Maedchen in Uniform
From repressive tolerance to
erotic liberation

by B. Ruby Rich

from Jump Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 44-50
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

"What in Gods name does one call this sensibility if it be not love? This extraordinary heightening of all one's impressions; this intensification of sensitiveness; this complete identification of feeling? ... I was Manuela, as she is Manuela, and everything that has happened to her has in essence, and other circumstances, happened to me. This incredible feeling of sisterhood."(1)
— Dorothy Thompson, upon meeting Christa Winsloe

There are moments when one historical period seems to beckon to another, offering the semblance of lessons to be learned or errors to be avoided. Certainly, that is true today for those of us reviewing the fate of progressive political organizations in the Weimar period preceding Adolph Hitler's coming to power in the inflation-torn and authority-hungry Germany of 1933. In particular, the history of women's-rights groups and homosexual emancipation organizations is one that needs to be better known and analyzed.

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.

MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM was filmed by Leontine Sagan in Germany in 1931, based upon the play, Yesterday and Today, by Christa Winsloe (alias the Baroness von Hatvany), and republished as a novel, The Child Manuela, also by Winsloe. The film, like the play, enjoyed a tremendous initial popularity, both within Germany and internationally. Yet it has been nearly invisible in the past few decades within the academic study of German cinema. The film has frequently fallen into a seeming limbo between the silent German Expressionist cinema and the notorious products of the Third Reich studios. Despite its remarkable sound quality (praised by Lotte Eisner as the work in which "the pre-war German sound film reached its highest level")(2) and in spite of its evocative cinematography (which Siegfried Kracauer cited as transmitting "the symbolic power of light"),(3) MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM faded from the text books, the revival houses, and even eventually from distribution entirely. During the early 70s, however, Sagan's classic was resoundingly redeemed by the cycle of women's film festivals, gathering a solid cult following and the critical attention it had long lacked. The result, today, is that the film is back in distribution in a beautifully reconstructed print (in contrast to the butchered, mistitled print that made the rounds of the early festivals). And it is accorded a secure spot in the history of pre-Reich 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.

As I propose to read it, MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM is a film about sexual repression in the name of social harmony, about the absent patriarchy and its forms of presence, about bonds between women which represent attraction instead of repulsion, and about the release of powers that can accompany the identification of a lesbian sexuality. The film is a dual coming-out story: It is that of Manuela, the adolescent who voices "the love that dares not speak its name" and who, in distinguishing between fantasy and desire, dares to act upon the latter. And it is that of Fraulein von Bernburg, the teacher who repudiates her own role as an agent of suppression and wins her own freedom by accepting her attraction to another woman. In this reading, the film remains a profoundly anti-fascist drama. But now its political significance becomes a direct consequence of the film's properly central subject (of lesbianism) rather than a covert message wrapped in an attractive but irrelevant metaphor. If MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM is the first truly radical lesbian film, it is also a fairly typical product of late Weimar society, a society in which "homosexuality... became a form of fashionable behavior," linked to "the Weimar idea of making a complete break with the staid and bankrupt past of one's parents' generation."(4) As such, it offers a particularly clear example of the interplay between personal and collective politics — and the revolutionary potential inherent in the conjunction of the two.

The film centers upon the relationship between two women. Manuela (Hertha Thiele) is a young student newly arrived at a Potsdam boarding school that caters to the daughters of German officers (who, in the mid20s, are largely impoverished, as is the school itself). With her mother dead, her father unable to look after her, and her aunt/guardian icily uncaring, Manuela is left craving affection. Fraulein von Bernburg (Dorthea Wieck) is the school's most adored teacher, champion of a maternalistic humanitarianism opposed to the school's Prussian codes. Harsh, ascetic, militaristic, the boarding-school environment is enforced by a totalitarian Principal (Emilia Unda) dedicated to toughening up her charges.

Manuela quickly develops a passionate attachment to Fraulein von Bernburg, who simultaneously nourishes and discourages her admirer. Manuela's infatuation is even more intense than the crushes that her fellow students have upon the esteemed Bernburg.

Furthermore, Manuela carries matters to an unprecedented level by announcing her passion publicly, to all the school. The declaration occurs when Manuela, drunk and in male attire, celebrates her thespian success in the school play by offering up the news of her affections as a convivial toast. For such a transgression, Manuela is confined to solitary in the infirmary by the school Principal, who forbids students and faculty alike from so much as speaking to her.

