A popular wall poster for the young people who opposed the Vietnam War read: “War is unhealthy for children and other living things.” After World War II, Germany saw the full effect of this. German fathers were either killed or imprisoned, and the mothers waiting at home fell prey to the Allied bombs. Parents would send their children to the country for their protection, resulting in thousands of orphans at the end of the war. It wasn’t just a German problem and it wasn’t limited to WWII. The problem continues to this day. There are excellent films about war orphans. Some are about the orphans of Nazis (Playing Soldier, Lore) and some are about their victims (Come and See, Forbidden Games); many are about the Jewish orphans (Au Revoir les Enfants, Run Boy, Run, The Island on Bird Street, A Bag of Marbles, Edges of the Lord); and some use fantasy to get the point across (The Tin Drum, The Boy with Green Hair).
The East German film A Girl of 16½ (Ein Mädchen von 16½) is about one such orphan although it doesn’t fit into the usual war orphan film mold. The action takes ten years after the war. Helga Wendler (Nana Osten) lost her parents during the war and was raised by her aunt. At the beginning of the film, we see how Helga ends up in a youth work camp after an attempted border crossing. With most of the action taking place in the work camp, the film is told in flashback form. Tired of the restrictions imposed on her by her aunt, Helga wanders the streets of Berlin at night, looking for a good time. There she meets Egon (Uwe-Jens Pape), a smooth operator with the morals of a tarantula.
Also vying for Helga’s heart is Rolf Krüger (Hartmut Reck), the young man who was caught with her at the border. His is also at the work camp and sees himself as her protector. He’s obviously the good guy, so, of course, Helga is more interested in the dangerous Egon, whose louche, amorality is clearly meant as a reflection of capitalist values. Egon does everything for himself and the idea of working for the “collective” is absurd to him. Helga goes along with him for a while, but eventually realizes that Egon doesn’t care for her any more than he does for anyone else.
A Girl of 16½ could also qualify as an early example of an East German juvenile delinquent film. Like Berlin – Schönhauser Corner, this film attributes the problem of juvenile delinquency to the West. Egon prefers the nightlife of West Berlin, and everything that comes with it. His number one concern is making money. His character does not grow or develop. He is reprehensible at the start and only gets more reprehensible as the movie goes on. From the film’s perspective, it is clear that his choice is destroying his soul.
The film was directed by Carl Balhaus (sometimes spelled Ballhaus), who directed several movies for DEFA but was better known as an actor. Prior to Hitler’s takeover, he appeared in dozens of films, including The Blue Angel, M, Spoiling the Game, and Crown of Thorns. His socialist politics kept him from working much during the Third Reich. After the War, he worked at Munich radio, then as a director at various theaters around Germany. After working as an assistant director at DEFA, working on Der Ochse von Kulm and Der Fall Dr. Wagner, he moved to the director’s chair with his first feature film, The Vicious Circle (Der Teufelskreis). The film was an adaptation of Hedda Zinner’s play about the trial following the 1933 Reichstag Fire. Ballhaus also directed the film adaptation of Zinner’s Nur eine Frau (Only a Woman).
Balhaus brings to the filmmaking process a wealth of knowledge. The scenes of Berlin at night are clearly influenced by the old Ufa style and film noir, while the scenes of happy kids at the work camp come from the Soviet socialist realist school of filmmaking. He understands the importance of editing to build suspense. He is helped considerably by the work of cameraman Götz Neumann and editor Helga Emmrich.1
From 1956 until 1962, Balhaus directed six movies for DEFA and one for television. He continued to act during that time, but less often than before the War. In 1964, he played Antonio in the DEFA production of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (Viel Lärm um nichts). While Carl Balhaus worked in East Germany, his brother Oskar continued a career as a theater actor in West Germany. Oskar’s son Michael (Carl’s nephew) went on to become one of the most respected cinematographers in the world. Carl Balhaus died in 1968.
Nana Osten was born Renate Schwebs in the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin. She studied acting and ballet, and worked briefly as a dancer in the Circus Barlay (see also, Alarm at the Circus). A Girl of 16½ was her first film and she appears in it under the name Nana Schwebs. That same year, she’d make the West German film Blitzmädels an die Front (Soldier Girls on the Front) and use the name Nana Osten, a name she’d use for the rest of her career. A resident of the British sector of Berlin, Osten moved back and forth between East German and West German television and film productions. She became famous for her role as the title character in the West German film Der Engel, der seine Harfe versetzte (The Angel who Stole her Harp). Osten got into a war of words with SED mouthpiece Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler. He called her a weak actress (exact words: schauspielerisch impotent), and she called him a Stalinist idiot (exact phrase: Idiot von Format). Osten was always torn between the East and the West. While she appreciated the freedoms afforded to her in West Germany, she found the film industry uninspiring. Most of the movies West Germany was making in the fifties were formulaic without much depth. In 1961, she appeared with Manfred Krug in the East German TV movie Bei Anruf Mord (Call for Murder), but the Berlin Wall, built that same year, put an end to her ability to travel back and forth between Berlins. The following year, she appeared in Piero Vivarelli’s East Zone, West Zone (Oggi a Berlino), a film about the tensions between the two Germanys. Although the story takes place in Berlin, it was filmed in Rome. After that, she appeared in one more short film on West Germany television (Das Mädchen aus Guayaquil — The Girl from Guayaquil), then left the business entirely and fell off the face of the map. Where she is living (or if she’s even still alive) is unknown.
A Girl of 16½ has a strong socialist message that doesn’t entirely work, but the performances by Nana Osten and Fred Delmare keep the movie interesting. Carl Balhaus throws everything he’d learned over the years into this film, movie from pre-war Ufa-style expressionism to Soviet-style socialist realism, to generic German Heimatfilm schmaltziness, which keeps it interesting, but doesn’t help the movie project a strong sense of purpose or visual continuity.
Watch this film (no subtitles).
1. This would be the only time he’d work with these two. Unlike most directors who find one cinematographer and one editor that help them realize their visions, Balhaus never worked with the same technical crew twice. I’m not sure if this meant he was never satisfied, the technical people didn’t like working with him, or he was just at the mercy of the DEFA higher-ups.
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