Girls in Uniform

English Title: Girls in Uniform

Original Title: Mädchen in Uniform

Country of Origin: Germany

Studio: Deutsche Film-Gemeinschaft

Director: Carl Froelich, Leontine Sagan

Producer(s): Carl Fröhlich, Friedrich Pflughaupt

Screenplay: Friedrich Dammann, Christa Winsloe

Cinematographer: Reimar Kuntze, Franz Weihmayr

Art Director: Fritz Maurischat, Friedrich Winkler-Tannenberg

Editor: Oswald Hafenrichter

Runtime: 98 minutes

Genre: Drama

Language: German

Starring/Cast: Hedwig Schlichter, Ellen Schwanneke, Hertha Thiele, Emelia Unda, Dorothea Wieck

Year: 1931

Volume: German

Synopsis:

Girls in Uniform, based in Christa Winsloe’s play Yesterday and Today, portrays the experiences of Manuela von Meinhardis (Thiele) in Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden’s (Unda) boarding school. The biggest difference between the text and the movie being that Manuela survives in the movie whereas she commits suicide on stage. The institution runs on strict Prussian values, preparing the girls for their final destination – to be mothers of soldiers.  Manuela, having lost her mother, latches on to the school’s most popular teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg (Wieck). In contrast to the principal who rules with fear and intimidation, Bernburg uses her students’ adoration to motivate them to achieve and perform within the value system of the status quo. Manuela’s attraction to Fräulein von Bernburg grows until she can no longer control herself and reveals her feelings for her teacher at a party to celebrate the students’ performance of Schiller’s Don Carlos. Dressed as Don Carlos, in pants, Manuela steps outside the restrictive gender roles of the boarding school and publicly professes her love for Fräulein von Bernburg to an audience which also includes the principal. Since Manuela’s coming out threatens the status quo of the boarding school, the principal isolates the girl until her guardian can pick her up, because she needs to remove the threat that Manuela poses permanently. Unable to bear the prospect of losing her beloved teacher Manuela tries to commit suicide by throwing herself down the main stairwell in the school, but is saved by the other girls.  Fräulein von Bernburg, too, joins them, after having defended Manuela’s attraction to the headmistress by arguing for the existence of a thousand different forms of love. The survival of Manuela breaks the spell of the headmistress, so that in the final scene of the movie the girls no longer curtsey, but openly defy her authority.  


Critique:

Girls in Uniform is part of the radical and innovative cinema of the Weimar Republic and a classic of queer cinema even today. Celebrated as an all female movie, with an all-female cast, a female director and a female screenwriter, albeit under the guidance of a male producer, the film ties into the German feminist movement of the Twenties and Thirties. In the early Seventies the movie was rediscovered by the feminist movement and made its way into women’s film festivals, which led to renewed academic interest and wider distribution of the movie. With its critique of the Prussian militarism and the Untertanenmentalität (‘subservient mentality’) that goes along with it, the film gains prophetic status when read against the ascending Third Reich with its cult of leadership and obedience. Although the women in the movie live in an all female world, patriarchy provides the normative framework for the events portrayed in the movie. The opening scene invokes core institutions of patriarchy such as the church and the military. Omnipresent symbols such as the Prussian eagle and the bugle portray patriarchy as an inescapable backdrop. In this repressive and restricted context Manuela’s coming out poses a major threat because it introduces uncontrollable elements such as emotions and eroticism. The movie thus exemplifies the theoretical discussion of sexologists at the time, in which lesbianism is described as sexual intermediacy; ‘a concept […] which posits the existence of a third sex (comprising and conflating androgynes, hermaphrodites, homosexuals, transsexuals and transvestites)’ (Kiss 2002: 48). Visually, the transgressive nature of the attraction between Fräulein von Bernburg and Manuela is represented in blurred images, most noticeable when the two women gaze at each other.  These vague images obscure boundaries and pose a serious threat to a hierarchical system that depends on containing people by clearly labelling them. That Manuela’s coming out happens when she wears pants adds to the sense of transgression that she embodies. Her pants place her in the area of sexual intermediacy; as a woman in men’s clothing she engages in a playful deconstruction of gender and sexuality, where female characters and audience members can be attracted to other female characters. 

Author of this review: Isolde Mueller