Manuela von Meinhardis, whose mother had died when she was young and father serves in the military, is enrolled at an all-girls boarding school headed by the traditional and iron-fisted Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden. Manuela is immediately exposed to the strictness of the school when receiving her uniform and having many of her possessions taken from her. While the other girls at the school receive Manuela with open arms, she still feels very out of place, until she meets Fräulein von Bernburg, a teacher at the school. After witnessing Fräulein von Bernburg's compassion for the other girls, Manuela develops a passionate love for her teacher. The first spark of love begins with a goodnight kiss. While the teacher normally gives all the girls a goodnight kiss on the forehead, Manuela receives one on the lips.
There is a meeting asking the teachers in the school and the headmistress. Fräulein von Bernburg advocates using compassion and love when dealing with the students, but is met with disagreement from the headmistress and the other teachers.
During class, the girls are reciting from an assigned reading. The girls who are called upon all know their recitations, except Manuela. After class, Fräulein von Bernburg calls for Manuela to meet her in her room. Manuela expects to be punished for not knowing the assigned material, but Fräulein von Bernburg comments on the state of the clothes the girl came to the school with, noting that there were many holes in them. Fräulein von Bernburg then gives one of her own petticoats to Manuela, at which she begins to weep. After much crying, Manuela confesses her love for Fräulein von Bernburg, and the teacher states that she loves Manuela but that she cannot give her special treatment because the other girls will be jealous.
The girls gather around Ilsa von Westhagen, another student, as she reads aloud a letter to her parents complaining about the conditions at the school. She has a worker at the school smuggle the letter out.
The girls are preparing to put on a play, Don Carlos, by Friedrich Schiller, for the birthday of the headmistress. Manuela plays Don Carlos, the lead male role. Ilsa is to play another major role in the play, but is barred from performing after her letter to her parents denouncing the school is returned because of a wrong address. Ilsa packs up to leave the school, but Fräulein von Bernburg convinces her to stay. The girls put on the play for the headmistress and her guests; it is a great success, with a standout performance by Manuela.
After the play, the girls all meet for dinner and are served punch with alcohol in it by the kitchen workers. After much dancing and singing, the girls ask Manuela about her relationship with Fräulein von Bernburg. Without knowing that the headmistress's assistant is in the room, Manuela tells them of the petticoat that Fräulein von Bernburg gave her. Then, she declares that she is not afraid of anything or anyone—yelling it drunkenly in the direction of the headmistress, who has now entered the room.
After passing out, Manuela is brought to a room, where no-one is allowed to see her. She is scolded by the headmistress. The headmistress is then informed that the princess is on her way to the school to speak to her. The students and teachers all line up for the arrival of the princess. After observing all the students, she asks to see Manuela. The princess tells Manuela that she knew Manuela's mother and respected her. The princess says that Manuela looks a little pale and asks whether she is sick, at which the headmistress rushes her away and denies any paleness.
After the meeting with the princess, the headmistress scolds Fräulein von Bernburg for being too close and compassionate with her students. She also tells her that she is never to speak to Manuela again. When Fräulein von Bernburg leaves the headmistress's office, Manuela is waiting for her. Fräulein von Bernburg tells Manuela to meet her in her room. In her room, Fräulein von Bernburg tells Manuela that while she cares for her, she is to never speak to her again. Manuela responds by saying that she will die. Fräulein von Bernburg tells her not to say such things and sends her away. As Manuela leaves the room, the headmistress arrives to scold Fräulein von Bernburg for speaking to Manuela and says that she can no longer be a teacher at the school. Fräulein von Bernburg says that she could not continue there anyway, for she needs to stand for justice.
At this point, the girls are all looking for Manuela and cannot find her. Manuela has climbed up the main staircase and is ready to jump. Manuela is saved by the other students. The headmistress and Fräulein von Bernburg walk out of Fräulein von Bernburg's room to discover a commotion and are then told that Manuela tried to jump and kill herself. The movie ends with all the girls watching the headmistress as she walks down the stairwell and down the hall in silence.Hertha Thiele as Manuela von Meinhardis
Dorothea Wieck as Governess Fräulein von Bernburg
Emilia Unda as Mother Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden, headmistress
Gertrud de Lalsky as her Excellency von Ehrenhardt, Manuela's aunt
Marte Hein as duchess, protector of the school
Hedwig Schlichter as Fräulein von Kesten
Lene Berdolt as Fräulein von Garschner
Lisi Scheerbach as Mademoiselle Oeuillet
Margory Bodker as Miss Evans
Erika Mann as Fräulein von Atems (or Attems)
Else Ehser as Elise, wardrobe mistress
Ellen Schwanneke as Ilse von Westhagen
Ilse Winter as Marga von Rasso
Charlotte Witthauer as Ilse von Treischke
Erika Biebrach as Lilli von Kattner
Ethel Reschke as Oda von Oldersleben
Annemarie von Rochhausen as Edelgard Komtessse von Mengsberg
Ilse Vigdor as Anneliese von Beckendorf
Barabara Pirk as Mia von Wollin
Doris Thalmer as Mariechen von Ecke
Winsloe's stage play had previously appeared under the title Ritter Nérestan (Knight Nérestan) in Leipzig with Hertha Thiele and Claire Harden in the lead roles. After Leipzig the play was produced on the stage in Berlin as Gestern und heute with a different cast and a more prominent lesbian theme, which was again toned down somewhat for the film.
