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Mädchen in Uniform: Traditional and Innovative Strategies in an Early Women's Film

Leontine Sagan's 1931 film Mädchen in Uniform is often ignored in film histories and critical surveys, yet as a document of its time and of its society this film provides us with a fascinating subject for study. Filmed as it was in a year which does not fall neatly into any critic's chronological division, this film eludes classification as either a product of the Weimar Republic or of the fascist state which was yet to come. In many ways, in fact, the film stands alone, for it offers a glimpse into the considerations of many liberally-minded Germans at this time, who on the one hand feared the tide of repression which they saw growing around them, but on the other hand knew better than to attempt an outright statement of rebellion. Thus Mädchen in Uniform, in taking up themes of anti-authoritarianism and discontent, reveals precisely the dilemma faced by its creators, and can be analyzed along these lines.

Other interpretations are, however, not only possible, but also desirable. Leontine Sagan, one of the first women directors in Germany, brought new and interesting cinematic strategies to her production of this film: somewhat surprisingly, many of these elements are those which, decades later, would come to be classified as typical "feminist" filmmaking techniques. The drama Yesterday and Today by Christa Winsloe, on which the film was based, also deals openly with women's issues within the patriarchal society of the school. In addition, the cast of the film, made up exclusively of women, included many untrained actresses and novice performers, who thus contribute an atmosphere of experimentation and communal effort to the production. A feminist critique of the film, therefore, or at least an analysis of the women's issues and influences in the film, can also be undertaken. It should be noted here, of course, that Sagan was not exclusively responsible for the direction of the film: Kracauer states that "Sagan directed the film under the guidance of Carl Froelich, one of the most experienced directors of the German cinema." [1] This is undoubtedly true: it is interesting, though, that the version of the film now in video distribution refers to Froelich only in the English-language credits, where he is named as "Supervisor." There is no mention made to him in the German credits.

It is not only in cinematic and historical fact, however, that these two analytical approaches are based: on the narrative level, as well, there exists a dichotomy between a feminist and an anti-fascist interpretation, as a simple plot summary shows. The child Manuela, daughter of a Prussian soldier, loses her mother and is sent to a girls' academy, run by a characteristically strict and autocratic headmistress. Here Manuela experiences the horrors of the authoritarian system: the girls complain of hunger but are not allowed to write home about it, daytime activities are strictly planned and regulated, and even the school play is disrupted by the punishment meted out on Ilse, who has disobeyed the ban on writing letters. In addition, though, to these themes of oppression and rebellion, certain women's issues come to bear on the story. In coming to the school, Manuela is placed in an atmosphere conducive to her relations with the other women: she is constantly seen touching, embracing, or nuzzling the other schoolgirls, and the camaraderie evident in many scenes is proof of the girls' need for companionship and love. Finally, of course, there is the central love story between Manuela and her teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg, which brings the homoerotic elements of Manuela's relationships clearly to the foreground.

There are, then, at least two levels at which Mädchen in Uniform may be read: the historical, and the feminist or even lesbian. It seems that the logical approach would be to view the film from both angles, drawing from the one to complement the other. Sadly, though, few critics have made an effort to combine the interpretations in this way. B. Ruby Rich notes in her definitive essay on the subject:

 ... most important to the film's reputation through the years has been its significance as an anti-authoritarian and prophetically anti-fascist film....In emphasizing the film's progressive stance in relation to the Nazi assumption of power, however, film historians have tended to overlook, minimize, or trivialize the film's central concern with love between women. [2]

Rich herself makes an effort to rectify this neglect by focusing her interpretation of the film on the lesbian love affair and its implications for the school's autocratic system. In her otherwise outstanding critique of the film, though, she seems to commit the opposite offense: her analysis centers so heavily on Manuela's love for and ultimate destruction of her teacher that other significant elements, such as the roles of Manuela's fellow students or of the Princess, and most significantly of Manuela's family background, are left entirely aside. Nonetheless, of course, the love affair between the two women is the dominant theme in the film, and any interpretation must draw on this issue as a primary source.

