Category Archives: Uncategorized
Holocaust Denial, Softcore
Holocaust Denial, Softcore
If you’re not aware that there is a new Amazon series about a group of Nazi hunters (called, in fact, “Hunters”) in the 1970s, then let me assure you that this is, in fact, your worst nightmare if, like me, you care a little bit about history. You can read about the series elsewhere – my colleague Prof. Bill Niven has written a great review of it for “History Extra,” the BBC’s history magazine. Here, I want to suggest why a series about the Holocaust that invents titillating, fantastical horrors about what happened during the Holocaust might be a bad idea.
When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, we talked about our hope that the aging generation of Holocaust deniers would soon die, and we could stop worrying about Holocaust denial. I know! We were very optimistic after the Berlin Wall for a good decade. The internet wasn’t really a big part of anyone’s normal life then, but I suspect that even without it, a new generation of Holocaust deniers would have appeared on the landscape anyway.
Yet Holocaust denial has long stopped being actual denial; deniers are no longer interested in actual hardcore denial. What they do care about is what I would call softcore denial – what if it was bad, but wasn’t that bad? What if … What if… What if… and on and on until we arrive at an Amazon series that decides that the Holocaust wasn’t that bad at all. After all, the horrors of the mass murder of Jews and Roma, and the persecution of other ethnic, religious, and political groups, weren’t enough: Amazon had to invent a chess game in a killing center that never happened. This is the definition of softcore denial, and I use a pornography phrase here intentionally. The series is intended to shock and horrify and excite viewers; there is no attempt here to discuss actual suffering. If atrocities can be used to create a series “inspired by” rather than about the Holocaust, then they lose their status as atrocity and become fantasy horror.
I used to teach George Perec’s 1975 novel W, or The Memory of Childhood, and I could never quite decide what to think about it. This series reminds me a bit of Perec’s attempt to re-interpret the Holocaust as fantasy, but he never let the reader forget that the actual Holocaust was what the true horror was. Perec’s mother died in a killing center, and he spent his life trying to come turns with her suffering. I want to revisit Perec – I still own the French copy I read in college in Alan Astro’s seminar on memory – and think some more about why that novel moved me, whereas the Amazon series infuriates me.
An East German Sherlock Holmes
In the 1985 delightful East German children’s film Operation Violin Case (Unternehmen Geigenkasten, dir. Gunter Friedrich), young Ole finds himself in a hospital bed with a broken leg after crashing during an attempt to fly using a kite as wings. His father begins to lecture him on the need for scientific theory: “You can’t just run off and try to fly like that!” he tells his son in exasperation. Ole, having heard too many of these speeches, turns to the hospital television and discovers a German-Austrian version of a Sherlock Holmes movie, the 1937 mistaken-identity comedy The Man Who was Sherlock Holmes (Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war, dir. Karl Hartl). Ole has found his next passion: solving crimes.
Back home, he assigns his friend Andreas the role of Dr. Watson, and the two set of to solve mysteries – with the appropriate props, of course, including “Holmes’s” pipe, violin case and hat. It is not so easy to find crimes, though, with so many honest people around. Then they witness a bicycle accident, and Andreas notes that the harried cyclist not only refuses help but is also wearing a fake mustache. Clearly the man must be up to no good, a suspicion confirmed quickly when they find “Mr. Neumann” loading electronics into a van. The police meanwhile have put out a bulletin on a van full of stolen goods worth 10,000 East German Marks, and Ole and Andreas talk their classmates into skipping the first hour of school to help find the criminal. When that action fails, it is up to Holmes and Watson to solve the case, even if no one takes them seriously.
They do, of course, catch Neumann in the act, but he sees them as well and kidnaps Ole. Andreas informs the police, finds his friend, and the police find Neumann. The two boys are sent home to their agitated parents, awaiting punishment for skipping the entire school day and acting outside of the law. In an attempt to teach his son a lesson and perhaps keep him busy and out of more trouble, Ole’s father has decided that violin lessons are in order. The irony of pushing his son further into the Holmes character is lost on the adults, but not on the boys or on the cinema audience. The police officer who arrives at the house deciders that further discipline is unwarranted. He warns against not involving the police in further “detective mysteries,” but then proclaims that the boys have helped protect socialist society against those who would undermine it and presents the boys with a medal.
Despite the clear nod to socialist values, including black market activity as one of the worst imaginable crimes against the state, the film is impressive in its universal appeal as well as its references to German filmmaking. No ones finds it odd that two boys decide to imitate characters in a film made during the Nazi era about two detectives pretending to be Holmes and Watson. This aspect of Operation Violin Case suggests that the 1937 film appeared on GDR television often enough to be an obvious reference and points to an acceptance of two British literary icons who lived a rather bourgeois lifestyle. The tension between judging individual actions against a responsibility to act as part of the socialist collective is also central to the film’s moral; here, again, a children’s film serves as a vehicle for communicating a socialist value system through the presumed innocence of children. Boys will be boys, after all, which is fine as long as they grow up into law-abiding socialist men.
