Manuela ( Hertha Thiele ), a sensitive 14-year old child, is sent by her aunt to a strict boarding school for officer's daughters operated by headmistress Frau Oberin ( Emila Unda ), a stern Prussian who believes that discipline and hunger strengthens girls....girls who will one day become the mothers of soldiers. Fraulein von Bernburg ( Dorothea Wieck ), a young teacher at the school, differs. She believes it is important to befriend the children and gain their trust. Like the rest of her students, Manuela is drawn to the sympathetic von Bernburg and grows to love her. However, when the headmistress learns of Manuela's affection for this teacher, she determines to expel her, because displays of emotion, especially love, within the school is strictly verbotten.
Maedchen in Uniform, a German production from Deutsche Film-Gemeinschaft, is a deceptively simple and yet profoundly psychological film, demonstrating the intense love a young girl could have for her teacher, especially when that girl is a mother-less child. It cuts deep and offers some rich food for thought, leaving you with a compelling desire to revisit it - and analyze it closer.
Director Carl Froelich, who had seen the play it was based upon ( "Gestern und Heute" by Christina Winsloe ) during its Berlin run, was touched by the story and wanted to bring it to film. Realizing it needed a woman's intuition to successfully translate it to this medium, he asked the play's director, Leontine Sagan, if she would be willing to direct it under his supervision. Sagan initially had her doubts, but Froelich encouraged her, knowing that her experience as a stage director would bring a fresh style to the picture...which she certainly did accomplish.
Even though all of the scenes are framed very simply, Sagan staged each of them for maximum effect, using every opportunity to make them anything but stage bound. Dialogue is often spoken off-camera, over-the-shoulder shots are well utilized, and, in two key scenes, montages give us an insight into Fraulein von Bernburg's thoughts.
It is not a perfect film, however, there are frayed edges and the cuts between shots are especially apparent, but it is through this rudimentary filming, and Sagan's staging, that Maedchen in Uniform makes its impact, primarily by riveting your attention on the actions and reactions of the characters.
Von Bernburg is a particularly complex character and Dorothea Wieck gives an excellent portrayal of this aloof, stern, but strangely admirable teacher, shielding her character's inner emotions behind an impenetrable mask. It is clear why the students adore her so much. She cares about them in a way that none of the other teachers do. She champions love and justice in a prison environment guided by unmerciful authoritarian regulations that attempt to stifle individualism and natural affection.
But von Bernburg is also a paradox. "You never know how to take her. She will be stern one moment and then so sweet the next. It's very strange...." shrewdly observes Ilsa, the student's playful ringleader. The very love and affection she desires to give to her students she suppresses out of respect for the school's regulations and her ingrained sense of equity. Manuela desires to draw nearer to von Bernburg but she is "always so distant". Even in private she will not return Manuela's affection. Favoritism will, and must, not be considered.
"Pull yourself together, child! You know that I cannot make exceptions, otherwise the other children will be jealous."
Instead, she acknowledges their individuality ( Fraulein von Bernburg alone addresses the girls by their Christian names ) and strews hints of tenderness to them when she knows she will not be observed by her superior. One such act is bidding good night to the students in her dormitory with a kiss on their forehead. All of the students are starving for affection, which is evident in their eager anticipation of this nightly routine. It is when Manuela witnesses her teacher's empathy during that first night that she comes to love her.
Budding passions are bound to erupt within the confines of the boarding school, and those who do not focus their infatuation on von Bernburg instead develop crushes among each other....but Manuela's love is different. Hers is not merely a passing infatuation for the young mistress. She wants the nurturing love of the mother who was torn from her and attention from someone who cares about her. Fraulein von Bernburg recognizes this, and she worries about Manuela. Unlike the other children who admire her, Manuela truly needs her.
"Affection has no place here, it only arouses their emotions." - Frau Oberin
Maedchen in Uniform was made in the years just prior to the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany. Because it was filmed during this tumultuous period, there is a strong anti-Fascist message throughout the picture... in fact, it forms the core of the film. The boarding school is not a place for the girls to learn and grow as individuals, but a place for them to dispel their emotionalism, freedom of thought, and rebellious inclinations. Germany demands tough women who will obey without question the demands society may make on them. This idea is reinforced throughout the film by frequent cuts to imposing statues of military leaders. Order and rule are Wichtigste! But there are severe dangers in a society that is dispassionate and without tolerance, as Frau Oberin comes to realize.
Just two years later, when the Nazis came to power, Maedchen in Uniform would not have been permitted to be made. Many of the actresses in it were Jewish, and, those that did not flee Germany when they had the opportunity, died in concentration camps. "You were only first aware that they were Jewish when fascism was there and you lost your friends," said Thiele in a 1976 interview. The Nazis considered the film to be decadent and attempted to burn all copies of it, but due to its world-wide distribution it has become a surviving document to the anti-fascist sentiments of late Weimar-Germany.
The film was a great success throughout Europe upon its release and catapulted both Wieck and Thiele to international stardom. In America, the New York State Board of Censors initially wanted to ban it for its Sapphic implications, but First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had seen a screening of it overseas, spoke up for its artistic merit, and they reconsidered their refusal to grant the film a license.
Mordant Hall, a critic for The New York Times, praised Maedchen in Uniform as "a beautiful, tender, and really artistic cinematic work". It was truly groundbreaking at the time for featuring an all-female cast and a woman director at the helm ( Leontine Sagan earned a Venice Film Festival award for her effort ), and today, it remains a landmark in German cinema.
What makes Maedchen in Uniform so compelling is the ambiguity of its overall theme. It suggests much but reveals very little. One thing is clear, it is a deeply humanist film with a simple story that was vividly brought to life through its exemplary filming and the outstanding performances of the entire cast, each of whom were so well suited to their roles, down to the most insignificant of characters. Emila Unda is marvelous as the drachen-like headmistress Frau Oberin, and Ellen von Schwanneke is adorable as the rambunctious Ilsa. Interestingly, all of the "girls" were portrayed by women in their mid-20s.
In 1958, Maedchen in Uniform was remade in Germany with Lilli Palmer as Fraulein von Bernburg and Romy Schneider as Manuela, but both actresses failed to conceal their characters' sentiments, a key element that made the original so interesting. Wieck and Thiele never clearly revealed the thoughts and feelings of their characters. Palmer, being much older than Wieck when she took on the role, brought a more maternal nature to the character, wearing her emotions on her sleeve; while Schneider displayed none of Manuela's forlorn helplessness, thereby removing the pity the audience feels for the character.
Given the serious nature of its plot, the original Maedchen in Uniform could have easily become dark and somber, but instead the film has a cheerful tone in spite of its rigid setting. Cinematographer Franz Weihmayr made the most of pleasing highlights and subtle shadows, and Sagan emphasized the comradery and playful spirit of the girls through little scenes that show common girl-school behavior. The students are often breaking the school rules....eating chocolate, passing letters, talking while dressing ( this is one of the pre-code moments that a few old men may find mildly erotic ). Director Ida Lupino would later use a similar technique to give heart to The Trouble with Angels ( 1966 ), also set in a private girls school.
Maedchen in Uniform is currently not available on DVD in the United States but you can view it on Youtube here ( subtitles can be seen by clicking "CC" ). It has the most accurate translation of any version I've seen.
This post is our contribution to The Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon being hosted by Movies Silently. Be sure to check out the other great reviews of 20th century films directed by women. To read a comparison between this film and the 1951 French film Olivia, which was based upon Maedchen in Uniform, click here.