Saturday, January 18, 2014

Queer Vintage/Vintage Queer: Mädchen in Uniform (1931 & 1958)

For this Queer Vintage/Vintage Queer profile I'll be talking about the German film Mädchen in Uniform, both the original 1931 version and its 1958 remake.  Based on the play Gestern und Heute (Yesterday and Today) by Christa Winsloe, Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform) is set in 1910 Prussia and follows 14-year-old Manuela Meinhardis, a recent addition to a strict all-girls' school, and her growing fixation on the school's most popular teacher, Fraulein von Bernburg.  Very noteworthy: both films feature an all-female cast.

1958 remake
Original 1931 film

There's a lot to talk about here, and a fair amount's been said on the side of film history and on the side of LGBTQ interest sites like Autostraddle and After Ellen (reviews linked).  It'd be possible to talk about the films' place in film history, or about all the Super Gay Moments (and trust me, there are a lot).   Since I'm interested in both, I'll be taking some of Column A and some of B.  Nearly 30 prime years in film history separates the two films, so I'll talk a little bit about what sets each apart in terms of filmmaking, and each films' presentation of Queerness and what each suggest about the perception of lesbianism in 1931 and 1958--Lesbianism As Fixation, and Lesbianism As Illness, respectively.


Spoiler alert!

After her mother's death, Manuela is brought to an all-girls' school for a proper education and some old-fashioned tough love.  Branded "overly emotional," she cries often, as one tends to do after one's mother dies.  The school's strict, often arbitrary rules censor the girls' every move--candy is confiscated upon entry along with pocket money, books are forbidden, including Manuela's diary (in the 1958 version), meals are meager, and letters home to parents must be read and approved by faculty, most especially by the authoritarian Headmistress.  The Headmistress is an iron-fisted Prussian who believes hunger and poverty will lead Prussia back to greatness, and that individuality and emotion must be checked, so as to produce the mothers of future Prussian soldiers.  So this school sounds like a blast.

The only kindness Manuela receives, apart from her fellow students, comes from her teacher Fraulein von Bernburg.  Beautiful but distant, von Bernburg is a frequent object of schoolgirls' crushes--Manuela's hand-me-down dress was embroidered with EvB and a heart by its previous owner.  Manuela quickly grows attached to von Bernbeug, who takes a special interest in Manuela as well, hoping to provide a counterpoint to the school's rigidity.

Gradually, Manuela's crush overtakes her, and after the school play--in which she plays the male lead--she downs a few too many rum punches, and announces her love for Fraulein von Bernburg.  Mentioning some of the special treatment she's received, she shouts that von Bernburg loves her, too.  The Headmistress is outraged, and immediately sends Manuela into confinement and forbids her any future interaction with von Bernburg.  Von Bernburg resigns, and in her hysteria Manuela nearly commits suicide by throwing herself down the school's main stairwell.  She's intercepted just in time, and the film ends with the Headmistress chastened by the dire results of her strict treatment of the girls.

Differences in Production

Though the production value differs enormously between the 1931* and 1958 films, both follow the same story, each with a few details of their own.  Given the novelty of sound and still-developing techniques in cinematography, the older film is a rougher view--cuts between scenes have a near-palpable jolt, actors aren't always framed well, and acting styles vary widely.  That many of the actors in the film were pulled straight from the stage production of Gestern und Heute explains this last detail. By comparison, the 1958 film is much more recognizable.  Hollywood's influence is felt in everything from the seamless structure of the story to the superb acting, and even the conventional beauty of Fraulein von Bernburg (played by Lilli Palmer).

While many of the developments in film make the 1958 version more watchable, 1931 director Leontine Sagan used much of early film's limitations to her advantage.  Using heavy chiaroscuro techniques, Sagan captured the gloomy, forbidding environment of the school wordlessly.