Having mostly played the same roles on stage, the cast was able to produce the film at speed and on a low budget of RM55,000. It was largely shot at the Potsdam military orphanage, now a teacher training college for women. Carl Froelich's studio in Berlin-Tempelhof was also used. The film's original working title was Gestern und heute (Yesterday and Today) but this was thought too insipid and changed to increase the chances of box-office success. Although sound had only been used for two years in cinema, it was used artfully.
The film was groundbreaking in having an all-female cast; in its sympathetic portrayal of lesbian "pedagogical eros" (see Gustav Wyneken) and homoeroticism, revolving around the passionate love of a fourteen-year-old (Manuela) for her teacher (von Bernburg); and in its co-operative and profit-sharing financial arrangements (although these failed).
During an interview about the film decades later, Thiele said
The whole of Mädchen in Uniform was set in the Empress Augusta boarding school, where Winsloe was educated. Actually there really was a Manuela, who remained lame all of her life after she threw herself down the stairs. She came to the premiere of the film. I saw her from a distance, and at the time Winsloe told me, "The experience is one which I had to write from my heart." Winsloe was a lesbian.
Thiele also said, "However, I really don't want to make a great deal of [...] or account for a film about lesbianism here. That's far from my mind, because the whole thing of course is also a revolt against the cruel Prussian education system."
After many screen tests, Winsloe had insisted that her friend Thiele play the lead role. Director Sagan would have preferred Gina Falckenberg who had done the role on stage in Berlin, but along with having played Manuela in Leipzig, Thiele had already played a young lesbian in Ferdinand Bruckner's stage play Die Kreatur (The Creature) and although twenty-three years old when filming began, she was considered to be more capable of portraying a fourteen-year-old.
The film had some impact in the Berlin lesbian clubs, but was largely eclipsed by the ongoing cult success of Der blaue Engel (1930). The film did however generate large amounts of fan mail to the stars from all over Germany and was considered a success throughout much of Europe. The goodnight kiss Thiele received from Wieck was especially popular: one distributor even asked for more footage of other kisses like it to splice into prints of the film.
From its premiere at the Capitol cinema in Berlin until 1934 the film is said to have grossed some RM6,000,000. Despite the collective nature of the filming for which cast and crew received only a quarter of the normal wage, none saw a share of the 6,000,000 marks and Thiele later hinted that the profits had been mostly retained by the producers.
The film was distributed outside Germany and was a huge success in Romania. During a 1980 interview Thiele said the school play scene caused a "longstockings and kissing" cult when the film was first shown there. It was also distributed in Japan, the United States (where it was first banned, then released in a heavily cut version), England and France.
Mädchen in Uniform won the audience referendum for Best Technical Perfection at the Venice Film Festival in 1932 and received the Japanese Kinema Junpo Award for Best Foreign Language Film (Tokyo, 1934).
Later, an alternate ending which subtly pandered to pro-Nazi ideals enabled continued screening in German cinemas, but eventually even this version of the film was banned as 'decadent' by the Nazi regime, which reportedly attempted to burn all of the existing prints, but by then several had been dispersed around the world. Sagan and many others associated with the film fled Germany soon after the banning. Many of the cast and crew were Jewish, and those who could not escape from Germany died in the camps. "You were only first aware that they were Jewish when fascism was there and you lost your friends," said Thiele, who left Germany in 1937. Assistant director Walter Supper killed himself when it became clear his Jewish wife would be arrested.
Despite its later banning, Mädchen in Uniform was followed by several German films about intimate relationships among women, such as Acht Mädels im Boot (Eight Girls in a Boat, 1932) and Anna and Elizabeth (1933), which also starred Wieck and Thiele but was banned by the Nazis soon after its opening night, along with Ich für dich, du für mich (Me for You, You for Me, 1934).
The film is said to have inspired the 1949 novel Olivia by Dorothy Bussy, which treats very similar themes, and which was made into a French film Olivia (1951) directed by Jacqueline Audry. There was a German remake in 1958, directed by Géza von Radványi and starring Lilli Palmer, Romy Schneider, and Therese Giehse.
The film was almost banned in the US, but Eleanor Roosevelt spoke highly of the film, resulting in the film getting a limited release in the US in 1932-33. Prints of the film survived the war, but it was heavily censored until the 1970s, and it was not shown again in Germany until 1977 when it was screened on television there.
In 1978, Janus Films and Arthur Krim arranged for a limited re-release in the US in 35mm, including a screening at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco. Also in 1978, the film was released in its surviving form by Janus Films on VHS with English subtitles.
Versions were later released in the US (1994) and the UK (2000) by the British Film Institute. Even this version is probably missing some brief scenes. For a full understanding of what may have been censored, a viewing of the film might be followed with a reading of the 1933 novel by Christa Winsloe Das Mädchen Manuela/The Child Manuela (Virago Press, 1994)."What you call sin, I call the great spirit of love, which takes a thousand forms." (Spoken in reference to the boycott.)
In the novel The Acceptance World (1955), the narrator, Nick Jenkins, is re-united with his first major love, Jean Templer, after Jean and her sister-in-law, Mona, have returned to the Ritz (London) on New Year's Eve 1931, following a screening of the film. Jean is accompanied by her brother Peter. Nick (who has seen the film) is mildly mocked by his old schoolfriend Peter (who has not), for saying that the film is not primarily about lesbians.
In the film Henry & June (1990), this is one of the films shown in the small art-house theater frequented by the main characters.
The film Loving Annabelle (2006) was reportedly inspired by Mädchen in Uniform.
The album Mädchen in Uniform (2009) by the German band Nachtmahr.