Rethinking the Relationship in Mädchen in Uniform
Note: This is the hundred-and-sixty-fourth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1931 film, MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM, directed by Leontine Sagan.
The history of Weimar Republic cinema is one that often ended in death, exile, or some other tragedy…and that includes the sudden and full-throated collaboration with Nazis from people that once seemed humane and artful. The stories of many German filmmakers and performers take sudden dramatic turns once the Nazis took power in 1933. And that is no different with those involved in the making of MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM, an already daring and provocative lesbian love story between a teacher and pupil at an all-girls school.
Either for their Jewishness, sexual identities, or alignment with new fascist regime, these individuals had their place in the German and global film industry changed in the years following 1931. Director and Jew Leontine Sagan, who came from the theater and the stage production of MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM, ended up in South Africa by way of a few years in England. Producer Carl Froelich, who provided a lot of the actual cinematic direction according to star Hertha Thiele, was essentially at the head of state film production under the Nazis. Thiele herself was uncooperative with Goebbels, and left for Switzerland before reviving a career in East Germany. Costar Wieck, on the other hand, was feted at a reception thrown by Goebbels, and she was married to a high-ranking Nazi officer to boot. Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas Mann and a lesbian herself, went to Switzerland, engaged in a “marriage of convenience” with English poet W.H. Auden to enter his home country, and became a crusading journalist. Perhaps the saddest story of them all is that of original playwright Christa Winsloe. She traveled to America with her then-partner Dorothy Thompson but couldn’t really make a show of it writing scripts for Hollywood. She returned to Europe, and in 1944, she was accused of being a Nazi spy by the French and was shot in the forest, along with her partner and author Simone Gentet. Look into the stories of anyone behind the movies of Germany at this time and you’ll find similar progression.
I give all this background to illustrate the relatively brief period of extremely free (for the time) manner of expression going around in Germany that swiftly gave way to tyranny. When we throw our collective memories back to the 1930s, we don’t necessarily think that gay stories could be told in as commercial a medium as film, or really anywhere. But the truth is that 1920s and ’30s Germany, and Berlin in particular, had a thriving LG (and slightly less thriving B & T) community. Even still, whether in Germany or abroad (for example, it was heavily edited in the US a few years later), MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM was “dangerous.” And yet contemporary reviewers, with a few snide exceptions, didn’t address the obvious lesbian themes of the film, instead describing the central relationship between student Manuela (Thiele) and teacher Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck) as maternal. But the subtext, or in our modern eyes the very obvious text, was obviously picked up by even the most conservative minds, as Nazis banned the film.
Eventually, however, MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM’s groundbreaking themes, and even its formal victories in a budding sound era, were recognized and the film rightfully became hailed as a classic. From the increasingly tolerant period from the 1970s until now, critical evaluation of MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM has centered on the mutual desire between Manuela and von Bernburg. But in revisiting the film myself, I rethought that relationship. Wieck in particular gives a tremendously nuanced performance that inspired a different reading for me. Perhaps Manuela feels all the desire, and perhaps von Bernburg is indeed a lesbian, but perhaps the love the student feels for her teacher is unrequited. This rethinking of the thrust of MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM’s power does not, in my view, tarnish its themes or resonance, but deepens this already beautiful celebration of young love, female camaraderie, and anti-authoritarianism.
The anti-authoritarian themes, by the way, were also singled out in contemporary and even later criticism. Manuela, the orphan of a military man, is sent to an all-girls boarding school attended by children of other warlike Prussians. There, her personality is stripped away as her handshake (as opposed to a curtsy) is denied, her uniform and hairstyle are forced upon her, and her books taken away. Manuela continues to rebel against these restrictions, putting her in the crosshairs of the steely headmistress and her cringing crony. A drunken outburst after a school play essentially grinds the school to a halt (more on this in a bit), and Manuela’s nearly final suicidal sacrifice puts the headmistress in her place. The final shot is that of the woman, who represents all that is conservative about German society, walking dazed into the distance of a hallway. Her time here is over. It’s an aspirational moment, and it can only come at the (near) death of a child; for what it’s worth, Manuela is successful in her suicide in other versions of the story, from the stage play to film remakes in the future.
The anti-authoritarianism doesn’t come from Manuela alone. Indeed, peer Ilse (Ellen Schwanneke) is more outspoken; she’s the class clown, in a way. The girls’ bond is expanded to much of the rest of the class, especially in light of Manuela’s suicidal distress, and the frank depiction of their making good out of a terrible, oppressive situation puts a faith in the power of platonic female friendships.