A still from the 1931 film Mädchen in Uniform
Costuming and casting were also used for a particular effect.  While Lilli Palmer is softly beautiful, Dorothea Weick's Fraulein von Bernburg, with high-neck dress, severe hair, and darker features, appears alternately cold and riveting.  She embodies the warning given to Manuela on her first day: "Careful you don't fall in love!  …She's different.  She's hard to read.  She'll give you a terrifying look, then all of a sudden she'll be sweet again.  Frau Bernburg is really strange."

Dorothea Wieck as Fraulein von Bernburg, 1931
Lilli Palmer as Fraulein von Bernburg, 1958
Mädchen in Uniform's first film adaptation occurred towards the end of the Weimar Republic.  This inter-war period, much like the Roaring Twenties in the U.S., saw an explosion of culture, with an outpouring of theater, film, music, art, literature, and a burgeoning a gay subculture.  Taboos were openly violated, sex was out in the open, and Marlene Dietrich crooned a lesbian duet with her "Beste Freundin."  Though some queer interest pieces express shock that a movie about sexual love between two women was made in--gasp!--1931, knowing the environment of the Weimar Republic, I was surprised the film wasn't more shocking.  Similarly, some  praise the 1958 film for craftily evading the stringent Hays Code, which heavily, heavily censored film content beginning in 1930--forgetting that the Hays Code had no jurisdiction over foreign films.  In both cases, the content of the films is shocking, but perhaps not for the reasons most frequently cited.

1931: Lesbianism As Fixation

In the 1931 film, almost from the moment we're introduced to Manuela, she's weeping.  She cries often--to a new friend when talking about her mother, very often in front of Fraulein von Bernburg, and so thoroughly that a maid tells von Bernburg, "I feel sorry for Fraulein von Bernburg… She cries a lot at night.  Her pillow is always wet."  Though she has reason enough to cry, her emotions are discouraged--"Soldiers' daughters don't cry!" she's told by her aunt, who, it's worth noting, is the deceased mother's sister.  Though von Bernburg is equally stern at every outburst, she quickly softens and attempts to comfort Manuela.  The turning point in their relationship comes when von Bernburg bids the girls goodnight.  She gives each a goodnight kiss on the forehead, a ritual that elicits near-hysterical glee from the girls.  When she reaches Manuela, Manuela throws herself onto von Bernburg, having finally found some comfort, and when von Bernburg pulls Manuela away, she gives her a goodnight kiss on the lips.
That is quite a goodnight kiss.
Of course, the kiss isn't quite as romantic as a still image suggests, but it's enough of a mixture of motherly and erotic love to feed Manuela's fixation.  From this point on, whenever she has a problem, Manuela turns to von Bernburg.  On one occasion, von Bernburg gives her a camisole, to replace the worn one Manuela brought with her, and in her happiness, she hugs von Bernburg--and promptly weeps.  When von Bernburg questions her, Manuela makes a confession:
M: I'm not unhappy at all, I don't really know why I'm crying.
EvB: Are you homesick?
M: Homesick?  No.  Sometimes I just need to cry.
EvB: And you don't know why?  Or is it something you can't trust me with?
M: I can trust you with everything, it's just hard to say.
EvB: Try, I'd really like to know.
M: When you say goodnight and leave, and shut the door behind you, I stare at the door in the darkness.  I want to get up and go to you, but I know I can't.  And when I think how I'll have to leave, and you'll still be here, kissing different girls every night… I love you so, but you're always so distant!  I can't ever go to your room and talk to you, or take your hand--
EvB: Pull yourself together, child!

This girl must have a real problem with dehydration.
 Rather than shut Manuela down completely, von Bernburg tells her she must be a good friend to the other girls, and realize that if she made exceptions for her, the others would be jealous.  She dangles a carrot in front of her, too-- "I think of you very often, Manuela."  Manuela leaves elated, and further infatuated.