The mounting crisis impels Fraulein von Bernburg to confront the Principal and finally to challenge her authority, which climax coincides with the desperate Manuela's own decision to solve the problem by committing suicide. Distraught at having to give up her beloved teacher, Manuela climbs the school's forbidding staircase (a central leitmotif for the film). She is about to throw herself from its uppermost railing when her schoolgirl companions, disobeying their injunction, come to her rescue. Their arrival is paralleled by the rush of Fraulein von Bernburg to the scene, confirming her affection for Manuela and her identification with the students' action. The aversion of imminent tragedy is a triumph for the forces of love and community, signaling the coming of a new order.

The event seals the fate of the evil Principal, who retreats down the hall into the shadows even as Fraulein von Bernburg remains in the light, united through cross-cutting with Manuela and the students, grouped above her on the staircase. On the soundtrack, the distant sounds of a bugle (audible throughout the film) can still be heard: an ambiguous reference to the forces still assembled outside the school's walls.


As should be clear from the summary, the action of MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM transpires entirely within an all-woman environment and, indeed, a thoroughly "feminine" atmosphere. However, the very first establishing shots of the film serve to inform us of the real power of the absent patriarchy and serve to remind us that an all-woman school in no way represents a woman-defined space. The montage of visual icons in the first few frames establishes an exterior world of military preparedness, steeples and archways, bugle calls, and the marching rhythm of soldiery. And this world of regimentation extends to the neat rows of students who, two by two, file past the gateway into the domain of the school. The link between the exterior authority and the interior order is explicitly visualized only this once. But it informs our reading of the film throughout (particularly as represented by the emblematic use of off-screen sounds and on-screen symbols, like the staircase).

On her first day of school, Manuela listens to the Principal's speech outlining her required duty and identity:

"You are all soldiers' daughters and, god willing, you will all be soldiers' mothers."

The girls are there to be taught the Prussian values in order that they might transmit the Correct Line to their future progeny. They are destined to be the transmitters of a culture, not its inheritors. The learning there is not in any sense for them as women, in their own right, but only in keeping with their function as reproducers of bodies and ideologies. The extent to which the absent patriarchy (which at no point in the film takes the shape of actual men on screen) dominates the women's world is a theme constantly reiterated by Leontine Sagan in her many visualizations of classic Romantic leitmotifs. Barred shadows cross the women's paths, a sternly overbearing staircase encloses their every movement, a frantic montage marshals their steps into a militaristic gait. Even the school songs reinforce the authority of a demanding fatherland with a handful of schoolgirls in its grasp. The film's very title underlines this theme, with its play of meanings on the word "uniform," meaning (as a noun) the clothing of a regimented educational/military/professional institution, or (as an adjective) the regulated, all-alike behavior of uniformity dictated by the rules of the patriarchal order.

The ultimate incarnation of the absent, but controlling, patriarchy is the school Principal. Her identity as the "phallic woman" is suggested by her reliance on an ever present cane, with which she measures her steps and signals her authority, and by the phallocentric codes of kinder, kirche, küche which she is dedicated to instilling. Her mandates and bearing call to mind a vision of Frederick The Great, to whom she has often been compared. Perhaps coincidentally, though, her jowly face and disassociated affect are equally reminiscent of that other prophetic cinematic persona of demented authority, Doctor Caligari.

Like the mad Doctor, this Principal is accompanied by an obedient assistant, a dark hunchbacked figure who carries out her orders. Unlike Caligari's missions of murder, the Principal's agenda is more properly "feminine" in its details of manipulation and reconnaissance. The henchwoman is a warped figure. Like the Principal shuffling with her cane, the assistant presents an image of womanhood carrying out patriarchal dirty work and physically warped by her complicity. Her hands huddled close to her chest, her eyes pinched and shoulders stooped, the assistant becomes a physical marker of emotional damage.

If, in THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI, it was madness and hypnotism that was held responsible for complicity in murder, then here Sagan is willing to pinpoint a more precise culprit: the dogma of an authoritarian ideology. In a similar way, nuns have long provided an easy example of a woman's order subject to entirely male authority (in the form of priest, Pope, or God the Father, Son, and heavenly bridegroom). So, too, the institution of the woman's boarding school is shaped to the mold of the militaristic patriarchal society, poured like molten liquid into its empty spaces to keep it whole.

How, then, does the power structure within the school itself function? Specifically, what are the roles assumed by the beloved Fraulein von Bernburg, champion of the emotions, and the hated Principal, enforcer of discipline? Traditionally, critical readings of the film have identified Fraulein von Bernburg as a sort of freedom fighter, a humanitarian standing up to the forces of repression. These readings have targeted the Principal much as I've described her, a tyrant ruling over a regime of denial. I would take issue with this romanticized view and trade its simplistic hero/villain dichotomy for a different model. I see it as a system of repression based instead on the "good cop, bad cop pattern, with the Principal as the "bad cop" and Fraulein von Bernburg as the "good cop."

