the rest of her life. She was one of the founders of the National Theater of Johannesburg, and did important work both there and at other theaters around the country.
Leontine Sagan died in Pretoria on May 20, 1974, at the age of 85.
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