Though this scene has definite sapphic overtones, the fact that each of Manuela and von Bernburg's encounters is preceded by Manuela weeping with grief and followed by a comforting word suggests that what Manuela feels isn't sexual, it's emotional.  Manuela feels deeply for von Bernburg, but her frantic love is her grasping tightly to a surrogate mother.  From this vantage point, Manuela's determination to impress von Bernburg with her lead role in Schiller's Don Carlos and her drunken outburst afterward are frenzied attempts to keep this affection--an understandable desire after the loss of a mother.  Further bolstering this interpretation? In Don Carlos, the eponymous character falls in love with his stepmother.  After the show, in her drunkenness, Manuela gets the attention of the others girls, and shouts:

"She gave me a present.  A camisole.  I've got it on.  She opened her cupboard and gave me a camisole!  'Wear it and think of me.'  No, she didn't say that, but that must be what she meant.  I'm so happy, because now I know for sure-- she cares for me!  Fraulein von Bernburg!  Nothing else matters. She's there, she cares for me!  I'm not afraid of anything or anyone!  Long live our beloved Fraulein von Bernburg!"

Unfortunately for Manuela, the Headmistress arrived to see what the commotion was, and, screaming "Scandal!" sends Manuela into confinement.  Manuela's histrionics appear to upset the Headmistress not because of their object, but because emotionalism in general angers her--particularly when invited (monied) playgoers are in the next room.  Similarly, Manuela's despair at being separated from von Bernburg can be understood as a reaction to having a second maternal figure ripped from her side.  Manuela's fixation on von Bernburg is extreme, but nowhere does it suggest an overtly sexual longing.

One cinematographic detail that throws von Bernburg's motivations into question: at two points, a close-up of von Bernburg is followed by a double exposure and closeup of Manuela's angelic face--von Bernburg has either a vision or a fantasy of Manuela.  Once during class, and once immediately before Manuela's attempted suicide.

In this period, lesbianism as it's known today wasn't exactly a concept.  Mädchen in Uniform came out during Berlin's fascination with Marlene Dietrich's Lola Lola, and was in fact overshadowed by Der Blaue Engel.  Just before Mädchen in Uniform was filmed, Dietrich also beat Mädchen to the first female/female kiss in film with Morocco.  But for all of this queerness circulating, lesbian sex was most often considered a part of a woman's sex life, not its entirety.  Dietrich was bisexual, but at no time questioned heterosexuality as the norm. Lesbian sex was considered to be good for a girl, in fact, but didn't threaten said girl's eventual capitulation to the norms of marriage and motherhood.  It simply made her cheeks rosy, her complexion clear, and made for a little fun.  Women who were exclusively lesbian were less common, for myriad reasons, and so the idea of a girl actually in love with a woman would be at best a harmless crush, and at worst an embarrassing fixation.

1958: Lesbianism as Illness

Romy Schneider as Manuela
For me, the 1958 film is infinitely more interesting, not because of its better production value or more sophisticated techniques, but because it presents Manuela's love for von Bernburg as sexual obsession, and even more, suggests the feelings are mutual.

While the film follows the same plot points as the original, less significant sequences are cut and a few key subplots are inserted in their place.  First, the performed play is changed from Schiller's Don Carlos to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, with fascinating results.  Second, lesbian relationships among the other schoolgirls are featured.  And third, the 1958 version raises the question of why Fraulein von Bernburg never married.

In 1958, Schiller is ditched for Shakespeare, and Manuela plays Romeo.  When she has trouble summoning Romeo's passion, von Bernburg offers to tutor her.  Playing R&J's first meeting, Manuela ignores the direction she'd received from her teacher to blow Juliet a kiss, and boldly kisses von Bernburg.  Not only is this a reversal from the 1931 bedtime kiss, in which Manuela was a passive recipient, this kiss is in a romantic, not maternal, context.

