Screened Thursday, December 18 2008 on YouTube
A fascinating war wages in a German girls’ boarding school at the cusp of the Nazi era: not just between the hormonally-charged girls and their authoritarian teachers and schoolmistresses, but between the lively, chaotic movements and warm, supple textures of the girls striving against the film’s encompassing form: coldly cavernous hallways, a camera obsessed with pinning subjects against its precise angles, and the lockstep rhythm of academic ritual. The film’s first act, where an emotionally unstable girl (Hertha Thiele) is matriculated into the institution, is dominated by a sense of enclosure within militaristic protocols, but gradually gives way to pockets of idleness and intimacy among the girls, who seek gratification for a variety of impulses in an even greater variety of ways: pin-up photos of movie stars, love notes from other girls, officially sanctioned bullying, and perceived favoritism from the headmistress. Played by Dorothea Wieck, the headmistress embodies the contradictions of this institution: her mannish shoulders and gait convey a domineering authority that the girls seek pleasure by satisfying, encouraged by her soft, flirtatious gaze suggesting a warm, maternal presence underneath. Her character knows the rules of discipline, and she knows how to bend them to her own advantage, most memorably in a perverse sequence where she bestows good night kisses on the faces of a roomful of grateful girls. The film’s once-controversial status as anti-authoritarian, proto-feminist and ultimately pro-lesbian is by now a non-starter; more troubling is the glaring subtext of pedophilia that remains largely unaddressed. All the same, this is a landmark work, blessed by a stylistic rigor that serves its subject matter perfectly.
Want to go deeper?
The following ballots were counted towards the placement of Mädchen in Uniform in the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:
Yvonne Rainer, Sight & Sound (2002)
Daniel & Susan Cohen, 500 Great Films (1987)
Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Mädchen in Uniform is viewable in its entirety on YouTube. All nine parts can be viewed along this blog entry.
Mädchen in Uniform, Part One:
Key early German talkie: a powerful melodrama about life in a Prussian boarding school for the daughters of the bourgeoisie – a bastion of the ideology of ‘strength through suffering’. The plot mechanics are predictable – unhappy pupil with crush on housemistress is driven to attempt suicide – but the atmosphere and sensitivity to teenage fears are not: stage actress Leontine Sagan brings an exceptionally warm touch to her depiction of female friendships, and her denunciation of the Prussian orthodoxy is more a matter of subtle imagery than shrill accusations. Whether it adds up to a precursor of militant lesbianism is another question…
– Time Out
The premise of the film (which simply drips atmosphere and angst) is simple and plays as the most dramatic and heart-wrenching of melodrama’s. It is beautifully crafted and performed, evocatively lit, and sensitively directed by former Austrian stage actress Sagan – amazingly it was her début and given the political repercussions she subsequently suffered, something of a baptism of fire.
Although one may view this film as simply a great love story and an anti-fascist call to arms, it was quickly re-claimed as a landmark film in the evolution of Queer cinema, becoming an important and challenging piece of film-making in this context. But in whatever context one views it, the depth, beauty, and compassion of the film is undeniable and it will forever retain an important place in cinematic and sexual history.
– Jason Wood, BBC
Mädchen in Uniform, Part Two:
Maedchen in Uniform (Germany, 1931) is considered one of the first films ever to depict lesbian love. Not surprisingly, it has a long and controversial history. The original movie poster in Germany was forthright about the film’s rather racy subject matter, featuring the film’s teacher and schoolgirl locked in an embrace. The American version of the poster depicted the girl alone, offering no clues that the central romantic tension lay between protagonists not only of different generations but of the same gender.
The homoeroticism of the original was likewise stripped away when the film was remade in 1958 in Germany. An attempt to re-release the original fell victim to a Hollywood code that prohibited works “possessing the flavor of sexual irregularity or perversion.”
Besides portraying forbidden love, the movie functions as a commentary on the misguided ideals and rising nationalism of the time. One of the girls’ mothers writes to remind her daughter not to be lazy because the country needs “iron beings.” That exact phrase may be a peculiarity in the subtitling, but the ties between strength, stoicism and patriotism are clear.