In attempting to analyze this film, it is thus necessary to consider not only the political background of Germany in 1931, but the societal attitudes as well. Unfortunately, as Rich points out, very little is known about the German society's views of women, and especially of lesbians, at this time. Indeed, as is so often the case, there seems to be a void regarding nearly any mention of homosexual relations in the Weimar Republic, to the point that finding a context in which to place Mädchen in Uniform becomes nearly impossible:

 ... it is a testimony to our ignorance of the period that [Mädchen in Uniform] is generally assumed to be an analogy, a film without a context, or else a metaphor, a coded tale about something else, something other than what appears on screen. [3]

Prior interpretations of the film, then, focused on several political aspects of the story, as highlighted above, drawing evidence of the protest against authoritarianism from the film's feature concern with Manuela as an excellent student, beloved by her teachers and fellow classmates, while at the same time crushed by the very system that purportedly aims to guide her development.

Rich proposes a different analysis. In short, she reads the forbidden love affair, with its emphasis on "emotionalism," as an unstated threat to the patriarchal structure of the academy. Fräulein von Bernburg, then, in displaying overtly a sensuality that at once attracts and comforts her young students, represents initially a kind of "pressure valve" with the function of being "the focus of dissident energies in order that the overall system will not be endangered." [4] Indeed, Rich claims, Fräulein von Bernburg contributes to the authoritarian order in the school in many ways, up to and including her gift of the nightgown to Manuela: with this action "she attempts to channel her concern and affection into the quasi-permissible form of a maternal gift." [5] It is not until Manuela's open declaration of love, in fact, that Rich sees the love affair becoming a scandal or an overt threat to the school. "The public speech, ... unlike the private actions between Manuela and Fräulein von Bernburg, publicly disrupts and subverts the prevailing order of the school." [6] This revelation, then, impels Fräulein von Bernburg to take a stand against the headmistress, which she had never dared before. In the end, of course, Fräulein von Bernburg resigns, runs to help rescue Manuela, and speaks the last words of the film. The last image on the screen, though, is given over to the headmistress; thus, according to Rich, "Fräulein von Bernburg stands triumphant with the schoolgirls witnessing the Principal's melancholy retreat." [7]

Clearly, Rich's feminist interpretation of Mädchen in Uniform is based in part on strategic scenes in the film which convey ambiguous statements: does the end shot really imply a victory, even on purely moral grounds, for Fräulein von Bernburg? Is it truly only with the public speech that the love affair becomes a matter of concern for the school? And, most importantly, is Fräulein von Bernburg's function as a "pressure valve" not undermined by her own reactions, not only to Manuela but to many of her students throughout the film?

As a response, then, I would like to attempt here a more inclusive analysis of Mädchen in Uniform, one which draws naturally on the historical background and allusions apparent within the film, but which also covers feminist issues, particularly in terms of narrative, cinematographic and structural elements, which in Rich's essay were almost completely ignored. In particular, questions of subjectivity and spectatorship are of vital importance, for it is here that Sagan's creative touch is most strikingly evident. The views of women in this film are, in general, polarized: some are seen as adhering to the patriarchal order, even taking part in it, but other women are portrayed as, indeed, 'other' or as possessing uniquely female characteristics. Finally, the entire focus of the film as a personal study, in fact a biographical (albeit fictional) narrative, as well as the overall lack of suspense or plot in the film, recall more recent theories of feminist filmmaking.


On a narrative level, Mädchen in Uniform offers a rich palette of possible interpretations. Indeed, the film resists all attempts to deliver one definitive message or central theme: it seems instead to focus at times on the academy's autocratic disregard for human emotionality, at times on the pleasures of youthful friendship, and at times on the aspects of feminine warmth and love which lead to destruction. As stated above, Manuela's story has been seen by some critics as merely an allegory or analogy to the repressiveness of the coming German regime, or at least as a vehement criticism of repressive rule in any form. In this, the film has much in common with other anti-authoritarian protest narratives, such as Robert Musil's Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß or even Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos, which itself figures prominently in this film. There are, of course, a number of points in the narrative which support this anti-fascist assessment. The dogmatic rules and discipline in the academy present a striking parallel to any militaristic regime, and the fact that it is precisely the blind enforcement of these regulations that leads to Manuela's attempted suicide speaks quite strongly for an anti-authoritarian reading. In addition, at several key moments in the film, the headmistress speaks lines rich in political allusion: at one point, for example, while discussing budgetary constraints with Fräulein von Kesten, the headmistress remarks: "Hunger? Wir Preußen haben uns gewohnt zu hungern! [...] Durch Hunger und Zucht werden wir wieder groß werden!" The sequences following this discussion -- the children longingly discussing holiday dinners and memories of their meals at home -- serve to increase the effect on the viewer and underscore the tragic ignorance inherent in the headmistress' view.