In Manuela's drunken confession, she begins reciting Romeo's monologues for her schoolmates (monologue translated from German, which differs from Shakespeare's original):
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
The moon is sick and pale with grief!
Wait but a moment-- I'll give an answer!
It is she: my goddess, my love,
Fräulein von Bernburg.
Why are you looking at me?  She knows.  She knows it, and she loves me, she loves me so!  …She gave me a dress, a silk dress!  No, no, not a dress, a camisole.  One of her camisoles, and said I should wear it and think of her!  No, she didn't say that.  She didn't have to.  I know she loves me.  I'm not scared.  Of anyone.  Not of anyone!  Cheers!  Cheers, Fraulein von Bernburg!  I love her.  I love her!
The language in this version is more passionate and more overt.  There can be no confusion about Manuela's feelings here, and the Headmistress' horror has nothing to do with an excess of feeling.

In addition to M's growing love for von Bernburg, two other pairings are shown.  Two girls sit on a bench, and one tells the other, "I'm writing you a letter."  The delighted recipient asks to read it :
"Dearest, sweetest Mia.  Let me be near you, and sit with you at dinner.  Your little Josie."
This scene occurs in 1931, but is blunted-- in the earlier version, a girl reads a note aloud to a friend, sent to her by a girl she says has a crush on her.  The two laugh at the note before being caught by von Bernburg, who tears up the note without reading it.  It's a source of amusement and embarrassment.  In 1958, von Bernburg tears up the note, again without reading it--this time, doubtlessly to the extreme relief of the mutually interested girls.  But even more, before choosing to tear it up, von Bernburg glances between the girls, and with this pause, she understands the current running between her students.  She knows what's going on, and she tacitly permits it.  Later, Josie draws Mia, who sits next to her with an arm laced around her shoulders.  On seeing the finished drawing, she gives Josie a long kiss on the cheek.  We're talking four seconds long, continued even after the camera pans away from them.  The two are interrupted when an obnoxious classmate rips the paper from Mia's hands, and Josie chases the girl, retrieves the drawing, and, to keep it away from the others, eats it.

Josie and Mia, the most functional couple in the film.
Most important of all, though, is Alexanda Treskow, Manuela's rival for von Bernburg's affections.  Early on, Alexandra's longing gazes at von Bernburg betray her love, and she notes von Bernburg's attentions to Manuela with growing alarm.  After following Manuela to von Bernburg's room and witnessing her gift of a chemise, Alexandra returns to her bed and weeps.  Manuela notices a glum Alexandra after the play, and speaking privately, Alexandra confronts her.  She hints at potential problems, should the Headmistress' assistant get wise:
A: I saw you two.
M: Who? What did you see?
A: You and Fraulein von Bernburg, Sunday night.  When she took you to her room.
M: Ah.  I'm sorry, that was my secret.
A: I won't tell, don't worry.
M: Worry?  About what?
A: If Racket knew…
M (mockingly): What are you talking about?
A: Nothing, Manuela.  I'm jealous of you, that's all.  But Racket…
M: Oh, Racket, Racket, Racket! She's not worthy to wipe von Bernburg's boots!  Cheers!
This isn't a conversation between teacher's pets.  It's a knowing conversation between two closeted rivals.  And sensing she's lost, Alexandra alerts Racket that Manuela is drunk, and in the process outs Manuela.

The most shocking twist, though, is what happens immediately before Alexandra and Manuela's conversation.  Von Bernburg joins the girls briefly to congratulate them on the play's success, and praises Manuela for her Romeo.  On her way out, she sees Alexandra, who stands dejectedly apart from the others.  Von Bernburg sees her and asks, "What's wrong, Treskow?  Didn't you enjoy it?"  She then follows Alexandra's glance to the overjoyed Manuela.  Von Bernburg gives Alexandra the same look with which she recognized Josie and Mia, and, lowering her voice, says, "Don't be a spoilsport, Alexandra."  The look and the switch to a more familiar address suggest that von Bernburg is aware of their rivalry.  But even more, it sounds and looks like a cold dismissal of a former lover.

