I’d like to use one of Girls in Uniform’s visual references as this week’s blog post’s jumping-off point. As the girls giggle over their version of a pornography stash, one produces a book, which includes an engraving on which the camera lingers for some time, without explanation:
This is actually the engraving (and therefore a reverse image) of a painting by Fragonard, Le verrou, or The Bolt (c. 1774-8):
The piece is a curious and provocative inclusion in a film almost devoid of men; this image as an object of fantasy draws attention both to the depicted man’s effeminacy (look at those curls—and those buns!) and to the situational eroticism of the scene. Much has been said about Fragonard’s inclusion of the eponymous lock: is this just another of Fragonard’s depictions of a woman’s half-hearted attempts to fend off a sexual advance she has coquettishly elicited? Or is this a scene of real drama? How can we explain the woman’s impassive expression, and the fact that both characters’ hands seem to be reaching for the bolt (a classic symbol of male genitalia, to match the classical female stand-in for the female genitalia in the peach)? Between his powerful stance and her flighty one, it seems unlikely that the woman would prevail should she attempt to fight off his advances in earnest. But the space itself seems to be working against her, or in any case towards sexual union. The bolt has been placed out of her reach, and the anthropomorphic, sumptuous bed reaches towards the couple, already (or proleptically) disheveled. The man’s hips push not into the woman, but into the closed door. It is she who seems the piece of furniture, emotionless and cushioned—especially given the billows of her skirt, which draw a clear analogy between herself and the bed.
It seems to me that the reason this image crops up in Girls in Uniform is precisely for its engagement with spaces as characters, and architecture as an active participant in sexuality. It is the space in which they find themselves as much as the girls’ inherent attraction to one another that cultivates their desire. The culture of woman-love seems almost entirely circumstantial in the movie. Certainly, we aren’t given much reason to believe that these women are not attracted to men. After all, aren’t we shown the girls lusting after male movie stars, the paragon of the normative sex object for a tween girl? It seems as though they to turn to one another for sexual solace for want of men (and as Fraulein von Bernburg points out, girls just need someone to rely on at that age). The necessity of the girls’ emotional and physical situation is brought to center stage by the melodramatic play in which some students must perform in drag. In this world, as in the world of WWI, some women must assume the traditional role of men. It is only by visual comparison that Fraulein von Bernburg becomes the towering leading man to Manuela’s floppy leading lady; in another cinematic framing she’d seem rather feminine, and indeed the morphing scene in which Manuela’s face turns into hers suggests as much. When the headmistress stomps into her room as she calls out “Manuela,” we’re reminded of Fraulein’s own girlish youth, her own susceptibility to fascist authority, her own naïve repugnance toward “injustice.” Her character is determined by her placement, even in a movie that so clearly champions self-determination and the “boycott” of repressive laws passed down from hypocritical old fogies.
As in Le verrou, then, the scenery here seems to play an active role in the unfolding romance. It does not seem to be a coincidence that Manuela threatens to kill herself by falling down the long empty atrium of the stairwell: she will kill herself with the architecture, will make her setting active. The movie encourages us to see the staging of our own lives as we do the staging of the play-within-a-play. The political context only complicates this argument: on one hand, we are to understand the monumental import of our milieu, and are therefore encouraged to take it seriously as a major aspect of character-formation; on the other, we are rendered potentially impotent by a world in which humans are passive and the landscape is active.
One final note, then, about Le verrou: it was actually commissioned to appear alongside an adoration scene by Fragonard, L’adoration des bergers:
It’s curious to consider this other half of the story, this divine love that mirrors the erotic. Fragonard was known for his ecstatic lighting, and the placement of these two works (The Bolt and The Adoration) side by side illustrates just how magnificently powerful light—both literal and metaphorical—can be. Madchen in Uniform is also known for a use of lighting that seems to naturalize the illicit romance; through lighting, we understand the tenderness of their relationship, buy into the circumstantial reassignment of roles. The sacred and profane are conjoined in the ever-luminous Fraulein von Berburg, both the lover with his hand on the bolt and the Madonna caring for her child—and even the Child himself. Staging has the power to make the unthinkable thinkable, to reassign roles. As one stuffy lady observes, “Schiller was quite frank”—but he, like Fragonard, is now classic, now the architecture that throws light on some things and not on others, that determines the sanctified places to stand.