– Shauna Swartz, AfterEllen
The May/September romance of The Reader ain’t got nothing on this fairly chaste but nonetheless steamy affair between the older, seductress/school “mistress” Fraulein von Bernburg and her fragile, fourteen-year-old student Manuela. Set in an all-girl, Prussian boarding school, the film is adapted from a novel and play by (lesbian writer) Christa Winsloe and stars the raven-haired Dorothea Wieck, who seems to be carrying a dirty thought in her head at all times, and blond ingénue Hertha Thiele (who originated the role of Manuela onstage). From the start when Manuela arrives at the school after the death of her mother she’s taken under the wing of the rambunctious Ilse, (played by Ellen Schwanneke who appropriately captures the drama of adolescence) who guides her through the many rules of the strict institution, one of which is to not “fall in love” with the breathtaking von Bernburg, the woman all the girls lustily worship like a rock star. And these teens are not the least bit coy regarding their infatuation with their mistress – going so far as to sew her initials into a uniform, in one case even carve those initials into an arm! That the girls are all attracted to a woman and not a man doesn’t even seem to register. “Manuela, I demand absolute discipline,” the sexy Fraulein declares after shooting a lip-licking gaze upon the golden pupil when they first meet on the shadow-draped stairs. Von Bernburg transcends gender; she’s simply the essence of dominant hot.
“What do they call what all the movie stars have?” Ilse inquires as she shows Manuela her secret (male) pinup collection inside her locker. “Sex appeal,” another girl responds with embarrassed laughter before the dorm full of teens, hormones raging beneath those drab, striped uniforms, giggles over romantic pictures in a book. The heightened sexual tension is broken only when they’re reprimanded for causing such a stir. In fact, Mädchen in Uniform gracefully flows from “sin” in the form of lust and gluttony (the half-starved girls wax rhapsodic over favorite foods) to “salvation” through the discipline and punishment of military formations and drills, of forced group confessions – then back again…
No, there will be no “homo must die,” sacrificial dyke ending for Mädchen in Uniform. Indeed, the most subversive aspect of Sagan’s lesbian flick is its finale, a harsh indictment of the principal, that stand-in for all who judge love, who set the near suicide in motion. Yes, Manuela and von Bernburg will live while Frau Principal must face herself, come to terms with the lethal pain she has wrought. The final image of her wandering into those Expressionist shadows alone, fading to black, is worth a thousand wonderful Weimar words.
– Lauren Wissot, Spout
Mädchen in Uniform, Part Three:
The Play vs. The Film
Christa Winsloe, born December 23rd, 1888 in Darmstadt as an officer’s daughter, entered the Potsdam boarding school Kaiserin-Augusta-Stift as pupil after the early death of her mother. In this institution young noble girls were drilled to become mothers of soldiers and to learn discipline and submission. As an adult Winsloe had to write down this nightmare to get it off her chest. Yet the result, a play, does not end as positive as the film. Manuela is destroyed because of Fräulein von Bernburg’s rejection. The teacher had not dared to side Manuela against the headmistress and to oppose the brutal educational methods. The pupil commits suicide. Nevertheless we owe Christa Winsloe the first sensitive play on female homosexuality in the Weimar Republic yet without a radical critique of the social discrimination of lesbian women.
The play came out in 1930 in Leipzig under the title Ritter Nérestan (Knight Nérestan) and in Berlin as Gestern und heute (Yesterday and Today). The success prompted the film version Mädchen in Uniform becoming the world’s best film of the year. This was not only due to its ambitiously aesthetic form and the fact that only women performed. Equally important was the reduction of the lesbian aspects in this film version and their depiction as adolescent crush even though Winsloe co-authored the script and Leontine Sagan acted as director who in Gestern und heute had stressed the lesbian aspect.
But Carl Froelich held the artistic supervision. He not only changed the final scene but also put an emphasis on the critique of Prussian education and militarism. Contemporary critiques confirm this reduced and sexually toned down view. Lotte Eisner wrote after the opening in November 1931 in the Film-Kurier: “The almost unbelievable, a film only with woman actors grips us. A film concerning all of us because it socially goes to the bottom of a human theme, unsentimentally exceeding private interests. The film is about humanity, about the backgrounds of the system. A past world? It is yesterday and today; again it threatens to rise again, to overwhelm what a healthy youth education tries to create in a more modern time. (…) The inevitable consequences of narrow-minded life in a boarding school can be seen: one searches the other, suffering together grows into loving together in times of awakening desires. Adolescent disturbances or feelings for the same sex – the film leaves this open which is a good thing (…).”
The play and the film were shown all over Europe, in the USA and even in Japan made Winsloe world-famous over night. Already as a sculptor she had not been unknown. Against her family’s consent she had been studying sculpture from 1909 on at the Munich arts and crafts school, a profession to be considered “unfeminine”. Her interests had been especially in sculpting animals.