Socialist Puppet States with Strings – Not a Fairy Tale
Once upon a time, or rather 1955, after a few attempts in the first postwar years to make animation films in Babelsberg – whether silhouette, puppet, or what we think of as animation films – the DEFA Studio for Animation opened in Dresden. The film short A Fairy Tale Only (Nur ein Märchen, dir. Carl Schröder, 1963), perhaps better translated as “It’s Just a Fairy Tale,” is exemplary of the few puppet films made there, for children and, occasionally, adults.
The puppet film is saturated in irony. The famous actor Rolf Herricht narrates. He appears on an empty set, informing the audience that he has been asked to tell a fairy tale in the interest of education and national cultural heritage “and all that,” and presents his selection of “Mother Hulda” (“Frau Holle,” sometimes known as “Gold Marie and Pitch Marie” or “The Good Sister and the Bad Sister”). He explains his reasons for the selection: It is ideologically unproblematic and well-known, and has been appropriately updated for a contemporary audience.
He starts off with “Once upon a …no, let us say once upon now,” and introduces the characters, all hand puppets: First comes Mother Hulda, who has since earned an additional degree to better herself (referring to the numerous attempts to push women to take advantage of continuing education); then Gold Marie (“no need for further explanation,”), and the equally infamous Pitch Marie, whom he regards with a bit of disapproval. He hesitantly notes that the evil stepmother is a bad pedagogical role model, so we will forget her. The next shot is of the People’s Collective “Brothers Grimm,” where the forewoman Mother Hulda is delighted to employ two new workers “from the people” in order to fulfill her production quotas. Socialist hilarity ensues.
Colleague Marie Gold arrives to work early, bakes tasty loaves of bread, and picks all the apples just as they are becoming ripe using a “climbing machine” (a ladder). An ideal socialist woman-worker, it is not surprising that she receives her daily wages of golden talers from Forewoman Hulda.
Colleague Marie Pitch, on the other hand, shows up late and must powder her nose while the bread burns, lazes about so that the over-ripe apples are fit only for jelly, and leaves her workplace untidy when the whistle blows: “Quitting time!” she yells with glee.Colleague Pitch receives the same wages for her poorly-executed work.
Rolf Herricht falls out of character as a narrator and walks on-screen, asking Forewoman Hulda whether both young women had earned the same pay for unequal work. “Yes,” responds Forewoman Hulda, “exactly according to law.” Herricht complains that it is supposed to be different, that hard work is to be rewarded and laziness punished. The puppet Mother Hulda leans back to get a better look at Herricht’s face and says dryly, “Right, in fairy tales!” Herricht gapes and turns the audience, shrugging his shoulders – socialism is no fairy tale, not even when puppets are involved.
Exotic-Erotic is in the Eye of the Beholder: Red-haired Sirens in Mongolian Fairy Tale Films
You don’t need to trot out Red Riding Hood or Snow White to find tropes of erotic desire and deception in fairy tales – look East, or at least East of the Iron Curtain. There you will find the 1961 East German and Mongolian co-production Die goldene Jurte (The Golden Yurt, dir. Gottfried Kolditz and Rabschaa Dordschpalam), which premiered in East Berlin as part of the celebrations to mark the fortieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of Mongolia.
The story drips with fairy tale fetishism with the enchanting other. Although it starts out as a nightmare of Orientalist stereotypes, it quickly turns into a defiant, albeit ambiguous, stance against nativist conceptions of self and, well, non-self – or just everyone else. In this East-meets-West adventure, the East rather roundly dismisses the West and its decadent (female vampish) ways and triumphs in a criticism of consumerist-laden modernity.
The fairy tale trope is familiar enough, even if it is nomadic tribes in yurts instead of poor peasants in cottages: The wise lama Arat has entrusted the shepherd Pagwa with a grave responsibility. Pagwa must guard a chest that holds the secret to keeping the region fertile. Although the shepherd believes that the chest is filled with gold, it actually has a pseudo-scientific function of channeling the far-off sea to bring water to the otherwise arid land. In typical fairy tale fashion, Pagwa has three sons; the older two decide to steal the chest and be rid of their guileless and hapless brother, Dawadorshi, by sending him on an impossible mission. With common sense and a good heart, though, Dawadorshi fulfills three key tasks: He saves his people from death, helps a beautiful blind girl regain her sight and heals his father’s heartbreak over his wicked older sons. The youngest son turns out to be not so unworldly, after all. He wins the beautiful girl Sendema for his betrothed, creates a yurt-palace for his family and reunites his rehabilitated brothers with their father.
All of these accomplishments would be enough for most fairy tale films. When two directors with radically different approaches to filmmaking must work together, the tasks take on another layer of meaning. One of the film’s objectives was to show the beauty of the Mongolian landscape to East German audiences; not surprisingly, Dordschpalam wanted to showcase his country’s inhabitants, as well. It was not enough that most of the actors were Mongolian, apparently. If anyone in the audience was unsure that the Eurasian Steppe was home to people more virtuous, industrious and humane than their socialist brethren to the West, the Sea Lord (played by the classically-trained opera singer and actor Kurt Mühlhardt) and his red-haired vixen daughter (the model-actress Evelyn Cron) are clearly German. Western. East Germans as the West.