This leads to the perception of von Bernburg in the film.  While in 1931 she appeared to be a straight woman with a few bi-curious visions, in 1958 it's not so clear.  While on a walk, the girls wonder why Fraulein von Bernburg never married.  Only unmarried women could be teachers--a curious tradition that was true in the U.S., too, until the last century--but given von Bernburg's magnetism, the girls wonder why she, specifically, would choose to remain  unmarried.  Meanwhile, von Bernburg continues to seek out Manuela after her initial confession ("You're always so distant!"), running lines with her--which every theater kid knows is totally code for I Dig You--and later bringing Manuela to her room to give her a chemise.  In 1931, von Bernburg gave Manuela the chemise *before* her confession; in 1958, it's an opportunity to be alone with her.  Furthermore, each time the two are discovered (in her office, running lines), von Bernburg suddenly re-assumes an air of authority, an indication that her behavior was out of the ordinary, and she knows it.  It's getting a little clearer, why von Bernburg never married.

"You're giving me your lingerie? Kind of sending mixed signals here, Fraulein."
So with all these pro-lesbian characters and moments, surely the perception of lesbianism in 1958 is different?  Well, yes and no.  On the positive side, lesbianism is considered a Real Thing, not a pastime.  On the less positive side… it's an illness.  Once Manuela's secret is out, she's whisked away to be holed up alone.  You know, where she can't infect the other girls with gayness.  When her friend Ilga tries to defend her to Rackets, an interesting exchange ensues:
I: I'm so scared for Manuela.  She's so strange and silent.
R: Meinhardis doesn't deserve your friendship.  Her company can only be bad for you.
I: Manuela isn't bad!
R: No, of course not, but… I can't explain, you're still too young-- just trust me.
Listen.  I know you've been through a lot today, but… we need to talk.
Shortly thereafter, Manuela sneaks out of confinement and into von Bernburg's room.  Now that Manuela's attraction is public knowledge, von Bernburg tries to counsel Manuela, who mutters that, if she's unable to see von Bernburg, "[t]hen life isn't worth living."  Though von Bernburg insists she only tried to show Manuela friendship, her hand wringing and pacing suggest otherwise--as does the electric shock she seems to feel when she grabs hold of Manuela, to talk sense to her.  She then says:
EvB: I think the headmistress was right.  Only strictness can cure you.
M: Cure me?  Of what?
EvB: You cannot love me.
Getting outed and rejected within 24 hours? Rough.
And in the end, after Manuela's attempted suicide, the ending is extended from the 1931 version, which closes on the defeated figure of the Headmistress just seconds after Manuela's attempt.  Here, at the unconscious Manuela's bedside, the Headmistress begs von Bernburg to remain at the school.  She demurs:
EvB: Manuela will find her own way.  I have to go; I'd only be in her way.
The idea that a newly-out lesbian can, if she's just left alone, straighten herself out, is a theory prominent in lesbian pulp fiction.  It's a subject for another QV/VQ, but as much lesbian pulp fiction was written during the deeply restrictive 1950s, order had to be restored by the ending, aka the gay needed to be prayed away.  Sometimes one girl went mad while the other "healed" herself, sometimes one died or met some other sordid end, and sometimes--in what qualifies as a happier style of ending--they just broke up.  But the exact idea in 1958's Mädchen, of just letting lesbianism work itself out of a girl's system by getting her away from her lover, resolved the ending of Spring Fire (1952), by Vin Packer.  Though not all lesbian pulp fiction ended this way, it's disappointing how much historical lesbian literature--and modern lesbian literature (looking at you, Le bleu est une couleur chaude…)-- has a heteronormative ending.  But what's hopeful about 1958's ending is its final image-- Manuela: unconscious, still totally gay, and radiant.  Is it a small push against the norm?  Who knows.  But I'll take it.