To comprehend the logic of such a system in the case of the boarding school, it is necessary to return to the point made earlier in the Principal's opening speech. As she made clear, the young women are being bred ("educated") as transmitters of the patriarchal German culture ever present in encoded form within the world of the school. In order to ensure this training, preserve the young women's "honor" and most effectively carry out their special socialization, it is necessary for society to shape women within an all-female setting. In fact, prior to feminist movements, this was no doubt the primary reason for "separatist" institutions. What, however, is the danger to the patriarchal society presented by such an institution? It is a sexual danger. There is a threat that the heterosexuality required of these women may, in the cloistered pressure-cooker atmosphere of the boarding school, become derailed into a focus upon their own sex. The possibility that heterosexuality on the part of women may become transferred ("warped" as the father might say) into homosexuality presents powerful threat to a system geared for procreation and the rearing of male offspring.

"Gender is not only an identification with one sex; it also entails that sexual desire be directed toward the other sex."(5)

The danger of the boarding school is that a concentration on the former entails a corresponding relaxation of the latter. Perhaps it is because the women's boarding school is the Achilles' Heel of the patriarchy that it figures in so much lesbian literature and cinema.

In MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM, the code name for this sexual threat is "emotionalism." When Fraulein von Bernburg early in the film catches two schoolgirls exchanging a love letter, she confiscates the paper and, to their relief and delight, rips it up without reading a word. Smiling but strict, she warns them to desist in the exchange of such letters because they can lead to "emotionalism." Again, later in the film, the student ringleader, Ilse, uses the same expression with the same negative message. She is engaged in declaiming a series of mock toasts during the post-play banquet, all phrased in the language of the school's official ideology. Thus she reprimands Manuela for the acting style of her male impersonation:

"Remember, next time, less emotionalism."

In line with the model of repression that I suggest, Fraulein von Bernburg's task as the "good cop" seems to be to keep "emotionalism" in check and to make her charges more comfortable in their oppression. She acts as a pressure valve and as the focus of dissident energies in order that the overall system will not be endangered. Fraulein von Bernburg has two guises, then, for coping with the social and sexual schisms that occur in the patriarchal foundation laid by the Principal. Socially, she polices the heart, i.e. the emotional life of her students. As she puts it at one point to Manuela,

"You mustn't persuade yourself it isn't nice here."

(She fills a role not unlike that of the Church in countries ruled by dictatorships. It seems to make the oppression bearable through the promise, albeit never fulfilled, of better things to come and thereby to convince the supplicants that circumstances aren't really so bad.) It is her presence in the school's cabinet of power that keeps the girls from rebelling against an order that would otherwise be totally abhorrent. Likewise, it is her presence as a confidante that permits her to discern and block any tentative moves in the direction of revolt. This happens for example when she persuades the headstrong Ilse not to run away from the school. Such is her function as mediator between the top and bottom of the school hierarchy.

It is made terribly clear, however, that the methods by which Fraulein von Bernburg exercises her functions are sexual. For instance, she succeeds in persuading Ilse to stay by slapping her on the ass and speaking to her seductively. This is von Bernburg's second guise, in which she capitalizes upon the standard form of transference that leads adolescent girls to develop crushes on their teachers, especially so at boarding school. Her positioning of herself as the exclusive object of schoolgirl affection may be seen as a tactic of repressive tolerance carried out in the arena of sexuality. Under the camouflage of her tolerance is the reality of repression. If the girls focus their sexual desires upon her, where the desires can never be realized, then the danger of such desires being refocused upon each other (where they could be realized) is averted. The figure of the teacher remains ever more powerful, more attractive, more worthy of adoration, than any mere fellow student. It is, in fact, very nearly a relationship of adoration in the religious sense, with forms of expression that are thoroughly ritualized and contained, as Sagan's style of filming the evening bedtime scene takes pains to make clear.

The scene is set in the dormitory on Manuela's first night in the school. It is filmed with the soft focus and radiant light of a Romantic painting, say one by Friedrich. The lights are even dimmed, by Fraulein von Bernburg herself on-screen, to make the scene more seductive to the viewer. All the girls are poised on the edge of their beds, kneeling in identical white gowns, heads upraised to receive the communion of her lips touching their foreheads, which she holds firmly and ritually as she administers each kiss.

