Writer’s Note: the following discussion of Mädchen in Uniform includes brief mentions of suicide.
I originally started this article about how important it is for bigots and homophobes to be exposed to media that represents lives and experiences outside of their own, in order to get past their own biases. Admittedly, there is something to be said about prejudices being broken through personal relationships and media representation. However, as I continued, I realized that is such a terrible way to frame an article about a film focusing on lesbianism. I am a lesbian, which everyone who has read any of my articles on this site knows, and I realize it isn’t my duty to explain why people shouldn’t hate me for that. It isn’t my job to explain why people shouldn’t attack a lesbian couple in England. It isn’t my job to explain why it’s appalling that Poland isn’t giving gay people their human rights. It isn’t my job to convince someone to love me and my community.
What is my responsibility, I think, is to explain why this movie is good or bad lesbian representation, and to make sure any young person reading this feels comfortable with coming out as, say, a lesbian, or trans, or bisexual, or pansexual, or gay, or whatever their respective label is. Or, whatever they choose not to label. I guess, it’s my job to make sure everyone gets that being themselves is okay, particularly when being yourself means being gay. It is okay today, in large part because of different media representation like Mädchen in Uniform, directed by Leontine Sagan and starring Hertha Thiele and Dorothea Wieck. Furthermore, I think it’s important to put myself in the shoes of a young lesbian watching this movie and try to connect it to our current climate, especially in this month of the celebration of gay liberation.
Mädchen in Uniform, a German film exploring lesbianism in a strict boarding school that translates into “Girls in Uniform”, is an excellent example of gay media representation being used to show people that they aren’t sick or weird or deviant for experiencing same-sex attraction. It’s particularly excellent considering this film was made in…1931. 1931! Yes, the same country and the same 1931 where a terrible man named Adolf Hitler was popularizing the idea of the Aryan race and fascism. Can you believe that? For further context, gay marriage was legalized in Germany in 2017. That’s right! 2017! So, this movie was 88 years old when it was finally legal for lesbians like those portrayed in the film to get married. That is absolutely bananas to me. I don’t mean to harp on it too long, but I find that to be further evidence of how important representation is in normalizing the experiences of people in the LGBT+ community, especially to people who think they might identify as part of the community.
All too often in different LGBT films, particularly those of the lesbian canon, there is little room for levity, and there is often death. There is a common “bury your gays” trope in television and movies, with some notable examples like Lexa in The 100, Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Martha in The Children’s Hour, Cleo in Set It Off, I could go on but I would exhaust myself, and you. What is so remarkable about Mädchen in Uniform, which I will say again, was made in 1931, is no one dies. There is no final punishment for anyone’s feelings of love. That is revelatory for the time in which this was made.
The Actual Story
I don’t want to go on any further without giving a bit of background on the plot. Mädchen in Uniform follows Manuela, a 14-year-old girl whose mother has died, and whose father is an army general, in 1910 Prussia. This is, of course, right before World War 1. Manuela goes to an all-girls boarding school, which has a strict and borderline abusive headmistress. However, Manuela makes friends with all the girls in her school, and falls in love with the enigmatic Fräulein von Bernburg. She is a young, kind teacher who takes a particular liking to Manuela, going so far as to kiss her on the lips, and the mutual love between teacher and student blossoms from there.
Without giving too much away, Manuela’s love for von Bernburg is discovered, and she is punished, but a near-tragedy gives the headmistress a new perspective on Manuela, who is eventually allowed to stay at the school. This film is, at its core, deeply homoerotic. Of course, Manuela loves von Bernburg, but it’s also clear that one of her friends, Edelgard, is fond of Manuela, and there is a lot of hugging and kissing that happens amongst all the students. All of the girls have a thing for von Bernburg, and any sapphic person I know can relate to loving one particular teacher more than anyone. “Anna, did you have an obsessive crush on a female teacher?” Yes. Of course, I did. I was 10 at the time, so it wasn’t quite the same as Manuela, but it happened and it’s common, so shut up about it! It is natural to have a crush on authoritative figures. Just look at all the people tweeting about being Cuomosexuals.
Even beyond the way the girls interact and gush over von Bernburg, the play the students put on is enough homoerotic subtext to sustain the entire movie. The play is a production of Don Carlos by Friedrich Schiller, and Manuela is, of course, cast to play the romantic lead, Don Carlos himself. All attention is on her, as the students admire her publicly, and von Bernburg admires her privately, enraptured with her performance. As a note, Don Carlos, in the play, is in love with his stepmother, which I am taking as a clever allusion to Manuela’s love for von Bernburg, a maternal figure who has replaced her own mother in a sense. That could also just be my English minor trying to cling to relevance. But, it’s my article, and I get to do what I want, folks!
The Need for Discretion
The thing that took me aback about this film was the sort of public secret of the “crushes” on von Bernburg. When Manuela receives a hand-me-down dress with “EVB” stitched into a heart, the seamstress casually mentions the girl who had it before had a crush on von Bernburg, and I’m not paraphrasing too much! Manuela finds out she is in von Bernburg’s dormitory, and she is cautioned by the other girls not to fall in love with her. When von Bernburg kisses all the girls goodnight on the forehead, they all eagerly await and dreamily fall back onto their pillows. It is common knowledge that von Bernburg is the object of affection for many of these young girls, yet it is still somewhat of a scandal when Manuela professes her love after drinking some spiked punch.
Manuela’s feelings only really become a scandal when she publicly declared her love to everyone, without shame, as opposed to when she had a more public “secret” in the confines of nightgowns and note-passing. Even in my time in high school, which, granted, was different in pretty much every way, no one talked about being gay or being a lesbian. It was privileged information, and my own inability to talk about it beyond joking about how much I loved Olivia Wilde (still do) is a huge reason I kept dating guys until I was 20. If I was a German teenager in 1931, I think this movie would have given me the language to talk about what I was feeling and who I was feeling it for, and even as a 23-year-old in 2020, it gave me a glimpse into how different people talk about these different feelings.
Anyway, Happy Pride
I’m not really sure what my thesis here is. Nick, our lovely founder, pitched this as a “free-flowing discussion” which I took to heart. I think, ultimately, this film is a happy one. Even though Manuela almost attempts suicide towards the end of the film, and von Bernburg is wholly out of line for returning Manuela’s affections as her teacher, it is refreshing to see a main character who is universally loved and adored, and not in spite of her love for women, but seemingly because of it. There’s no coming out drama, no jealousy (at least not in this adaptation, but the 1958 version does have a slightly different plotline with one jealous character), and there’s no permanent punishment for Manuela or von Bernburg. Manuela continues being a student, and von Bernburg either stays as a teacher or leaves of her own accord, it’s left ambiguous.
Ultimately, I’m really glad this film was made, and I encourage anyone who can get a hold of it to watch it, or another adaptation of it. It is nice to see that even if society at large wouldn’t have accepted me in the past, there was always a space for people like me, and that’s what Mädchen in Uniform shows best: a space where it’s okay to be gay, even when there isn’t a place for that elsewhere.
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