Today’s special guest for our Crush-a-Thon is David Arrate. David frequently comments here at Forgotten Films and has his own blog over at My Kind of Story.. He was very excited when I asked him to contribute to this series, as evidenced by his huge write up. And that’s just the start, he’s planning a follow-up post at his own site. His crush is Romy Schneider, an actress known primarily for her work in German films. The film is a 1958 remake of a 1931 film, and a somewhat controversial one considering it’s subject matter and when it was made…”Mädchen in Uniform.”
Name a favorite director. Pick a couple of actors you would love or would have loved to have seen them work with. Now think of an ideal scenario for them, considering the director’s specialties. Indulge yourself and don’t worry about the budget, because in the short-term the exercise is simply to help create and develop a story that just might make a great movie. Now you’ve got a pretty good idea of where my head was at last year, when I wrote a comedy with director Luis Buñuel, actors Alain Delon and Michel Piccoli, and my all-time favorite actress in mind. (Piccoli did collaborate with Buñuel on seven films, but they only left me wanting more.)
I’ve been writing fiction and short plays since I was a kid as a hobby, and up until about sixteen years ago the majority of my inspiration came from literature and poetry. Since 1996, when I grew a greater appreciation for film after a demonstration of the pan-and-scan and letterbox formats, then by reading about some of the masters of cinema, buying a Laserdisc player, and watching Orson Welles’ The Trial for the first time, there hasn’t been another actress who has subdued my feelings and sensitivity to Romy Schneider’s beauty and talent.
Though I’ve watched many great movies and performances since then, Schneider still makes me feel like a school boy hopelessly in love with his teacher. I can’t help but get upset when I see her character(s) emotionally suffering like in L’ Important C’est D’aimer, which I nevertheless highly recommend, and Death Watch, or mistreated and exploited, as is the case in the infuriating Innocents with Dirty Hands. The latter reminds me of how my blood can boil when her onscreen romantic interest is disagreeable by my silly standards, or when some slimy older creep simply lays a hand on her. She did however get paired with a few cool cats.
I love seeing her in both photos and on film with Alain Delon, whom she was engaged to in real life; even if his character lets her (and me) down in The Swimming Pool. I also feel comfortable with Michel Piccoli; not so much because he and she made a handsome couple, but because I simply love him as an actor, and they were actually close friends, as were she and Delon after breaking up.
So when I went looking through their filmographies to rent what I hadn’t seen, and to watch for inspiration while devising my Buñuelian comedy, I clicked to read the details on a title Netflix had listed but didn’t carry in stock. And when I read the synopsis for Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform, 1958), I jumped over to Amazon and made a blind purchase. This time, her character’s ‘object of desire’ was not a man.
“Mädchen in Uniform”
“Mädchen in Uniform” is a remake of a 1931 drama, both which were made in Germany, about a sensitive teenager who while mourning the loss of her mother is placed in a girls’ academy, where she falls in love with her female teacher. The original was adapted from a stage play by lesbian writer Christa Winsloe, whose play (Yesterday and Today) had been based upon her experiences in a boarding school located in the same city where the story takes place.
The year is 1910, and the setting is within the former German kingdom of Prussia, in Potsdam. Manuela von Meinhardis (Romy Schneider) is being taken by horse and carriage to visit her mother’s grave. The driver is her insensitive and impatient aunt (or her father’s sister), who remains behind and tells Manuela: “Take the flowers over, but don’t stay too long.” Manuela just barely sets them down when her aunt starts yelling for her to return. They’re scheduled to meet with the headmistress (Sr. Superior) of Manuela’s school.
After some time following their arrival at the academy, they are attended to by a Ms. von Racket who apologizes for Sr. Superior, as she is indisposed; and as the story progresses the viewer is exposed to the fact that the health of the headmistress is indeed waning. Unlike the courteous aunt of the original film (who was Manuela’s mother’s sister), the woman with a mechanical practice for common etiquette tells Manuela to run along so that she may press upon her niece’s assigned “foster mother” (a humorless older girl) that Manuela needs discipline and a “firm hand”. The very function of the institution is to mold these girls into obedient and servile, future mothers of soldiers for the state, as is Manuela’s father. A few rooms away Manuela hears a chorus of girls praising “the Fatherland” while being conducted by an instructor. One of them (the pudgy-faced Wolzogen) changes the lyrics and sings that they’ll get fed afterwards.