This extreme fetishizing of the kiss, by both the nature of the teacher's gestures and director Sagan's cinematographic style, is emblematic of the unspoken codes of repressive tolerance. The kiss is permitted, to each alike, but it is at once the given and the boundary. Nothing more may be allowed or even suggested, although the tension of that which is withheld suffuses the scene with its eroticism of shimmering light and grants the teacher her very power. The kiss is the minimum and the maximum, a state of grace and a state of stasis. The entire equilibrium is founded upon this extreme tension — which is snapped when Manuela, overwhelmed by the atmosphere and her feelings, breaks the rules. She throws her arms around Fraulein von Bernburg's body in a tight embrace and receives, not a punishment, but a kiss. A kiss, not merely on the forehead, but full on the lips.

Of course, the school's system of sexual repression does not crumble from this one transgression; it is much too securely established. Less so is Fraulein von Bernburg. Her situation is a difficult one. It is apparent that the sexual repression she forces upon the students she forces also upon herself, embodying that which she administers. Yet Manuela presents her with a surplus of feeling which the teacher cannot control. Sagan carefully describes Fraulein von Bernburg almost entirely in terms of Manuela.

The very first time Fraulein von Bernburg appears in the film, she is in the act of looking at the newly arrived Manuela on the stairway. The extent to which she begins to identify her own desires and sensitivities with Manuela's takes the shape, for Sagan, of a literal superimposition. When Sagan presents a scene of Manuela as student in Fraulein von Bernburg's classroom, it is the anguish of the conflicted pair that Sagan chooses to portray through an extraordinary dissolve that predates by far the more widespread (and more pernicious) use of the motif by Ingmar Bergman in PERSONA.(6) In the scene, Manuela, struggling vainly to retrieve a memorized passage from a mind gone blank in the beloved teacher's presence, finds her vision begin to blur. Fraulein von Bernburg's own sight, subjectively rendered, blurs as well, as her own face becomes superimposed and fused with Manuela's staring back at her. It is she, as teacher, who breaks the locked gaze, averts her eyes. She reprimands Manuela with a "not prepared again," thus reasserting her authority and utilizing her rank to shield her emotions.

The next meeting of the two takes place in Fraulein von Bernburg's office soon after, where she has called Manuela in order to give the girl one of her chemises (in response to an attendant's expressed pity for the young girl's lack of undergarments, due to her lack of a caring mother). By giving Manuela one of her own chemises, she attempts to channel her concern and affection into the quasi-permissible form of a maternal gesture which, however, is clearly an erotic token. The conversation that transpires between the two provides further evidence of the code of repressive tolerance exercised toward the students' incipient homosexuality. From the start, it is clear that "emotionalism" rules the encounter, as Fraulein von Bernburg begins by reprimanding Manuela, who has burst into tears at the gift of the chemise:

"What an excitable child you are."

Manuela confesses she isn't crying out of unhappiness, and finally is coaxed to explain by the teacher's concern:

"Is there a reason you can't confide to me?"

It is the loneliness of the nights that plague the girl, the moments after the goodnight kiss:

"I stare at your door and would like to get up and go to you, but I'm not allowed ... I like you so awfully much."

Manuela is tortured by the passage of time:

"I think of when I get older, and have to leave the school, and you'll kiss other children."

Her expression of love, desire, and jealousy is quite explicitly phrased (although, in the older prints of the film, it went largely unsubtitled). Unprepared for such a declaration and unwilling to face the consequences of receiving such information, even as an "innocent' listener, Fraulein von Bernburg lays down the law of the land:

"I think of you, too, Manuela ... But you know I can't make exceptions. The others would be jealous."

Her response is telling. She doesn't say that she does not share the girl's feelings of attraction; if anything, she implies that she does. She does not invent a boyfriend (stashed away in a nearby prep school, perhaps) to assert a defensive heterosexual identity. No, she asserts only that she is under obligation to love all the girls equally, in order to maintain her position as object of their affection. Therefore, she cannot break that egalitarianism in order to reciprocate Manuela's passion. The system which she must serve — as its token humanitarian — represses her own sexuality as well as that of the students. She is as much the victim as the promulgator of its repression (unlike the Principal, whose phallic identity cancels out any homoeroticism). Despite her struggle to repress her own emotions, however, she acts.

The gift of the chemise is a turning point. It leads to the crisis of the school play, which is the central moment of the film, the moment which changes its direction from repressive tolerance to one of erotic liberation, the choice taken by Manuela throughout and by Fraulein von Bernburg, more complexly, at the film's end.


The school play is a favorite device of the boarding school genre, necessitating as it does the pleasurable moment of crossdressing in male attire. Manuela is the star of the play, a silly French drama of courtly love, in which she plays the appropriate role of a knight suing with little hope for the affections of (his) forbidden beloved. Manuela throws herself wholeheartedly into the role, achieving a success that is applauded by one and all for its remarkable sincerity. Despite the supposed object of her wooing within the play, Manuela is clearly pitching her lines to the beloved Fraulein von Bernburg in the audience. The teachers equally fervent reception of her enactment is evidenced by Ilse's post-play report to the anguished Manuela:

"Its funny. She didn't say a word. But she watched you. You can't imagine how closely she watched you."

