Mädchen in Uniform

Introduction by Leonie Naughton

Hertha Thiele was born in Leipzig in 1908, and died 5 August 1984. She was an acclaimed stage actor long before she made her screen debut in 1931 when she played the lead role in the film, Mädchen in Uniform. Set in a Prussian boarding school for girls, the film was directed by Leontine Sagan and included an all-female cast. Hertha Thiele played Manuela, a sensitive fourteen year old schoolgirl infatuated with her teacher, Fraülein von Bernburg, played by Dorothea Wieck. The film was released internationally and briefly turned Hertha Thiele into a star. She also played next to Ernst Busch in Bertolt Brecht’s Kuhle Wampe oder: Wem gehört die Welt? (Slatan Dudow, 1932). In 1933 she starred in Kleiner Mann – was nun? (Fritz Wendhausen, 1933) and Anna und Elisabeth (Frank Wisbar, 1933), the film which she considers to be the most important of her career. Her involvement with the theatre continued throughout the first half of the 1930s: she worked with Max Reinhardt (Harmonie, 1932) and the notorious Veit Harlan (Veronika, 1935).

Hertha Thiele’s screen career was disrupted during the Third Reich. She refused the overtures of the National Socialists who expected her to contribute to state propaganda. In 1937 she left Nazi Germany on political grounds and settled in Switzerland where she made occasional theatre appearances. (The Jewish director of Mädchen in Uniform, Sagan, had already left Germany. She pursued a career in the theatre in England and later in South Africa.)

Hertha Thiele returned to Germany for a couple of years after the War, but spent the 1950s and most of the 1960s in Switzerland where she worked as a psychiatric nursing assistant. In 1966 she returned to the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for good and worked in stage productions in Magdeburg and Leipzig. Throughout the 1970s she was part of an acting ensemble for GDR television. She acted in a variety of TV series and tele-films, which were scarcely known in the Federal Republic. She had roles in the popular series Polizeiruf 110, and also had a small role in the GDR’s most loved and most watched film, Heiner Carow’s Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973). In 1975, Hertha Thiele was the subject of a tele-documentary, Das Herz auf der linken Seite (Ullrich Kasten). In 1983, the Deutsche Kinematek published a monograph, focusing on her life and work.

The interview published below took place in Frankfurt am Main in Autumn of 1980. It first appeared together with Karola Gramann’s and Heidi Schlüpmann’s article in Frauen und Film, no.28 in 1981. Mädchen in Uniform had already been broadcast several times in the United States, where it had already received considerable critical attention in feminist circles. Ruby R. Rich had published a lengthy article about the film.

When the Hertha Thiele interview was first published, Frauen und Film was still able to promote itself as “the only European feminist film journal”. Apart from promoting feminist film theory, practice and debate, Frauen und Film challenged the subordination of women in West Germany’s film industry. The journal provided incentive for the foundation of the Band der Filmarbeiterinnen (Association of Women Film Workers). [1] Since 1979, the Association has sought to change film subsidy guidelines to ensure equal representation of women on funding boards in the Federal Republic of Germany. Association members have lobbied for women to be given 50% of all jobs and positions in the film industry and film schools and they have also insisted that women should be allocated 50% of all film subsidy monies.

Part 1: “Moments of Erotic Utopia: Aestheticised Repression” by Karola Gramman and Heide Schlüpmann [2]

Hertha Thiele was made a popular film star with the 1931 release of Mädchen in Uniform. The film was a success not only in Germany, but throughout the whole of Europe, the USA and even in Japan. But Herthe Thiele never had a screen career. At the end of 1933 she shot her eleventh film, the last film she would shoot for more than thirty years. [3]

The motive to find Hertha Thiele stems from a long-standing fascination. In the seventies, Mädchen in Uniform was shown publicly again for the first time since its release. In 1977 it was broadcast on some Third Channels in the Federal Republic of Germany and after that it was (unofficially) circulated on video and shown, for example, in women’s clubs.

Our curiosity and admiration were aroused even with that first viewing. So much of the film was surprising: the aesthetics – the camera work and the editing. The authorship of the two women – Leontine Sagan, the director, and Christa Winsloe, the scriptwriter – was a unique phenomenon for German film of the tilme. And the theme: the passionate love of a student for her young teacher along with the clarity and insistence with which the emotional situations were grasped. An exclusively female cast, excellent even in the smallest role, as well as the enrapturing performances of Dorothea Wieck and Hertha Thiele.

Our second experience of the film was at the Goethe Institut, London, in 1978. There the public was curiously mixed: elderly women in furs, obviously German emigrants, and lesbian feminists from Hackney – we all found ourselves together this day in November. Mädchen in Uniform has gained the aura of a cult film, especially after the women’s film festivals in Chicago and New York. Janet Meyers [4] and Nancy Scolar [5] had written about Mädchen in Uniform, however they seemed to jump to conclusions through making the poorly-reflected claim that Mädchen in Uniform was a “lesbian film”, at least as far as German film was concerned.

Years lay between our viewings and our meeting with Hertha Thiele. Before the meeting we examined contemporary critical writings on the film [6] and film history books, [7] in order to learn more about the development of the production and the effect of the film.

Not only was the material in many ways disappointing, but it brought to light a discrepancy between our present day viewpoint and the critiques of the film written at the time of its release. So much was neglected; for example, there was nothing about what concerned Sagan in her role as director of the film, a role which she performed under Carl Froelich’s “artistic supervision”. Nothing about the erotic tension depicted through the women’s relationship, but rather an emphasis upon the representation of the revolt against the Prussian education system and upon adolescent crisis. Only the most recent feminist film criticism, for example B. Ruby Rich’s fine analysis, “From repressive tolerance to erotic liberation”, [8] calls attention to the film’s lesbian content.

