Archive for the ‘Teenagers’ Category

Next Year at Lake Balaton
Road movies are common enough to warrant their own category. Whether the characters in a film are trying to get from point A to point B (The Straight Story, Vanishing Point), or simply enjoying the passing parade of life on the road (Easy Rider, Il Sorpasso), road movies have a special appeal. Although sometimes they end in tragedy, road movies are often about the experiential learning a journey can bring. They tend to be episodic, with the main characters encountering different people with different beliefs and values during their journeys.

Road movies are especially popular in United States, where miles and miles of highways allow a story to spool out over several weeks and in different environments. For East Germans, the idea of the road movie was a little more complicated. You could travel, but it was usually restricted to communist bloc countries, and your papers better be in order or you might not make it over the border, or even back home for that matter.

Next Year at Lake Balaton (Und nächstes Jahr am Balaton) takes a humorous look at the problems an East German tourist might encounter when traveling. The film centers around Jonas and Ines, young lovers who plan to spend their summer vacation camping on the Baltic Coast. Ines’s parents, however, have other plans, and decide that the two kids should join them on a trip to the Black Sea. Once aboard the train, it becomes clear that the parents are already thinking about marriage, which freaks out Jonas. He decides hop off the train and finish the journey alone by hitchhiking to Bulgaria. After Ines’s mom misses the train while buying a magazine, Ines’s father gets pulled off the train at the border crossing for suspicious luggage leaving Ines to complete the train journey alone. From here on out, the movie jumps between the separated travelers to show their progress toward the vacation destination.

Und nächstes Jahr am Balaton

Most of the story centers around Jonas, who hooks up with Shireen, a hippie-dippie Dutch woman on her way to India. Being an appropriately cynical East German, Jonas doesn’t have much use for Shireen’s mystical mumbo-jumbo, but he finds her attractive. Meanwhile, Ines’ mother, Irene Moldenschütt, has gotten a ride from a very peculiar old man, played by the always dependable Fred Delmare (see Black Velvet).

Jonas is played by René Rudolph, who looks like the perfect stereotype of an East German hipster: long, blond hair, parted in the middle, unkempt mustache, round glasses, a cheap denim jacket, and flared jeans. It’s a look that went out of fashion in America in 1972, but was apparently still going strong in East Germany eight years later. Shireen is played by Kareen Schröter, who is also decked out in appropriately hippie fashion when she’s wearing anything at all. Both of these actors got their starts in director Herrmann Zschoche’s coming-of-age love story Seven Freckles, and both actors quit films before the Berlin Wall came down. Schröter appeared in a couple more films before giving it all up to study psychology. Rudolph appeared uncredited in one more of Zschoche’s films (Swan Island), but that was it.

Odette Bereska

Playing Ines is Odette Bereska, who looks a bit like Anna Brüggemann here. Bereska was primarily a stage actress. She had appeared in an episode of the popular East German courtroom series Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort (The Prosecutor Has the Floor) before this, but Next Year at Lake Balaton was her first feature film. She made a few more films with DEFA prior to the Wende, but since reunification, she’s worked almost exclusively in theater, both on stage and behind the curtains. From 1991-2005 she was the chief dramaturge at the Carousel Theater at the Parkaue (now known as Theater an der Parkaue. In 2006, she starred in the short film …es wird jemand kommen, der ja zu mir sagt (English title: Ruth).

Next Year at Lake Balaton is based on the book Ich bin nun mal kein Yogi (But Then, I’m No Yogi) by Joachim Walther. Born in 1943 in Chemnitz, Walther is a prolific writer of books, short stories, essays and radio plays. He grew up in Chemnitz, which was renamed Karl Marx City (Karl-Marx-Stadt) in 1953 (it returned to its original name after the Wende). In 2001, he and fellow East German Ines Geipel created the Archiv unterdrückter Literatur in der DDR (Archive of Suppressed Literature in the GDR). Geipel began her writing career after the Wende. Born in Dresden, Geipel had been an athlete and was a victim of East Germany’s Staatsplanthema 14.25 (State Plan 14.25.)—a covert plan to feed around 12,000 athletes stimulants, hormones, and anabolic steroids to improve sports results. Both Geipel and Walther were honored in 2011 with the Antiquaria-Preis (Antiquaria Prize) awarded every year in Ludwigsburg.

The film wasn’t the hit that Seven Freckles was, but it was popular, and won the youth magazine Neues Leben’s prize for the best DEFA film that year.1

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1. It wasn’t the best DEFA film of 1980. That honor would have to go to Solo Sunny, but 1980 was a good year, with films such as All My Girls, The Fiancée (Die Verlobte), and Godfather Death being released.

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Alarm im Zirkur
In 1954, a young director named Gerhard Klein teamed up with an even younger screenwriter named Wolfgang Kohlhaase, and the world of East German cinema would never be the same. The duo would go on do several films together over the years, but Alarm at the Circus (Alarm im Zirkus) was their first. At a time when most DEFA films were concentrating on putting forth a strong pro-socialist message, sometimes to the detriment of the story, Klein and Kohlhaase’s film puts the story first. That’s not to say the film is apolitical. It makes a point of showing how a capitalist system’s lack of career opportunities for the underprivileged can lead to crime, but that message never interferes with the action, and helps provide motivation for some of the film’s shadier characters.

The film follows the adventures of Max and Klaus, two poor kids in West Berlin who dream of becoming boxers. To get money to buy boxing gloves, the boys sell things they find, and do odd jobs for Klott, a bar owner in West Berlin who uses the bar as his base of operations for illegal activities. After a trip to the Barlay Circus in East Berlin, the boys stumble on a plot concocted by Klott and a U.S. soldier to steal horses from the Circus. When one of the boys tries to warn the West German police about the plot, they essentially tell him to get lost, so he goes to the Volkspolizei (literally “people’s police”—East Germany’s police force) who spring into action.

This wasn’t the first film from DEFA to examine the criminal underworld in Berlin. That honor belongs to Razzia. But Razzia was made by a West German director (Werner Klingler) who was only working for DEFA because the the U.S. military authority (OMGUS) was still restricting West German film production. In nearly every respect, Razzia is indistinguishable from the dozens of other “Krimi” films that Klingler would go on to make in the West. Alarm at the Circus, on the other hand, is East German right down to its roots. Kohlhaase and Klein were East Germans and proud of it. The heavies in this film are West Germans the and American soldiers who are orchestrating the crime.

Alarm at the Circus

Alarm at the Circus offered the realism that DEFA films demanded, but without the heroics normally associated with socialist realism. It is closer in style to Italian neo-realism, a fact that bothered the authorities at that time and would continue to bother them right up until the 1965, when the 11th Plenum put an end to that particular style of filmmaking at DEFA (truth be told, however, that style had already run its course in Italy years before). The fact that it is based on an actual event probably helped it get made.

Alarm at the Circus was the first of a trio of films—along with A Berlin Romance and Berlin Schönhauser Corner—that is usually referred to as the Berlin trilogy. In truth, it is part of a continuum. Klein and Kohlhaase’s later film, Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin Around the Corner), certainly fits in with the first three films the pair made, and would have made it a tetralogy had it not been banned after the 11th Plenum. Since Klein died in 1970 (see A Berlin Romance for more on Klein), we never got a chance to see more Berlin films by the duo, but Kohlhaase continued his explorations of the lives of the less privileged in Berlin with other directors, including Konrad Wolf (Solo Sunny) and Andreas Dresen (Summer in BerlinSommer vorm Balkon).