Meanwhile, the kitchen maids (who constitute a sort of commentary upon the action in an Upstairs/Downstairs formulation) decide to reward the schoolgirls by spiking their punch, a move that leads upstairs to an outbreak of drunken revelry. In the front parlor, over tea and cakes, the Principal and her small circle of select aristocratic friends debate the parameters of the students' repression. They focus on what literature should be allowed and cluck warningly that

"Schiller sometimes writes very freely."

Ironically, the carefully protected girls are at this very moment dancing in each others arms, disobeying the rules, and generally enacting their guardians' worst fears.

Drunk with punch, encouraged by the atmosphere, Manuela rises to deliver an impassioned toast in which she declares her love for Fraulein von Bernburg and announces the gift of the chemise as proof of its reciprocation. Despite the generally permissive setting, it is this act of pronouncement which constitutes the transgression of the schools most rigid codes. It is the naming of what may well be known, this claiming of what is felt by speaking its name publicly that is expressly forbidden (as I have discussed elsewhere).(7)

For her speech, which is overheard by the dread Principal, Manuela is immediately imprisoned. Significantly, she is put within the confines of the infirmary in a reference to the pseudo-scientific view of homosexuality as a species of mental imbalance, a disease, but one that nevertheless can be punished as a crime. Indeed, the first view of Manuela in the hospital bed traces her position in bed below heavy bars of light emblazoned on the shadowed wall above her head. The immediate wish of the Principal is to blot out history, to expunge the traces of the scandal and pretend that nothing ever happened. It is a wish that is initially reflected in Manuela's own coming to consciousness. She emerges from her hangover with the complaint that she cannot remember what has happened nor what she has done. So powerful is the taboo that amnesia is the consequence of its transgression.

The public speech, in fact, can be seen as an extremely powerful transgression, one which, unlike the private actions between Manuela and Fraulein von Bernburg, publicly disrupts and subverts the prevailing order of the school. The Principal's regime could tolerate the widely-acknowledged schoolgirl crushes and libidinous undercurrents as long as they remained marginalized and subservient to the dominant ideology. The homoeroticism had been portrayed graphically ever since the time of Manuela's arrival. Then Ilse told her how envious other girls were, asking if it was true that "the Golden One" really "kisses you good night, oh god, oh god ...." The laundrywoman explained the heart and initials on her school uniform ("E.V.B.") by laughing that the girl who wore this dress must have been infatuated with Fraulein Elizabeth von Bernburg, thus the initials. And pairs of girls were repeatedly shown holding hands, embracing by windows, or passing love notes. An unendorsed de facto eroticism could be contained within the reigning patriarchal order, but a double challenge could not be abided: the challenge of Fraulein von Bernberg's material action in presenting the chemise over and above the limits of egalitarianism. For this reason, amnesia was a possibility only for Manuela. Everyone else remembered quite well what had occurred.

Unable to turn back the clock, then, the Principal opts for quarantine. Manuela is sentenced to solitary confinement, as though homosexuality were a communicable disease spread by social contact. As Manuela moves, distraught, through the final phase of the film, Fraulein von Bernburg moves increasingly into focus as she struggles (more consciously than the young student) to come to terms with her sexuality and acknowledge her feelings for her own sex. In her final meeting with Manuela, held clandestinely in defiance of the Principal's prohibition, she tries to tell the girl the exact nature of a "crime" the girl seems unable to understand:

"You must be cured ... of liking me so much."

At the same time, she makes a telling complaint about Manuela's speech. She does not reproach Manuela for what the girl has brought upon herself, as we might expect, but instead she says:

"What you have done to me, you know."

There is more meaning to the statement than the fact of Manuela's speech, which to be sure has damaged her standing at the school but yet is not wholly different from countless other private declarations she no doubt has withstood. Rather, Fraulein von Bernburg may well refer to the terrible inner conflict into which Manuela's speech has thrown her. It is a conflict not unlike that felt by so many in-the-closet homosexuals of both sexes in this country following the opening up of sexual boundaries during the Stonewall eruption and the succeeding gay liberation movement of the late 60s and early 70s. This was a time which for some carried an undesired pressure to identify a previously privatized sexuality (in Fraulein von Bernburg's case, to make that identification not only to others, but to herself as well). From the moment of this reproach on, the teacher's struggle to "come out" and emerge from the raging conflict within her becomes the film's central theme. It is a theme concerned with finding the courage to oppose an unjust authority, a courage shared, finally, with the other students of the school.