When we talked to Hertha Thiele, we took as our starting point a number of discrepancies we saw revolving around the public and critical reception of the film. There were the discrepancies between the film’s reception at the time of its release and the present day critical writings by feminists. We also saw a discrepancy that was illustrated through the assemblage of disparate groups of women at the Goethe Institut.

What we wanted to find out was something about the intentions which determined the production at the time and something unofficial about the film, as it were, something about its reception which was not presented in critical accounts of the film. For us, cinema didn’t have its lesbian “coming out” with Mädchen in Uniform, but still we saw a strong commitment represented which pointed in this direction. (We don’t go as far as Ruby Rich, for whom the film shows the “coming out” of the teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg).

In order to describe the moment of sexual/political emancipation of Mädchen in Uniform, it is necessary to examine the political and aesthetic structures of the film in relation to its socio-political context. The question of the circumstances which surrounded the production of the film, together with the interests of those involved in its genesis, is part of the analysis. An important point emerged from the responses which were part of our discussion: a contradiction of interests and point of view was revealed. On the one hand there were the points of view of both authors and of some actresses, and on the other hand of the male staff headed by director Froelich. Amongst other things it is significant to note that issues of technical expertise and its acquisition partially prevented the cinematic development and expression of female and homosexual points of view. Traditionally, men had greater access to technical training and their skills and technical knowledge were accordingly more advanced. Indeed, perhaps Hertha Thiele was right when she suggested that the film wouldn’t have been successful had Leontine Sagan supervised the shooting of the film herself with the support of Christa Winsloe. But wouldn’t there have been much more to learn from this attempt than from the polished art work?

The discussion about a female aesthetic developed initially with the new women’s movement. Today, when we hear about revisions to the script of Mädchen in Uniform, when we hear what was struck out (say for example Manuela’s memory of her mother evokes that of the linen closet, her recollection of loving the scent of the washing), it seems to us that a scene has been wasted. Froelich was worried that such a scene would turn out to be kitsch. Whether conscious or not, such an argument is a displacement. Where in men’s cinema would there be room for the presentation of the intimate domestic sphere? It lies open to a female cinema and is treated by women working in film. Here we recall Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce (1975) with its treatment of the woman with the washing in her bedroom, or of Joanna Davis’ short film, Often During the Day (1979), which clearly shows that the woman has a different relationship than the men to the collectively used kitchen, and that this different relationship produces a different perception of space and of objects.

Asking about the intentions that went into the making of the film also concerns the relationship of the leading actress, Hertha Thiele, to the role at the time she performed it and today, as well as the type of woman she embodied in the film and theatre in the early thirties. The relationship is an ambiguous one. On the one hand she completely sided with Froelich and trusted his competence as much as that of his technical team. She still emphasises this today, despite the role Carl Froelich played in National Socialism, a matter which touched upon her own emigration. During her entire career in film and for part of her theatrical career, on the other hand, Hertha Thiele’s particular image has been fixed, and that image never fully met her own needs for artistic expression. She was stylised as a possible love object for women without being particularly interested in the portrayal of women’s love. The stylisation which was imaged upon her certainly emphasised the soft, passive, suffering aspects of her type (we are not saying here that she was restricted to these features alone) without ever offending male voyeurism. Hertha said that the greatest compliment a man had ever given her was the confession of a gay man who said that through her he felt himself almost ‘converted’ to women. To a larger degree, her acting success may well have been based upon her image which met the homo-erotic desires of both men and women, though perhaps more those of women. This assumption is also supported by the fact that the film never clearly pins her down to a lesbian relationship, leaving it rather in suspense. But at the same time she’s never depicted in a heterosexual relationship. Hertha Thiele told us that she would have liked to have played a “proper love scene” with a man, once in her life: her image, moulded by men, did not allow her the expression of this desire.

Yet, it wasn’t only at the level of production that a lesbian focus was repressed or at least played down. Our questions about the reception of the film at the time of its release clearly revealed that apart from what was written by established film critics, there was an awareness among the female public of moments within the film when lesbianism was articulated. This awareness was never acknowledged in the writing of an official film history, but was rather concentrated in fan mail, in love letters to Hertha Thiele.

Anna und Elisabeth (1933) does not just involve the repetition of the Dorothea Wieck – Hertha Thiele constellation: next to Mädchen in Uniform, it is the only film made at the time which circles around a relationship between women, [9] a subject picked up again by Carl Froelich in his 1934 film, Me for you, you for me (Ich für dich, du für mich) .

Certainly assured by the success of Mädchen in Uniform, in Froelich’s Anna und Elisabeth, the camera depicts the erotic tension between two women with more daring than in earlier films. Despite the dramatic treatment of these fascinating images, the sexual and political liberalism of the Weimar period is no longer felt in the film. Anna und Elisabeth was shot at the beginning of 1933 during which time the news of the Machtergreifung reached the film crew in Northern Italy. The film is indicative of the defeat of the emancipatory impetus of the Weimar Republic, of a repression and an occupation, consolidated during the time of the National Socialism and only broken through again in the German cinema of the 1960’s. The discussion of Mädchen in Uniform is, in this form, authorised by Hertha Thiele. It took place in November 1980, when she visited us in Frankfurt. Amadou Seitz, photographer and camera person, took part in the interview.

Part 2: “Yesterday and Today”: Hertha Thiele interviewed by Karola Gramman, Heide Schlüpmann and Amadou Seitz

Karola: Today, especially in America, Mädchen in Uniform has become a cult film for the lesbian movement, a central focus of film theory and criticism dealing with lesbianism. This is in contrast to the way film critics treated the film when it was released. I’ve looked at German, French, English and American writings from the time, and nowhere is the theme of a lesbian relationship mentioned. The whole story is viewed as an adolescent problematic…

Heide: … as a revolt against the Prussian education system, like in Kracauer’s writing.

