In this short written reflection on the design and making of “Falling: 3 x Girls in Uniform,” my 2019 videographic study of three film adaptations of Das Mädchen Manuela, I set out to record some thoughts on how and why my video emerged in its particular display form, and why I would describe it, therefore, as having been composed primarily according to a curatorial, rather than expressive or argumentative, logic.
Curatorial logic productively and progressively re-frames authorial labor.
In her forthcoming BFI Classics volume on Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform, 1931), Barbara Mennel devotes a chapter to the “Remakes, Rediscoveries, and Remixes” of Leontine Sagan’s classic film adaptation of German-Hungarian writer Christa Winsloe’s original play and subsequent novel Das Mädchen Manuela (The Child Manuela, 1932). The play, novel, and films all memorably tell the story of a fourteen-year-old boarding school pupil who falls in love with her female teacher.2 One of the remixes Mennel writes about is my 2019, two-minute-and-39-seconds-long videographic study “Falling: 3 x Girls in Uniform” (embedded above). This multiscreen work performs an unfolding but simultaneous comparison of two sets of sequences from the 1931 movie, and its 1951 and 1958 cinematic remakes. Its two display rows center on how (in the top row) the films image the scene of a kiss bestowed by the teacher on her student, and (in the bottom row) on how they stage the story’s dramatic climax around the school stairwell (figures 1 and 2).
My video begins with captioning, which introduces the work as follows:
German-Hungarian writer Christa Winsloe’s story Girls in Uniform about a fourteen-year-old boarding school pupil who falls in love with her female teacher has been directly adapted for the cinema three times.
There are two German versions (Mädchen in Uniform 1931 and 1958) and one Mexican remake (Muchachas de uniforme, 1951), the latter made by German exiles who had fled their country because of Hitler.
Each version faithfully adapts Winsloe’s original play and subsequent novel (Das Mädchen Manuela/The Child Manuela, 1932).
But there are very interesting variations, especially in how each film frames the school setting as well as the precise relationship between Manuela and her teacher.
And also in how the suicidal situation of the story’s ending is resolved.
After these words, there follows no further (or specific) verbal labeling of the rows of images, and no conventional verbal or audiovisual argument is made about them, such as that which might be routinely expected of a documentary about these films, or of an “essay film,” or indeed a “video essay” about them, either. Despite this intentional dearth, in her account of my scholarly remix, Mennel is easily able to interpret my interface and its precise chronological, color, and narrative placement choices. She can also conclude that my video reedits its sources to heighten and expand (queer) feminist meaning and viewing pleasure, its focus on key scenes of affection and care (despite differently patriarchal contexts and dramatic outcomes), and its found-musical score evoking the 1931 film’s aural motif of the ringing school bell. As for the video’s title,
While “falling” narratively and visually links to the staircase, it also invokes falling in love.…The two horizontal planes suggest a relationship between love and despair. The composition highlights how the three films share strategies of inference and deniability. The video essay captures a cinephilic relationship to films for their ability to incite desirous fantasies but also to induce obsession, for which limitless replay functions as a symptom.3
In her feminist historical study of the Das Mädchen Manuela / Mädchen in Uniform hypotext and hypertexts, then, Mennel offers a gratifyingly rich, and much more perspicacious, interpretation of my video remix than I have so far felt necessary to attempt as its “author.” I am very grateful indeed for her interest and attention. But I would like to offer a few thoughts for the record, in this short, written reflection on its design and making, about why my videographic study of these Mädchen in Uniform adaptations emerged in this interpretable display form, and why I would describe it as having been composed primarily according to a curatorial, rather than expressive or argumentative, logic.
I was certainly thinking in a curatorial context when I made “Falling” in the fall semester of 2019. That year, I was course director and main teacher of a class at Birkbeck, University of London, called Curating Film, Sharing Passions.4 Devised by my colleague Janet McCabe in 2015, it is a core part of the master’s in Film Programming and Curating curriculum, a graduate degree program founded at Birkbeck by Laura Mulvey in 2014 under the title Film Programming. The course description reads:
This module takes as its core a single film and charts its exhibition history and the different ways in which it has been conceptualised and presented to an audience. We ask what it means to archive and what’s involved in the politics of preservation and the ethics of presentation. From initial release to how a film has been remembered, (re)interpreted, lost and (re)remembered—by whom and why—the module looks at what it takes to keep a film in the present and how to make sense of its survival and its competing histories.
