Notions Of Love & Resistance In Géza Von Radványi’s MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM
Géza Von Radványi’s Mädchen in Uniform explores romance, while depicting love that varies in intensity, significance, and objective.
“What you call sin, I call the great spirit of love which takes a thousand forms.”
It’s a declaration of love that has endeared Leontine Sagan’s 1931 film Mädchen in Uniform to many a lesbian over the last 86 years and has also solidified the film’s rightful place in queer cinema history. Yet, despite its emotional implication and importance, this line is never uttered in Géza von Radványi’s 1958 remake of the film. Instead, Von Radványi’s film finds its footing in more subtle and understated action that speaks directly to the characters’ struggle in reconciling their personal feelings with societal expectations.
Both the original Mädchen in Uniform and its remake explore the burgeoning love between teacher Fraulein von Bernburg and student Manuela von Meinhardis. The 1958 film, which stars Lilli Palmer and Romy Schneider as teacher and student respectively, takes what might be considered a more radical approach to same-sex love, often presenting it as an act of revolt in an environment that has specific ideas about how women should behave.
Love as a Form of Resistance
Rather than make grand statements about love with heavy-handed dialogue, the characters in Von Radványi’s film quietly express their feelings through purposeful acts that transcend our basic understanding of love itself. In many ways, Von Radványi’s approach to the story makes perfect sense: the film is set in an oppressive, authoritarian boarding school that fosters emotional austerity. But of the two versions of Mädchen in Uniform, only Von Radványi’s film – which is intelligent and sophisticated in its storytelling – understands that oppression often breeds a quiet but necessary resistance.
In the 1958 version of the film, that resistance takes the form of emotional expression. While both films present the idea of emotional expression as something that goes against the norm, Von Radványi’s film adds to its complexity by allowing its characters to first conform to the school’s oppressive ideology and then actively resist it with defiant acts of love.
Loving Acts of Defiance
Ironically, the most courageous resistance fighter in Mädchen in Uniform is Fraulein von Bernburg. Although her profession makes her a fundamental component of the very system that oppresses her and her students, she takes every opportunity to challenge it. In one scene, we see her lovingly kiss each student goodnight, a maternal act meant to soothe the girls after a long day. This scene is presented to us in direct contrast to the headmistress’ reiteration of the boarding school’s mantra: that all children must learn to live without comfort and luxury.
More than once throughout the film, Fraulein von Bernburg restates these sentiments but then goes on to contradict them. For example, in an effort to reprimand Manuela for defying school rules by keeping her diary, Fraulein von Bernburg confronts her harshly and then softens, ultimately allowing the student to hold on to the book. In this instance, Manuela, too, is resisting the oppressive nature of the school. She refuses to be beholden to the rules, especially where her personal feelings – as represented by her diary – are concerned.
But these acts of defiance don’t only come from the main characters; others commit them too. In students Josie and Mia, we see a form of affectionate love that cannot be suppressed despite the risk of severe reprimand and reproach. While these students often do find themselves in trouble over their innocent courtship, they continue to express how deeply they feel for one another through secret notes and chaste kisses.
Love that Breaks the Mold
Although Fraulein von Bernburg, Manuela, Mia, and Josie actively work against their own oppression, they are simultaneously subscribing to the very ideologies that have oppressed them. Each character performs the daily rituals and routines put in place by their authoritarian school system; each wears a uniform that represents their sameness.
“I’ll never put my daughters in a convent,” one student says.
To which Mia replies, “You will. Our mothers were here and they still sent us. Who knows what we’ll do when we’re adults?”
Through this brief conversation, we come to understand that these students – Manuela included – will eventually resign to the path society has already chosen for them. Until then, it is only their capacity to love passionately that allows them to break free of the shackles of conformity.
In Manuela, we see her break from conformity with her performance as Romeo in the school’s rendition of Romeo & Juliet. As Romeo, Manuela not only ditches her girlish uniform for more masculine attire, but also rejects the school’s suggestion that Romeo must express his physical affection for Juliet by blowing a kiss in the air. During rehearsals, Manuela insists on taking initiative by kissing her acting partner on the cheek. And when running lines with the ever-encouraging Fraulein von Bernburg, she further defies expectation by kissing her expectant teacher on the lips.
In Fraulein von Bernburg’s case, she sets herself apart from the rest of the faculty by being a sympathetic and caring teacher that students can lean on in times of need. More than that, she clandestinely expresses her love for Manuela who returns that love in leaps and bounds.
Love Thy Teacher, Love Thy Oppressor
But is Manuela’s reciprocal love really an act of rebellion? Not necessarily.
Despite Fraulein von Bernburg’s rogue displays of affection, she herself is an integral part of a system that routinely stifles the girls’ passions. For Manuela, then, loving Fraulein von Bernburg is a kind of double-edged sword; it’s both an act of rebellion and one of conformity. On the surface, Manuela’s same-sex love for her teacher challenges the status quo. A deeper examination tells us that to love Fraulein von Bernburg, who by profession is a symbol of traditionalism, is to also subscribe to the very ideologies that oppress Manuela in the first place.
In this reading of the relationship, Fraulein von Bernburg serves as a channel through which Manuela comes to accept and ultimately embody traditionalist values. Manuela, who is blinded by girlish passion, moves through the film completely unaware of the undercurrents of her love and how easily it feeds into the oppressive patterns already in place at the school.
Although Manuela is oblivious to the two opposing sides of her love for her teacher, none of that duality is lost on Fraulein von Bernburg. As an educator, she not only recognizes the importance of her place in the authoritarian education system, but also understands that she’s expected to uphold and pass on the institution’s rigid ideals. Over the course of the film, we see her continually struggle to reconcile her desire to rebel against these ideals and her duty to uphold them.
Her departure from the school at the end of the film suggests that she ultimately chooses to rebel; she chooses to relinquish her role as an oppressor. In a film that presents love as a quiet act of resistance, the teacher’s self-sacrifice and departure in this instance is the ultimate act of love–not only for Manuela, but for herself as well.
As we navigate the emotional journey of these characters, we’re constantly asked to question what love truly is and whether it must always be presented as romantic in nature. While Von Radványi’s Mädchen in Uniform does explore a sense of romance between its main characters, the film as a whole depicts love that varies in intensity, significance, and objective. And through these depictions, we come to understand that love does indeed take a thousand forms and is much too complex to be defined by broad-brush labels.
If you’ve seen Mädchen in Uniform, what kinds of messages do you think it conveys about love? Have you seen any other films the present love in similar ways?
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