Wolfgang Kohlhaase was only twenty-two when he started writing scripts for DEFA. He wrote a few for the “Das Stacheltier” group that made short films to accompany the features, and a script for the children’s film Die Störenfriede (The Troublemakers). The following year, he joined forces with Gerhard Klein. Klein was a born and bred Berliner and was looking to make a film that reflected the reality of life in the city. He wanted to capture the rhythms and cadences of Berlin speech and actions. He found the perfect partner in Kohlhasse. Kohlhasse’s ear for Berlinerisch—that peculiar style of German used in Berlin—is especially acute, and he used it often (to best effect in Solo Sunny). Kohlhasse continues to write screenplays, most recently for Andreas Dresen’s As We Were Dreaming (Als wir träumten), based on Clemens Meyer’s controversial novel.

Max and Klaus

The actors who played Max and Klaus, were not picked from the usual acting roster, but chosen from a home for troubled youths. Klein gets remarkably good performances out of these novice actors. For Hans Winter, who played Klaus, this would be his only film, but Ernst-Georg Schwill, who played Max, decided that he liked working in the movies, and began training as a cameraman, later returning to acting and appearing in all three of Klein’s Berlin trilogy films, as well as roles in Five Cartridges, Close to the Wind, Motoring Tales, and many others. After the Wende, he experienced less neglect than some other East German actors. Film and television companies were always looking for people to play supporting roles, and Schwill was quick to admit that he was character actor, not a star. It wasn’t long before he was busy acting again, appearing on TV and in films regularly, most recently in Andreas Schap’s Das letzte Abteil (The Last Department).

The Barlay Circus (Zirkus Barlay) was a real circus, located at Friedrichstraße 107, the current site of the Friedrichstadt Palast. The circus was founded in 1935, when Reinhold Kwasnik, who used the stage name Harry Barlay, bought a bankrupt circus and made it his own. When Kwasnik fled to West Germany, the circus was taken over by the state. After a couple name changes, it was eventually consolidated with other East German circuses as the Staatszirkus der DDR (State Circus of the GDR). With reunification of Germany, the State Circus was broken up, and the circus that was once the Barlay Circus ended life the same way it began: with bankruptcy.

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Insel der Schwäne
As is often the case, even in so-called free countries, restrictions on what one can describe in print is less restrictive than what one can show on film. Films such as Naked Lunch and Last Exit to Brooklyn seem bowdlerized when compared to their original texts. In East Germany, there are some perfect examples of this. Manfred Bieler’s Maria Morzeck oder Das Kaninchen bin ich was a popular book that didn’t meet any resistance until Kurt Maetzig turned it into a movie (The Rabbit is Me), and Horst Bastian’s Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality) was a successful novel, but was rejected as a movie premise when Rainer Simon presented the idea to DEFA back in the sixties. It would take another ten years before it was put on film. Likewise, Paul Kanut Schäfer’s Jadup did not merit much scrutiny as a book, but was immediately banned when the story was put on film as Jadup und Boel.

Benno Pludra’s Insel der Schwäne (Island of the Swans) was a popular teen novel in East Germany, and was often assigned as reading in schools. But when director Herrmann Zschoche went to film it, he immediately ran into problems. The story was seen as an attack on the way the people in charge were handling the needs and requests of the children in the housing complex, and by proxy, the needs and requests of the general public. Zschoche had to rewrite several scenes and inserts a few others to keep the film board happy. The resultant film is still strong, but varies in many key areas from both the book and the original screenplay.

Swan Island is the story of a young man who moves from an idyllic location beside a rural lake to one of the new Plattenbauen that were being built in the Berlin suburb of Marzahn in the early eighties. These Plattenbauen were intended to represent pinnacles of socialist community planning and forward thinking, but, as was so often the case in the later years in East Germany, the system’s ever-growing bureaucracy became its own worst enemy. Compromises to the ideas of the Marzahn communities were made every day until the final result was a pale shadow of the ideas and ideals of the original planners (for a great examination of this process see Peter Kahane’s The Architects).