– Claudia Schoppmann, translated by Dagmar Heyman, Online-Projekt Lesbengeschichte
Madchen’s lesbianism is so obvious that it is hard to believe anyone could downplay it. Nor was it lost on contemporaries. For many viewers, it was a turn-on. Carl Froelich, who supervised the production, in part invited this by rejecting the title of the play the film is based on, Gestern und Heute, because, he said, ‘[w]e want to get back the money we’re investing, we’ll call it Girls in Uniform – then they’ll think, there’ll be girls in uniform playing about and showing their legs’. Hertha Thiele, who plays Manuela, became a popular star, receiving love letters from male and female fans. There were also more hostile reactions. In the USA, the film was only granted a certificate after the excision of shots showing the depth of Manuela’s lesbian emotions and vn Bernburg’s defence of lesbianism to the Principal. Thereafter, homophobic critics were free to argue that only perverts would see lesbianism in the film at all.
– Richard Dyer, Now You See it: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film. Published by Routledge, 1990. Pages 29-30
Mädchen in Uniform, Part Four:
Actress Hertha Thiele on the authorship of the film
Interviewed by Heide Schlüpmann & Karola Gramman, Johan Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Translated by Leonie Naughton, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. Published at Screening the Past
Hertha Thiele: It was also well-known that she put her signature to the film as its director, but she didn’t have any idea about the medium. Leontine Sagan was a great actress, a very intelligent, very competent woman – yet she didn’t understand anything at all about film. That we could have got the film together then in such a short time and with so little money was possible because, apart from Wieck, we had all played the roles in the theatre. Apart from that, we’d rehearsed for about three or four weeks before the filming started, rehearsing each morning in Sagan’s apartment and even then she tried to change her directing style to switch over to film on the basis of the script. When the film was being shot, not one take went through which Froelich (in his capacity as artistic supervisor) didn’t control. In his youth Froelich himself had been an excellent cameraman. He gave the film its finishing touches. Wieck favoured Sagan (over Froelich), but I certainly didn’t.
Heide: Why not?
Hertha: I found Sagan to be too intellectual. From Froelich’s side I felt a kind of love, and even though it was a man’s love it was a form of love that I never felt from Sagan. I need love. I need a director or a crew with whom I have the feeling – we understand one another, we like one another, we want to work together. But it doesn’t work for me when someone makes commands and never listens to what I have to bring to the work from the start. That was the way it was with Sagan actually. She delivered directives: `I want this and that and I want it this way’, right from the start. She really didn’t have the approach I needed – Sagan could have reduced me to tears really quickly. She had a callous attitude towards people, and at that time I couldn’t cope with that at all. I only learnt to defend myself later. My sister always reproached me saying that I was too hard – but life only toughened me up later, after I had fallen flat on my face. But earlier I was as soft as butter. I had to be stroked gently, otherwise it was useless. With age it’s probably even more important again – I still need to be caressed. I can’t defend myself because I don’t have so much strength any more.
In this regard, I always have to praise Carl Froelich. I continue to praise him, despite his political posture, even though he was involved in my expulsion from the Reichsfilmkammer (National Film Association). He never said, `That was bad’ when we were making the film, but he always came and said `Kleene, det war wunderbar…’, `Dear, that was wonderful, but I could imagine that if you do it this way, from there, and if you would…’ and then I would really make an effort, and he would quietly take the second version. His criticisms of me were formulated in other terms, differently than those who deliver a sermon, foregrounding the importance of the spoken word, dialectic, and so on. I know these buzz-words, and I also know what they mean. But I’m not convinced that all directors know what these terms mean, and that’s something I’d like to see put officially on the records for once.
Heide: Was there conflict between Carl Froelich and Leontine Sagan?
Hertha: You couldn’t really call it conflict. Sagan was very modest, because she was quite aware that she knew nothing about film. Winsloe was also there the whole time and she didn’t know anything about film either. It was really Carl Froelich, Walter Supper, Franz Weihmayr and Masolle, who did the sound, who brought about the film.
Mädchen in Uniform, Part Five:
The structure of the film is a mixture of montage and narrative sequences which inform each other and create an atmosphere which perhaps could not have been achieved by the use of one of these methods alone. The montage sequence at the beginning of the film— stone towers, statues, and marching soldiers—sets up a compliance and strength, a tone that introduces the audience to the life of the girls at school. From the constricting montage shots, the camera turns immediately to the girls’ school. Periodically, still shots of the militaristic, patriarchal world outside the school are interspersed with the narrative. The audience is reminded that although the school is a feminine space (indeed, there are no male characters in the film), it is surrounded and even permeated by ubiquitous male authority. Yet, that authority is itself called into question by the narrative, the defiance that continues despite the prevalence of authoritarianism. By its structure, the film succeeds in creating a feminine space enclosed in the literal walls (as exemplified by the montage) of the outside world.
