From these socio-erotic negotiations sprung cinema’s first expressly lesbian-themed feature, Mädchen in Uniform (1931), not simply a tale of forbidden love but a historically particular challenge to Weimar Germany’s separation of the private and the political, the erotic subject and the frigid institution. Like Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), Mädchen is one of German sound cinema’s first essays in erotic psychology. The film is equally remarkable as a rare early talkie by female filmmakers, director Leontine Sagan and lesbian co-screenwriter Christa Winsloe, who adapted her 1930 stage play Yesterday and Today (Gestern und heute).
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Philosophy, far more than the average citizen, has had a terrible time defining freedom. The philosopher, schooled in the shame of hasty reductions, relishes the burden of delicate, painfully qualified definitions. The average citizen fastens upon “freedom” heedlessly, even shamelessly, claiming through that ill-defined term personal rights that can expand or contract capriciously, in accordance with moods and convenience. For the layman, freedom is an affectation divorced from social contracts; freedom becomes little more than a feeling one integrates into the economic rhythms of daily life. This, at least, is the sense held by the privileged citizen, who knows what freedom isn’t more than what it is. A simple axiom: the privileged citizen feels he isn’t free, while the oppressed citizen knows it.
The aestheticization of freedom (or claims to freedom) is a poor man’s fallacy, the bugbear of an American culture that prizes perception over objectivity. Freedom has nothing to do with how one feels about it, but neither should it be reduced to an instinct, goal, or action – nor an ideal, for ideals are unrealizable. Insofar as one’s exercise of freedom is another’s reign of terror, civil democracies have always tried to navigate the dead-end dialectics of freedom and safety, autonomy and social control. In his Four Essays on Liberty, Isaiah Berlin frames the dialectic simply, distinguishing between self-actualizing “positive” freedoms and reactive “negative” ones – that is, between an individual’s freedom to accomplish something and the (lesser) freedom from imposed restrictions. In today’s America, Berlin’s distinction has been obviated by the rise of egoistic libertarianism, an attitude that lionizes negative freedoms while fetishizing trivially positive ones (e.g., the right to own firearms, brandish a certain flag, or flout warnings about communicable disease). For Americans fixated on an antebellum Constitution, positive freedoms are mean, petty, and reactionary. Rather than willfully embracing uncharted goals, the “free” American jingoist shouts only childish maledictions, lobbing resentful fuck-yous toward perceived interlopers, snooping G-Men, and the unidentified socialists turning the rusted wheels of democracy.
Of course, the force that makes freedoms negative is not merely an interfering government (or deity). The Freudian reality principle – the libidinal repressions and sublimations we tacitly accept as our socially contracted “freedom” – overrides any municipal dictate or executive decree. Against the reality principle stand both asexuality and prehistoric, age-blind hedonism, the antipodes to industrious and procreative civilization. How could Berlin’s existentialistic distinction possibly overcome the reality principle and its merciless unifications? As Herbert Marcuse argues in Eros and Civilization, under present conditions, any ambition for which we might “positively” strive is already circumscribed by and within a total system of repression – we thus live our repressions as our freedoms, consciously or not. We are told to content ourselves with conventional pleasures and enumerated “rights,” never daring to desire and demand everything else our masters intentionally withheld.
Marcuse suggests radically desublimating desire, a utopian solution at odds with trends in cultural studies, which exhort us to negotiate with (rather than oppose) the hijackers (i.e., practitioners) of culture. Before Stonewall, modernity had provided only a few moments in which erotic freedoms threatened to become active political movements. In the popular imagination, perhaps Weimar Berlin embodies such a liberated space, informed by queer agencies, proud decadence, slumming intelligentsia, and the sexology of Magnus Hirschfeld. More than any fiction feature (such as Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg, 1977), avant-gardist Maria Beatty’s Ecstasy in Berlin, 1926 (2004) might epitomize our cloudy Weimar daydreams. In this forty-minute, sepia-toned lesbian fantasia, Beatty presents carefully studied tableau that picture costumed flappers injecting themselves with heroin and sadomasochistically binding one another in leather corsets. Beyond voluptuous imagery, there is statistical truth. According to Stuart Marshall’s documentary Desire: Sexuality in Germany, 1910-1945, Weimar boasted no fewer than fifty lesbian clubs and bars, as opposed to only five in 1989, the year Marshall’s documentary was released.