At the same time, though, the very nature of the story presented on screen precludes a purely political interpretation, as Rich has also explained. The central issue in the film is not, despite many critics' contentions, the autocratic nature of the headmistress and her academy, but rather the love affair between Manuela and her teacher. It is the sensuality, the aura of romance and affection, and the heartbreak of separation which pervade the atmosphere of the film. From the moment when Fräulein von Bernburg first sees Manuela on the stairs, the importance of the headmistress begins to wane. Indeed, the love affair reaches beyond the private sphere of Manuela and Fräulein von Bernburg: the other girls, too, are seen to display erotic and romantic affection towards each other and towards their teacher on numerous occasions. One girl has even chosen to tattoo her arm with her beloved teacher's initials, and the reaction of Ilse von Westhagen to Fräulein von Bernburg's attentions provides decisive proof of the focus on sensuality: after her letter is discovered and Ilse is forbidden to act in the school play, she begins to pack her things in a vain attempt to escape from the school. At this moment, Fräulein von Bernburg appears, hugs her, consoles her by speaking to her on her own terms ("Ich darf ja auch nicht mitspielen") and finally, emphatically, slaps Ilse from behind, which motivates Ilse not only to remain at school, but to sigh in blissful adoration of her teacher. Rich duly notes that this interference on the part of Fräulein von Bernburg is in fact a service to the very regime she comes into conflict with: "it is her presence as a confidante that permits her to discern and block any tentative moves in the direction of revolt." (69) The merging of Fräulein von Bernburg's sensuality, then, with the regulated life in the academy shows precisely the level at which the message of this film must be read, where the personal meets and indeed becomes the political.

The story elements here reflect clearly the possibility of bridging the dichotomy of feminist and historical layers in the film, but the characters themselves provide another opportunity for examining these levels, too. The exclusively female cast is, for instance, nevertheless remarkably varied in terms of on-screen femininity, sensuality, and approachability. The headmistress stands of course at one extreme: the archetype of the repressive tyrant, she is, as Rich states, "the ultimate incarnation of the absent but controlling patriarchy." [8] Her ever-present cane, from which she draws much of her support and even authority, can be seen as a phallic symbol, evidence of her reliance on 'masculine' methods of dominance and constraint. Her insistence on the "sinfulness" and the "scandal" of Manuela's love for Fräulein von Bernburg can be taken, on the one hand, as the reaction of a patriarchal leader to what amounts to insubordination: lesbian love does not fit within the militaristic tradition of a state designed to raise, as the headmistress says, "Soldatentöchter, und wenn Gott will, wieder Soldatenmütter." At the same time, though, she reflects not merely the patriarchal ruler, but a woman who, unable to find expression for her own sexuality and femininity, resorts to extinguishing all such expression amongst others, as well.

Manuela, then, embodies the polar opposite of the headmistress, demonstrating at all moments a soft, fragile nature so reflective of her psychological state. "Excitable," she is called, and on at least three separate occasions in the film she is admonished, "Nimm' dich doch zusammen, Manuela!" She is capable of radical mood swings, at one moment smiling, the next weeping uncontrollably. In portrayals such as these, the character of Manuela seems to fulfill the common stereotypes of the unstable, confused woman, in need of a man's (or patriarch's) guidance to form her into a "useful" member of society. "Das Vaterland braucht wieder eiserne Menschen," says one of the girls, reporting the advice sent to her in a letter from home. Yet in the scenes where she is confronted by Fräulein von Bernburg, we see a dramatic change in Manuela's behavior. Indeed, it is only in the presence of her beloved teacher that Manuela is able to muster a smile, and even laugh; at all other times she is seen moping, finding only small satisfaction in the affairs of her fellow students. Manuela is, in fact, an outsider in the school, as we see from the opening scenes onward. She is not allowed to stay in the room as her aunt converses with Fräulein von Kesten, but neither is she yet a student: her flashy civilian clothes set her off distinctly from Marga and the other girls she meets. Later, of course, Manuela attempts to become a part of her environment. As Lisa Ohm notes: "Manuela has no choice at the seminary but to seek her identity and security within the group." [9] She does, to a certain extent, even succeed: the girls do, for example, take an obvious liking to Manuela, which leads in the end to their concern for her safety, and their eventual rescue of her on the staircase. Still, Manuela remains the different one, always separated in some fashion from her comrades. She has no mother: this is repeated several times as a possible explanation, or even excuse, for her "strange" behavior. Her schoolwork, too, is different: she is outstanding in all of her classes except those taught by Fräulein von Bernburg, where she performs inadequately. The fact that she is chosen, too, to play the role of Don Carlos in the school play is further evidence of her difference and her expression of dissent. In addition, of course, Manuela is singled out on several occasions by either the headmistress or her superior, the Princess, and her private conversations with Fräulein von Bernburg highlight clearly her otherness, her sense of exclusion from the group.