Hertha: Yes, that’s the way it appeared to a lot of critics and specialists. But there is one very important sentence in the film that addresses the problem. Clashing with Unda (the headmistress), Wieck (as Fräulein von Bernburg) says, “What you call sin, I call the great spirit of love, which takes a thousand forms”.

I think that says it all. What it says is that it can be the beginning of lesbian love, it can also be the love of children, but in any case it is love. I think the sentence either makes or breaks the film. However, I really do not want to make a great deal of… or account for a film about lesbianism here. That is far from my mind, because the whole thing of course is also a revolt against the cruel Prussian education system.

Karola: The visual equivalent of the sentence you mention is the good night kiss Fräulein von Bernburg gives Manuela.

Hertha: Oh yes! It really was something. When the film went to Romania, a letter came from the distributors there, asking “Please, twenty more metres of kissing”. That is a true story – Froelich told me on the telephone. At that time in Romania, where the film was very big, Manuela stockings were sold. I wore those long dark stockings in the film when I played the role of Don Carlos… So that in those days the kiss and the stockings already created a cult.

Karola: How long is twenty metres in real time?

Amadou: Twenty metres is about one and a half minutes.

Hertha: And then again, I recall that as we shot this scene with the good night kiss, Carl Froelich said to his assistant director, “Imagine you, Walter, a non-commissioned officer, kneeling by your bed at night, falling into my arms”. He also cut out the scene that had been shot already, the scene where I speak about my mother, about the linen closet and remembering how good the washing smelt, and so on – in the stage play as well as in the film this scene was like cheap perfume, it was really kitsch. Froelich took this passage out because of what it suggested. It would have provided clarity in the sense of the relationship with the mother, loss of the mother, love for another woman.

Amadou: A surrogate mother?

Hertha: Wieck finds me on the bed with Edelgard, played by Annemarie Rochhausen, and asks, “What are you doing there then?” to which Edelgard replies, “She told me that she lost her mother”. Wieck asks, “Haven’t you got a mother anymore?” – “No, otherwise I wouldn’t be here”. And Manuela starts to cry. At the moment when Wieck says, “Promise me never to cry again” and Manuela responds, “No, never”, the relationship is established. Manuela realises there is a similarly good person there, perhaps prettier and younger, but this is the only form of love she feels in this awful house.

Amadou: For me the scene is charged with an intensity and the gaze with eroticism which clearly leaves the impression that the story is of a lesbian relationship.

Hertha: Actually, that impression is what Froelich wanted to eliminate. Consequently he cast Wieck in the role, whereas in the theatre I played that piece together with Melzer. Melzer was really masculine looking, and that was not what Froelich wanted. As far as acting was concerned, perhaps Melzer was the better of the two. When Sagan produced the piece for the theatre, the production was overt in its lesbianism. Whatever eroticism emerges from the film is unconscious, and I assume that it emanates from me. Froelich did not want it that way. I often find young people, men or women, turn to me. They must see an openness, a radiation, a certain kind of love. By comparison, Wieck’s performance was…

Heide: Always restrained.

Hertha: She was always reserved, controlled, conveying the sense of “Please leave me alone, hands off!”. These days, when I try to look at the film objectively, when I think of the scene when Manuela is drunk and yells out in front of the headmistress, “Everyone should know, I love her!”, it no longer seems erotic to me. Once again it’s a form of revolt. She declares love, but there is no love there any more. The declaration is rather a form of open revolt.

Heide: But here it is a revolt that is located in the context of that love, namely the repression of it. In this respect, it also belongs to this circular description of a love. It’s not just a revolt against a strict education, against a paramilitary regimentation, but it’s also a revolt against the suppression of love inherent in regulation. She makes her declaration of love in public, realising she cannot express it to her loved one.

Hertha: When she is drunk she combines things she wants to see brought together. Later, when she is lying in bed, the nurse comes and the headmistress says, “You’re the last depraved street urchin”, Manuela asks herself, “But what have I done?” She has done something – unconsciously. She has loved unconsciously. The unconscious utters more of the truth than is allowed in full consciousness. It breaks out.

Heide: It erupts in the euphoria of intoxication because Fräulein von Bernburg denies her breakthrough in the erotic situation.

Hertha: Two years ago I spoke to some people who had seen the film for the first time. Actually, they were men. To one of them I said, “It’s curious, now I can look at the film and think, it was never really true, it doesn’t concern me at all any more, I don’t have anything to do with it”. Knowing me very well, this man said to me, “That is just like you”. When he told me that outright, I thought, “Hang on, is that right? He’s crazy”. And then later I thought, “He’s not too far off the track”.

Amadou: You said that Wieck was very distant the way she performed. In one scene I did not find it that way at all, in that scene when she was so desperate , where she is in conflict, whether it is the headmistress or the child, where she says, “You can’t stay here anymore. You have to go”.

Hertha: Then there is a dissolve between the two shots which show the characters in profile, which gives the impression that they are looking at one another. It is strange, you know, at the time I received so many letters from women, and Wieck did too. Nowadays when the film is shown, men in fact feel affected by it, especially in the GDR (German Democratic Republic).

Amadou: Why do you think that is? Can you elaborate?

Hertha: Yes, I can. It is not just that we have all become emotionally impoverished, that we have become less capable of feeling, but perhaps the yearning for love is suppressed more in men than in women. Maybe it has something to do with militarism, and that men simply do not have time anymore. That is why they are yearning for this lost love, whether with a woman, or with a man, or somehow on a human level – anyway, it does not matter.

Heide: But I suspect that men can only see this as an expression of love in Mädchen in Uniform because its an old film. I think men would be more defensive, less accepting of a film made nowadays which gave expression to love or a yearning for love between women. And even then, they could not easily accept it as an expression of their yearning for love.