Following her foster mother upstairs to collect her uniform, Manuela meets the affable and peppy Ilse von Westhagen (actress Sabine Sinjen), along with the lovely and kind Erika von Kleist (Ginette Pigeon), and blonde, fiery-eyed Alexandra von Treskow (Danik Patisson). Upon Erika asking Manuela whose dormitory she has been assigned to, Manuela’s foster mother answers that she is in Ms. von Bernburg’s on the third floor. Ilse immediately but playfully warns Manuela not to fall in love with Ms. Elisabeth von Bernburg or she risks Alexandra tearing her eyes out. Looking suddenly uncomfortable, Alexandra takes her leave stating simply that Ms. von Bernburg is very kind. Feeling compelled to accompany her, Erika admits that they are all fond of their teacher.
Provided with a second-hand uniform belonging to a previous school attendant, Manuela notices the heart stitched in red thread on the inside of it with the initials “EvB” and asks the dressmaker about it. Apparently the previous owner “was crazy about Ms. von Bernburg”.
Finally unchaperoned, Manuela looks down the somewhat foreboding square staircase that will play a role in her story, later on in the film. As she casually descends the steps to join her classmates, Ms. von Bernburg herself (played by Lilli Palmer) begins ascending from the ground floor; and upon approaching her, she assumes Manuela’s identity. Bernburg looks her over to make sure that the young girl’s appearance is in accordance with the convent’s rules. She then reminds Manuela to tighten her hair before finally introducing herself. She’s straightforward and proper with the timid girl, but is neither distant nor cold. And she certainly doesn’t create a sexual tension like in the 1931 version of this scene (brought upon by Dorothea Wieck’s Bernburg).
Ilse, Wolzogen, and a few others girls are singing along with music emitting from an old phonograph in a rec room where Manuela and her foster mother are unpacking her belongings into a locker. Her foster mother confiscates her money and some chocolate, as are the rules. But when she tells Manuela to hand over her diary, Manuela refuses and her foster mother storms out of the room, threatening to report her. Here, Erika approaches and tries to comfort Manuela, confessing that she likes her. And from here on out the two remain the closest of friends.
Now as much as I adore Romy Schneider and sympathize with Manuela, as well as like her friend Erika (their characters would definitely be friends in real life), the most amusing personalities in this school are Wolzogen and Ilse. Actually, there is no Wolzogen in the original film, as most of her dialogue came from that film’s Ilse along with some of the other girls.
Just then, Ilse calls Manuela over and shows her the inside of her locker door, where behind a long white sheet of paper covered with family pictures are some hidden photos of a male stage actor. Josi (Ulla Moritz), who is sitting nearby and drawing a portrait of Ms. von Bernburg, states that she finds actresses much more interesting than actors. She herself is an interesting character, although with a lesser role in the story; however she does contribute to its lesbian theme, as opposed to most of the other girls’ childlike affection for their teacher. In response to Josi’s comment, Ilse tells Manuela—who barely cared to look at the male actor herself—that Josi fails to attract men due to being underdeveloped, which is why she prefers actresses. Having touched a nerve, the young artist sets aside her sketch pad and asks the girl beside her to watch the door. My gal Ilse, suddenly looking ready for action, confidently smirks and loosens her collar while walking over to confront Josi, who challenges her to a fight. The two of them drag each other to the ground while Manuela returns to Erika’s side, as the music keeps playing, until the fight is stopped when the lookout warns of the approaching Ms. von Racket. And so the girls turn off the phonograph and resume sewing, drawing, playing checkers, and looking innocent.
Like the best of the American melodramas of the period, the screenplay for the 1958 “Mädchen in Uniform” is a skillfully arranged improvement over the original; setting up the characters and their relationships in a timely manner. For example, during Manuela’s first class where French Madame Aubert is teaching elegance when performing a curtsy, Manuela innocently ignites Alexandra’s jealousy which leads eventually to creating trouble for her much later. Meanwhile, in the same class, Wolzogen and Ilse have a comical exchange regarding their being hungry. And this ongoing school dilemma concerning the lack of funds to provide enough nourishment for the girls prompts Ilse to send out a letter, which eventually comes back to cause her some grief.