In her utilization of the new sound medium, Sagan was the most advanced director in pre-war Germany. Lotte Eisner said: “With this work, the German sound film reached its highest level.” Not only Sagan’s precise use of dialogue but also her use of sound as metaphor (the sounding trumpet at the beginning and end of the film) and her creation of atmosphere, the whispers of the girls exchanging secrets, their final desperate chanting of Manuela’s name—all attest to the accuracy of Eisner’s statement.
Siegfried Kracauer also praised Sagan for her cinematography. He noted her ability to impart the “symbolic power of light” to her images. Sagan’s use of shadows adds not only depth to the flat screen but also meaning and atmosphere. Sagan’s cinematography is an excellent example of what Eisner calls “stimmung” (emotion), which suggests the vibrations of the soul through the use of light. The lighting and shooting of the stairway is a notable example. Its ascending shadows and its center depth create a tension in which the girls must operate, for the front, well-lighted stairs are off limits to them. The staircase is then a symbol of the girls’ confinement, and its darkness literally shadows all of their activities.
Sagan also pioneered the cinematic convention of superimposition of one character’s face over that of another to symbolize a deep psychological connection between them. She uses this technique in the film to convey moments of deep attraction between the teacher Fraulein von Bernburg and her student Manuela. The fusion of their images suggests the strength of their bond. It was a technique used 30 years later by Bergman in Persona to achieve the same effect.
– Gretchen Elsner-Sommer, Film Reference.com
It is a testimony to our ignorance of the period that Leontine Sagan’s film, MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM, is generally assumed to be an anomaly, a film without a context. Or else it is assumed to be a metaphor, a coded tale about something else, something other than what appears on screen. If we are to understand MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM fully, it is important to keep in view the society within which it was made. It was the celebrated milieu of Berlin-avant-la-guerre, the Berlin with dozens of gay and lesbian bars and journals, the Berlin of a social tolerance so widespread that it nearly camouflaged the underlying legal restraints (which were to grow, rapidly, into massive repression). I would stop short of claiming an outlandish Rosetta Stone status for the film, no matter how tempting, lest the reader lose faith. Yet, it might be emphasized, MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM is an exemplary work, not only for what it presents to us on the screen but also for the timely issues that its analysis must confront. It is the film revival most key to establishing a history of lesbian cinema.
In part, the film’s reputation rests upon stylistic components. It is visually unusual due to Sagan’s montage-inflected structure that manages to break away from the usually stagy and claustrophobic mise-en-scene of early sound films. Her montages, no doubt Soviet-influenced, establish a persuasive counterpoint to the more theatrical scenes and mold them into a cinematic rhythm. Dramatically, her use of a large cast of non-professional actresses lends the film a fresh and documentary-like tone, while the performances of the lead actresses won widespread praise. Aurally, Sagan was a pioneer in her use of sound, not only as a functional synchronous accompaniment, but also as a thematic element in its own right.
However, most important to the film’s reputation through the years has been its significance as an antiauthoritarian and prophetically anti-fascist film. To be sure, the film has suitable credentials for such a claim. Any film so opposed to militarism, so anti-Prussian, so much in support of the emotional freedom of women, must be an anti-fascist film. Furthermore, it was made through the Deutsches Film Gemeinschaft, a cooperative production company specifically organized for this project — and the first German commercial film to be made collectively. Add to such factors the fact that the film was made on the very eve of Hitler’s rise to power, just prior to the annexation of the film industry to Goebbel’s cultural program, and the legend of Sagan’s proto-subversive movie is secure. In emphasizing the film’s progressive stance in relation to the Nazi assumption of power, however, film historians have tended to overlook, minimize, or trivialize the film’s central concern with love between women.
Today, we must take issue with the heretofore unexamined critical assumption that the relations between women in the film are essentially a metaphor for the real power relations of which it treats, i.e. the struggle against fascism. I would suggest that MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM is not only anti-fascist, but also anti-patriarchal, in its politics. Such a reading need not depend upon metaphor, but can be more forcefully demonstrated by a close attention to the film’s literal text.
– B. Ruby Rich, from Maedchen in Uniform: From repressive tolerance to
erotic liberation. Jump Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 44-50. Also published in Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture. Edited by Corey K. Creekmur, Alexander Doty. Published by Duke University Press, 1995
Mädchen in Uniform, Part Six:
Leontine Sagan’s 1931 film Mädchen in Uniform is often ignored in film histories and critical surveys, yet as a document of its time and of its society this film provides us with a fascinating subject for study. Filmed as it was in a year which does not fall neatly into any critic’s chronological division, this film eludes classification as either a product of the Weimar Republic or of the fascist state which was yet to come. In many ways, in fact, the film stands alone, for it offers a glimpse into the considerations of many liberally-minded Germans at this time, who on the one hand feared the tide of repression which they saw growing around them, but on the other hand knew better than to attempt an outright statement of rebellion. Thus Mädchen in Uniform, in taking up themes of anti-authoritarianism and discontent, reveals precisely the dilemma faced by its creators, and can be analyzed along these lines.