Oh, what the hell.  Here's a list of the Top Super Gay Moments in Mädchen in Uniform:

--1931: The Bedtime Kiss
--1931: When introduced to the headmistress' assistant, Manuela's instructed to curtsy, but gives her a firm handshake instead.
--1931: As Manuela runs lines before going onstage, her friend randomly strokes her leg and gazes up at her.
--1958: Fräulein von Bernburg does a walk-through of the girls' showers, which have ridiculously low-slung curtains:

I mean…….. this is pretty gay.  And since it's Alexandra's hair she's fluffing, it's super gay,
--1958 Rumor has it the two stars had a fling during shooting.  This photo does nothing to quell said rumor:
And this? Unrepentantly gay.

--In both versions, the leads perform in drag:

--And, lest we forget, this happened:

*It's important to note that the 1931 film went through heavy editing after the rise of the Third Reich, and the surviving version--including the version I watched--likely has considerable differences, and cuts that may have exacerbated the jumpy feel of the film.  That said, though it may differ from its original content and intent--and the full version could possibly contradict my take on it--it is the version written about by film historians, and as such, has to be up for comparison and discussion.


  1. Have you seen the movie "Cracks", it's quite the same plot :)

    1. I haven't! I looked it up and I think you're right, it (or the original novel, anyway) seems based on _Mädchen_. I only skimmed the synopsis--not a fan of spoilers--but I've gotta say it looks a lot more risqué than the original! (Awesome.)

  2. Try to watch it if you can. The outfits are awesome!

  3. For the first I met a person "like me" ! God. So hard to express yourself as a vibtage lesbianisme... When every body are so into this kind of machism rétro lifestyle.
    I m a bit in a rush right now but Will come Again to Read all this interesting post, of course :D



    1. Hey, thanks for visiting! I hope you like the article-- I'm planning on writing another Vintage Queer post soon, I realized it's been way too long. Be sure and check out the Marlene Dietrich one too, if you're interested! And I agree, it can be hard to express yourself when "femme" can be so easily absorbed into the mainstream vintage scene.

  4. So being French and German and having mostly grown up French (as well as in Canada), Romy Schneider is as eponymous to me with cinema as Audrey Hepburn. What little girl in France or Germany/Austria (ok I'm generalising who knows maybe people who haven't assimilated the culture but whatevs I digress) hasn't grown up watching the Sissi trilogy at one point or an other? Add to the fact that I am an actress myself and my family has been in the film/tv industry for three generations, and you can say that Romy Schneider holds a very dear place in my heart. This was further emphasized when some four years ago I discovered Mädchen in Uniform. Delicate, subtle, exquisite and compelling... the seriousness and feverishness of her performance touched me even back then. Then I somehow came across a comment saying that apparently she and Lilli were not exactly 'acting'... So I had to sleuth more. Can't say it would surprise me if it were true, the tension is electric. (And Romy apparently dgaf about playing a controversial character like this at the time- she even plays a 'Lesbian' (but bisexual) woman in an 1981 french film at a later date, so why not)

    That being said I felt the need to comment because I wondered if you knew of the French film "Olivia" (in fact at one point I often confused the two films since MiU is a German-French coproduction) which is also based on a novel by the same name, and has a similar-ish plot, except it is between two students instead of a student and a teacher. I believe it is up on youtube (in parts). 1951, not the same production value at all, but might be worth for you to see for any future Queer Vintage post.


  5. I love your post ..I am obsessed with MiU i have watched both movies the original and remake and just finished the book. I admite that the book is better thanthe movies cause it is not that sudden the acts of FvB..I wish they could make a movie exactly like the book..I have watched and read Olivia too...But nothing compares to MiU during which my heart almost broke in pieces..I believe FvB is so sweet cause she is totally in love with manuela but there is nothing to do about it(poor FvB��) moment before everyone learns about manuelas feelings she hoped that she could be with manuela in secret but after that she wouldnt have the chance to even talk to her again(in the book she would beg the head to let her wean manuela gradually and after that she would visited the ill manuela in the sickroom and for the first time her barriors would completely fell down. I simply love the plot and personally prefer the remake cause i like more the actresses and FvB shows more soft spots for manuela

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  7. Rumor has it the two stars had a fling during shooting? seriously??