Hermetic sexual pluralism extends only so far, however. Pockets of indoor liberation were only small concessions that comprised one part of a larger social bargain. Prussian propriety and Paragraph 175 still governed society at large, despite the efforts of many intellectuals and doctors (including Freud, who in 1930 added his name to an unsuccessful petition to rescind Paragraph 175). As Peter Gay observes, Weimar culture permitted progressive youth, dissolute literati, and sybaritic rovers “irregular private lives” as long as they didn’t contest the powers-that-be.1 Weimar liberalism was a carefully balanced societal negotiation that gave little real power to marginal actors and was “positive” only in the most bargained or corrupted sense.
From these socio-erotic negotiations sprung cinema’s first expressly lesbian-themed feature, Mädchen in Uniform (1931), not simply a tale of forbidden love but a historically particular challenge to Weimar Germany’s separation of the private and the political, the erotic subject and the frigid institution. Like Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), Mädchen is one of German sound cinema’s first essays in erotic psychology. The film is equally remarkable as a rare early talkie by female filmmakers, director Leontine Sagan and lesbian co-screenwriter Christa Winsloe, who adapted her 1930 stage play Yesterday and Today (Gestern und heute). The film’s feminist pedigree is somewhat compromised by the “technical supervision” provided by codirector Carl Froelich, a journeyman whose career stretches back to the once-lavish hagiography The Life of Richard Wagner (1913) and who, during the Nazi period, churned out inoffensive costume dramas to suit official tastes.2 Directorial attributions aside, the film’s incipient lesbian feminism is very much the brainchild of Winsloe, who also broached unrequited lesbian desire in her unpublished drama Sylvia and Sybille.
True to the Weimar ethos, Mädchen’s story of schoolgirl eros at a repressive boarding school met with no condemnation by German censors and audiences in 1931. In fact, the film was an instant success not only in liberal Germany but in pre-Code America when it was exported in 1932. The Film Daily ranked Mädchen ninth on its list of the year’s ten best films, between I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Rasputin and the Empress.3 Critics praised the film’s naturalistic performances and technical innovations, particularly the use of expressionistic, disorienting montage to reveal psychological tension. Upon its premiere “in Mexico City in 1933, [the film periodical] Filmográfico announced it as ‘a true monument of German cinematography.’”4 Acclaim wasn’t limited to Western quarters. The critics of Kinema Junpô named Mädchen Japan’s best imported film of 1933, and the film was lauded by progressive leftists in China. Zheng Boqi, a Marxist critic who’d translated Pudovkin’s Film Director and Film Material into Japanese, championed the film as more “politically audacious and formally innovative” than any contemporary Hollywood production.5 The leftist screenwriter Xia Yan further “claimed the film was more powerful than all [other] films imported from Britain, Germany, and the United States that year.”6
The film’s international popularity – and potential cult audience – was stunted only as anti-German sentiment intensified after its release. When the Nazis gained power in the 1932 federal elections, American “[b]oycotts and protests erupted against German films, even those produced before Hitler’s ascension to power and opposed to the Nazi ethos.”7 The Nazis labelled Mädchen entartete (“degenerate”) and tried (without success) to incinerate every print. Nevertheless, the film was not forgotten, at least by filmmakers. A depoliticized Mexican knockoff, Muchachas en Uniforme, appeared in 1951, and director Géza von Radványi remade the film (under the same title) with Romy Schneider in 1958. More generally, one can sense traces of the film’s pathos wherever Foucauldian institutions suppress queerly enraptured youths (Jean Dellanoy’s heart-wrenching This Special Friendship  comes to mind). With the rise of lesbian feminism in the 1970s, Mädchen finally began to enjoy new currency and new audiences, who happily discovered the film is neither a kitschy antique nor mere fodder for social activism.
The film begins as bells toll and trumpets sound across the grounds of an all-girls school, where neoclassical architecture and militaristic statues conjure heroic, imperialistic Prussian values. Clad in striped uniforms, schoolgirls march in rigid formation to class, as if prisoners trudging to penitence. A new girl arrives, Manuela (Hertha Thiele), a sensitive fourteen-and-a-half year-old who mourns the recent death of her mother. The daughter of a perennially absent army officer, Manuela is expected to embody Teutonic virtues of motherhood and self-sacrifice, but she soon succumbs to the intense eroticism that pervades the insular campus. Manuela discovers that crushes among the girls are common; one classmate tells Manuela that “all the girls have a crush on Fraulein von Bernberg,” the school’s youngest teacher. In accordance with institutional procedures, Manuela must exchange her dress for the school’s striped uniform, which nevertheless bears traces of an unspoken love: the inscribed initials “E v. B.” A classmate quickly informs Manuela that the girl who previously wore that uniform “must have been infatuated with Elizabeth von Bernberg.”