On a narrative level, Mädchen in Uniform offers a rich palette of possible interpretations. Indeed, the film resists all attempts to deliver one definitive message or central theme: it seems instead to focus at times on the academy’s autocratic disregard for human emotionality, at times on the pleasures of youthful friendship, and at times on the aspects of feminine warmth and love which lead to destruction.. Manuela’s story has been seen by some critics as merely an allegory or analogy to the repressiveness of the coming German regime, or at least as a vehement criticism of repressive rule in any form. In this, the film has much in common with other anti-authoritarian protest narratives, such as Robert Musil’s Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß or even Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos, which itself figures prominently in this film. There are, of course, a number of points in the narrative which support this anti-fascist assessment. The dogmatic rules and discipline in the academy present a striking parallel to any militaristic regime, and the fact that it is precisely the blind enforcement of these regulations that leads to Manuela’s attempted suicide speaks quite strongly for an anti-authoritarian reading. In addition, at several key moments in the film, the headmistress speaks lines rich in political allusion: at one point, for example, while discussing budgetary constraints with Fräulein von Kesten, the headmistress remarks: “Hunger? Wir Preußen haben uns gewohnt zu hungern! […] Durch Hunger und Zucht werden wir wieder groß werden!” The sequences following this discussion — the children longingly discussing holiday dinners and memories of their meals at home — serve to increase the effect on the viewer and underscore the tragic ignorance inherent in the headmistress’ view.
At the same time, though, the very nature of the story presented on screen precludes a purely political interpretation, as Rich has also explained. The central issue in the film is not, despite many critics’ contentions, the autocratic nature of the headmistress and her academy, but rather the love affair between Manuela and her teacher. It is the sensuality, the aura of romance and affection, and the heartbreak of separation which pervade the atmosphere of the film. From the moment when Fräulein von Bernburg first sees Manuela on the stairs, the importance of the headmistress begins to wane. Indeed, the love affair reaches beyond the private sphere of Manuela and Fräulein von Bernburg: the other girls, too, are seen to display erotic and romantic affection towards each other and towards their teacher on numerous occasions. One girl has even chosen to tattoo her arm with her beloved teacher’s initials, and the reaction of Ilse von Westhagen to Fräulein von Bernburg’s attentions provides decisive proof of the focus on sensuality: after her letter is discovered and Ilse is forbidden to act in the school play, she begins to pack her things in a vain attempt to escape from the school. At this moment, Fräulein von Bernburg appears, hugs her, consoles her by speaking to her on her own terms (“Ich darf ja auch nicht mitspielen”) and finally, emphatically, slaps Ilse from behind, which motivates Ilse not only to remain at school, but to sigh in blissful adoration of her teacher. Rich duly notes that this interference on the part of Fräulein von Bernburg is in fact a service to the very regime she comes into conflict with: “it is her presence as a confidante that permits her to discern and block any tentative moves in the direction of revolt.” (69) The merging of Fräulein von Bernburg’s sensuality, then, with the regulated life in the academy shows precisely the level at which the message of this film must be read, where the personal meets and indeed becomes the political.
The story elements here reflect clearly the possibility of bridging the dichotomy of feminist and historical layers in the film, but the characters themselves provide another opportunity for examining these levels, too. The exclusively female cast is, for instance, nevertheless remarkably varied in terms of on-screen femininity, sensuality, and approachability. The headmistress stands of course at one extreme: the archetype of the repressive tyrant, she is, as Rich states, “the ultimate incarnation of the absent but controlling patriarchy.”  Her ever-present cane, from which she draws much of her support and even authority, can be seen as a phallic symbol, evidence of her reliance on ‘masculine’ methods of dominance and constraint. Her insistence on the “sinfulness” and the “scandal” of Manuela’s love for Fräulein von Bernburg can be taken, on the one hand, as the reaction of a patriarchal leader to what amounts to insubordination: lesbian love does not fit within the militaristic tradition of a state designed to raise, as the headmistress says, “Soldatentöchter, und wenn Gott will, wieder Soldatenmütter.” At the same time, though, she reflects not merely the patriarchal ruler, but a woman who, unable to find expression for her own sexuality and femininity, resorts to extinguishing all such expression amongst others, as well.
