FEBRUARY 13: Leontine Sagan (1889-1974)


Today we celebrate the 128th birthday of Leontine Sagan,
the Austrian-Hungarian director and actress who is most known for her film Girls in Uniform, the first lesbian film
of the western world!


Leontine pictured in 1946, not giving a fuck. 

Leontine was born in Budapest in 1889, but she would spend much of her
childhood travelling due to the fact that her mother’s family lived in Vienna and
her father worked in the diamond fields of South Africa. She experienced what
she would later call the “turning point of my life” during one of her European
travels in Berlin; her mother took her to a production of Maxim Gorky’s play The Nachtasyl and from that moment on she was completely enchanted with the
theater. Her family urged her to take classes in more “practical” trades such
as stenography, and so it wasn’t until she was 21 when Leontine was officially
able to begin studying film under the renowned German director Max Reinhardt. Following
her classical training, Leontine hit the road once again, travelling through
Europe with several theater troupes as an actress. After twelve years working
on the stage, Leontine transitioned to a directing role and eventually became
the first woman to helm the iconic Theater Royal, Drury Lane in London. In 1939, Leontine
signed a contract with the American production company Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
Although the partnership never amounted in any films, Leontine had officially
ventured out of the theater world and into the whirlwind of Hollywood film
making. This would eventually lead to her being tapped to direct the movie
version of Girls in Uniform (or Mädchen in Uniform) in 1931, which tells the story of a German school girl who develops a
crush on her teacher. Leontine had directed a stage version of the story back
in London, and so she was seen as the ideal choice to adapt it to the screen. With
the rise of the Nazi party happening in Germany at the time, the movie was
quickly banned for its bold depiction of lesbian relationships and its
antifascist themes; however, it was revived and brought to America under the
recommendation of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (coincidence? we think not).


Cover art for Girls in Uniform, which was revived in a series of women’s film festivals during the 1970s. 

Throughout her
lifetime, Leontine Sagan made an unforgettable mark on the world of film making – Girls in Uniform was not only the first movie to explicitly depict lesbian experiences,
but it was also the first German movie to be produced cooperatively with both the
cast and crew obtaining equal incomes. She also made two other films during
her lifetime, Men of Tomorrow (1932) and Gaiety George (1946). Leontine Sagan died on May 20, 1974, but she is remembered as a
fiercely uninhibited storyteller and a pioneer of lesbian culture.

– LC