But what of Fräulein von Bernburg? If Manuela stands as the quintessential female, and the headmistress as the patriarchal tyrant, a place must be found for the object of Manuela's attraction as well. Elisabeth von Bernburg can hardly be seen as an unthinking accomplice to the patriarchal system, despite Rich's valiant efforts to place her in this category. Throughout the entire film, it is clear that Fräulein von Bernburg is, like Manuela, an outsider, different from and often ostracized by her colleagues. At the teachers' meeting Fräulein von Bernburg is forced to state honestly and openly her own strong points as a teacher, since no one else seems willing to support her in her struggles against the despotism of the headmistress. In addition, while nearly all the other teachers are depicted in groups or clusters, and never act of their own volition, Fräulein von Bernburg very often stands alone, and takes steps which directly reflect her own beliefs, rather than blindly following the dogma of the system. At the same time, Fräulein von Bernburg differs from Manuela in her obvious strength and single-mindedness. She is at times completely "unfeminine," and comes across to even her own students as distant, unapproachable, even frightening. She walks primly, with a strict sense of order and restraint, in direct opposition to Manuela's frequent exuberant and unrestrained movements. She is, then, a blending or a merging of the extremes: the sensual and self-identified woman, who nonetheless is able to function within the patriarchal society, bending the rules to fit her own desires. She is thus the point of intersection, the personal and emotional being who acts within the political and social sphere.

Still, the ending of the film reveals the danger inherent to this type of blurred boundary. Rich declares the outcome to be a scene of triumph for Fräulein von Bernburg, but it is difficult to concede to her in this matter. As Ohm reflects:

 ... at the end of the film ... drums and bugles in the distance remind us that the power structure beyond the walls of the school remains intact despite Manuela's averted suicide and the girls' revolt. Although the rebellious students temporarily usurp authority, the headmistress is not defeated but merely beats a momentarily reflective retreat down the hallway. [...] Manuela's former submission to Bernburg is now ironically replaced by her new tie to her peer group, which, in turn, is totally repressed by the dominant Prussian patriarchal system ... [10]

Cinematography and Editing

In addition to the narrative aspects of Mädchen in Uniform, cinematographic elements in the film also allow for a multiplicity of interpretations. Sagan's masterful use of close-ups and superimpositions lends an air of immediacy to the film which intensifies the female aesthetic already present, yet her strict and precise use of lighting and camera angles create the atmosphere of repression and masculinity that is so prominent in the academy.

A feminist analysis of this film is sure to note Sagan's emphasis on facial expressions. At several crucial moments in the film, for instance, Manuela's face is shown in close-up, then contrasted (at one point superimposed) with Fräulein von Bernburg's face, bearing an identical expression. These scenes, which occur in the classroom and in Fräulein von Bernburg's own room, are clear indicators of the special bond between the two women: indeed, the final example occurs even when Manuela is not, in fact, present. We see Fräulein von Bernburg, in a heated discussion with the headmistress, suddenly freeze; a close-up of Manuela's face is then superimposed over her own, and then the image returns to Fräulein von Bernburg's room, where she cries "Manuela!" and runs off, aware of the imminent tragedy. This preoccupation with facial close-ups may, in fact, be evidence of a "female gaze" as an undercurrent throughout the film. It is noteworthy that, despite the overt sensuality perceived in many of the dressing-room scenes, there is not a single close-up of legs, chests, or any body part other than the face. The emphasis here is clearly not on women as objects, but as complete, aesthetic, and above all emotional beings. The position of the spectator, too, is significant: there are remarkably few examples of tilted camera angles, either high or low, in this film. Instead, nearly all the shots are level, and most are medium-range or even close-up shots. The spectator becomes in essence 'one of the girls,' on a level with and in close proximity to the characters in the film. In fact, the only extreme long-shot in the film is to be found outside the academy, in the introductory images, which portray soldiers marching in the distance, and then the girls in their prisoner-like striped uniforms marching through the gates into the school. Once inside, the viewer becomes confined, much as the girls, too, are restricted and restrained.