The story centers around the teens living in the housing complex and their attempts to have some influence over the features of the complex’s playground. In this respect, the film is slightly reminiscent of Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge, in which teens in a U.S. planned community go on a rampage because of the lack of recreational facilities available to them. That film is based on actual events in Foster City, California. Clearly, adults not listening to the needs of children is, by no means, exclusive to any one country.

Swan Island is directed by Herrmann Zschoche. Zschoche had already demonstrated his knack for working with teens in his classic Seven Freckles, but while that film dealt with the simple dynamics of young love, Swan Island has bigger fish to fry. For this film, Zschoche turned to his old screenwriting partner, Ulrich Plenzdorf. Zschoche and Plenzdorf first worked together on Karla, one of the DEFA films that was infamously banned after the 11th Plenum. It would be a few years before Plenzdorf was invited back to work at DEFA after that, eventually scoring a big hit with his work on The Legend of Paul and Paula. Likewise, Zschoche found his career momentarily stalled after the Plenum, returning to the director’s chair in 1968 with Leben zu zweit, a safely inoffensive comedy. Zschoche joined forces with Plenzdorf again in 1974 with Liebe mit 16.

The main character, Stefan, is, to put it bluntly, a bit of a pill. He spends most the film with a glum expression, longing for his previous existence at his grandmother’s house at Swan Island. Not even the perky enthusiasm and budding sexuality of Rita and Anja, two girls in his class, can do much to lighten his gloomy demeanor. Besides his desire to see a good playground built at the construction site, the only other subject he shows any enthusiasm for is the defense of Hubert, a nerdy sad sack who is constantly under attack by a bullying older boy referred to only as “Windjacke,” so named for the windbreaker he always wears, which features an embroidered dragon on the back.

Ritter, Tod und Teufel

Like Seven Freckles, the film also explores psychological conflicts of coming-of-age that rage inside pubescent brain. As a metaphor for this turmoil the film uses a costumed jazz-rock trio called “Knight, Death and Devil” (Ritter, Tod und Teufel) that appears whenever Stefan is confronted with conflict or, in some cases, budding sexuality. Their music is manic and jazzy, reminiscent of Goblin’s Roller LP.1

Most of the kids in this film did not go on to have careers as film actors. Axel Bunke, who plays Stefan, went on to become a successful sound engineer at Deutschlandradio, and now goes by the name Axel Sommerfeld, having taken the unusual step of adopting his wife’s last name when he married. Mathias Müller had appeared in two TV movies prior to Swan Island, but this film appears to have been his last. Similarly, Britt Baumann, who plays the sultry Rita did one TV movie after Zschoche’s film, but nothing further, and Kerstin Reiseck, who plays the perky Anja did not pursue a career in film.

The notable exception is Sven Martinek, who plays Windjacke. Martinek continues to appear in films and television shows to this day. He is best known for starring in the popular TV spy show, Der Clown (The Clown), in which he played a vigilante who wore a cheap plastic clown mask when he attacked the bad guys. He has appeared in nearly every popular series on German TV, from Tatort to Der letzte Bulle (The Last Cop). He is one of the hardest working men in German television. He currently appears as a recurring character on Tierärztin Dr. Mertens (Zoo Doctor: My Mom the Vet) and stars in the Heiter bis tödlich series, Morden im Norden (Murders in the North).2

Swan Island was met with criticism from the establishment and mainstream critics. One of the film’s biggest opponents was film critic, Horst Knietzsch, who railed against the film as an unfair portrayal of Marzahn as a concrete wasteland. Others felt that the compromises made to the novel, like the compromises made by the adults in the film, ruined the story.

After the Wende, Marzahn gained a reputation as a place to be avoided, filled with neo-Nazis and thugs. In fact, Marzahn’s demographics still skew more to the left than most of Berlin’s other districts, and the buildings, in spite of all the compromises have certain beauty to them that combines the aesthetics of Modernism and Russian Constructivism. The picture I use for this blog’s logo is of the old Soyuz cinema in Marzahn.