McCabe was on study leave in 2019, so I switched out her chosen film of focus, her cinematic object of passion, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), for a later Weimar Cinema classic that is one of my all-time favorites, a formative movie in my lesbian cinephilia, and very much still a work of and in the present: Mädchen in Uniform.5 This choice also led to my decision to employ the UK artist-filmmaker Sarah Wood, a well-known and experienced curator of Sagan’s 1931 film, equally passionate but even more knowledgeable than I am about this queer feminist classic as well as about its 1958 West German remake, to coteach some of the sessions.6 We decided to screen both German-language films as one way of accounting for how and why the 1931 Mädchen had been remembered through “rewriting” in different political and historical contexts.
When we began teaching the course, I also spent some time researching the Mexican remake Muchachas de uniforme that, as a Latin American film specialist, I knew existed but had never seen. I was finally able to obtain an un-subtitled digital copy of a pre-restoration version and was fascinated by how it remade the 1931 German film. Since I couldn’t screen it for my students in its entirety, due to the lack of subtitles, I first wondered about showing an extended excerpt. As is my pedagogical as well as analytic wont, though, I immediately set about exploring Muchachas de uniforme alongside Mädchen as digital files imported into my video editing software, investigating these two films and their aesthetic relationship at close quarters, through videographic comparison. I quickly produced Adieu, a short audiovisual study of the films’ endings, using superimposition (including the English-language subtitles to the German version, which also helped roughly to translate some of the Spanish-language dialogue of the later version). I screened this work in class as the prompt for a discussion about the aesthetic, political, moral, and affective differences between the two films’ climactic scenes.7 It worked very well for that purpose.8
Thus conceived, Adieu was a poetic work in the mode of what artist-filmmaker Harun Farocki called “soft montage.”9 As Nora Alter writes of that mode,
This is a form of montage in which two separate images are juxtaposed with, and occasionally super-imposed upon, one another, resulting in a “general relatedness, rather than a strict opposition or equation.” Moreover, according to Farocki,…the filmmaker employing this method of montage does not “predetermine how the two images are to be connected.”10
For Alter, then, soft montage allows for an increased flexibility and openness of the text for the spectator (“associations are suggested but not formally mandated”), paralleling Theodor Adorno’s understanding of the essay film, more broadly, in a number of ways:
For instance, in both “discrete elements set off against one another are brought together to form a readable context,” and “crystallize as a configuration through their motion.”…But whereas for Adorno the placement of a constellation follows the linear logic of writing, Farocki spatializes these theoretical configurations through the medium of film. The philosophical concepts or constellations are thereby translated into audio-visual juxtapositions.11
The superimposition aspect of Adieu (figure 3), though, was for me a slight drawback in relation to its potential status as a curatorial object that could speak pedagogically, and not just artistically and passionately, to an audience who didn’t yet know but might want to learn about the precise form of the Mexican film. It could be argued that, purely for that function, Adieu remixes too much, through its lack of respect or curatorial care for the full and separate frame of the 1951 remake.12 While I really liked Adieu, it was this lingering feeling that motivated my ongoing experimentation and efforts to find a more careful and complete way (in relation to showcasing full frame images at least) of comparing key elements of the 1931 film adaptation Mädchen in Uniform with its two later remakes.
My decision to expand the video to compare the three films, and to narrow down the section from the endings, drew me quite logically to the decision to incorporate the sequences featuring the teacher-student kiss: to evoke through this juxtaposition as well as through the semantic and affective charge of my new video title, “Falling,” what Mennel argues is a suggested (albeit varying) relationship between love and despair in all three films.
These affective as well as visual kinds of design or “interface” considerations of videographic studies, perhaps especially when it comes to those that inform the making of the kind of multiscreen compilation video exemplified by “Falling: 3 x Girls in Uniform,” approximate some of the design decisions involved in the exhibitory arts more generally. For me, my experience in these aspects of making recalls discussions of the layout design of gallery and museum culture, for example, those by curator Mark Nash (and his collaborator Vladimir Seput) in Nash’s recent book about his own practices Curating the Moving Image.13 Nash’s work has often centred on moving image installations, and he writes compellingly of the parcours—the designed journey through an exhibition, in the moving image gallery or museum context, one “precisely timed by the sequencing of individual works,” as follows:
The exhibition presents a form of intellectual montage, since each cut between works, as one progresses through the spaces, creates affective and intellectual associations which build towards the climax of our tour.