As noted, though, Sagan does not favor exclusively the use of 'feminine' camera techniques; she is equally adept at using harsher, more powerful strategies in appropriate sequences. The lighting, for instance, in nearly all the academy shots is harsh, bright, and clearly defined. In many cases there are strong vertical and horizontal shadows cast on the walls: the staircase, for example, calls to mind cell-like bars framing Manuela and the others; so too the ingenious emphasis on the vertical bar-like shadows in the infirmary, while Manuela is confined to bed, acting as both a reminder of her confinement and a critique of the oppressive regulations imposed on her. There are no obvious example of curves to be found in any of the film's shots: apart from the bodies of the girls, nearly all objects in the school are straight, precise, and inevitably phallic. The stairway, too, is of central concern to the camera: at several points early in the film, there are shots of the staircase, centering it as a key element in the mind of the viewer. The fact that this staircase is never seen from the top, but always shot from below, only emphasizes its towering height and the terrifying role it has to play. These scenes, then, including the one Kracauer cites, serve to prepare the viewer for the tragedy that nearly occurs:

 ... the girls amuse themselves by throwing objects from the top of the stairs, and then, shuddering, express their horror of the abyss beneath them. These [...] shots enable the audience to grasp the significance of the final staircase scene in which Manuela, her mind bent on suicide, walks upstairs: her appearance at the top immediately evokes the image of the shuddering girls. [11]

In addition to her expert use of cinematic and camera techniques, Sagan also brings out key aspects of her film through the use of sound. Considering the year in which this film was made, and the fact that experimentation with sound had necessarily been carried out to a rather limited extent, Rich is indeed correct in praising Sagan's "use of sound, not only as a functional synchronous accompaniment, but as a thematic element in its own right." [12] Indeed, the bugle calls, chiming bells, and marching feet provide telling examples of sound motifs: in many cases they contribute more to the film than an image could convey, and as such are vital in achieving the overall effect. Singing, too, is an important element: we first become acquainted with Ilse's perky and impetuous character by observing her parody of the hymn being sung. Sagan also makes masterful use of off-screen sound, as evidenced in examples such as those where Manuela speaks, but the camera remains focused on the face of Fräulein von Bernburg. In these and other instances, too, there are interesting connections to be found between the words being spoken and the on-screen images. The refusal of the headmistress to acknowledge any complaints of hunger among the girls is, as noted above, immediately followed by images of the girls themselves, discussing feasts and dishes previously relished. Surprisingly, though, this film is relatively sparse in its use of non-diegetic sound and, in particular, music. There are a few occasions on which a faint background melody can be determined, but overall, the only scene in which background music plays a key role is the nighttime "kiss" sequence, where a distant lullaby is repeated while Fräulein von Bernburg conducts her evening ritual. In many scenes, including some of the most tense or emotional moments, absolute silence prevails, and indeed, rightly so, for the viewer is left to concentrate entirely on the dialogue and images which are presented.


In order to present more clearly the union of feminist and traditional strategies in Mädchen in Uniform, it may be helpful to concentrate on a single sequence in greater detail. In this case, a good example can be found in the first of the two private conversations between Manuela and Fräulein von Bernburg. This sequence occurs directly following the classroom scenes in which Manuela, mesmerized by her teacher's face in class, is unable to recite the poem when called upon. The scene closes with Fräulein von Bernburg's exasperated comment, "Wieder nichts gelernt?" and fades to black.

The opening of the next sequence is a prime example of the harsh lighting and traditional 'masculine' cinematography in the film. The camera fades in from black onto a relatively long shot of the hallway {1} , with Manuela slowly creeping forward from the depths. The lighting is bright, yet the shadows on the walls are pronounced, with many vertical lines emphasizing the oppressive aura of the school. Upon the appearance of Fräulein von Bernburg and several students behind her, Manuela quickly hides amongst the shadows, pressed tightly against the wall in a pose reminiscent of Caligari's sleepwalker. As the entourage ascends the staircase, Manuela, contorted around the pillar, peers after them, simultaneously attracted and yet terrified. The bars of the staircase form parallels to the stripes on her uniform, calling to mind once again a prisoner in her cell.