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1.  My attempts to find out more about this band yielded no results and nothing shows up in the Amiga catalog. If anyone has information about this group, please either contact me or add a comment to this post.

2. Heiter bis tödlich is similar to Tatort, CSI and Law and Order franchises, where the different shows takes place in different cities or different departments. The term Heiter bis tödlich isn’t easily translated, It is a play on the meteorological phrase “Heiter bis Wolkig” (fair to cloudy), with the word “cloudy” being replaced by “deadly.”

Karla

1966 was a rough year for film in East Germany. The 11th Plenum of the previous December pulled the rug out from under some of the most intelligent and creative film talent to come out of any country at any time. East German cinema was on the verge of matching the French New Wave in creativity while their colleagues in West Germany were still making schmaltzy Heimatfilme and Edgar Wallace Krimis.

Karla (unnecessarily retitled Carla for the U.S. release) was based on a news report about a teacher that screenwriter Ulrich Plenzdorf read. He contacted the teacher, and from there the story evolved. Karla is a young, idealistic teacher, fresh out of school in Berlin. Her first teaching assignment takes her to a small town near the Baltic Sea. She believes that one must be honest above all else, and she hopes to put this into practice in her classroom. As one might imagine, the real world has a lesson in store for her.

An idealistic teacher running up against the harsh realities of the world isn’t a new idea. We’ve seen it before and since, in everything from Blackboard Jungle to The Forest for the Trees (Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen). Karla of the title is closer to Eva Lobau’s starry-eyed fish-out-of-water in the latter film than Glenn Ford’s man on the cusp of a societal quantum shift in the first, but Karla has her finger on the pulse of the nation, which makes her dangerous to her superiors, Unfortunately it also made the film dangerous to Walter Ulbricht and his cronies. Before the movie ever saw the light of day, it was shelved and wouldn’t arrive in theaters until 1990.

The film starts with Karla’s graduation ceremony in Berlin and follows her exploits through her first year of teaching. As with other films of this sub-genre, there is the problem kid in class, although in Karla he is portrayed more sympathetically than usual for this type of story. He, like Karla, values truth and honesty above all else. True to its characters, the film confronts controversial subjects head on. When a student questions the honesty of East German television reports about the space race, Principal Alfred Hirte uses peer pressure to negate the students concerns. A tactic Karla finds reprehensible. But even Principal Hirte is portrayed sympathetically. He, too, is an idealist, but one who understands better than Karla and her charges how the world works.

Karla stars Jutta Hoffmann, one of East Germany’s most talented actors and a woman who had a remarkable knack for choosing controversial material. She appeared in or worked on five of the twelve films banned by the 11th Plenum (Karla, The Rabbit is MeJust Don’t Think I’ll Cry, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam, and The Trace of Stones), another film that was almost banned (Her Third), and an East German TV movie that managed to get itself banned in Switzerland (Ursula). In 1978, Ms. Hoffmann was one of the many DEFA stars and technicians that signed the petition protesting the expatriation of singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann. Everyone who signed the petition found it much harder to get work, and many of them eventually emigrated to the west, including Ms. Hoffmann, who moved to West Berlin in 1982. She continued to act in movies and television, and taught acting at the Hamburg School of Music and Theater from 1993 to 2006.

Acting as sort of Greek chorus, the film cuts from time to time to the conversations between the school district’s administrator and the principal, played by Inge Keller and Hans Hardt-Hardtloff respectively. Inge Keller was a popular actress who was described by Deutsches Theater director Thomas Langhoff as the “only vamp in the GDR.” During the early fifties, she was married to the infamous host of Der schwarze Kanal, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler. Their daughter, Barbara Schnitzler, went on to become a successful actor in her own right (see All My Girls). After the Wende, she continued to work on stage and in film, and notably played the older Lilly Wust in Max Färberböck’s excellent film, Aimee & Jaguar. Hans Hardt-Hardtloff got his start in acting much earlier than Ms. Keller. He left home at the age of sixteen to join the theater. He studied acting at the Volkstheater Millowitsch in Cologne, and spent the Nazi years performing in plays outside of Germany. He appeared in several DEFA films and even more TV productions. A character actor, he appears in small roles in several classic East German films, including, Divided Heaven, The Rabbit is Me, Sons of the Great Bear, and The Legend of Paul and Paula. He died in 1974.