Fraulein von Bernburg's inner struggle reaches its peak immediately after this meeting with Manuela, which has concluded badly, with the girl rushing out of the room in desperation. The teacher races to call her back but is blocked by the arrival of the Principal. Her confrontations with the Principal have been escalating ever since the theatrical incident. She has begun assuming more and more radical stances in opposition to the Principal's edict. Earlier, arguing over her permissiveness toward Manuela, she had declared:

"What you call sin, I call love."

She was speaking in general terms of her philosophy of maternal nurturance versus the Principal's punitive discipline, but the more explicit meaning of the statement also holds true. Intent on subjugating the teacher to her authority, the Principal now threatens her:

"I will not permit revolutionary ideas."

Fraulein von Bernburg then breaks rank in the only truly decisive way possible, responding:

"I resign."

Herewith, she makes her choice to reject her role as the good cop and seek a genuine humanitarianism outside the corrupt system of the school, which in turn means seeking also her genuine sexuality as she has come to recognize it.

As the teacher and the Principal enact their battle of will and authority, Manuela prepares to throw herself over the stairwell. It is at this point that the film's second superimposition on the faces of Manuela and Fraulein von Bernburg takes place (the first was in the classroom earlier). Again, it is Fraulein von Bernburg who "experiences" the blurred vision and "sees" Manuela's face projected through her own image. This time, having made her choice to break with the patriarchal order, she does not avert her gaze or try to separate herself from the vision. Instead, she recognizes the superimposition as a psychic signal of her bond with Manuela.

What does the superimposition mean in this context? The Principal had earlier warned the teacher to "dissolve" her contact with Manuela, suggesting the nature of this shot. The blurring of definition and melding of identities has usually had a negative impact when applied to women in cinema. In Ingmar Bergman's PERSONA, for example, the loss of individual identity is the threat which haunts women's intimacy like a destructive specter: getting too close to another woman means losing oneself. In addition, there's always the companion myth of narcissism. The superimposition shots here may also be a tacit recognition by Sagan of the myth of homosexuality as a narcissistic doubling, an attempt to solidify one's identity by the addition of its likeness in another.

Rather than balking at the vision, however, Fraulein von Bernburg recognizes the merged faces as a signal of power by combination. She does not read the superimposition as erasure (the patriarchal warning) or negative bonding (the mirror phase prolonged). Rather, she reacts as if it were a positive depiction of the strength exercised by such a redoubling of energy and identity. She trusts the sign and acts on it. Shouting Manuela's name, she rushes from her office (and the startled Principal) to the stairwell intent on rescuing Manuela. There of course she discovers that the schoolgirls have reached there ahead of her and saved the day.

There are only these two superimposition shots in the entire film, and significantly they are both assigned to Fraulein von Bernburg, both at times in which Manuela is in distress. It is Fraulein von Bernburg, and the force she has come to represent, which prevail in the film's final scene. The rescued Manuela is cradled by the schoolgirls as the defeated Principal, bereft of her authority, beats a slow retreat down the long gloomy hall. The darkness of the hall deepens in her wake, her cane taps faintly on the floor, the sound of bells and finally bugles can be heard in the distance. It is a provisional victory, as the bugle cries signify. Yet the patriarchal order has been ruptured within the school by the liberation of Eros among the women.

In terms of the interpretation which I have been suggesting, as well as the more traditional interpretation of anti-fascism, the ending of the film is extremely important. Yet the nature of the ending has been frequently obscured in the cinematic histories. Many reports of the film have cited a supposed "other" ending in which Manuela successfully commits suicide. And some critics have even cited the existence of a "Nazi" suicide ending and an "export" version like this one.(8) However, as the testimony of several German sources can testify, such was not the case.(9) The original play, however, did have Manuela kill herself and ended with the Principal setting a cover-up in motion at play's end; but this is one of many differences between the play and the film, about which more later.

In point of fact, the film MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM concludes with an ending of rescue. What does this ending signify? Such an ending confers a unity upon the film's two themes, the widely acknowledged one of anti-authoritarianism as well as the previously ignored one of erotic liberation. The ending shapes them into a consistent and harmonious whole.

It has frequently been argued that the preferred ending for a proto-Nazi film was suicide, i.e. the ultimate abandonment of hope that leads the individual to throw herself/himself into the depth of oblivion or, conversely, into the hands of a superhuman savior. That was the scenario against which a film like KUHLE WAMPE (by Slatan Dudow with script by Bertolt Brecht) rebelled. That film refused to end on a note of despair, insisting instead on the persistence of faith in the future. So, too, Sagan. Her anti-Nazism is nowhere more apparent than in the ending, which posits not only the maintenance of hope but also the vindication of resistance as a very different "triumph of the will" from Leni Riefenstahl's brand. In Riefenstahl's film of the same period, THE BLUE LIGHT, the heroine (played by Leni) throws herself finally from a cliff, despairing, isolated from others of her kind, done in by an unsympathetic society.