Cinematography and Editing
A feminist analysis of this film is sure to note Sagan’s emphasis on facial expressions. At several crucial moments in the film, for instance, Manuela’s face is shown in close-up, then contrasted (at one point superimposed) with Fräulein von Bernburg’s face, bearing an identical expression. These scenes, which occur in the classroom and in Fräulein von Bernburg’s own room, are clear indicators of the special bond between the two women: indeed, the final example occurs even when Manuela is not, in fact, present. We see Fräulein von Bernburg, in a heated discussion with the headmistress, suddenly freeze; a close-up of Manuela’s face is then superimposed over her own, and then the image returns to Fräulein von Bernburg’s room, where she cries “Manuela!” and runs off, aware of the imminent tragedy. This preoccupation with facial close-ups may, in fact, be evidence of a “female gaze” as an undercurrent throughout the film. It is noteworthy that, despite the overt sensuality perceived in many of the dressing-room scenes, there is not a single close-up of legs, chests, or any body part other than the face. The emphasis here is clearly not on women as objects, but as complete, aesthetic, and above all emotional beings. The position of the spectator, too, is significant: there are remarkably few examples of tilted camera angles, either high or low, in this film. Instead, nearly all the shots are level, and most are medium-range or even close-up shots. The spectator becomes in essence ‘one of the girls,’ on a level with and in close proximity to the characters in the film. In fact, the only extreme long-shot in the film is to be found outside the academy, in the introductory images, which portray soldiers marching in the distance, and then the girls in their prisoner-like striped uniforms marching through the gates into the school. Once inside, the viewer becomes confined, much as the girls, too, are restricted and restrained.
As noted, though, Sagan does not favor exclusively the use of ‘feminine’ camera techniques; she is equally adept at using harsher, more powerful strategies in appropriate sequences. The lighting, for instance, in nearly all the academy shots is harsh, bright, and clearly defined. In many cases there are strong vertical and horizontal shadows cast on the walls: the staircase, for example, calls to mind cell-like bars framing Manuela and the others; so too the ingenious emphasis on the vertical bar-like shadows in the infirmary, while Manuela is confined to bed, acting as both a reminder of her confinement and a critique of the oppressive regulations imposed on her. There are no obvious example of curves to be found in any of the film’s shots: apart from the bodies of the girls, nearly all objects in the school are straight, precise, and inevitably phallic…
In addition to her expert use of cinematic and camera techniques, Sagan also brings out key aspects of her film through the use of sound. Considering the year in which this film was made, and the fact that experimentation with sound had necessarily been carried out to a rather limited extent, Rich is indeed correct in praising Sagan’s “use of sound, not only as a functional synchronous accompaniment, but as a thematic element in its own right.” Indeed, the bugle calls, chiming bells, and marching feet provide telling examples of sound motifs: in many cases they contribute more to the film than an image could convey, and as such are vital in achieving the overall effect. Singing, too, is an important element: we first become acquainted with Ilse’s perky and impetuous character by observing her parody of the hymn being sung. Sagan also makes masterful use of off-screen sound, as evidenced in examples such as those where Manuela speaks, but the camera remains focused on the face of Fräulein von Bernburg. In these and other instances, too, there are interesting connections to be found between the words being spoken and the on-screen images. The refusal of the headmistress to acknowledge any complaints of hunger among the girls is, as noted above, immediately followed by images of the girls themselves, discussing feasts and dishes previously relished. Surprisingly, though, this film is relatively sparse in its use of non-diegetic sound and, in particular, music. There are a few occasions on which a faint background melody can be determined, but overall, the only scene in which background music plays a key role is the nighttime “kiss” sequence, where a distant lullaby is repeated while Fräulein von Bernburg conducts her evening ritual. In many scenes, including some of the most tense or emotional moments, absolute silence prevails, and indeed, rightly so, for the viewer is left to concentrate entirely on the dialogue and images which are presented.
Mädchen in Uniform, Part Seven:
About Leontine Sagan
Born in Budapest, Sagan trained with Max Reinhardt. The first and most widely known of her two films is Mädchen in Uniform (1931). It had an all-female cast and was ground-breaking not only for its portrayal of lesbian and pedagogical eros, but also for its co-operative and profit-sharing financial arrangements. Sagan herself was a lesbian.
An alternate ending of the movie, which pandered to pro-Nazi ideals, enabled the film to be screened in Germany, but eventually even this version of the film was banned as ‘decadent’ by the Nazi regime and Sagan fled Germany soon after.