Karla’s author, Ulrich Plenzdorf, was one of the most well-respected and successful screenwriters in East Germany, but he was also its most controversial. The son of communists, Plenzdorf was a believer in the cause of the GDR, and thought that the building of the wall would help stem the economic problems intentionally provoked by the Bundesrepublik (see Look at This City!). Like folksinger Wolf Biermann, his strongly pro-communist views counted for little with the devolving SED leadership. After the 11th Plenum, Plenzdorf’s work was not welcome at DEFA again until 1969, when he rejoined Karla’s director, Herrmann Zschoche, to make Weite Straßen – stille Liebe (Wide Streets – Silent Love). In 1973, he co-wrote the screenplay with director Heiner Carow for The Legend of Paul and Paula as well as the lyrics to the hit songs from the film, “Geh zu ihr,” and “Wenn ein Mensch lebt.” When his screenplay titled The New Sorrows of Young W. (Die neuen Leiden des jungen W), was rejected by DEFA, he turned it into a novel and then into a play. The play was a huge hit on both sides of the Iron Curtain and was made into a movie in West Germany. A fact that did not endear him to the East German powers that be. Today, the book is recognized as a classic of modern German literature. After the Wende, Plenzdorf continued to write screenplays, and joined Jurek Becker (Jacob the Liar) to help write screenplays for the fourth season of the popular law series, Liebling Kreuzberg, which starred his friend Manfred Krug. He also wrote the screenplay for Abgehauen (Ran Off), which is based on Krug’s account of his final days in East Germany. Plenzdorf died in 2007 after a protracted illness.

Carla

Herrmann Zschoche is best known in the Eastern Bloc countries for directing the 1978 coming-of-age movie, Seven Freckles, and in the west for his languorous and kitschy science-fiction film, Eolomea. Zschoche got his start as a cameraman on the East German news program, Aktuelle Kamera. He studied filmmaking at the Babelsberg film school and worked as an assistant director on Frank Beyer’s classic, Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers). He made his directorial debut in 1961 with the kid’s film, Das Märchenschloß (The Fairytale Castle). Over the next few years, he would make more movies, but with the 11th Plenum’s ruling on Karla, he suddenly found himself effectively blacklisted and had to rebuild his career. It would be three years before he would get to make another movie, starting with Leben zu zweit in 1968. From there he proceeded more cautiously, but controversy still managed to find him. His 1977 film, Feuer unter Deck (Fire Below Deck), was prevented from being shown in theaters for no better reason than it starred Manfred Krug, who had decided to defect to the west right before the film was to be released. In 1983, he ran up against the authorities again with Insel der Schwäne (Island of the Swans), which was also scripted by Ulrich Plenzdorf. Zschoche was forced to cut several scenes, insert a scene where the protagonist talks about the advantages of the new apartment buildings, and—like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner from the previous year—replace the ambiguous open ending with a more positive one. After the Wende, Zschoche made one more DEFA film (Das Mädchen aus dem Fahrstuhl), but otherwise worked exclusively in television. He directed episodes of the popular West Germany TV shows, Drei Damen vom Grill, Tatort, and others. He retired from directing in 1997.

The film is scored by the ubiquitous Karl-Ernst Sasse. Here he gets to demonstrate his classical chops, taking his cues from Mozart with one of the loveliest themes from any East German film ever made. Some films are driven by their scores, while others use music as a form of punctuation. Karla falls firmly into the latter category. Music is used to segue between scenes and does not follow the characters around. Nonetheless, the theme has managed to show up on a few compilations of film themes although, shockingly, it is sometimes listed as “Serenade Für Klara” (sic).