Not so Manuela. The schoolgirls of the boarding school integrate her sensibility into their own consciousness. Instead of closing ranks against her, they come to her (and, by extension, their own) rescue. MAEDCHEN's cliffhanger ending is at once a powerful statement of political resistance, both individual and collective, and a validation of lesbianism as a personal and public right.

The Principal earlier condemned Fraulein von Bernburg's feelings and actions as "revolutionary" and so they may indeed be. In a patriarchal society which depends upon women for the reward and procreation of its (his) own kind, a break in the link is disastrous:

"What would happen if our hypothetical woman not only refused the man to whom she was promised, but asked for a woman instead? If a single refusal were disruptive, a double refusal would be insurrectionary."(10)

The film's ending serves to validate Fraulein von Bernburg's difficult development from humanitarian disciplinarian to a free, stronger, and woman identified woman. The scenario's progression depended upon her inner struggle and final evolution in response to the catalyst of Manuela's passion. At the film's end, Fraulein von Bernburg stands triumphant with the schoolgirls witnessing the Principal's melancholy retreat. She wins this position not by maintaining her power in the hierarchy but by rejecting it, not by tightening the reins of her repression but by casting them down, not by cooptation but by refusal. Her place on the staircase at the end may be seen, then, as a reward for her "coming out" and acknowledging her sexuality, just as Manuela's rescue at the end represents a social legitimacy for her passion. MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM presents a positive vision of lesbianism that has been largely disregarded for years, victim of a subtle critical homophobia that has insisted upon perceiving the literal as the merely metaphoric.


An analysis of the film today, particularly in the context of this Special Section, clarifies the meaning and can easily annex Sagan's work to our contemporary tradition of lesbian culture. But differences nevertheless persist between the perspectives of Leontine Sagan, making a film cooperatively in Berlin on the eve of the Third Reich, and most of us today. Differences are apparent even in the shifts of meaning between Christa Winsloe's original play and its metamorphosis into MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM. And most surprising, perhaps, are the similarities that slowly become recognizable upon reexamining both the film and its period — similarities which in some cases are crucial for us to recognize as we proceed into the 80s.

Sagan's movie is in many respects a more radical work of lesbian celebration than is Winsloe's play, while at the same time focusing far more on the codes of patriarchal power than the stage production. The stage play (both the original, Yesterday and Today, and the international version, Girls in Uniform, which was widely performed after the film's release(11), actually fits quite tidily the model of the "lesbian fairy tale" which Elaine Marks traces to its Sapphic origins in her important essay on lesbian literature:

"Although there is no evidence in Sappho's poems to corroborate the notion that she did indeed have a school, religious or secular, for young women, the gynaeceum, ruled by the seductive or seducing teacher, has become, since the eighteenth century, the preferred locus for most fictions about women loving women ... The younger woman, whose point of view usually dominates, is always passionate and innocent. If, as is usually the case when the author of the text is a woman, it is the younger woman who falls in love, the narrative is structured so as to insist on this love as an awakening. The older woman as object of the younger woman's desire is restrained and admirable, beautiful and cultivated ... The exchanges between the older and the younger woman are reminiscent of a mother-daughter relationship. The mother of the younger woman is either dead or in some explicit way inadequate. Her absence is implied in the young woman's insistent need for a goodnight kiss. The gynaeceum, particularly when it is represented by a school, also controls time. Time limits are set by the school calendar whose inexorable end announces the fatal separation, which may involve a death. Temporal structures reiterate the almost universally accepted notion that a schoolgirl crush is but a phase in the emotional development of the young woman, something that will pass. The denouement in these lesbian fairy tales is often brought about by a public event during which private passions explode."(12)

If the contours of Marks' paradigm bear a striking resemblance to the film (which in fact was viewed as an adolescent tale far more than a lesbian one), how much more so do its elements fit the play? For example, in the play, a subplot involves Manuela's pursuit by a diligent, if unwanted, male suitor: her equestrian instructor, no less. In the play, Fraulein von Bernburg is not unmotivated in her feelings for the girls: she secretly wants to be the head of the school herself. In the play, she does not resign in the final confrontation with the Principal, but merely tries to increase her power base through the face-off. In the play, Manuela throws herself out a window before anyone has had the chance to rescue her. Since the play can end with only Manuela having stepped out of line, and furthermore with her dead for her actions, it is far more easily recoupable into the tradition of lesbianism as tragic, powerless, passive, and in particular, fatal to its adherent. As Marks emphasizes, the "constraints" of the genre signify the "marginal status of lesbians and lesbianism."(13)