The film Mädchen in Uniform, based on the novel by Christa Winsloe, survived but was much-censored until the 1970s. Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with helping to revoke its censorship in the USA. It was recently released in its surviving form as a video-tape, with English subtitles, in the USA in 1994 and in the UK in 2000. Even this version probably lacks sections that were in the original and for a full understanding of what may have been censored, viewing the film may best be followed by reading the original novel by Christa Winsloe.
She died in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1974 at the age of 85.
Mädchen in Uniform, Part Eight:
About Christa Winsloe
By marrying Baron Ludwig Hatvany (1880-1961), a rich Hungarian writer and landowner, she followed the conventions in 1913. After the war and the failure of her marriage she moved to Munich and started writing along with sculpturing. Her features were published in newspapers and periodicals like Vossische, Berliner Tageblatt and Querschnitt. But her first plays were not performed.
After Mädchen in Uniform had come out Christa Winsloe devoted herself totally to writing. In 1932 the play Schicksal nach Wunsch (Fate as wanted) had the first performance at the Berliner Kammerspiele. The play’s main theme are traditional gender relations. But in the description of the lesbian senior physician Franziska “Franz” Schmitt as “modern spinster” the author confirms existing prejudices rather than criticizing them. Soon after she wrote the book of the film Mädchen in Uniform correcting the moderate happy end. As Das Mädchen Manuela (The Girl Manuela) it was published abroad as early as 1933 in the newly founded department for exile literature of the Amsterdam publisher Allert de Lange. Using the Vienna Tal publisher as front man Allert de Lange was even able to deliver a few copies to Germany until the beginning of 1936. The book was translated into many languages and became a bestseller. In Germany Christa Winsloe, the so called aristocratic rebel, did not publish any more. She could not accept the conditions (e.g. the “Aryan certificate”) of minister of propaganda Goebbels’ “Reichsschrifttumkammer” (German literature department).
Soon all Winsloe’s books and articles were on the Nazi index of “undesired literature”. The author was considered as “politically unreliable”. Though Goebbels had described Mädchen in Uniform in his diary from February 2nd, 1932 as “magnificently directed, exceptionally natural and exciting film art” it was forbidden to be shown by now. Women’s love was a taboo though not prosecuted.
In autumn of 1938 Winsloe got the chance to leave Germany for a longer period, yet again as an “expert for girl’s themes”. She wrote the script for Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Jeune filles en détresse (1939) on a child whose parents are about to divorce. The film was only a moderate success – and a few days later the Second World War broke out. Winsloe decided to stay in France. In October 1939 she moved to the south and settled in Cagnes near Nizza. There she met Simone Gentet, a Suisse ten years her junior. They stayed together during the following years.
In a letter to Dorothy Thompson from July 1941 she complained about her “flops of the last years” as author. As a reason she saw especially her “voluntary emigration”. “It is no fun to write German when you want your work to be published.” Simone Gentet translated some of her work into French but there were almost no possibilities to publish in occupied France. Still, writing was extremely important for Christa Winsloe. For her it was hope for life and work after the war. “Of course you think yourself as ridiculous, to hide your head in the sand of your imagination” she grumbled in 1944 in a letter to Hertha von Gerhardt (1896-1978) an author and friend in Berlin, „ but after the war there also must be books and plays“.
With increasing scarceness of food and money their struggle for survival got more and more difficult. Nevertheless Winsloe looked after refugees who were more at risk than herself. Her motto was “you have to help, when you can.” Urgently (and not in vain) she asked Dorothy Thompson for help in March 1941. She asked for food and money: “This would be an incredible joy for a lot of pale humans and a few children of prisoners in Germany who I am looking after.”
Because of an imminent evacuation order Christa Winsloe and Simone Gentet left the Cote d’Azur in February 1944 and travelled to Cluny in Burgundy. Winsloe planned to fight their way through to her sister-in-law in Hungary. Just before the landing of the allied troops in Normandy she got the necessary transit visa for Germany. Yet they never travelled. Both women were attacked by four Frenchmen on June 10th, 1944 and shot in a forest near Cluny. Later on the gang leader, a livestock dealer called Lambert, referred to an alleged order of the résistance. The women were supposed to have been spies and to have collaborated with the occupying power. Though these accusations were absolutely untenable and though Lambert proved to be an “ordinary criminal”, he and his co-defendants were acquitted for lack of evidence in 1948.