With kind eyes and a delicate appearance, Elizabeth betrays a sensitivity elsewhere lacking within the school’s suffocating confines. Ethically and dramatically, she opposes the ironfisted Headmistress, who believes that authoritarian control and even a spartan diet are appropriate ways to nurture the daughters of military men. Claiming that poverty “ennobles” and connotes “the true meaning of Prussianism as it once was,” the Headmistress insists that “through hunger and discipline, we shall be great again … or not at all.” She further prohibits the girls from having any contact with the outside world: books, letters, and magazines are verboten, though the girls regularly skirt the prohibitions (one girl swoons over her secret photo of Hans Albers, later a reluctant Nazi superstar). But the Headmistress’s grandiose claim that “we will be great again” is disingenuous, for the universalized “we” suggests an equality between men and women that simply doesn’t exist. As future mothers and wives, the girls are supposed to facilitate Germany’s rebirth after the humiliations of WWI, yet they remain paralyzed by compulsory domesticity. In the standard German bildungsroman, the boarding school boy embarks on a worldly journey of self-discovery and self-creation. Here, the insulated girl, deprived of the transformative quest, must content herself with manufacturing sons, not a future self.
Procreative cum Prussian futures are far from the girls’ minds. When not dreaming of romance and thickly streuseled cakes, they anticipate every evening’s moment of transcendence, when Elizabeth enters their shadowy dormitory and kisses each of them on the forehead. The scene of the goodnight kiss is staged solemnly, with each girl accepting the kiss as if receiving a benediction. Learning of Manuela’s sadness, Elizabeth decides to kiss the girl on the mouth rather than the forehead, charging an otherwise maternal gesture with palpable eroticism. Notably, in Winsloe’s original stage version, the kiss was preceded by a sentimental scene in which Manuela recalls the comforting scent of her dead mother’s clean linens. Presumably, this preamble was meant to emphasize Manuela’s longing for maternal (as opposed to erotic) affection from Elizabeth. Though actually shot for the film, the linen scene was ultimately scrapped. In an interview, actress Hertha Thiele, who plays Manuela, expressed approval for the cut, as she personally believed the scene came off badly, “like cheap perfume” and “kitsch.”8 But Thiele suggests that codirector Froelich cut the scene not because it was maudlin but because it “would have provided clarity” about Manuela’s “loss of [her] mother.”9 In the final version, the kiss’s intentional lack of “clarity” generates multiple interpretations, as viewers can gauge the degrees to which the kiss might be maternal, erotic, or both.
Dramatic tension builds when the Headmistress warns Elizabeth against becoming too fond of her charges. “Affinity has no place here … [such feelings] might lead to emotionalism,” the Headmistress says euphemistically. Rampant “emotionalism” takes increasing hold over Manuela, especially when she is called upon to recite a Lutheran hymn in Elizabeth’s class. As the verse’s flagrant oral eroticism (“That I had a thousand tongues and a thousand mouths, then would I use them all to sing from the depths of my heart …”) sends Manuela into a speechless panic, a montage juxtaposes close-ups of Manuela and Elizabeth’s faces, conveying their implicit and mutual desires. Unable to contain herself, Manuela privately confesses her love to Elizabeth, who exhorts Manuela to suppress her feelings and be a “good comrade.” Nevertheless, passions recrudesce during the school’s production of Schiller’s Don Carlos, in which Manuela, cross-dressed as the title character, again finds herself pining for a forbidden woman – in this case, Don Carlos’ stepmother, also named Elizabeth.
