Elevate Difference

Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform)

Manuela von Meinhardis despondently lays flowers on the grave of her mother. It is Prussia in 1910, and as an orphaned teenager, she isn’t left with many options.

Manuela’s aunt takes her to a convent, which is described as a citadel by the Headmistress, Sister Superior. “Poverty is an honor,” she barks at Manuela upon the girl’s arrival. “Get used to tragic blows—you are being trained to be the future mother of soldiers.” The militaristic attitude of Prussian culture is shown in various manners throughout the film: the girls march in formation to enter the convent, they eat in a mess hall, and they regard Sister Superior as their sergeant. Superior tells the students that the values of the school align with those of Prussian women: children, church, and kitchen. The convent is not a scholarly institution; the female students are being trained to serve man, God, and country.

A source of kindness and hope that the girls experience is in the form of Fraeulein von Bernburg. Sister Superior and the teacher von Bernburg are respectful to each other, although they are clearly at odds with each other. Superior welcomes rigidity, rules, and repercussions, while Fraeulein favors empathy and guidance. After a minor disagreement about student behavior, Superior predicts that she and von Bernburg’s paths will inevitably part some day. She fails to realize how quickly that day will arrive.

Manuela is in a new environment and still grieving the loss of her recently deceased mother, so it is easy to see why she gravitates towards Fraeulein von Bernburg. Not only is the teacher beautiful and kind; she genuinely cares about Manuela and wants her to thrive. But the relationship between the teacher and student is not destined to be gentle or effortless. Within the confines of the convent, feelings of repression, jealousy, and sexual curiosity stew among the girls and the all-female staff. This combination turns into a powder keg of sorts, with Manuela and her teacher directly at the center.

The relationship between the two is fraught with angst and drama, but it’s a relationship worth remembering. Despite the fact that the feelings between Manuela and her teacher are not accepted by the society in which they live, both women have a clear conscience about their actions—a lesson that should be noted by anyone, regardless of the culture or time period.

At first I doubted that I would enjoy the film. Honestly, I thought, will I care about a movie that takes place in a pre-World War I Prussian convent that is in German and barely qualifies as being rated PG? However, I was pleasantly surprised at the emotions I found myself experiencing throughout the course of the film: sadness, curiosity, and joy were just a few. And I was genuinely interested in the plight of the characters. The actions of the women at the convent reminded me that people always seem to fulfill roles that help them to cope with difficult situations. Sister Superior was the ailing but brutal general, commanding the troops. Fraeulein von Bernberg was the mother figure, offering tender support and comfort to the girls. One student even took on the role of class clown. Her morale-raising antics caused me to laugh out loud each time she took the screen.

Mädchen in Uniform offers viewers an honest and beautiful look at the relationships between women who are all at different, yet equally trying times in their lives. Its message rings true even fifty years after the original release.

Written by: Rachel Scheib, October 28th 2010