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Mädchen in Uniform

Géza von Radványi, 1958

Alongside the original Mädchen in Uniform, released just fourteen months before Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933, Géza von Radványi’s 1958 remake is considered one of the earliest cinematic depictions of lesbianism. A cult classic, too. Unfortunately, this once meant enduring (albeit evidently surviving) heavy German censorship. Even American audiences did not gain direct access to the film until 1965 when New Hollywood succeeded the Golden Age and repealed its strict, outdated Hays Code.

There’s subtle technicolor, impressive mise-en-scène, the odd quip to dispel tension in a patriarchal environment despite the complete absence of male appearances. But, also, callous remarks that doom a young protagonist for heartbreak and ostracism long before she approaches the wrought iron gates surrounding an all-girls boarding school. From within the confines of this so-called citadel, many are straightforward: I’m not a believer in a child’s right to be an individual. We’re not put on this earth to be happy, but to do our duty. Children, church, kitchen.

In response, a challenge is brought forth by commendable female solidarity and the blossoming relations between Fräulein von Bernburg and her pupil, Manuela. As director Leontine Sagan intended with the 1931 film, such themes not only serve to represent a marginalised group, but additionally comment on authoritarian and fascist behaviours bred by the events of both World Wars. This particular moment (and Mädchen’s last) effectively includes it all through social blocking.

Where her friends’ adoration for the good-spirited teacher remains harboured and innocent, Manuela’s quickly grows lustful, desperate, and unruly. All-consuming to the point of drunkenly confessing aloud, contemplating suicide, and being struck bedridden. In an explanation that aligns with a forlorn child’s naïvety, here simply lies Manuela’s inability to be the sole recipient of von Bernburg’s affections. Upon closer look, however, these new emotions go further to symbolically convey an unconscious attempt and ultimate failure in resisting the system, be it education or socio-political. As a resident of 1910 Prussia, her deviance simultaneously shapes, and is shaped by, a disregard for traditional values involving the submissive roles of wives and mothers. This subsequently prompts her isolation, a punishment extremely mild — a slap on the wrist, really — in comparison to the horrors faced by other queer women of the early-to-mid twentieth century. Nevertheless, just like those women, if pursuing another woman threatened social order, it threatened the state; hence endangering Manuela and von Bernburg’s own safety.

It isn't exactly a matter of von Bernburg not sharing Manuela’s love, or some variation of it, anyway, since she herself succumbs to near-palpable looks of yearning, even yielding to a brief kiss. Instead, there is an understanding that in provoking such vulnerability, her presence would proceed to eclipse the remainder of Manuela’s youth. I’d only get in her way. And that declaration of love, that want, is a perilous sentiment clearly prohibited from ever reaching acceptance.

Before departing the room, and thus from Manuela's life, von Bernburg’s shadowed silhouette looms over the girl as a detached and unreachable being. A face now faded and far away. Her sudden reticence confirms that Manuela, blind to her position in an innately power-imbalanced relationship, was only capable of recognising a romanticised, non-existent image of the older woman. After all, the queer experience of unrequited love — one that would’ve surpassed the ‘coming of age’ stage and crept well into adulthood — had sought her out and seized any sense of ‘rational thought.’

Besides wanting to uphold a moral responsibility, von Bernburg resigns from her teaching position in the hope that Manuela never comes to bear the label ‘mentally ill,’ or rather, ‘asocial,’ as preferred by the Nazi regime which would go on to gather outed lesbians for Ravensbrück concentration camp thirty years later. Indeed, though Manuela may disagree, this final decision is von Bernburg’s most profound act of love towards her. Mädchen in Uniform then leaves us with a burning question: when Manuela awakes, will she satisfy everyone’s wishes of breaking from a reverie? Will she return to a life before knowing individualism, unrequited love, and persecution; a time before Fräulein von Bernburg? If not, if sapphic desire lingers and fills the crevices of her mind once more, what fate awaits her then?


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