After the show, the girls are treated to fortified punch, and in a drunken moment Manuela announces to the assembled girls her love for Elizabeth. The Headmistress enters at that very moment, but Manuela is defiant rather than deferential: “Yes, everyone should know about it!” she screams. Still inebriated, Manuela collapses and is rushed to the infirmary, where expressionistic lighting paints the walls in prison-like bars of shadow, much as the girls’ uniforms are marked with penal stripes. Summoning her courage, Elizabeth defends Manuela to the Headmistress, who has threatened to expel the girl for her outburst. “What you call sin, Headmistress, I call the great spirit of love, which takes a thousand forms!” Elizabeth declares. Intractable, the Headmistress responds, “I will not permit revolutionary ideas!” By this time, a traumatized Manuela is wandering the halls in a stupor, reciting the Lord’s prayer. In another montage of facial close-ups, Manuela’s visage fades into that of Elizabeth, who suddenly fears for the girl’s life. She and the other girls find Manuela dangling from a high staircase but pull her to safety before she can commit suicide – as she does in the original stage version, after Elizabeth fails to side with her against the Headmistress. The girls, en masse, stare accusingly at the Headmistress, who silently retreats down the staircase, ashamed and confused by the chaos her authoritarianism has wrought.
The film’s final moments turn away from Manuela and settle on the anguished Headmistress, ambling down the hallway into a ruptured future. Denied a denouement, we are left to wonder if, when, or how the school’s Prussian heritage might be upturned. Emphasizing the crumbling weight of the heteronormative institution rather than Manuela’s plight or the girls’ collective futures, the final image suggests the Headmistress will consider institutional change to preempt any future revolutions among the girls. The ending’s overtures to incrementalism didn’t sit well for Harry Potamkin and Siegfried Kracauer, who believed the film avoided its revolutionary responsibilities. “What on the surface appears to be a wholesale attack on rigid Prussian discipline,” Kracauer argues, “is in the final analysis nothing but a plea for its humanization.”10 The film critiques the institution’s severity but not its very existence. Ultimately, Prussianism still stands, and the film never suggests that the girls might overthrow their scholastic masters, as do the anarchist schoolboys of Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933), made only two years later.
In the film’s ending, we can detect one of those precarious societal bargains underpinning Weimar liberalism, as Peter Gay suggests. Decentering Manuela and fixing upon the Headmistress’s ideological dilemma, the film’s ending posits an insurrection that is deferred to the viewer’s mind; the ambiguity of the film’s final image doesn’t simply co-opt subversive intent but reduces that intent to a figment of the imagination, tantalizing but ever incomplete.
If the Frankfurt School critics scowled at such culturalist bargains – which pose as even-footed symbioses – queer theorists half a century later would jump into them. For “traditional” queer theory,11 the dialectical tension between oppressive systems and the subversive works they occasionally and internally create is in itself sufficient, even if the dialectic yields indefinite suspense or defers synthesis to (im)perfectible futures. The commercially produced artwork becomes an allegory of the individual, who must likewise break free from the conventional circumstances of his own production to assert individuated meanings. This notion is essentially a modern rather than postmodern one: individuals are simultaneously causes and effects of the social structures they occupy. Queer theory simply emphasizes the effects over the causes.
In an influential 1981 essay that predates queer theory, B. Ruby Rich argued that the film’s female eros challenges the full apparatus of patriarchal domination. Mädchen, she says, “is a film about sexual repression in the name of social harmony, about the absent patriarchy and its forms of presence, about bonds between women which represent attraction instead of repulsion, and about the release of powers that can accompany the identification of a lesbian sexuality.”12 Beneath her stoicism, the Headmistress senses implicitly what we now understand plainly: the girls’ homoerotic “release of powers” threatens not only academic order but a Teutonized system predicated on heterosexual mothers pumping out imperialistic sons. Certainly, Rich’s term “release of powers” is as underdefined as the film’s ending is aporetic. Yet the vagueness is appropriate, even if dozens of subsequent essays and journal articles on Mädchen have taken more expressly political tacks. In her ill-informed paranoia, the Headmistress only magnifies the vague, unnamed powers potentially signified by the girls’ love – an objectively small transgression.
As Kracauer argued, the Prussian institution in Mädchen is shaken but not remade. Insurrectionary powers have been “released” but not directed at articulable targets. Time and critics have been unkind to Kracauer’s dogmatic crankery and oft-mocked notion that an aesthetic of heightened realism will unalienate the masses. Like Adorno, Kracauer has become not so much a whipping boy but a straw man for those who delight in purposeful misreading. Writing in the 1940s, Kracauer was obliged to underplay the revolutionary import of Mädchen’s lesbianism; perhaps he dreaded reading politics into deviant sexuality. Nevertheless, we cannot dismiss his fear that a less oppressive and more humanistic school would be more dangerous than an explicitly repressive one. In a less oppressive school, the daughters of elite families would still serve as passive vessels for the intergenerational transmission of nationalistic ideals. A less oppressive system, in fact, would transmit such ideals more subtly and covertly, without inciting much-needed opposition, just as current trends in homonormativity legitimize rather than dispute historically oppressive institutions.
