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  • Introduction:The Media Histories of Girls in Uniform
  • Ilinca Iurascu

In March 1976, Leontine Sagan's Mädchen in Uniform was scheduled to be shown at a small New York community cinema. Yet the screenings, intended for a women-only audience, and "with a lesbian panel discussion to follow," never took place. The American distributor of the film, John Krimsky, objected "to the wording of the copy that labels Mädchen in Uniform a homosexual lesbian subject" and demanded to attend the program "since [he] might be in a position to answer questions relating to many phases of introduction of this classic motion picture to American audiences in 1932" (Kelly). Krimsky, who along with Gifford Cochran had originally secured the US rights to the film, was thus re-enacting a part he had played four decades before: policing the film's meaning and denying its queer content to present it instead as a German classic. The same argument he had used in 1932 to ensure the film's commercial circulation and appease the censors' suspicions of obscenity (Hall) was now deployed to prevent it from reaching a declaredly feminist and queer public. In response, the co-directors of the series "called for women's groups to boycott the film until Krimsky change[d] his policies" (Kelly). The cancelled screenings and the subsequent protest—absent, to my knowledge, from any account of the film's transatlantic reception—are significant in what they reveal about the historical context first traced by B. Ruby Rich: the key moment "during the early seventies" when Mädchen in Uniform "was resoundingly redeemed by the cycle of women's film festivals, gathering a solid cult following and the critical attention it had long lacked" (180). If nothing else, the events from 1976 suggest that the process of redemption and recovery described by Rich was hardly effortless, but rather fraught with obstructions and resistance, ultimately prompting the question of how we relate to Sagan's film today as a "Weimar classic." Indeed, we may ask, what is forgotten, obscured, or effaced in the act of celebrating its place in the canon? What approaches and modes of critical engagement may be overshadowed by reaffirming its established status?

Such questions become even more poignant when examined through the lens of what Richard Dyer (Now 44) has called the "four versions" of Manuela's story written by Christa Winsloe: the Leipzig play Ritter Nérestan (1930); its Berlin restaging as Gestern und Heute (1930), directed by Sagan herself; its [End Page 89] reworking into the 1931 film script; and the 1933 novel Das Mädchen Manuela, which returns to Nérestan's tragic ending (Manuela's suicide) and to the choice of Voltaire's Zaïre (over Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos) for the school play at the heart of the plot. Aspects of the contrasts and tensions among the different textual "incarnations" of the material (Fest 459) have been repeatedly mentioned but, with some notable exceptions (Stürzer; Fest), rarely examined in detail, leading, more often than not, to contradictory readings. Richard Dyer, for instance, drawing on Hertha Thiele's own comments in her interview with Heide Schlüpmann and Karola Gramann (1981), suggests that "lesbianism is almost absent" in Ritter Nérestan, to then become "centrally present" in the other versions (Now 44), whereas Anne Stürzer—comparing the Leipzig Urfassung to the theatrical script for Gestern und Heute—concludes that "die Dramatikerin den Text für die Berliner Aufführung entschärfte" (103). That conclusion is further confirmed, but also complicated, by contemporary press reviews, echoed by Rich (194), indicating that for the Berlin production Winsloe had to introduce a male role: a "Turnlehrer" (Eloesser)—or "equestrian instructor," according to Rich—who plays the part of Manuela's "diligent, if unwanted" heterosexual suitor.

The ambiguous relation between the scripts and their production history, on the one hand, and the transformations in the dramatic, cinematic, and fictional material, on the other, also assume a unique significance when not just Manuela's but Fräulein von Bernburg's role takes centre stage. Thiele's by now classical interview with Schlüpmann and Gramann (1981) contains many of the references...