During the 1950s, Middle America was obsessed with the “problem” of juvenile delinquency. Hollywood—always ready to exploit any fear that popped out of the American psyche—latched onto this topic and ran with it. The trend started with The Blackboard Jungle, which was such a hit that in no time there were dozens of other films about “today’s untamed youth.” [Note: For more on this topic, see my article, J.D. Films, in Re/Search #10: Incredibly Strange Films.]
A year after Blackboard Jungle, West Germany added its own contribution to the genre with Teenage Wolfpack (Die Halbstarken), starring a young Horst Buchholz. As with its American predecessor, Teenage Wolfpack was met with protest and trepidation from the general public. It seemed that any attempt to portray the behavior of teenagers was viewed as provocative and liable to spawn further trouble.
A year after Teenage Wolfpack was released, East Germany jumped on the bandwagon with the release of Berlin Schönhauser Corner (Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser). Up to this point, East Germany was usually ahead of the west when it came to topical subject matter, but things were changing, Finally the west was moving away from the endless parade of Heimat films that bombarded the western cinemas for the first half of the fifties, and were willing to explore subjects a little more topical than Bavarian alpine romance. As with its western counterparts, Berlin Schönhauser Corner was met with considerable resistance. East German authorities were worried that the film might help provoke more youthful unrest. Eventually the film was released and was a hit.
Berlin Schönhauser Corner is the story of four aimless young people. Dieter (Ekkehard Schall) is the oldest of the bunch, and, as the brother of a policeman, he gets away with more than most of his comrades. Angela (Ilse Pagé) is a restless young woman who is sweet on Dieter. Kohle (Ernst-Georg Schwill) is the hapless little friend who adores Dieter and stays away from home to avoid being beaten by his stepfather. Karl-Heinz (Harry Engel) is the bad egg in the bunch, and clearly the product of a more privileged upbringing. When things get too hot for them in the east, Dieter and Kohle flee over the border to the west, only to find that things there are no bed of roses either.
In spite of the criticism of modern youths, the film stays true to its communist principles. The bad kid, Karl-Heinz, clearly comes from a bourgeois environment, and the west proves to be worse than the east when it comes to civil liberties. The character of Kohle strongly resembles that of Sal Mineo’s “Plato” in Rebel Without a Cause. He is the perennial sidekick, doomed from the start by his need to belong. Much of the trouble that he gets into is centered around his desire to get a western Deutschmark that Karl-Heinz falsely promises him. In fact, nearly every problem the youths encounter is, in some way, related to the destabilizing effects of the west, whether it is the lure of quick gold from stolen identity papers, to the perceived desirability of the western Deutschmark.
As a figure of rebellion, Dieter only just barely qualifies. He is older than his western counterparts, and he holds down a job at a construction site. The closest character to a western teenager in this film is Angela who—with her tight sweater and conical bra—resembles every female American juvenile delinquent of the fifties. This is probably due in part to the fact that Ilse Pagé was from West Berlin and was chosen because she had the right look for the role. She had no previous acting experience and had to be coached on the set, much to the dismay of the GDR officials. Nonetheless, Ms. Pagé continued on her acting path, and went on to act in several more films in the west, including The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) and Angels of Iron (Engel aus Eisen), for which she won a German Film Award. Ekkehard Schall continued making films in East Germany and was also well-known as an interpreter of Bertolt Brecht on stage. After the wall came down, he devoted his time to stage performance, appearing only once in a TV movie (Der Auftrag).
Berlin Schönhauser Corner was a directed by Gerhard Klein and written by Wolfgang Kohlhaase. The duo often worked together, creating some of the best films to come out of East Germany. They met during the early fifties and together created the Berlin trilogy, of which Berlin Schönhauser Corner was the third installment. Nine years later, Klein and Kohlhasse wanted to further explore the subject with their film, Berlin Around the Corner (Berlin um die Ecke). Unfortunately for them, that was 1965, the year that the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) held their infamous 11th Plenum, which came down hard against many films and books that were deemed to be “anti-socialist.” Berlin Around the Corner was one of those films, and work on the film was halted. Gerhard Klein was devastated by this decision and never completed another motion picture. He died in 1970 at the age of 50. Wolfgang Kohlhaase went on to write the screenplays for many more DEFA films. When the wall fell, he transitioned better than most to a unified Germany with such favorites as Volker Schlöndorff’s The Legend of Rita (Die Stille nach dem Schuß), and Andreas Dresen’s Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon), which saw him return to his favorite subject: working-class Berlin. In 2010, he was awarded an honorary Golden Berlin Bear at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival.