Girls in Uniform: Connecting Sexuality to Anti-authoritarianism
After its initial ban, in the 1970s Weimar film Mädchen In Uniform (1931) (dir: Leontine Sagan) was rediscovered by feminist critics who categorised it as an early ‘coming out film’. The narrative follows: a Prussian, authoritarian regime in an all-girls school for families with aristocratic or military backgrounds becomes inhabited by Manuela (Hertha Thiele), the ‘new girl’, who becomes, much like her female peers, besotted with their governess, Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck). Although it is comic, exciting and entirely female in its cast, some critics condemned its reliance on tropes such as experimental sexuality, unserious homosexuality, demonstrating little more than sororal affection and silliness. The queer romance of the film is most clearly identified in the unique relationship Fräulein von Bernberg begins with Manuela, as they exchange kisses and Manuela is gifted a petticoat, much to the jealousy of the other girls. Though much of the film is stylised with great affection for their relationship, their romance is obscured by their dynamic: teacher and student, a relation that is (rightfully) no longer romanticised by critics but criticised as an imbalance of power and of exploitation. Furthermore, their romance isn’t always clear, as it is often interpreted as maternal affection. There is much to be said regarding how their relationship is framed within such an ambiguous dynamic, and how a similar ambiguity is manufactured in the context of the film at large: as a commentary on anti-authoritarianism.
Using an entirely female cast of teachers and students, Mädchen unusually offers a multifaceted spectrum of femininity, showing women as varied in behaviour, attitude, age and position in relation to each other. We can compare the physical affections between girls compared to the boundaries of teachers who act coldly and militantly in their severity. The young girls celebrate rising body culture: they laugh and enjoy the sex appeal of American film stars and romantic novels, popular culture and jazz. They stand for a pro-Western attitude, representing the young Weimar generation in progressive ideas. They unite to form an embodied celebration of affection and sexual openness, contrasting the context of the strict regime of their environment, and of course, critiquing the growing national socialism outside the film.
It’s important to note that romance between women became accepted in film before it became acceptable between men. However, this is not a feminist marvel. Unlike men’s homosexuality, women’s homosexuality was (and often still is) softened, or pardoned, for being sweet, sororal and unthreatening to anything serious. This clear homophobia and erasure of women’s homosexuality is also closely connected to the eroticised image of homosexual intimacy between women, seen in centuries of art and literature, even by the supposedly most prudish epochs (see Victorian writer Christina Rossetti’s suggestively lesbian poem Goblin Market). It seems, culturally, that deconstructing the monument of heteronormativity is less imposing, less damaging when it concerns women. This lends itself to such deeply rooted misogyny in how queer relationships between women are viewed, as erased of their validity under the guise of playful experimentation, or women viewed as sexed, affectionate creatures by nature. It seems it is men who are most instrumental to the ideas and preservations of sexuality and heteronormativity. In this forgotten place, in their liminal position, women’s sexuality is minor and discounted. Mädchen in Uniform attempts to expand this liminal space using the tool of ambiguity and complex power dynamics. It complicates female homosexuality even further than it already is using various hierarchical structures: woman and girl, teacher and student. Thus, it is often unclear how celebratory of queerness and homosexuality this film actually is, and if it isn’t, what does it celebrate instead?
Mädchen thematises and emphasises the role of affection and solidarity in the face of an authoritarian institute. Above its romantic narrative, there is a very real tension between regime and action, how the girls behave to combat their environment and how they behave in order to cope with it, as these behaviours are often one and the same. Perhaps their affection and queer behaviour are portrayed as merely reactive to, or at least highlighted by, the oppressive authoritarian ideas that govern their school, as homophobia is usually rife in authoritarian states.
Mädchen is anti-authoritarian, but perhaps it can be better defined as a critique of authoritarian practices. It articulates a very specific political tension between the right and left poles of thinking and action. The girls, as the title states, are in uniform, sharing a unanimous, unexpressive identity. This anti-progressive image contributes to other militant images that frequent the film. The school’s headmistress, Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden (Emilia Unda), is figured as representative of the older generation, and thereby held in tension with progressivism. Cast as the villain for her caricaturesque portrayal of Prussian, traditional values, Nidden is shot with expressionist shadows cast across her face, contrasting the lightness and clarity in which Manuela and the girls are filmed. This deliberate light vs dark imagery represents the new cinematic movement of New Objectivity, bidding farewell to expressionism as a mode of the past and for Mädchen, a symbol of anti-progressive values.
Some critics have disagreed that Mädchen is anti-authoritarian; it’s important to note that Mädchen’s producer Carl Froelich went on to produce Nazi propaganda films. Aside from this clearly problematic association, the film itself, irrespective of its crew, does create scepticism surrounding its presentation of anti-authoritarian ideas firsthand. By the end of the film, after some plot filler including a metatheatrical performance of romance Don Carlos and an attempted suicide, little has changed by the time we arrive at the credits. The school’s regime is still in practice even after Manuela tries to commit suicide by throwing herself down a stairwell, symbolic of hierarchy and mobility in itself. Equally, throughout the film, we are given a humanisation of Bernberg, a romanticised teacher complicit in an institute of authoritarianism.
If one is to take anything away from Mädchen, other than its comedy and its basic celebration of sexually liberated women in all their variety and queerness, it is to note that homophobia is a crucial aspect of fascism. Mädchen closely predates the epoch in which male homosexuality entered the rhetoric of national socialism’s ideas of ‘man’ and masculinity, and homophobia remains one of the most weaponised aspects of patriarchal, oppressive states today. But perhaps, As Richard W. McCormick has said, these anti-democratic forces’ “defeat in this film, however momentary, is one that should cheer us all”.