When Sr. Superior (German Jewish actress Therese Giehse) makes her entrance, to inspect the girls before dinner, all she has to say to Manuela upon being introduced to her is “Aha”. It seems that teaching good manners (thru example) has no place in this institution. In military fashion, the students are assembled a few steps away from Sr. Superior and her staff, and before being addressed by the headmistress they must first sing a nationalist hymn. It’s interesting to note that Miss Emily Evans, the English woman standing beside Bernburg, makes no effort to sing with them, but instead looks off into the distance (the following shot shows Manuela looking in their direction). The subject of the meeting is to let the girls know that Sr. Superior has been made aware of regulations being ignored and that letters are being dispatched which speak unfavorably of the institution, without prior vetting. Of course, she then warns them against continuing to do so. But due to her stubbornness on pride over potatoes (or food), Ilse and others have no choice but to continue to appeal to their relatives.
Later in their dormitory, before bedtime, Manuela is alone with Erika who is studying a portrait of Manuela’s late mother. Erika’s own mother is alive but she isn’t allowed to see her, as she now belongs to her German father who removed her from her French roots to the extent of changing her given name of Yvette; Manuela calls her Yvette from now on, but only in secret as her friend wishes (the welcome dimensions in this scene do not exist in the original 1931 movie). Now Ms. von Bernburg enters the room and tells them, along with Wolzogen and another girl nearby, to wash up for bed, though asking Manuela to stay. Bernburg begins raising the issue of the diary to which Manuela immediately and defensively says that it is no one else’s business, but hers alone. And though Bernburg states that exceptions should not be made for newcomers, she decides that it’s alright for Manuela to hold on to, then sends her off to join the others.
In the adjoining girls shower room, who else but Ilse is spoofing Sr. Superior’s previous warnings for everyone’s entertainment while they shower in small bathtubs, each covered by a mini-wrap around curtain. One of the few technical difficulties of the tracking shot which follows Bernburg as she passes through the room, upon busting Ilse, is that the 1:66:1 aspect ratio does not allow for hiding the bath towels wrapped around some of the girls, which is both obvious and distracting.
In Sr. Superior’s office, her loyal aide Ms. von Racket suggests that perhaps it may not be best for Manuela to be in Bernburg’s class, which arouses the older woman’s curiosity. As Manuela’s father is an officer and of the noble class, the headmistress finds her conduct unbecoming. Not elaborating on Bernburg’s lack of discipline and emotional distancing, which is as of yet unknown to Sr. Superior, Racket only offers that it’s just a feeling she has. When attending to the bills and trying to determine where to cut on the expenses, Racket reminds her yet again that the girls have complained of hunger. And this causes Sr. Superior to rant about how poverty, as if the word meant humility, should be considered an honor, and that Germans know hunger. Meanwhile it seems that her own aches and pains, and possible heart trouble, might be attributed to the same lack of nourishment, as she resorts to liquid formulas for relief.
Returning to the girls dormitory, Bernburg is going around the room bidding each and every one of them a goodnight kiss on their foreheads, like a mother would her children. The only one not standing but sitting on her bed, and not appearing eager for Bernburg’s tenderness, is Manuela. Erika/Yvette, whose bed is beside hers, tells her that Bernburg does this every night, and to stand up with them. Ilse then turns to Manuela to tell her that now it’s her turn with great excitement while Bernburg is bestowing a kiss on the girl in the preceding bunk. When Bernburg finally gets to Manuela, she tells her that while the regular routine in this establishment will take getting used to she must decide to convince herself to make the best of it. (Meanwhile, the jealous Alexandra looks on with a broken-heart expression, as if she was intimidated by Manuela.) Bernburg suggests to Manuela that she tell herself every night, before going to bed, that she’s going to be happy here, and that it will help. When she has Manuela promise to do this she then kisses her forehead and briefly holds her face in her hands with slight but noticeable tension. And here truly begins the unfruitful longing of Manuela’s love for Ms. von Bernburg.
The next day, during a recess in which the girls are permitted to roam within the school grounds, Josi (who prefers actresses) shares a bench with her closest friend Via, who reads aloud from a letter Josi has written her. In it, Josi simply asks Via if she could sit next to her in the refectory, signing it “Your tending loving Josi”. Having overheard while passing by is Ms. von Bernburg, who startles them when she asks to inspect the contents of the letter. When reluctantly handed over, Bernburg tears it up and tells them to burn it, adding that she will having nothing to do with their foolishness (i.e. she won’t be reporting them), much to Josi and Via’s relief.
Walking away, Bernburg notices nearby witnesses Yvette, Manuela, and Ilse, and asks them if everything is alright. Their affirmative response satisfies her and she continues walking away, reading from a book. Finding Bernburg’s actions agreeable, the three girls carry on. Yvette wishes to be a sweet teacher like her someday. Ilse, however, comments that one only becomes a teacher if she doesn’t get married; and Ilse wants a husband. Manuela then asks her companions why they think Bernburg never married, with a hopeful but brief expression.