The man who suffered the most at the hands of the 11th Plenum had to be cinematographer, Günter Ost. Ost was responsible for the innovative and striking cinematography on And Your Love Too, but even here he was stirring up controversy for his imaginative work. He first worked with Herrmann Zschoche on Engel im Fegefeuer (Angel in Purgatory). The two made a good team. Zschoche’s use of the wide-screen aspect ratio and Ost’s combinations and deep and shallow focus created some interesting scenes. When Karla is called into the principal’s office for a supposed indiscretion with a student, Karla is seated to the left in focus, with the school administrator slightly out of focus in the background and the back of the blurry nape of the principal’s neck in the foreground. In other scenes we see Karla lingering right at the edge of the frame. At the time this film was made, only Sergio Leone was making better use of the widescreen format (Leone, it must be said, would have managed to keep all three of these elements in focus, but he had the advantage of newer equipment).

Having been the cinematographer for some of the most visually imaginative films to come out of DEFA during the early sixties, Ost was an easy target for the people crying about the so-called “Rabbit films” (named after The Rabbit is Me, the shining example of the kind of films the folks at the 11th Plenum detested). Ost’s career at DEFA was over. Ost continued to work with film, but his name does not show up on anymore films from the East German film studio.

It was Ost who, after the film reels were recovered from DEFA’s archives, reconstructed the film. After its screening in 1990, Karla was given its proper place as one of the best films to come out of the DDR and demonstrated to everyone the real damage to the East German film industry caused by the 11th Plenum.

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The Baldheaded Gang (Die Glatzkopfbande) is East Germany’s only biker film, and a possible precursor to the skinhead movement. Made in 1963—a full three years before Roger Corman kick-started the biker genre with The Wild Angels—the film follows the story of a gang of bikers who cause trouble at a vacation spot on the Baltic Sea. In this respect, it resembles Laslo Benedek’s classic The Wild One. Like The Wild One, it is based on an actual event; and also like The Wild One, the true story is far different than the one portrayed on screen.

The film was made shortly after the wall went up and was intended to demonstrate how the wall would protect the citizens of East Germany from West German carpetbaggers. This was a common theme in DEFA films at that time. The villain in the movie is a man called “King,” an ex-foreign legionnaire who hails from West Berlin (of course). King leads a motorcycle gang whose shoddy work at a construction site was responsible for the deaths of two people. A police lieutenant named Lothar Czernik is called onto the case. Czernik is an odd bird. He seems to have a strange three-way relationship with his pretty next door neighbor, Marianne, and his dog: an enormous German Shepherd that often steals the show. The dog hangs around with the woman during the day, and then returns home to Czernik for dinner. Rather than simply cross the yard to visit her, Czernik likes to call Marianne on the phone and stare at her through the window. He also likes to let the dog bark at her over the phone. This is one of those movie relationships that aims for cute but achieves disturbing instead.

The Baldheaded Gang gets off to a rollicking start with Helmut Nier’s percussive jazz score over artfully jagged titles, followed by a gang of motorcyclists tearing down a country road. Contrary to many descriptions of this film, the gang members are not riding mopeds, but their little bikes aren’t exactly Harleys either. At the beginning of the film, the gang members are hirsute, but later shave their heads in imitation of King’s personal hero, Yul Brynner.

At the seaside resort of Bansin on Usedom, an island in the Baltic Sea, the gang proceeds to piss off everyone in sight, kicking over children’s sand castles, interfering with various games, and generally acting like your standard biker bad boys. During an evening affair at the local rec hall, the gang’s behavior leads to a fracas that quickly gets out of hand. Later that evening, after assaulting two vacationers who have been dogging them since the beginning of the movie, the gang learns what happened at the construction site and tries to get out of the country, only to find the way blocked thanks to the valiant efforts of the GDR to protect their borders.