Hertha: I can imagine that in the old days being brought up in a cadet school was just like it was shown in the film. 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 premier 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. She was not even sixteen when she married Baron von Hadvanyi – the marriage only lasted two or three days, yet they both remained in contact for a long time. I met the Baron shortly before Christmas in 1930 on the occasion of the Leipzig theatre premier of Rittner Nerestan (which I later called Gestern und heute, or Yesterday and today).

Amadou: You were offered the role of Manuela in Leipzig?

Hertha: At the time I had permanent work at the Leipzig theatre. Then the director Otto Werther came up to me and said, “I have a wonderful role for you” and gave me the piece, Yesterday and Today, by Christa Winsloe, which, when it was filmed was given the title Mädchen in Uniform. My response to him was: “The role was wonderful, but the piece is pretty poor”. He told me, “That is a bit much! I took the piece to build your career”. So first of all we quarrelled, then he directed it and it was a tremendous success. At the premier it was called Ritter Nerestan. And it was this piece that Manuela performed within the theatrical production, rather than Don Carlos, which was included later in the film version.

Heide: What did the role mean to you? Did you know that the story was a hot potato?

Hertha: No, I did not particularly realise it at all at first. In fact, the staging in Leipzig was totally different because in that production Claire Harden (Otto Stöckl’s wife) played the role of Wieck. Harden was somewhat frumpish, pushing fifty, no longer youthful, more a motherly type. So in this production the problem of a lesbian relationship was more or less withdrawn. As far as she was concerned it was not represented at all, and for me the relationship was one of mother and child. The Berlin production was different. Melzer played the part of Gina Falkenberg, who was the first Manuela, and then later I was cast in the role. In Berlin the lesbian aspect was clearly worked out. Later Carl Froelich did another production changing it all back again.

Heide: Did Sagan produce the play in Berlin?

Hertha: Sagan. It was also well-known that she put her signature to the film as its director, but she did not have any idea about the medium. Leontine Sagan was a great actress, a very intelligent, very competent woman – yet she did not understand anything at all about film. That we could have got the film together then in such a short time and with so little money was possible because, apart from Wieck, we had all played the roles in the theatre. Apart from that, we had rehearsed for about three or four weeks before the filming started, rehearsing each morning in Sagan’s apartment and even then she tried to change her directing style to switch over to film on the basis of the script. When the film was being shot, not one take went through which Froelich (in his capacity as artistic supervisor) did not control. In his youth Froelich himself had been an excellent cameraman. He gave the film its finishing touches. Wieck favoured Sagan (over Froelich), but I certainly did not.

Heide: Why not?

Hertha: I found Sagan to be too intellectual. From Froelich’s side I felt a kind of love, and even though it was a man’s love it was a form of love that I never felt from Sagan. I need love. I need a director or a crew with whom I have the feeling – we understand one another, we like one another, we want to work together. But it does not work for me when someone makes commands and never listens to what I have to bring to the work from the start. That was the way it was with Sagan actually. She delivered directives: “I want this and that and I want it this way” – right from the start. She really did not have the approach I needed – Sagan could have reduced me to tears really quickly. She had a callous attitude towards people, and at that time I could not cope with that at all. I only learnt to defend myself later. My sister always reproached me saying that I was too hard – but life only toughened me up later, after I had fallen flat on my face. But earlier I was as soft as butter. I had to be stroked gently, otherwise it was useless. With age i is probably even more important again – I still need to be caressed. I cannot defend myself because I do not have so much strength any more.

In this regard, I always have to praise Carl Froelich. I continue to praise him, despite his political posture, even though he was involved in my expulsion from the Reichsfilmkammer (National Film Association). He never said “That was bad” when we were making the film, but he always came and said “Kleene, det war wunderbar…”, “Dear, that was wonderful, but I could imagine that if you do it this way, from there, and if you would…” and then I would really make an effort, and he would quietly take the second version. His criticisms of me were formulated in other terms, differently than those who deliver a sermon, foregrounding the importance of the spoken word, dialectic, and so on. I know these buzz-words, and I also know what they mean. But I am not convinced that all directors know what these terms mean, and that is something I would like to see put officially on the records for once.

Heide: Was there conflict between Carl Froelich and Leontine Sagan?

Hertha: You could not really call it conflict. Sagan was very modest, because she was quite aware that she knew nothing about film. Winsloe was also there the whole time and she did not know anything about film either. It was really Carl Froelich, Walter Supper, Franz Weihmayr and Masolle, who did the sound, who brought about the film.

Heide: Just now you spoke of differences in content between the film and the play, divergences which can be traced back and explained in terms of Froelich’s intervention. What happened with the ending, which eventually was also changed?

Hertha: In the theatre the play ended with Manuela reciting the Lord’s Prayer and jumping through a window, not from the stairwell which would have been impossible to stage. We shot the film scene originally on location in the former military orphanage at Potsdam. Today the building is a teacher’s training college for women. We shot the scene there up until when I climb over the banisters.

Karola: You really had to climb over them?

Hertha: Yes, I felt sick, but I had a security rope. Nothing could have happened to me; it only made you dizzy because underneath it was black and white chequered plaster. Nevertheless, I was scared. Later Froelich recreated the top story of the stairwell in the studio, his own studio in Tempelhof. And it was from there that my jump was shot. We screamed with laughter when we saw the result at the preview. I looked like a May Beetle taking off in flight, that is how my legs were. It really looked grotesque and ridiculous. After that Froelich came up with an idea – actually he had rejected this ending earlier – “We will just let Manuela go as far as climbing over the banisters and after that the children will save her”. I have seen the film lots of times and I appreciate this version, only for me the scene goes on too long. The sound of the bell and the children’s search is terrific – “Where is Manuela?” – only the pan shots of me are too much. I was simply suspended up there too long. That is the only thing I object to.