The cut to Fräulein von Bernburg's room {2} brings a dramatic contrast to the screen: the shadows seen in the hallway are now nowhere to be found: the lighting is evenly bright, perhaps even festive. The maid, rearranging the laundry, turns to look as Fräulein von Bernburg enters and proceeds to her desk, which is neatly cluttered with books and other scholarly items. After seeming to pull the camera with her to her desk, Fräulein von Bernburg begins to sit; the camera then pans sharply back, and we see the two students curtsy crisply, then leave.

The shot of Manuela being comforted by Edelgard {3} is a study in conflicting imagery: the bleak, hopeless images of the bars and the staircase remain, but they are contradicted by the soft embraces and affection shown by the two girls. Manuela's face is expressive, as always, and her lithe movements, tilting to one side and reaching out for her friend's hand, emphasize her femininity even when constrained.

The opposite is true, then, of the next shot {4} . In the otherwise cheerful room, Fräulein von Bernburg's dour expression and stoic, even unsympathetic, reaction to the maid's concern for Manuela take the viewer by surprise, and set up a dichotomy that remains in effect throughout much of the sequence.

The next few shots {5 - 7} continue to play off the staunch rigidity of Fräulein von Bernburg's comportment against Manuela's ever-present emotionality. In the following shot {8} , however, we begin to see a relaxation on the part of the teacher: Fräulein von Bernburg's face, shown for the first time in a close-up, remains unexpressive, but her hand is seen holding Manuela's tattered nightgown, an unmistakable sign of the intimacy between the two women. And indeed, Manuela reciprocates this intimacy, picks up the nightgown, and examines it judiciously.

The successive series {9 -15} of short close-ups, each showing different reactions from the women, continues to build on the tension between the two. Manuela, as ever, tries valiantly to control herself, but her inner emotions spill over into her voice and facial movements, while Fräulein von Bernburg remains distant, interrogating the girl about her past. Suddenly, though, {16} the tension breaks: Fräulein von Bernburg relaxes, makes a light-hearted comment and bridges the gap between them by agreeing wholeheartedly with Manuela's assessment ("Ich bin ganz deiner Meinung!").

From this point on, the aura of tension in the room recedes. As Manuela comes to join Fräulein von Bernburg at her closet, and embraces her beloved teacher, the shot {20} is inarguably reminiscent of the typical Hollywood (heterosexual) embrace, filmed from behind the teacher's shoulder, focused on Manuela's angelic face.

Once again, though, the mood switches dramatically. Manuela is suddenly filmed from behind {21} , as she breaks into sobs and tears. The following view of Fräulein von Bernburg's face is revealing: confronted by this sudden onslaught of undesirable emotionality, she regains her composure, becoming the stoic, unfeeling, even unfeminine teacher yet again. Her disappointment in Manuela is obvious, yet her sense of affection for the girl motivates her to remain tender, and an exceptionally long, silent, motionless embrace is prolonged. Finally, Fräulein von Bernburg motions for Manuela to sit, and their conversation begins in earnest.

As Manuela takes a seat {23} and begins her explanation, the room, which had been suffused with a bright, if muted, light, suddenly becomes significantly darker, and the onscreen space is much more clearly defined. The subsequent scenes {24 - 25} could both be taken as point-of-view shots, although the exact angle between the two women is left undetermined.

As Manuela protests to her teacher, "Ihnen kann ich doch alles anvertrauen!" we see a number of shadows cross her face {28} , causing a certain amount of doubt as to whether really "everything" is to be confided. To compensate, perhaps, for this distraction or for this intrusion of a foreign logic into Manuela's own world, Sagan suddenly gives us a distanced medium shot {29} in which both women, sitting, are shown to be fully absorbed in the conversation. Manuela then begins her confession; we see her at first, expressive, head tilted, pleading, in a way, with her teacher. As her voice continues offscreen, it is Fräulein von Bernburg's face that is now centered in the frame: stoic, restrained, she seems to have no reaction to the words of her pupil.