Today, when liberal good intentions sanctify narrative errors, few critics would fault the film’s ending on either aesthetic or political grounds. Arguably, the film should end by framing a defiant Manuela rather than the Headmistress, who seems more desolated than enlightened. In his critique of the ending, Kracauer asks only for a simple, straightforward ethics (probably reason enough for people to mock him). In the midst of Germany’s economic depression, he wrote a short, unpretentious article, “Destitution and Distraction: On the 1931–32 Ufa Productions,” in which he questioned how Ufa was planning to allocate its limited resources. His accusations are unsurprising. A dogged realist, he takes to task movies influenced by “light novels” and an Ufa lineup “teeming with sound operettas, musical comedies, burlesques, and farces” that do “not free us from the hardships of our times so much as look away from them.”13 A few proposed Ufa films that potentially could broach real-life concerns turn out to be sugarcoated with fantasy, such as “Der Sieger (The Victor) with [Hans] Albers, who stars as a small-time clerk and ascends to the heights of existence.”14 Though admitting to the masses’ need for entertainment, he argues, “From the audience’s destitution” German films have made “a virtue of distraction, thereby completely forgetting the public’s need for enlightenment.”15 He concludes with self-appraisal. “Do not tell me that I am demanding too much,” he says, citing King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) – a proletarian tragedy capped by an unrealistically sanguine final shot – as a film that properly combines entertainment and enlightenment.16
Mädchen’s final shot seems steeped in what Isaiah Berlin would deem a negative conception of freedom, a turning away from affirmation (as embodied by Manuela) and toward a bargained image that defers the responsibility for change to an illegitimate authority who may or may not be capable of enlightenment. If the Headmistress bears far too great a burden, so does Mädchen itself, the most significant lesbian film until its own remake twenty-seven years later. Existentialistically positive freedoms likewise present improbable burdens, and what begins positively can become negative – Mädchen’s unlikely existence was itself a positive assertion, right up until its problematic final image. For some, the final turn toward negativity is a pragmatic compromise; for the less generous, it is a betrayal of freedoms whose potential is cut too short, too soon.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.
- Gay, Peter. Weimar Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1968, 72. [↩]
- For instance, the unironically titled It Was a Gay Ball-night (Es war eine rauschende Ballnacht), a heterosexualized treatment of Tchaikovsky’s life that was nominated for the “Mussolini Cup” at the 1939 Venice Film Festival. [↩]
- Doherty, Thomas. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema: 1930-1934. New York: Columbia University Press, 2nd edition, 1999, 387. [↩]
- Ortiz, Roberto Carlos. “These Mexican Mädchen,” Mediático, Dec. 8, 2019. [↩]
- Bao Weihong, Fiery Cinema: The Emergence of an Affective Medium in China, 1915-1945, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 425, fn. 54, 2015. [↩]
- Bao Weihong, ibid, 425, fn. 54. [↩]
- Doherty, ibid, 12. [↩]
- Schlüpmann, Heide and Gramman, Karola. “Mädchen in Uniform/Interview with Hertha Thiele,” trans. Leonie Naughton, 1998, http://tlweb.latrobe.edu.au/humanities/screeningthepast/reruns/thiele.html [↩]
- Schlüpmann, Heide and Gramman, Karola, ibid. [↩]
- Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 5th ed., 228. [↩]
- By traditional, I mean theory limited to subtextual criticism and “coded” readings – a practice becoming more and more unnecessary. [↩]
- Rich, B. Ruby. “Mädchen in Uniform: From repressive tolerance to erotic liberation.” Jump Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 44-50. [↩]
- Kracauer, Siegfried. “Destitution and Distraction: On the 1931–32 Ufa Productions.” Trans. Alex H. Bush. The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907-1933, eds. Kaes, Baer, and Cowan. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016, 347. First published as “Not und Zerstreuung: Zur Ufa-Produktion 1931–32,” in Frankfurter Zeitung, July 15, 1931. [↩]
- Kracauer, ibid., 347. [↩]
- Ibid., 348. [↩]
- Kracauer’s assumptions about realism and audiences’ tastes are obviously questionable. Though dramatically compelling and critically acclaimed, The Crowd was not a box office hit; apparently audiences did not want to see a reflection of their daily miseries played out onscreen. [↩]