While incorporating the classic elements of the "fairy tale" in MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM, Sagan goes further. She changes a few areas of the story line and utilizes the visual and editing code particular to cinema in order to extend the meaning of the original text.(14) One of the film's strongest features is its success in making palpable the functioning of patriarchal codes despite the absence of any male or militaristic figures. The use of the central staircase is one such case. It bears a symbolism both visual (its barred railings and threatening abyss) and philosophical (its use by the girls prohibited from using the formal front staircase). The stairwell inevitably suggests a confining enclosure, prison-like in its grates of iron and shadow, as well as the functional confinement of virtually all the girls' activities. At one point, the schoolgirls drop an object from the top in order to test a formula for calculating the time a falling body takes to reach bottom. The staircase is thus both a representation of the prevailing order and its power of organization and also a portent of tragedy in its depth and shadows. The camera frequently views the marching of the girls through the iron forms, further emphasizing their molding here into Prussian "women of iron." The very first meeting between Manuela and Fraulein von Bernburg occurs on the staircase, their bodies positioned midway between forbidding shadows at screen left and a bright window screen right.

In addition to such visual compositions, Sagan inserts series of montages that provide a bridge between the fairly theatrical scenes involving the central characters and the documentary-style observations of schoolgirl behavior on a larger scale. The large cast of schoolgirls, all nonprofessional actresses, functions as an alternate discourse to set against the patriarchal regimentation. The students horse around, express homesickness, carry on multiple intrigues with each other, play jokes, dress and undress, and relate to each other in a tone that shifts between childishness and eroticism.(15) At one point, a locker-room scene of bedtime activities is immediately followed by a montage which marshals the disorganized activities into a marching order of mouths in extreme close up barking orders, feet hurrying to obey, identical lines of students filing past, and so on. The montage ends with a shift to the famous dormitory scene of Fraulein von Bernburg's good-night kisses, which scene is itself ambiguous in its resolution of eroticism with regimentation.

Most significant are the montage sequences which frame the encounters between Manuela and Fraulein von Bernburg, and indeed, frame our entire encounter with the film itself. The montage which opens the film communicates a view of the exterior towers of Potsdam, the old stone putti and statue which resembles a tiny soldier, the sounds of church bells and bugles, an atmosphere of patriarchal readiness within which the school building itself is located. Traces of the same montage appear as narrative interruptions at key moments in the evolution of Manuela and Fraulein von Bernburg's relationship. For example, just after Manuela has thrown her arms around the teacher in the good-night scene, Sagan inserts a rapid cut to the towers and statues. Later, when Fraulein von Bernburg gives the student her chemise, Sagan again terminates the scene with a cut to the stone towers and the sound of bells tolling. The montages appear to be cautionary in nature, a clue to the audience that the freeing of emotions between women is never free of the shadow of patriarchal aggression. Their intrusion into the film is an antidote to viewing this all-female space as a "free zone" within a patriarchal society, which can be seen to dominate not only in the concrete form of the staircase or Principal, but in the equally threatening form of external authority which waits just outside the school gates.

Even at the film's end, when the two women and their student supporters seem most victorious, the ominous sound of the bugles re-appears to accompany the Principal's retreat. While Siegfried Kracauer contends that the prominence of the motif at the end of the film proves that "the principle of authority has not been shaken" within the school,(16) I would suggest otherwise: that the motif reminds the audience just how provisional the victory is, and just how powerful the patriarchal forces with which any new order within the school must contend. It is a warning that separation from the dominant order does not automatically grant freedom from its dominance. It should have been a warning to lesbians living then in Germany that the time for strong collective action was upon them, as the forces of fascism gathered outside the windows. Instead, the Third Reich came to power, and most of those responsible for MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM left the country.

Who were they? Little has been written, and little known, about the women behind this work. Their sexuality has been as thoroughly veiled as the lesbian theme of the film itself. Rumors, anecdotes, bits of stories, form the customary trail of unofficial history. Feminist and historian Blanche Cook is instructive regarding what not to look for. Commenting upon MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM, Ann Elisabet Weirach's The Scorpion, and other works of this period and this genre, Cook warns against accepting the tragic tales of unrequited love and tragic abandonment as autobiographical fictions:

"The truth is that these passionate little girls were not always abused and abandoned. They did not commit suicide. They wrote books about passionate little girls, death, and abandonment."(17)

Not infrequently, the lives of the authors and their models display a depth and breadth of options not readily visible in their constructed tales. When, that is, their lives are recoverable at all.

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