The film was a hit when it was released, and went on to become one of the most popular films in DEFA’s history. To the dismay of the authorities, some teens seemed to miss the cautionary point of the tale and identified with the troublemakers. As a result, the film was eventually pulled from theaters in spite of its popularity. Whether or not any young rebels were inspired by the film to shave their heads and act up is not documented, but could it be that this minor spate of GDR rebelliousness trickled through the underground, surfacing in England in the late sixties as the skinhead movement? It certainly seems plausible.

Although you can make a strong case for this film being the precursor to the entire biker genre, in style it is closer to the juvenile delinquent films of the fifties. For one thing, it is black-and-white with a bebop jazz score. It would take Roger Corman with Dave Allen and the Arrows to add electric guitars to the sounds of motorcycles. For another, the perspective is that of the authorities. Very little is done to build sympathy for the gang members. Only the spineless Piepel arouses any sympathy for he has paid the highest price of all.

As the evil “King,” Thomas Weisgerber is effectively menacing. Particularly interesting is Rolf Römer, playing Johle—one of the odder, more aggressive members of the gang. With hair, Rolf Römer resembles Cash Flagg (Ray Dennis Steckler) of Incredibly Strange Creatures fame, but without hair he looks like Michael Berryman in The Hills Have Eyes. Also worthy of note is Irene Fischer, who plays the peroxide blonde, Jackie to slatternly perfection. She would be right at home in any juvenile delinquent film from the United States.

Although the movie is based on an actual event, the true story is far different from the one portrayed on the screen. In reality, the event took place a few days before the wall was built. Seven young men were arrested for playing rock’n’roll, which was seen by the authorities as a threat to civilization (the word Unkultur gets bandied about here, but it doesn’t translate well). Five of the young men had shaved heads, but they did not know each other. After their arrest, the people at the Bansin campground marched to the police headquarters. Some were there to protest the arrest of the men, but most were there to complain about the lack of amenities. The authorities over-reacted (as authorities often do) and the men were charged with an attempted putsch—a word laden with sinister overtones thanks to Adolph Hitler. The fact that five of the men had shaved heads attracted the media’s attention and they become known as die Glatzkopfbande. The court was hard on them, sentencing them to 27 years altogether, with eight years for the main defendant. After being released from prison, some of the men did exactly what their characters in the film were trying to do: they went west.

In 1965, Richard Groschopp followed up the film with Entlassen auf Bewährung (Released on Probation), which continues with the story of Conny Schenk, a peripheral character in The Baldheaded Gang, who initially abets the gang but then later helps the police run them in. In 2001, the 45-minute documentary film about the actual incident—»Revolte« am Ostseestrand (“Revolt” at a Baltic Sea Beach) by Jürgen Ast and Inge Bennewitz—was shown on German television. In 2004, Vorpommern Theater produced Glatzkopfbande. Erinnerung an Rock ’n’ Roll (The Baldheaded Gang, a Memento of Rock’n’Roll), a theater piece based on the story.

By the time DEFA was founded, Richard Groschopp had already made a name for himself filming documentaries and training films for the Third Reich. As a cameraman, he worked with Leni Riefenstahl on her classic, Olympia. After the war, he started with DEFA by making short films. During the fifties he helped create the “Das Stacheltier” group, which specialized in producing short, humorous films that were shown along with newsreels before the main features at cinemas. Groschopp began directing feature films in the late fifties and had a big hit with the romantic comedy, Die Liebe und der Co-Pilot (Love and the Co-Pilot). But his biggest hit came in 1967 with the Indianer classic, Chingachgook, the Great Snake. This would be his last feature film. After a few TV movies, Groschopp retired in 1971 at the age of 65. He died in 1996.

Whether there are any plans to release this film in the United States, I do not know, but I certainly hope so. This film has been missing from the biker film narrative for too long.

IMDB page for the film.

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.

IMDB page for Berlin Schönhauser Corner

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