Heide: In principle, didn’t Froelich want this first ending (where Manuela throws herself down the stairwell) from the outset?

Hertha: No, from the start he told Sagan and Winsloe: “Iti s not cinematic. You could do it that way in the theatre, but in film it would be too crude, it would be grotesque”. He was not interested in a soppy ending, nor did he want it to turn out kitsch. He also restrained my performance in the drunken scene where I play Don Carlos, at the end of which I say “I love you all”. Before we did the shooting he got me sloshed – he gave me enough Glühwein to make me roaring drunk. Apparently he did it just so that he could say, “Listen dear, a bit of restraint”. In the theatre this part of the scene was a giant outburst, but in the film, and at that proximity to the camera, it could not be so exuberant.

Heide: Comparing the different aesthetics of theatre and film, it is difficult to distinguish between legitimate changes and the impact Froelich’s intervention had upon the play and the author’s conception of it.

Hertha: Yes, today I can recall a similar problem I encountered when I was doing my screen tests. The screen tests were silent. Never in my life had I seen a film studio. Then I was instructed, look straight at the camera, head right, head left. And my whole face twitched and I ran away. I think I ran out of the studio five or six times. From behind me came: “Come back here!”. Then Froelich tied me to the chair: “Now keep calm”. It still did not work, I twitched. Then I yelled out to him, “Good heavens! If it’s silent, just let me speak. I cannot put on an imbecilic puppet show, turning my head this way and that!” Then he said, “OK, talk, say whatever you want”. I do not know what I said – I never did see the screen test. But the moment I started to talk it was fine, also with my face. Because I came from the theatre, I could not just hold a facial expression without speaking.

Amadou: One more personal question. In the theatre when you performed the piece you were directed to play a very strong lesbian role. What did it mean to you? Could you cast aside this role at night like any other role?

Hertha: I think I could put it aside, more or less. My career started with Bruckner’s play, The Sickness of Youth (Krankheit der Jugend) in which I played a chambermaid who, out of love for a student, allows herself to be sent out to work in the streets. That role was not a respectable one either. My mother had already died, but my father saw the play. Later we met in the theatre’s restaurant; we never talked about the play. We did not discuss such matters at home, they were unspeakable. At the premier, Vierig, who at the time was the director, went with me to take a curtain call, just the two of us (I was new to the production). Some of the audience was applauding and yelling “Encore!”; others were whistling and yelling out catcalls. Truly, the audience was divided in its response. Then a little fat man pushed his way to the front, to the forestage, and as we bowed he screamed out, “You god damned mongrels! Throw a bucket of cold water over them!”. That was the beginning of my career.

Then Kreatur, a second play from Bruckner, was staged. I played a lesbian who wants to seduce a young girl and whose sexual needs lead her to kleptomania. In those days, the roles were tailored to my appearance. Once I was scuffling with some young actor in the parlour, the way one does, nothing serious, but we did not know that Vierig was standing outside. Suddenly he came inside: “Well itis happened now. With you I will stage Lulu!“. [10] But it never eventuated because he died.

Amadou: Can you explain why before and after the making of Mädchen in Uniform you always received offers to play similar roles, roles which were either lesbian or were inclined towards lesbianism in their depiction of female sexuality?

Hertha: No, I cannot explain it. When I was very young we had a dramaturge, who said to me right from the start, “Either you will have a great stage career or nothing at all. You have a Botticelli face but one which suggests depravity”.

Amadou: You said that in filming, when you were shot in close-up you always played to the camera. Was that how it was with Mädchen in Uniform.

Hertha: Most certainly. Whenever the close-ups were repeated, Froelich always asked, “Do you want your partner opposite you?”. I didn’t. “No thanks”. So I was left alone with Franzel Weihmayr and Louise, which is what he called his camera. I felt like there was a personal understanding, a greater understanding than with other colleagues. Anyway at first I had difficulties. Although I thought Wieck was beautiful, I did not feel all that much warmth for her. It is strange that even though I was in eleven films, not once have I played a love scene with a man. Just to think – I would have loved to.

Karola: The one with Fritz Kampers does not count…

Hertha: No, certainly not. Kleiner Mann – was nun? does not count either. A love scene would have been possible with Wesener in Das erste Recht des Kindes (Fritz Wendhausen, 1932), but in this role I was destined to break away from the man.

Amadou: I find it hard to imagine that it was a camera you played to in those close-ups where you exude eroticism, your expression is loving.

Hertha: Yes, but I also knew who was behind the camera! I really liked that man, Weihayr, and emotionally he gave me much more than Wieck could have given me. He really knew my face, he could recognise it in his sleep. What he simply did with the lighting! I have never been so beautiful.

Later he was the most senior of sixty camera people working for Riefenstahl when she shot the Nazi party convention. Mind you, he told me that when shooting Goebbels, once in a while he sent him back and simply said, “No, Herr Dr. Goebbels, go back again, do it again. You had a really rotten shadow across your face. You looked really rotten!” He said, “I had to take it out on someone. Then I just let him march back and forth.” [11]

Throughout my life I was fortunate always to work together in film with the same people. It is incredibly important for me. I cannot relate to someone one day and then someone else the next. Everyone has his or her own style, it really does not matter, but I cannot relate to just anybody the way I could immediately relate to Franz Planer and Franz Weihmayr, never.

Karola: I would like to find out more about Leontine Sagan. I only know that she played together with Salka Viertel in Ibsen’s Johann Gabriel Borkmann, and in a seldom-produced play by Franz Blei, The Wave (Die Welle), which she also directed. And that she shot a second film in England, Men of Tomorrow (Leontine Sagan, 1932).