But I’ve sidetracked enough: the lesbian story is the most clear and compelling, and the other elements (the anti-authoritarianism, the hetero female relationships) serve to strengthen it. There are a few key moments that establish Manuela’s love for von Bernburg, and a few clues within them that change the story of MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM from a “forbidden love” one to a “young unrequited love” one. The foreshadowing of Manuela’s own infatuation with von Bernburg is started by her peers. They proclaim how much they love the teacher. In their case, though, it turns out that it’s probably mostly maternal; the girls are looking for a friendly and tolerant face at the strict school. But when Manuela first meets her love, on the beautifully designed and lit stairwell that comes into play at the end of the film, she is obviously immediately smitten. Von Bernburg gives a show of discipline, but gives a tender parting to Manuela. The gesture is obviously appreciated.
There’s a stronger, more provocative gesture shortly afterwards. Von Bernburg gives each of the girls a goodnight kiss on the forehead every night (itself a potentially strange situation), but when she comes to Manuela for the first time, she gives the girl a kiss on the lips. Her fingers grasp at Manuela’s neck, and it is impossible to interpret the moment as anything but erotic. So clearly, there’s some reciprocation from von Bernburg with Manuela’s initial infatuation. A few scenes later, von Bernburg even gives Manuela a petticoat from her own wardrobe, since Manuela’s is apparently ratty and the school hasn’t issued her new underclothes. The symbolism is so clear: von Bernburg is literally giving Manuela access to her underwear. So why do I think von Bernburg doesn’t love Manuela back?
I think von Bernburg is clearly a lesbian as well, but she’s obviously aware of this fact and is in more control of those emotions in a world that forbids such a thing. Manuela is just coming to terms with these feelings. Von Bernburg may even feel some lust for her 14-year-old student (who is played by the 23-year-old Thiele). At 22 (Wiecke was only a few months younger than Thiele), von Bernburg’s first actions and instinct may seem predatory on paper. Somehow, MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM avoids that dynamic. At least, that seems to be the consensus, even if one sees the relationship between Manuela and von Bernburg as mutual. But I think the statutory problems with the story are also undercut by the unrequited reading of the movie, which becomes more clear to me after the initial displays of von Bernburg’s lust.
Von Bernburg is in attendance during the school play, which is a production of DON CARLOS (1787). Manuela, in her role as the title character, is literally dressed as a man professing her love to the queen. Von Bernburg is pleased with the performance. But after the show, the girls are served a too-strong punch. In a drunken display of affection, which takes even the von Bernburg-loving peers by surprise, Manuela declares her love for her teacher, saying she doesn’t care that anyone knows. She is defiant in her love for the older woman, even upon the appearance of the headmistress. Drunken words are sober thoughts, they say.
Manuela is taken to the nurse’s office, where she doesn’t remember the events of the previous night and is dealing with a fierce hangover. The headmistress scolds her and expresses disgust with girls “like her.” She and von Bernburg are forbidden to speak with each other; the teacher tells the student to come to her office anyways. There, von Bernburg tells Manuela they can never speak again, even though she cares for her. The headmistress sees Manuela leaving the office and tells von Bernburg she’s fired, and von Bernburg retorts that she would never want to work for a school this oppressive anyways. Meanwhile, Manuela has brought her suicidal thoughts to near fruition, dangling from high up on the staircase we’ve gone up and down throughout the film. The girls find her and pull her from the brink, and as mentioned, the headmistress is stunned. Von Bernburg is obviously concerned then relieved that Manuela is safe.
But what is left up in the air is Manuela’s ongoing mental health. This may not be the end of her suicidal thoughts, or her feeling of persecution because of her love. The extremity of her actions in the wake of von Bernburg’s rejection feels to me more than an understanding of the forbidden nature of her love; she feels that it is also unrequited. Or, at the very least, she wants von Bernburg more than von Bernburg wants her. Wieck’s performance in her and Thiele’s final scene together gives me this feeling. Von Bernburg is tender and does all she can to reassure Manuela of her feelings, but Wieck provides nuance, in a few glances, that tells the story. Von Bernburg had some feelings for Manuela, sure, but she sees her student’s immaturity. Manuela is new to these feelings, and von Bernburg seems to think she can’t be the one to guide the girl’s growth. Von Bernburg is not forsaking Manuela, but she thinks she is saving her. She simply can’t be as invested in Manuela as Manuela is in her, and maybe she even thinks better of the age gap.
My rethinking of the central relationship of MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM is not meant to cheapen or deny the strong themes of lesbian love. If anything, I think this perspective enriches the film. Not only is there pain and oppression in feeling love for a woman as a woman, but there is also a different kind of pain that applies to any kind of romantic relationship. That feeling of rejection, for whatever reason, is powerful. Feeling out of your depth, feeling like the love you feel isn’t mutual, is powerful. The film displays the hope and danger in a forbidden lesbian love that transitions into the hopelessness (and still, the danger) of an unrequited one. MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM can immerse its viewer in various permutations of interpretation, an impressive feat for a movie with such clear themes at a broad level. The angst of being a teenage girl, one dealing with feelings and situations even more extraordinary than others, is made to feel very real by MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM, and that is a tremendous accomplishment.