After a staff conference discouraging individuality and where Bernburg is accused of dispensing few reprimands, Manuela enters Bernburg’s office where she is reviewing paperwork. When asked the reason for her visit, Manuela turns around to face the wall (so as not to become distracted by her teacher), and answers questions regarding playwright Friedrich Schiller which she failed to respond to in the classroom earlier, due to Bernburg’s “cold looks”. Manuela then begins to cry and offers Bernburg her diary, wishing for her to read it when asked why she is sad. She also confesses to staring after Bernburg when she leaves upon wishing her and the other girls goodnight. In an attempt to lift her spirits and prompt her academically, Bernburg explains that if Manuela improves her grades she will be able to join the theater group. And she gives her two weeks to improve when Ms. von Racket walks into the room, wishing to discuss Sr. Superior’s upcoming birthday arrangements. Racket thinks that a performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by the girls could contribute as a festivity for the headmistress (in the 1931 movie, the girls perform Schiller’s Don Carlos).
In the next scene, a few days seem to have passed as Manuela is trying out for the part of Romeo in front of Mademoiselle Aubert and the other actresses; Yvette is playing her Juliet. Bernburg curiously enters the room and observes from the doorway as Aubert and Manuela argue over the handling of Romeo, as Manuela refuses to blow Juliet a kiss. Upon the class being dismissed, Bernburg asks Manuela to accompany her back to her classroom. She wants to give Manuela some pointers on how to win the part, and plays the role of Juliet. When Bernburg has Manuela perform her lines by memory, though amused, she fails to believe her acting, as Manuela unenthusiastically blows her a kiss. But upon a second try, when she performs as “a young man, in love”, Manuela moves in to Bernburg’s space and slowly closes in to kiss her on the lips, following the lines: “Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is…” (She doesn’t complete the sentence with the word “purged”.) Manuela then holds her tight and begins to weep. Bernburg smiles and gently holds her at bay. “Is that how Romeo should be?” she asks. She then frowns when Manuela lowers her head and sniffles. And of course, what better time for her class to show up than now? As the girls enter with jealous Alexandra in the lead, Bernburg acts quickly by distancing herself from Manuela while raising her voice, advising her to keep working on it. She then tells Manuela to take her seat, handing her back her copy of the play.
Manuela and Yvette continue practicing the lines for days until finally they both win the leading roles. And when the big night finally arrives, after much has transpired, the play results with a kiss on the lips as well as success, delighting everyone. But amidst the celebration where the girls are left to dance and enjoy themselves privately, away from Sr. Superior and her guests, one of the cooks (blonde Johanna, played by Paulette Dubost of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game) gets caught up in the ecstasy and accidentally empties a bottle of rum into the girls’ punchbowl. Well, you can imagine the problems that follow. Manuela gets drunk, Alexandra snitches on her, and it all turns into an “Oh no!” recipe for disaster. I enjoy giving additional props to a movie when I catch myself screaming at the characters, especially on repeated viewings. And “Mädchen in Uniform” is one such title.
The film’s last scene can feel as if it’s missing a follow-up, although upon considering the final decisions and actions made by Ms. von Bernburg and the not-so-inhuman Sr. Superior, there’s nothing more to be said.
While there are tears and suffering for Romy Schneider’s character in this film I never feel terribly sad, as she is in an establishment with other young women who either love or care for her, including Ms. von Bernburg. In fact, the entire female cast is splendid. Adding to that, Géza von Radványi’s direction is tight and focused while the color schemes and images by cinematographer Werner Krien are alluring and handled gracefully. And I love the naturalness and lack of bigotry in the story, which even an uncultured mind could process. It is not a bad thing when material consisting of simple human nature, while taboo to some, is accessibly presented through familiar or commercial techniques, as it is more enticing for a general audience to accept, so that it may maturely consider the subject matter rather than avoid it completely. And that can be socially beneficial, which is partly why I highly recommend “Mädchen in Uniform” to both casual moviegoers as well as to fans of world cinema. Also, Schneider’s performance and her young, sweet voice speaking in her native language just takes me away every time.
“Mädchen in Uniform” (1958) is available on Region 1 DVD by Wolfe Video. The original 1931 film can be still purchased on VHS, as was released by Home Vision Cinema. Despite my preference of the 1958 remake, its predecessor is definitely a good film and similarly worthy of preservation.