Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform) is a 1931 German feature-length film based on the play Gestern und heute (Yesterday and Today) by Christa Winsloe and directed by Leontine Sagan with artistic direction from Carl Froelich, who also funded the film. Winsloe also wrote the screenplay and was on the set during filming. The film remains an international cult classic.
Manuela von Meinhardis, whose mother had died when she was young and father serves in the military, is enrolled at an all-girls boarding school headed by the traditional and iron-fisted Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden. Manuela is immediately exposed to the strictness of the school when receiving her uniform and having many of her possessions taken from her. While the other girls at the school receive Manuela with open arms, she still feels very out of place, until she meets Fräulein von Bernburg, a teacher at the school. After witnessing Fräulein von Bernburg’s compassion for the other girls, Manuela develops a passionate love for her teacher. The first spark of love begins with a goodnight kiss. While the teacher normally gives all the girls a goodnight kiss on the forehead, Manuela receives one on the lips.
There is a meeting asking the teachers in the school and the headmistress. Fräulein von Bernburg advocates using compassion and love when dealing with the students, but is met with disagreement from the headmistress and the other teachers.
During class, the girls are reciting from an assigned reading. The girls who are called upon all know their recitations, except Manuela. After class, Fräulein von Bernburg calls for Manuela to meet her in her room. Manuela expects to be punished for not knowing the assigned material, but Fräulein von Bernburg comments on the state of the clothes the girl came to the school with, noting that there were many holes in them. Fräulein von Bernburg then gives one of her own petticoats to Manuela, at which she begins to weep. After much crying, Manuela confesses her love for Fräulein von Bernburg, and the teacher states that she loves Manuela but that she cannot give her special treatment because the other girls will be jealous.
The girls gather around Ilsa von Westhagen, another student, as she reads aloud a letter to her parents complaining about the conditions at the school. She has a worker at the school smuggle the letter out.
The girls are preparing to put on a play, Don Carlos, by Friedrich Schiller, for the birthday of the headmistress. Manuela plays Don Carlos, the lead male role. Ilsa is to play another major role in the play, but is barred from performing after her letter to her parents denouncing the school is returned because of a wrong address. Ilsa packs up to leave the school, but Fräulein von Bernburg convinces her to stay. The girls put on the play for the headmistress and her guests; it is a great success, with a standout performance by Manuela.
After the play, the girls all meet for dinner and are served punch with alcohol in it by the kitchen workers. After much dancing and singing, the girls ask Manuela about her relationship with Fräulein von Bernburg. Without knowing that the headmistress’s assistant is in the room, Manuela tells them of the petticoat that Fräulein von Bernburg gave her. Then, she declares that she is not afraid of anything or anyone—yelling it drunkenly in the direction of the headmistress, who has now entered the room.
After passing out, Manuela is brought to a room, where no-one is allowed to see her. She is scolded by the headmistress. The headmistress is then informed that the princess is on her way to the school to speak to her. The students and teachers all line up for the arrival of the princess. After observing all the students, she asks to see Manuela. The princess tells Manuela that she knew Manuela’s mother and respected her. The princess says that Manuela looks a little pale and asks whether she is sick, at which the headmistress rushes her away and denies any paleness.
After the meeting with the princess, the headmistress scolds Fräulein von Bernburg for being too close and compassionate with her students. She also tells her that she is never to speak to Manuela again. When Fräulein von Bernburg leaves the headmistress’s office, Manuela is waiting for her. Fräulein von Bernburg tells Manuela to meet her in her room. In her room, Fräulein von Bernburg tells Manuela that while she cares for her, she is to never speak to her again. Manuela responds by saying that she will die. Fräulein von Bernburg tells her not to say such things and sends her away. As Manuela leaves the room, the headmistress arrives to scold Fräulein von Bernburg for speaking to Manuela and says that she can no longer be a teacher at the school. Fräulein von Bernburg says that she could not continue there anyway, for she needs to stand for justice.
At this point, the girls are all looking for Manuela and cannot find her. Manuela has climbed up the main staircase and is ready to jump. Manuela is saved by the other students. The headmistress and Fräulein von Bernburg walk out of Fräulein von Bernburg’s room to discover a commotion and are then told that Manuela tried to jump and kill herself. The movie ends with all the girls watching the headmistress as she walks down the stairwell and down the hall in silence.
The film was groundbreaking in having an all-female cast; in its sympathetic portrayal of lesbian “pedagogical eros” (see Gustav Wyneken) and homoeroticism, revolving around the passionate love of a fourteen-year-old (Manuela) for her teacher (von Bernburg); and in its co-operative and profit-sharing financial arrangements (although these failed).
During an interview about the film decades later, Thiele said
The whole of Mädchen in Uniform was set in the Empress Augustaboarding school, where Winsloe was educated. Actually there really was a Manuela, who remained lame all of her life after she threw herself down the stairs. She came to the premiere of the film. I saw her from a distance, and at the time Winsloe told me, “The experience is one which I had to write from my heart.” Winsloe was a lesbian.
Thiele also said, “However, I really don’t want to make a great deal of […] or account for a film about lesbianism here. That’s far from my mind, because the whole thing of course is also a revolt against the cruel Prussian education system.”
After many screen tests, Winsloe had insisted that her friend Thiele play the lead role. Director Sagan would have preferred Gina Falckenberg who had done the role on stage in Berlin, but along with having played Manuela in Leipzig, Thiele had already played a young lesbian in Ferdinand Bruckner’s stage play Die Kreatur (The Creature) and although twenty-three years old when filming began, she was considered to be more capable of portraying a fourteen-year-old.
“What you call sin, I call the great spirit of love, which takes a thousand forms.”
Christa Winsloe who wrote the script had a rather sad end,She moved to France in the late 1930s, fleeing the Nazis. During World War II, she joined the French Resistance. Contrary to what is often stated, she was not executed by the Nazis. Instead, on June 10, 1944, Winsloe and her French partner, Simone Gentet, were shot and killed by four Frenchmen in a forest near the country town of Cluny. The men said that they had thought the women were Nazi spies, and were later acquitted of murder.