Archive for the ‘Pop Culture’ Category

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.

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The late 1960s were a time of great changes in German Cinema.  Starting with Volker Schlöndorff’s Young Törless (Der junge Törleß), and followed soon after by the almost experimental films of Fassbinder and Herzog, filmmaking in the west was experiencing a creative renaissance. In the GDR, filmmakers were still trying to maintain their artistic freedom, but it was getting harder all the time. The revolutionary ideals that inspired and informed DEFA were now considered a threat to the system. With the banning of Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit is Me (Das Kanninchen bin ich), it was apparent that any attempt to push the limits would be met with repression (more on this later).

The East German government was turning DEFA into a relic, completely out of touch with the public. More and more, people turned to the west for entertainment. Some attempts were made to placate people with films like Hot Summer (Heißer Sommer), but even here the filmmakers were treading on thin ice, politically.

Then in 1971, Erich Honecker replaced Walter Ulbricht as the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party. Ulbricht was beginning to make waves with the Russians. He got along fine with the Soviet leader, Nikita Kruschev, but things weren’t so rosy between him and Kruschev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev. Honecker was a hard-liner, whose approach to communism was more in tune with Brezhnev’s. Honniger wanted his leadership to signal a new page in the history of the GDR. It is ironic that it is only after the conservative Honecker came to power that the restrictions on film content in the east began to soften.

One of the first films to challenge the status quo was The Legend of Paul and Paula (Die Legende von Paul und Paula). The film follows the exploits of a blue-collar supermarket worker named Paula and her white-collar neighbor from across the way, an aspiring bureaucrat named Paul. It begins with the demolition of a building—a motif that will recur throughout the film, followed by a catchy little tune by the East German rock band, The Puhdys.

When we first meet Paula (Angelica Domröse), she is flirting with Martin (Jürgen Frohriep), an Afro-headed hippie that runs the caterpillar ride at a carnival. She stares at him longingly until he whispers a suggestion in her ear. This is met with a slap, causing him to back off. We see in Paula’s eyes an immediately regret for her action, and she follows up by waiting after the carnival to meet with him. At the same time, Paula’s neighbor from across the street, Paul (Winfried Glatzeder), is at the shooting gallery, winning cheap prizes, which he promptly gives to Ines (Heidemarie Wenzel), the shooting gallery owner’s daughter.

It is apparent from the start that both Paula and Paul’s choices for mates are bad ones. We sense that Martin will be a louse from the moment we see him, and when Ines smiles, she looks like a snake. Never in the history of cinema has a smile seemed so horrifying. Martin is incapable of commitment, and Ines is only interested in Paul after she learns of his earning potential. Paula soon has a baby boy with the repulsive Martin, who has moved in with her. Meanwhile Paul marries Ines, and also has a baby boy. For Paul, things come to a head when he returns from boot camp to discover another man in bed with Ines. Things are worse for Paula who, upon returning from the hospital with her baby boy, finds Martin in the arms of a teenage girl.

The choice of Angelica Domröse to play Paula was inspired. She exudes sensuality and passion. Her earthy good looks are well-suited to the role of a working class woman who is attractive without ever seeming out of place. Winfried Glatzeder is a little more problematic. When the film came out, the lantern-jawed Winfried Glatzeder was referred to as the East German Jean-Paul Belmondo, but that is stretching things a bit. He a frankly goofy-looking guy. He also has the unenviable task of playing the stodgier half of this relationship.

Paula seems to have no impulse controls. Her choices are not predicated on any kind of logic, or even basic sense. She works entirely from her emotions, and like her emotions, she can change directions on a whim. Paul, on the other hand, is all about control. The parameters of his job are never fully spelled out, but we know he works in the government. Appearances and protocol are important to Paul. In one scene, He takes Paula to an open-air concert. Moved by the music, she starts applauding after the first movement. When Paul tries to stop her, telling her that clapping after the first movement is simply not done, he ignores him and continues to clap.

The overt message of the film is that it is better to feel and hurt, than rationalize yourself into numbness. But there is a subtler message about the limitations of the GDR’s attempts to control human passions that was not lost on the East German public. The film was a big hit and remained popular up until many of the lead actors left for the west in response to the GDR exiling of  the popular singer Wolf Biermann. At that point, the film was officially banned, but it was too late. As soon as the wall came down, the film found its way back into the movie houses and is one of the films that signalled the Ostalgie movement of the 1990s. Lake Rummelsburger See, where Paul and Paula go with Saft and Paula’s daughter, has been renamed “Paul and Paula beach”; and the band, The Puhdys, became one of the most popular rock bands in East Germany thanks to this film.

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