What you call sin I call the great spirit of love

Dear Christa,

This story seems to have had many lives. It started as a play, first performed in 1930, in Leipzig, as Ritter Nérestan (“Knight Nérestan”), and later retitled as Gestern und heute (“Then and Now”, “Yesterday and Today”) for its premiere in Berlin. Its success led to a film adaptation in 1931, Mädchen in Uniform (“Girl in Uniform”, IMDb), directed by Leontine Sagan, and then to an English adaptation by Barbara Burnham, in 1932, performed as Children in Uniform, at the Duchess Theatre in London, starring Jessica Tandy as the protagonist Manuela.nThe story was then expanded and adapted into a novel, published in 1933, as Das Mädchen Manuela (“The Child Manuela”), and later it was once again made into a movie, in 1958, as Mädchen in Uniform (“Girl in Uniform”,  IMDb), directed by Géza von Radványi, starring Romy Schneider.

The story centres on Manuela von Meinhardis, a teenager who is sent to a strict Prussian boarding school for military officer’s daughters, and falls in love with one of her teachers, Fräulein Elisabeth von Bernburg. However, while the play and the two movie adaptations start with Manuela arriving at the boarding school, the novel starts with her birth and provides her backstory. We learn about her parents’ fraught marriage, which culminates with her mother’s death.

Throughout the novel, we are given hints of Manuela’s lesbianism: as a child, she feels strongly attracted to a somewhat cruel classmate, Eva, and later falls madly in love with the mother of Fritz, a boy who had a crush on her. Mistakenly believing that Manuela likes Fritz, her widowed father decides to send her to the boarding school. Unlike the play (and the two movie adaptations), it’s only halfway through the novel that Manuela arrives at the school.

We are then given a grim description of the girls’ lives at school – deprived of their personal possessions, uniformized in their appearance and behaviour, forbidden of developing affection for their peers, curtailed in their freedom to communicate with their parents, and even lacking enough food and proper heating. Except for one beloved teacher, Elisabeth von Bernburg, the rest of the staff is stern and indifferent to the girls’ predicament.

At the headmistress’s birthday party, the girls put on a play, and Manuela’s performance at the leading male role is a success. After the play, excited by the impact of her performance on her beloved teacher, Manuela gets drunk and yells her love for Bernburg. The revelation comes as a shock for the headmistress as well as for the schoolgirls: Manuela is punished with strict isolation, and Bernburg is dismissed.

The play and the novel end on a darker note than the two movie adaptations. Whereas in the novel Bernburg capitulates to the headmistress’ decision and tells Manuela to stop loving her (“You must be cured of loving me“), in the film she dares to side with Manuela and challenges the headmistress’ authority (“What you call sin I call the great spirit of love, which has a thousand forms“). While, in the play as in the novel, Manuela makes a tragic decision, the two movie adaptations end on a more positive note with a victory of love and transgression over indifference and order.

In the novel as in the play, the homoerotic atmosphere is at the foreground, while in the movie adaptations this aspect is downplayed as a teenage crush on the part of Manuela and as a motherly affection on the part of the teacher. In the novel, however, Manuela repeatedly rejects femininity and wishes to have been born a boy; after the play at the headmistress’ party, her classmates even proclaim that she is a ‘half a boy’.

The homoeroticism is expressed in the novel by the sexual tension between Manuela and Eva, as well as by the fact that the boarding-school classmates are constantly shown holding hands, dancing in each other’s’ arms, and passing love notes. Differently from the movies, in the book, Oda, one of Manuela’s classmates, even touches her body with admiration and tries to kiss her.

In the novel, Manuela’s feelings for Bernburg are more openly reciprocated. Moreover, in the scene where the teacher gives the girl one of her chemises, this is more clearly depicted as an erotic token – as if, in a game of seduction, Bernburg were simultaneously nourishing and discouraging the girl’s affection: “I think of you, too, Manuela. But you know I can’t make exceptions. The others would be jealous.”

While in the novel the role played by the teacher is less ambiguous, in the movie adaptations she is depicted as a motherly figure whose tenderness may have been misunderstood by Manuela. Whereas in the movies Bernburg is a transgressive character and a humanist, in the play she is seen in a less optimistic light, as a woman who nurtures the girls’ feelings simply because she longs to be the headmistress herself – and we are then led to question the nature of student-teacher dynamic.

In the play as in the novel, Bernburg does not resign in the final confrontation with the headmistress, but rather conforms to her final decision. In the two movie adaptations, Bernburg is depicted as an embodiment of the criticism against the Prussian militaristic order: she is an antiauthoritarian figure who, by resigning from her job in the end, repudiates her role as an agent of the repressive order at the school.

In the novel and in the play, however, her stance is more ambiguous and less simplistic. Rather than a woman coming out to oppose oppression and embrace love, Bernburg is an agent of oppression in disguise: “You mustn’t persuade yourself it isn’t nice here”, she says to Manuela at one point. Rather than transgressing order, Bernburg is the agent who enforces it by making the oppression bearable – and she does so, by creating and being the centrepiece of a highly charged, homoerotic atmosphere.

In the novel, the story is told from different perspectives (particularly in the first half) through short sentences – which not only mimics a child’s point of view, but also prevents the narrative from slipping into melodrama. Although I love Therese Giehse’s brilliant take on the headmistress’ role in the 1958 movie adaptation, I prefer the 1931 more symbolic, less didactic ending: as the schoolgirls disobey the headmistress order and come to Manuela’s rescue, they stay in the light, grouped together with Fräulein von Bernburg, while the headmistress, defeated, retreats down the hall into the shadows. The silence is broken by the rhythmic sound of her cane tapping on the floor and the clanging of bells in the distance, pointing perhaps to the beginning of a new order, in which Fräulein von Bernburg wins ascendancy precisely by rejecting her old role as an enforcer of oppression.

As I’ve said at the beginning, this story has had many lives, and they seem, at the same time, to complement and to contradict one another. While the novel and the play are more consistently darker, I like the fact that, in the movies (and, in particular, in the 1931 adaptation), affection and love (and, in this case, homosexual love) are shown to pose a powerful threat to an oppressive order where girls are brought up for obedience and procreation: “You are all soldiers’ daughters and, God willing, you will all be soldiers’ mothers“, says the headmistress at one point.

Although the school is an all-woman environment, it is definitely not a space defined by female authority. Your girls in uniform are not only trapped within the school’s high walls and barred windows, but also within very confining, uniformed roles, set in iron by a will that lies outside their cage. Manuela may well be able to break it, but she will have to break her body, too, against its bars.

Yours truly,

J.


Aleksander Augustynowicz. Artist’s Daughters. 1907

About the book

  • Play: Gestern und Heute (1930, also known as Ritter Nérestan)
    • Adapted as Children in Uniform, by Barbara Burnham (1932)
  • Novel: Das Mädchen Manuela (1933 also known as Mädchen in Uniform).
    • Translated as The Child Manuela, tr. Agnes Neill Scott (Virago, 1994, Goodreads)
  • My rating: 4 stars
  • I read this book for German Lit Month

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