Heide: It is also unclear to me how Sagan came to be able to take over the direction of this first film, Mädchen in Uniform.

Hertha: I do not know either. Initially she was a theatre director for Barnowsky. Barnowsky engaged her for the play, Yesterday and Today. He always employed people for one piece at a time, and because this was a women’s play, he offered it to Sagan. I think it was her first big production. For years she worked in the theatre in Frankfurt and also with the Curt Goetz Ensemble. This ensemble also made guest appearances in Leipzig with The Liar and the Nun (Der Lügner und die Nonne). I played a novice. We filled the minor roles and only Curt Goetz, his wife and the major actors came with us. It was then that I got to know Frau Sagan a little. She really had her eyes set on Gina Falkenberg to play Manuela in Mädchen in Uniform. She thought Falkenberg was more suitable for the role than me.

Heide: What was Falkenberg like?

Hertha: She was a really attractive girl, dark, rather tall, but her features were really quite sharp. I mean, at the time I was twenty-three but I really had the face of a child.

Karola: I too was surprised to find out that Dorothea Wieck is the same age as you.

Hertha: Froelich also did some takes of Falkenberg, but he said, “No way. She is out of the question for the film”. At that time she already seemed too mature, too old, too determined. She probably was not his sort either. He was the one to make decisions. Mine was the hundredth screen test they took and it was also the last. I was only asked because Winsloe insisted.

Heide: Winsloe knew you?

Hertha: Yes, from the stage. She said, “She’s the one I want”. For a long time after the screen test I did not receive any answer. Eventually I telephoned Berlin and got Walter Supper, the assistant director on the line. He told me: “Perhaps you will play a small role, but the main role – forget it”. I sat down, and presumptuously I wrote a letter to Froelich saying I would gladly play a small role in one of his films, but as far as this film was concerned (it was called Yesterday and Today at the time), I insisted that either I play Manuela or nothing at all. One day during rehearsals at the theatre a messenger came and brought me 200 marks and a telegram saying “Get your teeth capped, main role assured”. As a child, the corner of one of my front teeth had been chipped, and since then I had capped it with porcelain.

Karola: Did you have contact with Leontine Sagan later on?

Hertha: She passed by Bern in 42/43 and she called the theatre to see whether I could come to the railway station to say hello. She was heading back home to Rhodesia. Right then. We had a real ass of a director then and he wouldn’t allow me to go, even though I had a silly role (a chair could have replaced me). So I never saw Sagan again.

Heide: Was Sagan left-wing?

Hertha: I really could not say. She was married to a very intelligent man, Dr Fleischer, who I thought was extremely nice. He worked at the university.

Heide: But didn’t Sagan also have relationships with women?

Hertha: I presume as much, but it was not obvious. Whereas Winsloe did not keep it a secret.

Karola: It did not disadvantage her?

Hertha: Never, not at all. Christa Winsloe invited me to Munich once. At the time I was with a man who was later to become my first husband, and she wrote, “The invitation is for both of you, for you and your friend, so you don’t need to worry!”. He could not go, I took my holidays and went there –

Karola: …because you weren’t worried either…

Hertha: When I arrived she said to me, “Listen, this evening two girlfriends of mine are coming, but I invited three men for you. You can take your pick!”. When I used to stay overnight in her studio in Berlin (she was a great animal sculptor), most of the time she was up and had left early, having business to do. And when I got up, I would find some sort of delicacy on the table and flowers with a note: “From your Christa – a thousand kisses you never allowed her to give you”. She would have gladly given them to me, but she never tried. I still have a book, The Ten Year Old’s Love (Die Liebe der Zehnjährigen) bearing a personal dedication from Christa Winsloe, which she gave to me after the theatre premier.

Heide: Homosexual love is socially outlawed. Until recently, male homosexuality in West Germany was, without reserve, subject to punishment. In the twenties the situation was somewhat more liberal, but then in 1933, there was a backlash. I am still interested in your experience of these problems at that time, problems which you may have encountered through your friendship with Christa Winsloe, for example, and I am also interested in the lifestyle of these women and in the subculture which existed then.

Hertha: Christa Winsloe did not really have to confront social ostracism because she was very well-off. At the time of the Weimar Republic whoever had money could allow themselves everything. It was the same if you were in a high position.

Therese Giese, who had quite a reputation at the Munich Kammerspiele, and Erika Mann, no-one gave a damn what they did. It would have been different if it had been some poor devil. I do not think things have changed – with money and power one speaks all languages. [“Haste, dann Kannste, haste nicht, dann biste en Schwein”]

Take Gründgens for example. It was known all over town. When my husband and I divorced, I shifted into Kleiststrasse, where a young boyfriend of Gründgens lived. I got on very well with this young man – he was a pretty fellow from Halle. He would come home and yell out: “Hertha, Gustav reckons I’ve got legs like pillars!”. In his position Gustav Gründgens could allow himself everything. No one, not even those in power, had anything against it.

Heide: If one kept to this so-called form in public and one behaved as a political conformist, especially during National Socialism.

Hertha: Gründgens married Marianne Hoppe for this reason. Subsequently a limerick (which drew on a nursery rhyme) was in circulation, and it joked about their childless state. [“Hoppe, Hoppe, Gründgens wo bleiben Eure Kindgens – Wir brauchen keine Kindgens, wir haben unsre Gründgens”]

Heide: Did the letters you received about Mädchen in Uniform come from all social classes?

Hertha: Yes, from all classes. One letter came from Munich and the lady kept on writing and invited me to visit. She wrote, “I will paint you, blue on blue, like a fine mist”.

Karola: What do you know about the reception of the film in the subculture which had bloomed in Berlin in the twenties?

