Surreal and repressive, Mädchen in Uniform (1958) is the Technicolor remake of the dramatic — and downright shocking — 1931 German lesbian film of the same name. The story of a young woman who falls deeply in love with her teacher, it’s at once quaint and stirring.
Manuela (Romy Schneider) is the girl in question. It’s 1910, Prussia, and she’s just lost her mother. Her strict aunt brings her to a boarding school/convent to “learn discipline,” and the free-spirited youth immediately finds it a cold, unfriendly place. Run by the tyrannical Senior Superior, it’s billed as the place where girls are turned into women who will be “fit to be soldiers’ mothers” – tough and ready for anything.
Discipline and suffering are the rules of the day. The kids are yelled at for the tiniest offense, physically disciplined, and given little love or affection by their cold fraeuleins (teachers). It’s a direct commentary on the country’s hard, war-littered times, and sets the stage as the most repressive atmosphere a budding lesbian could possibly find herself in.
Manuela finds comfort in her fellow classmates, who act like normal human beings when the dictatorial teachers aren’t around. Her new buddies, Ilse and Yvette, give her tips on dealing with all the rules and discipline, and a heads-up about the beloved “gentle” teacher, Ms. V. Bernburg (Lili Palmer), who treats them with kindness. Bernburg even kisses all of the girls in the dorm goodnight, an oddly erotic detail that seems to excite all of the young women, most especially Manuela.
It doesn’t take long for our emotionally needy protagonist to start hanging around Bernburg more often than any other teacher, coming to her for comfort, or when she needs help with homework. In one particularly stirring scene, she bursts into Bernburg’s office in tears and recites the information she embarrassingly (and publicly) forgot in class.
Faster than you can say “blitzkrieg!” the sparks start flying, and those cozy emotions start taking a turn for the intimate. When Bernburg “helps” Manuela memorize her lines for her part in the school production of Romeo and Juliet, they lock lips; shocking, considering this was made during the Hays Code era, when depictions of sexuality were considered profane.
The younger woman falls in love with Bernburg, who is much better at hiding her feelings, but their chemistry is undeniable. When Johanna, a lovable, yet goofy cook, puts a little too much rum in the punch after the school play, Manuela very publicly admits to being fully, madly, deeply in love with her teacher, igniting a scandal that rocks the school (and Sr. Superior) all the way to the ending.
The kiss is particularly surprising — it’s so thoroughly unexpected in a 1950s code-era film that it feels almost tantamount to sex — though Bernburg continually professes her innocence and “clear conscience” once the scandal erupts. Still, it’s played out in a context that’s “acceptable” and keeps her motivations fairly ambivalent. Is she really just trying to help this fragile young woman, or is there a true romantic attraction between them?