Mädchen in Uniform, Part Nine:
About Hertha Thiele
Hertha Thiele was born in Leipzig in 1908, and died 5 August 1984. She was an acclaimed stage actor long before she made her screen debut in 1931 when she played the lead role in the film, Mädchen in Uniform. Set in a Prussian boarding school for girls, the film was directed by Leontine Sagan and included an all-female cast. Hertha Thiele played Manuela, a sensitive fourteen year old schoolgirl infatuated with her teacher, Fraülein von Bernburg, played by Dorothea Wieck. The film was released internationally and briefly turned Hertha Thiele into a star. She also played next to Ernst Busch in Bertolt Brecht’s Kuhle Wampe (1932). In 1933 she starred in Kleiner Mann, was nun? and Anna und Elisabeth, the film which she considers to be the most important of her career. Her involvement with the theatre continued throughout the first half of the 1930s: she worked with Max Reinhardt (Harmonie, 1932) and the notorious Veit Harlan (Veronika, 1935).
Hertha Thiele’s screen career was disrupted during the Third Reich. She refused the overtures of the National Socialists who expected her to contribute to state propaganda. In 1937 she left Nazi Germany on political grounds and settled in Switzerland where she made occasional theatre appearances. (The Jewish director of Mädchen in Uniform, Sagan, had already left Germany. She pursued a career in the theatre in England and later in South Africa.)
Hertha Thiele returned to Germany for a couple of years after the War, but spent the 1950s and most of the 1960s in Switzerland where she worked as a psychiatric nursing assistant. In 1966 she returned to the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for good and worked in stage productions in Magdeburg and Leipzig. Throughout the 1970s she was part of an acting ensemble for GDR television. She acted in a variety of TV series and tele-films, which were scarcely known in the Federal Republic. She had roles in the popular series Polizeiruf 110, and also had a small role in the GDR’s most loved and most watched film, Heiner Carow’s Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973). In 1975, Hertha Thiele was the subject of a tele-documentary, Das Herz auf der linken Seite. In 1983, the Deutsche Kinematek published a monograph, focusing on her life and work.
– Heide Schlüpmann & Karola Gramman, Johan Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Translated by Leonie Naughton, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. Published in Screening the Past
About Dorothea Wieck
Swiss actress Dorothea Wieck (1908-1986) became a major star and a lesbian idol with her role as the adored teacher Fräulein von Bernburg in the German classic Mädchen in Uniform. She made more than fifty films, but she was also a prominent stage actress of the Deutsche Theater, the Schillertheater and other main theatres in Berlin.
She studied with Max Reinhardt and began her film career already in 1926 with Die kleine Inge und ihre drei Väter/Little Inge and Her Three Fathers (1926, Franz Osten). Soon followed more silent films like Ich hab mein Herz in Heidelberg verloren/I Lost My Heart at Heidelberg (1926, Arthur Bergen), Sturmflut/Storm Tide (1927, Willy Reiber), and Der Fremdenlegionär/ Foreign Legionaire (1928, James Bauer).
Her breakthrough followed with the talkies where she had an international success with Mädchen in Uniform/Girls in Uniform (1931, Leontine Sagan). First the lesbian themed film was banned when released in the United States, but First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt saw the importance of the movie and the ban was lifted. Later in Germany the Nazi regime tried to burn all the copies of the film, but they couldn’t.
In the next years Dorothea Wieck took part in well-known productions like Gräfin Mariza/Countess Mariza (1932, Richard Oswald), and Anna und Elisabeth (1933, Frank Wisbar). The international success of Mädchen in Uniform led her to Hollywood where she starred in two films, Cradle Song (1933, Mitchell Leisen) and Miss Fane’s Baby Is Stolen (1934, Alexander Hall). Neither significantly furthered her career.
Dorthea Wieck returned to Germany and married into a noble family. In the following years she played in such popular films as Der Student von Prag/The Student of Prague (1935, Arthur Robison) and Die gelbe Flagge/The Yellow Flagg (1937, Gerhard Lamprecht). During wartime she only occasionally appeared in front of the camera, but turned her attention to the theater. To her few movies of those years belong Andreas Schlüter (1942, Herbert Maisch) and the Italian production Inviati speciali/Special Guests (1943). She also worked as a stage director.
After the war she first worked in the theatre, in Leipzig. In the 1950’s followed interesting supporting roles in films like Herz der Welt/The Alfred Nobel Story (1952, Harald Braun), Man on a Tightrope(1953, Elia Kazan), Das Fräulein von Scuderi/The Miss from Scuderli (1955, Eugen York), Das Forsthaus in Tirol (1955, Hermann Kugelstadt), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958, Douglas Sirk), and Menschen im Hotel/Grand Hotel (1959, Gottfried Reinhardt). After that she retired from the film business more or less. To her last films belong Die Schachnovelle/Brainwashed (1960, Gerd Oswald), Das Mädchen und der Staatsanwalt (1962, Jürgen Goslar), and two episodes of the crime tv series Der Kommissar in 1969 and 1973. In 1973 she was awarded for her work with the Filmband in Gold.