Hertha: I think that these women were especially taken with The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel, Josef von Sternberg, 1930) and much more with Marlene Dietrich than with our film Mädchen in Uniform. Marlene created the strongest following among women. In those days there was a trend which went way beyond Mädchen in Uniform, the trend being to dress yourself like Dietrich and to behave as much as possible like Dietrich, when you were with your girlfriends. Furthermore, it was also fashionable to call yourself Marlene, after her. There were also pubs in Budapesterstrasse, and in Rankenstrausse, Berlin, where only women went.

Heide: So Marlene was a greater object of identification than you or Dorothy Wieck?

Hertha: Much more so. Most likely for proper lesbians our film was too childish, too harmless and not outspoken enough. Whereas the reprehensibility of The Blue Angel was much more attractive to them.

Karola: At the time Marlene Dietrich sang the risque song ‘When the Best of Girlfriends Get Together’. It seems to be an understatement when she wrote in her memoirs, “In private I gladly wore trousers, that caused all sorts of talk”.

Heide: The relationship between women is not thematised in The Blue Angel. Were there actually films from this time which addressed this theme?

Hertha: Eight Girls in a Boat (Erich Waschneck, 1932) was shot later. Only they included a man in the narrative, and that was that.

Heide: Besides, that film prefigures B.D.M. films, like Froelich’s 1934 film, Me for You and You for Me.

Karola: On a more unconscious level, Anna und Elisabeth also deals with this theme of relationships between women – actually the treatment is very powerful. As it was promoted, “Dorothea Wieck and Hertha Thiele in…”, the name of the couple comes before the title.

Hertha: Similarly, Melzer wanted to do a stage appearance with me. Straight away in 1933 she emigrated and in the same year she invited me to do an American tour performing with her in [August] Strindberg’s The Stronger One (Die Stärkere).

Heide: Why did Melzer leave Germany in thirty-three?

Hertha: I don’t know. Whether she had Jewish relatives or received an offer from America, or … I don’t know.

Heide: And why did Christa Winsloe emigrate?

Hertha: She was a political representative of the SPD ( German Socialist Party). She was not politically tolerable. Winsloe was an intelligent, erudite woman, who had a large circle of people around her. With regard to political matters, she was well informed, so that at the right time she knew, “I have to go”.

Karola: How was it actually – who answered your fan mail – did you write the replies yourself?

Hertha: No. Wieck, Alice Treff and myself, we all had the same manager, and he dealt with the correspondence. Each week we were presented with the written replies and we just signed them.

Heide: He answered the letters?

Hertha: No, he did not reply, he simply stuck stamps on the envelopes. We did not reply to those sorts of letters like, “I’ll paint you, blue on blue”. It was just an autograph, and that was it, finished.

Heide: Many of the stars’ autobiographies pretend that answering the public’s fan mail is of special importance. For example, Henny Porten starts a chapter saying something like, “My day started when I went to the office to find my desk laden with letters”. Then she describes how she attended to these letters.

Hertha: Two or three days after Mädchen in Uniform premiered in Berlin I was coming out of the cinema and there was a newspaper vendor who held a copy of the Hamburger Illustrierte up under my nose. It carried a large photo of me. I started to blubber and ran away in the opposite direction to where I lived, because I always felt alone after so-called success, more so than ever before in my life. I always had the feeling that people would make demands of me and that I would only exist for others and would be devoured. And later I rather avoided all questions. It strikes me as funny that, today, so many young people from the Federal Republic who have had the opportunity to see something on television ask for autographs.

Karola: I have always wanted to ask you for one too. We have talked a lot about the work on Mädchen in Uniform. What about your personal story?

Hertha: I think there is a lot you cannot forget. Throughout my life I have grown accustomed to the idea of death. Not that I want to give the impression that I want to die or that I could be a pessimist. Quite the opposite – I have a positive attitude to life. I would never have wished myself a life that would have been without troubles, without happiness. I have found a great happiness in love, for a short time, great happiness in a career, for a short time, after which there were tremendous difficulties. I have been in the gutter and I would not wish to change that part of my life. Quite the contrary. I would never have wished for a quiet life. If I had been kept by someone, or if someone had removed every stone from my path, I could not have tolerated it – I would have bashed my head up against a wall. It is just that I am Manuela, breaking out.

Karola: I would really like to know something more about what we have already discussed. There is something I am still not sure about, and that is, why did Froelich change so much of the play when he adapted it to cinema, and why didn’t he carry the emphasis of the play over to film?

Hertha: For him it was a matter of money. He called the film Mädchen in Uniform because those military farces were running at the time. “Gestern und Heute, that’s no title”, he said. “No-one would go to the cinema to see it. We want to get back the money we invest. We’ll call it Mädchen in Uniform, then they will think that a lot of uniformed girls will be jumping about showing off their legs”. The nature of the women’s relationship is something he consciously left open so that the film would also be acceptable to men. Otherwise he would have lost a large section of the audience. Froelich knew film and he knew the public. He was business minded. He had often missed out; he had made all of those Fridericus Rex films with Otto Gebühr, which were box-office successes. In between he made Mädchen in Uniform, and that was out of dire need because his reputation went down the drain after all of this Fridericus Rex business. He said, “Oh well, I will invest so and so capital. It is a risky business, but who knows…”. No-one was betting on the film. At the premier in the Capitol cinema, first of all the public was quiet – the film ended, no one moved. We were sitting there like lame ducks. We did not think that the audience had been moved by the film. It really took two or three minutes, and then they broke out in unrestrained applause.

Heide: Mädchen in Uniform was a “collective” film. What does that mean?