Suddenly, Manuela reaches the climax of her speech: she turns to look at her teacher, proclaiming "daß Sie jeden Abend fremde Kinder küssen!" At this moment {35} , we see Fräulein von Bernburg's face again, but this time, the barrier is broken: her shock and outrage cause her to exclaim "Du hast aber Sorgen!" She is no longer, then, the unemotional creature wishing merely to comfort her charge; she has been touched, if also a little shocked, by the depth of feeling Manuela has revealed. Fräulein von Bernburg's struggle to regain control over her own emotions is readily apparent here: she tightens her lips, breathes deep and quickly, and shifts in her chair. It is at this moment, too, that the shadows in the wall behind her are accentuated: the lamp, whose shadow bends down into Fräulein von Bernburg's face, also casts a shining halo around her head and face.

As Manuela sobs, we hear Fräulein von Bernburg's words, and then she is again presented {37} , prim and restrained, standing in front of the seated Manuela, much like a military officer. She orders her charge, "Sei ein guter Kamerad!" but, as if immediately recognizing the impossibility of her command, softens, and decides to try a different approach. The next words are uttered in a much gentler tone, and accompanied by a corresponding tempering of her facial expression. She explains her own situation, as if asking for Manuela's understanding, and then confides, "Ich denke sehr viel an dich, Manuela."

At this confession from her teacher, Manuela, seen in a facial close-up, immediately ceases to cry, and the entire room brightens up around her {38} . Again both women are seen, in a relaxed posture contrasting sharply to the militaristic stance just a few moments before, and then Fräulein von Bernburg walks offscreen, ending the conversation. Manuela remains seated for a moment, but the next shot {40} shows her, seen first in a reflection on the wall, coming to stand by her teacher, asking "Sind Sie glücklich?" Manuela's naïveté is met with gentle teasing from Fräulein von Bernburg, and the scene ends with Manuela leaving the room in the bright, harshly accented hallway again, smiling joyously.

The adept mixture of harsh light, facial close-ups, precise acting, and meaningful dialogue in this sequence make it one the most captivating in the film. Sagan's techniques of shadow play, lighting and visual imagery are notable in and of themselves, but are enhanced by their contrast with her emphasis on facial expression and expressivity of dialogue and voice. Not only does this contrast reveal much about Sagan's filmmaking strategies, it also encourages a more inclusive analysis of the film as a whole: both traditional and innovative elements are at play in this work, and it is necessary to evaluate all of them in order to come to a valid assessment. A purely feminist critique, while certain to point out interesting aspects of Sagan's production, is ultimately inadequate and does not do justice to the amazing scope of the film. A more productive and rewarding criticism, which is unfortunately far beyond the scope of this paper, could take up issues of femininity within the patriarchal structure of the academy, and perhaps shed light on some of the techniques seen here, elements which later came to be classified as feminist strategies. In particular the merging of the personal and the political would be relevant to such a reading: in what ways, for example, does the personal realm of Manuela's relationship with Fräulein von Bernburg coincide or interact with the political sphere of the school administration, Manuela's father, and even the Princess? At present, however, suffice it to say that Sagan's production of Mädchen in Uniform incorporates a variety of filmic strategies which, when combined, contribute to the appealing complexity of the already fascinating dramatic narrative.


(1)  Kracauer, Siegfried, From Caligari to Hitler (Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 226. [return to text]
(2)  Rich, B. Ruby, "From Repressive Tolerance to Erotic Liberation: Girls in Uniform." In: Sandra Frieden et al., eds., Gender and German Cinema: Feminist Interventions, Vol. II (Berg Publishers, Inc., 1993), p. 64. [return to text]
(3)  Rich, p. 62. [return to text]
(4)  Rich, p. 69. [return to text]
(5)  Rich, p. 71. [return to text]
(6)  Rich, p. 75. [return to text]
(7)  Rich, p. 79. [return to text]
(8)  Rich, p. 67. [return to text]
(9)  Ohm, Lisa, "The Filmic Adaptation of the Novel The Child Manuela." In: Sandra Frieden et al., eds., Gender and German Cinema: Feminist Interventions, Vol. II (Berg Publishers, Inc., 1993), p. 101. [return to text]
(10)  Ohm, p. 104. [return to text]
(11)  Kracauer, p. 227. [return to text]
(12)  Rich, p. 64. [return to text]

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1994 for German 655 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Mädchen in Uniform: Traditional and Innovative Strategies in an Early Women's Film." Website Article. 18 December 1994. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/655paper.html>.