Our point finally, is to suggest that this mode of exhibitory display is itself a work of art.14
As Simon Sheikh writes in his 2012 study of exhibition-making, the choices of meaning achieved through practice (carried out through selection—including of duration—as well as through spatial association and staging, or literal mise-en-scène) are
aesthetic in the curatorial sense, where meaning is determined by how things are put together, next to each other, in opposition or in symphony, albeit always potentially as much as forcefully, as “matrices of transformation”—of original meaning and enunciatory power, of locality and universality, of power play and resistant force, etc.15
Curatorial acts, including parcours composition of installations, or the interface design of multiscreen videos, can thus be articulatory acts as well as ideational ones. Videographic studies can, I hope, and as Barbara Mennel’s assessment of my work seems to suggest, offer curated experiences of feminist ways of seeing, pointing, in the case of my audiovisual exploration of the cinematic adaptations and remakes of Das Mädchen Manuela, not to a linear argument about cinematic progress but, instead, to an associative one about historical contingency, and the variability, ambiguity, and ambivalence of transcultural fantasies and desires.
I am very grateful to Barbara Mennel and Bloomsbury for making available to me a manuscript-copy of her remarkable forthcoming book on Mädchen in Uniform and its cinematic remakes. Thanks also to Roberto Carlos Ortiz, Dolores Tierney, and Sarah Wood for their support and feedback at the time of making my video and its first publication, accompanying an entry by Ortiz at the blog I coedit with Tierney: “These Mexican Mädchen,” Mediático, December 8, 2019. https://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2019/12/08/these-mexican-madchen/.
Leah Shafer, “The Video Essay as Curatorial Enterprise,” Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier 1, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2013). https://teachingmedia.org/the-video-essay-as-curatorial-enterprise/.
Barbara Mennel, Mädchen in Uniform (London: Bloomsbury, forthcoming spring 2024).
Mennel, Mädchen in Uniform.
“Curating Film, Sharing Passions,” www.bbk.ac.uk/courses/modules/arvc/ARVC159H7.
On the concept of lesbian cinephilia, and for further consideration of my videographic approach to this notion, please see Patricia White’s chapter “Lesbian Cinephilia and Digital Affordances,” in The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema, ed. Ronald Gregg and Amy Villarejo (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).
In 2007, Sarah Wood was cofounder, with Selina Robertson, of the queer feminist film curatorial collective Club des Femmes (www.clubdesfemmes.com), which has often programmed screening events featuring Mädchen in Uniform.
I uploaded Adieu to my Vimeo account privately in 2019, finally making it public in June 2023: https://vimeo.com/366696426.
Sarah Wood wondered in retrospect (in a private email to me in July 2023, remembering our experience of teaching Curating Film, Sharing Passions) whether my approach might also have been a reflection of the diversity of the students who took that course. The students were from all round the world, so collaging different versions of the film freed up interpretation from a simple response to cultural specificity. Mädchen in Uniform “wasn’t just about pre-war struggle/post-war German cultural reassembling after Nazism. It became about how repression and resistance are shown on screen.…[The video] reveals those gestures as perennial rather than precisely historical.” Thanks to Wood, and also to Janet McCabe and Jennifer Bean for reading this present essay and for offering their thoughts on it.
Harun Farocki and Kaja Silverman, Speaking about Godard (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 142.
Nora M. Alter, “Translating the Essay into Film and Installation,” Journal of Visual Culture 6, no. 1 (2007): 44–57, 53.
Alter, “Translating the Essay into Film and Installation,” 53. Citing Theodor W. Adorno, “The Essay as Form 1954–8,” in Notes To Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 142.
The verb “curate” is generally understood to be derived from medieval Latin curatus, from Latin cura “care.” It should be noted, however, that while found music is used to score Adieu, dialogue and sound from both films can still be heard in my mix, whereas in the later video “Falling,” no sound from the films is used.
Mark Nash, Curating the Moving Image (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2023).
Nash, Curating the Moving Image, 90.
Simon Sheikh, “Exhibition-Making and Political Imaginary: On Modalities and Potentialities of Curatorial Practice.” PhD thesis (artistic), Malmoü Art Academy, Malmoü Faculty of Fine and Performing Arts, Lund University, 2012, 53. https://portal.research.lu.se/en/publications/exhibition-making-and-political-imaginary-on-modalities-and-poten.