This 1979 made-for-TV movie looks at the intersecting lives of people living at a specific address and gives us a candid peek at the lives of everyday people in the GDR.
The events in Plantagenstrasse 19 (Plantagenstraße 19) primarily take place in an apartment building at the address in the film’s title.1 The story starts when the Madäus family appears to be moving into a flat in the building. During their move, it becomes apparent that the couple is not simply moving in, but splitting up. Manfred Madäus (Peter Reusse) goes his own way, while Marianne Madäus (Barbara Dittus) and the two children finish moving in, much to the consternation of Wolfgang and Helga Arnold (Horst Drinda and Annekathrin Bürger), who live in the apartment directly below Frau Madäus and her kids. On the first floor, Frau Tillack (Walfriede Schmitt) and her husband (Horst Weinheimer) reside. Frau Tillack often sits at the front window and comments on the goings-on outside. Nearly everything seems to bother Frau Tillack, from the kids and their motorcycles to the construction of a garage across the way. Her biggest gripe involves upstairs neighbor Hartmut Arnold (Hans-Otto Reintsch) who’s been flirting with her daughter Katrin (Katrin Kehr). Katrin is too young for Hartmut, but he doesn’t seem to care. Hartmut is the oldest son of the Arnolds. He’s a bright kid, but doesn’t seem to care about anyone but himself; a trait he shares with his father. It’s clear that the Arnolds belong to a different social class than the proletarian Tillacks. Wolfgang Arnold is proud of his oldest son, whose academic record ensures he will be able to study architecture. He’s less enthusiastic about his younger son Alexander, whose grades are likely to relegate him to a blue-collar job. Alexander also has eyes for Katrin. He’s more age-appropriate than his older brother, but she’s more interested in Hartmut, in spite of—or, perhaps, because of—her mother’s objections.
Much of the film centers around the antics of the teenagers and amply demonstrates that teenagers in East Germany weren’t that different from teens everywhere. They liked to hang out, and party, and ride their woefully underpowered motorbikes around the neighborhood. There are traces here of Dazed and Confused and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and even Over the Edge when the building of a garage annex on the playground where the kids hung out raises tensions between the kids and the adults.
Watching over everything is Richard Matuschke, an elderly man whose wife died recently. Matuschke no longer cares what others think of him. He encourages the teenagers to enjoy life while they can. “A person must be able to dream,” Matuschke explains, “especially when he’s young.” After speaking his mind to a local newspaper reporter, Matuschke becomes persona non grata at his workplace, now seen as a Nestbeschmutzer (literally, “nest defiler,” but is used in the same sense as “traitor”). Matuschke doesn’t care. Honesty is more important than one’s public image.
Plantagenstrasse 19 belongs to an interesting narrative subset that you will find from time to time in books, films, and television shows. It focuses on a specific time and place, looking in detail at the lives of the people there and how they intersect. The master template for this is Grand Hotel, which has come to be synonymous with this type of storytelling. But the films that followed in Grand Hotel’s footsteps focus on people in unusual or lavish situations. Plantagenstrasse 19, on the other hand, centers its story around and ordinary apartment building full of ordinary people. The closest equivalent might be the BBC drama The Street, which confined its stories to the people on an unnamed street in Manchester.
The film is directed by Helmut Krätzig. Born in 1933, Krätzig was coming of age around the time East Germany was created. He worked almost exclusively in television, with Pension Boulanka being his only theatrical release. He directed twenty episodes of the popular police series Polizeiruf 110, including the very first one, Der Fall Lisa Murnau. Much of his work has been in television crime dramas, both before and after the Wende. In 1998, he moved away from the crime field and onto the beach at Sankt Peter-Ording, directing episodes of Gegen den Wind (Against the Wind) and its spin-off Die Strandclique (The Beach Gang). He retired in 2003, and died July 9, 2018.
The movie’s cast is excellent. It includes DEFA regulars such as Annekathrin Bürger, Horst Drinda, Peter Reusse, and Barbara Dittus. The standout is, not surprisingly, Erwin Geschonneck as Matuschke. Another standout is Katrin Kehr, who plays Katrin Tillack. She’s an attractive young woman who could have had a career in films, but this appears to be her only movie. Many of the teenagers in the movie list this film as their only role, suggesting that Krätzig used the same technique as Herrmann Zschoche and hired non-actors for these parts. In the hands of a good director, this can be an effective approach.2
At first glance, this TV-movie appears as nothing more than a slice of life movie, full of ordinary dramas and conflicts, but if you remember when and where it was made, the movie becomes something far more subtly subversive. The differences between the Tillack and Arnold families clearly delineate the class differences in the GDR—a difference that the SED was not particularly willing to acknowledge. It’s also apparent here that the question of what young people should do with their time was as much a topic of conversation in East Germany as it was in the States.3
I suspect that the primary audience for this particular film will be people who were teenagers in East Germany in 1979. For the rest of us, it’s primary value is as a time capsule, providing a realistic slice of life in East Germany during the late-seventies.
1. The town is unnamed. Plantagenstrasse is one of those street names that you’ll find all over Germany, both East and West. Andrea Witte from Dean-Reed-Archiv-Berlin wrote to me with the following information: “The street with the old buildings, seen in the opening scenes, is Gehsener Straße. The house where the protagonists live is on Hoernlestraße.” These locations are in Berlin, near the Märchenviertel.
2. Other excellent films that used non-actors in important roles include Barbara Loden’s Wanda, Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble, and the Ross Brothers’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.
3. This was a topic in many Hollywood films. During the fifties, it was juvenile delinquency, with films such as Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle. During the late sixties and early seventies, it was drugs with films such as The People Next Door and Go Ask Alice. During the late seventies and early eighties, these types of stories took a darker turn with films such as Over the Edge and River’s Edge.
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