Hertha: Each of us only received a quarter of our wages, lighting technician, camera man, actor or director. The film was shot for 55,000 marks, the estimated shooting budget being 220,000 marks. My wage at the time was one hundred marks a day, from which I was paid twenty-five marks. We were to be given the rest of our wages later, when the film was playing. In all I got 3,200 marks for twenty-six days of shooting. But up until the start of 1934, the film brought in six million marks. Rumours were spread that the distributor, Weissenbach, who was Jewish, had appropriated the money and ran off with it. But I’d personally met up with Weissenbach, in Zürich in 1937, after he had fled from France where he had tried to commit suicide – he gave me ten francs, even though he did not have anything more than me. He certainly did not run off with the money. Whoever prospered, it is better not to name that person, even though I have an idea.

Karola: Messter made a lot of money from the film.

Hertha: Yes, Messter and Pflughaupt. Most likely Carl Froelich as well. In any case, after this sad experience, Dorothea Wieck and I insisted on being paid our full wages right away for Anna und Elisabeth, even though the others worked on a “collective basis”.

Karola: The box-office returns for Mädchen in Uniform must also have been enormous in other countries.

Hertha: Above all in Japan and America, but also in England and France and so on.

Heide: How did Anna und Elisabeth actually go down?

Hertha: The film only played for a night and Goebbels banned it.

Heide: Why?

Hertha: The Nazis were not in favour of miracles just as they are not welcomed today. We first started to shoot Anna und Elisabeth – we travelled to Malchesine on January 5th, and the film was finished by the end of April. It was released without a preview for the press and ran for ten or twelve days. It was immediately banned.

Heide: But at least the miracle in the film itself is left up in the air, it is not clearly pronounced.

Hertha: Yes, but nevertheless I recall that after I was invited to meet Dr. Goebbels, he asked me to familiarise myself with National Socialism and I told him, “I do not blow with the wind each time it changes directions”. I wrote a letter to Goebbels later on telling him that I wanted awfully much to do an adaptation of Gottfried Keller’s novella, Romeo and Juliet in the Village (Romeo and Julia auf dem Dorfe). The Ministry of Propaganda made it perfectly clear that the film was in complete opposition to the policies of the National Socialist Party. One does not take one’s life by jumping in the deep end just for the sake of love.

I lost many friends during this time. Everyone in the theatre had more or less made friends with a great many Jewish employees. It is astounding to think, for example, of all the Jews in Mädchen. Emilia Unda, who played the head mistress, is Jewish, Dora Thalma, who played Mariechen, Illse Winter, Schlichter [Fräulein von Kerten], little Bucklige, Schwanneke [Ilse von Westhagen]. You were only first aware that they were Jewish when fascism was there and you lost your friends. For example, Walter Supper [Carl Froelich’s assistant director] was married to a Jew. She would have been arrested – so he shot her, himself and his dog.

I was friendly with a doctor. They threw him in jail immediately in May, 1933. He had given talks in Moscow – he was a Communist, half Jewish, and received a lot of mail from the Soviet Union. They let him go free again, I think in September or October, in any case when I was in Switzerland… He was supposed to be arrested again on the day the referendum on Germany’s re-armament was held, the 12th of November, 1933. He said, “One moment, gentlemen, I’ll be back shortly”. And then he went next door and took cyanide. And so you lost one friend after another. The others emigrated. You were alone, always felt more lonely, it was always emptier, there was less contact – still I was never in any way scared even though it could have happened to me. I simply never thought it possible that that day would come.  [12]

Translated by Leonie Naughton, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

[1] Julia Knight, Women and the New German Cinema, (London: Verso, 1922), pp. 110-114.
[2] Karola Gramman and Heide Schlüpmann, “Love as opposition, opposition as love: thoughts about Hertha Thiele“, in Herthe Thiele, ed. Hans Helmut Prinzler (Berlin: Stiftung Deutsche Kinematek, 1983), p. 24.
[3] This article was first published in Frauen und Film, issue 28, 1981, n.p.
[4] Janet Meyers, “Dyke goes to the movies”, Dyke, Spring 1976.
[5] Nancy Scolar, “Mädchen in Uniform”, Women in Film 2, No.7 (Summer 1975).
[6] For example Siegfried Kracauer, Forsyth Hardy, et al.
[7] For example Lotte H. Eisner, Die dämonische Leinwand, (Frankfurt am Main 1975, first published in German in 1955).
[8] B. Ruby Rich, “From repressive tolerance to erotic liberation”, Jump Cut, No. 24-25 (March 1981).
[9] That is, if we disregard Eight Girls in a Boat (1932), in which the BDM (Bund Deutscher Mädchen), the Nazi organisation for young women, is heralded.
[10] Translator’s note: The reference here is to the female lead in Frank Wenerkind’s play, Lulu or Pandora’s Box. Louise Brooks played the role in G.W. Pabst’s cinematic adaptation.
[11] Translator’s note: This section is taken from “‘Ich habe das einfach nicht für möglich behalten.’ Herthe Thiele im Gespräch mit Karola Gramman und Heide Schlüpmann”, in Hertha Thiele, ed. Hans Helmut Prinzler (Berlin: Stiftung Deutsche Kinematek, 1983), p. 16.
[12] Translator’s note: Ibid., pp. 17-18.

About the Author

Heidi Schlüpmann and Karola Gramman

About the Author

Heidi Schlüpmann

Heidi Schlüpmann studied literature and philosophy in Frankfurt am Main. She was one of the editors of the journal Frauen und Film. She has published widely on film, including Nietzches aesthetiche Opposition (1977) and Umhiemlichkeit des Blicks: das Drama des frühen deutschen Kinos (1990). She is professor of film studies at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt Am Main.

Karola Gramman

Karola Gramman studied literature and film in Frankfurt am Main and in London. She was one of the editors of Fraüen und Film. She directed the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival for five years until 1989 and has since curated and directed many other film festivals showcasing independent, avant-garde and queer cinema. Her writing on film studies is extensive. Most recently she has been teaching film studies at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main.View all posts by Heidi Schlüpmann and Karola Gramman →