Synopsis: When sensitive Manuela (Hertha Thiele) is sent to a strict boarding school for officers’ daughters, she is thrilled to discover that her new classmates are anything but miniature versions of their fathers. Immediately she is informed by the rambunctious ringleader Ilse (Ellen Schwanneke) that Manuela is lucky to have been placed under the care of Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck), the one instructor who elicits the budding passions of every girl in school. Manuela seems especially desperate for the affections of the young and beautiful teacher, who reciprocates by giving Manuela the nurturing she so obviously craves. However, the nasty Prussian headmistress (Emilia Unda) believes young girls are best formed into strong women by discipline and hunger, and does not support Fräulein von Bernburg’s soft hand.
Based on the novel and play Gestern und heute (Yesterday and Today) by lesbian author Christa Winsloe, Leontine Sagan‘s polemic against the strict Prussian education system was released in 1931 to enormous financial success. However, historically it seems this success is attributed less to the film’s strong anti-fascist message and more to the groundbreaking all-female cast and the fact that this was one of the first films produced to feature an explicitly pro-lesbian storyline. It is quite astonishing to see lesbianism portrayed as a de facto way of life here; it is almost immediately introduced and not viewed as strange or different at all by the boarding school students. It’s disapproved of by the school administrators, but not so much due to its Sapphic nature but rather because any sign or expression of emotion is frowned upon. There is never any mention of the notion that these girls might be “settling” for lesbian relationships due to the lack of males in their lives, at least not in the English subtitles. You can definitely see why this film was viewed as revolutionary for its time; hell, there are very few movies even today that treat queerness so matter-of-factly.
And yet, I can’t help feeling that the lesbianism in Maedchen in Uniform is a means to an end rather than the primary message of the film. Because lesbianism is not in itself presented as out of the ordinary, the fact that Manuela’s romantic feelings are toward her female teacher is not really the source of conflict. All the girls feel romantic toward this particular teacher. The conflict instead lies in the fact that Manuela is expressing feelings at all, and that Fräulein von Bernburg seeks to nurture these feelings rather than punish them as the institution instructs her to do. It’s not Sapphic love that is forbidden; it’s any sort of love. Using the microcosm of the boarding school which houses some of the most turbulently emotional beings on earth – teenage girls – the film seems to highlight the pitfalls of a fascist regime and advocate specifically for an education system which allows for healthy expression of emotion rather than total repression. We never see Manuela face conflict because she may be a lesbian; instead it is Fräulein von Bernburg who comes in direct conflict with the headmistress for showing affection to Manuela – whatever the specific nature of that affection may be.
However, I must admit that my interpretation of Maedchen in Uniform may be skewed because I did not watch it in its original language, but rather with English subtitles. It was only through later research that I learned that Manuela’s punishment by the headmistress comes after she explicitly expresses her love for Fräulein von Bernburg; in English she simply declares, “Our beloved Fräulein von Bernburg lives!” which doesn’t really seem too scandalous, and makes the headmistress’ reaction seem rather extreme. Therefore it’s hard to tell if the lesbian theme is made secondary to the anti-fascist theme in the film itself or merely censored by the subtitles. By no means do I want to downplay the explicit lesbian motif of the film; no matter what the subtitles may say, Manuela’s feelings toward Fräulein von Bernburg are unequivocally and unapologetically romantic, and the two even share a kiss. However, at least in my translation, Fräulein von Bernburg’s feelings toward Manuela seem more affectionate and nurturing than necessarily romantic. She sees a little girl whose mother is dead, who feels unloved and uncared for; Fräulein von Bernburg wants to give Manuela the love she so desperately craves – but whether that love is specifically romantic or sexual is left more ambiguous.
Aesthetically Maedchen in Uniform is a gorgeous film with truly striking cinematography, and some phenomenal acting. I cannot praise the performances of Hertha Thiele, Dorothea Wieck and the adorable Ellen Schwanneke enough; all were unforgettably heart-wrenching and truly made this story come alive. Whether for its pro-lesbian or anti-fascist messages, this is an undeniably brave and important film. However, I couldn’t help feeling it lost something in the translation. The English subtitles left me feeling a bit bewildered and unsure of what I was supposed to be getting from this story. Since it’s unlikely I’ll be learning German any time soon, unfortunately I guess I’ll just have to settle for interpreting the film in the incomplete form presented by the translators.
Maedchen in Uniform (1931) – 3.5/5 stars