Dawadorshi gets entangled with these two creatures of questionable morals when he and his bride-to-be Sendema free a goldfish that has been trapped behind rocks in a lake. The fish commands Dawadorshi to follow it into the depths of the Sea Lord’s kingdom. His protests that he wants to return to his beloved stop suddenly as the camera zooms in on his eyes that glance up and down repeatedly at the fish’s new form. “What are you?” he stammers. “You were just a fish and now…?” The camera cuts to the hem of a sumptuous clingy golden gown and slowly follows its tight curves up the body of the beautiful sea princess with long red hair and enough exposed skin to show off her fair (Germanic) complexion.
The princess smiles enticingly at Dawadorshi, warning him that her father turns into a giant tortoise when he gets angry – a warranted fear, since she has been naughty for turning into a fish and swimming off to play without Daddy Sea Lord’s permission. The princess grabs Dawadorshi’s hand and brings him to her father with the stage-whispered plea to make him stay as her husband.The Sea Lord agrees and sends her away to put on her best dress and jewels.
Hedging his bets, the Sea Lord does not just offer Dawadorshi the reward of the sea princess; he commands him to take her. After pointing to her as she sashays teasingly in her bridal gown, the Sea Lord promises that she and all her playmates will obey the young hero and follow all his wishes before he can even utter them. Beautiful fair-haired sirens swim before Dawadorshi’s eyes, but he wants only to return to Sendema and his people.
Angered, the Sea Lord turns into a giant tortoise, inhuman and inhumane. Dawadorshi’s insistence that he will not be cowed into obedience turns the Sea Lord back to his human form. He smiles approvingly at the young man’s successful passing of this “test,” and offers him help in his adventures.
The role of the sea princess seems primarily to serve as a spoiled plaything for other men. Even her own father uses her as bait to try and trick Dawadorshi into desiring her over his beloved Sendema. We can only assume that, had Dawadorshi chosen the sea princess, it would have been the wrong choice, one that he would regret the rest of his life. More important, it would have been the wrong choice in the eyes of the sea princess’ own father. The contrast between the flirtatious and sexualized (modern, German) princess-woman and the modestly-clothed (traditional, Mongolian) nomad-girl could not be greater – and the happy end of the story comes about because Dawadorshi rejected the other, or perhaps the anti-other.
So what of the sea princess? Her father values her beauty enough to employ her in the games that gods play, and is even angry when she runs – swims – off as a fish without his permission, suggesting he desires her company. But she is not a minor character in this story; Dawadorshi makes a life-changing decision for himself and his people in his loyalty to traditional ways and rejection of this temptress of civilization. Her feelings, though, are not explored beyond her apparent dismay that her father might be upset with her disobedience. Cast aside after being touted as her father’s grand prize for Dawadorshi, she will likely return to her former ways, playing with her friends until she gets bored enough to turn into a fish in the hopes of being rescued by another potential suitor. The decadent princess is thus the only victim of this tale, and it is a sobering moral. Modernity will not win out over tradition and heritage, and it cannot be rescued from itself. The brief G-rated peep-show of the sea princess’ attempt to seduce Dawadorshi is a brief highlight in her life, since she is otherwise doomed to a life of civilization.
Socialist Fairy Tale Dystopias: “Land Beyond the Rainbow”
Few tales provide a better staging for a “good versus evil” post-socialist fairy tale film than Herwig Kipping’s 1991 Land Beyond the Rainbow. Set in an imaginary village, Stalina, in the days leading up to and after the GDR’s brutally repressed 17 June 1953 uprising, or worker’s revolt, Kipping’s film draws on a number of East German film aesthetics – including fairy tale films. Kipping himself never suggested that the film should be read as a fairy tale, but it is hard to miss the reference, even if unintended. The bright colors and exaggerated characters allow for a multi-layered morality tale, but one that has been radically upended and shaken about. It is a fairy tale gone bad, one that shows the tragi-comedy of promises made with promises broken, where uncertainty and fear are in a precarious balance with hope.
Kipping shows few children in the film, but three children play the role of the protagonists. Two boys, Hans and the Rainbowmaker, and a girl, Marie, fend for themselves, at least when they are not being coerced by the grandfather/mayor into raising new memorials to Stalin, or when local hooligans – or are they latter-day partisans of uncertain loyalties? – harass the children. The adults bother only to notice the trio – of course the number three here, one of fairy tales’ magical numbers – when parents or other authority figures need something from one of them.
Mothers and fathers do not take care of their children in Stalina, and the children are not always nice to their parents. Land Beyond the Rainbow might be an updated Hansel and Gretel tale, where parents send their children out into the wild with benevolent neglect, rather than obvious malice. The children, rather than push the witch into an oven (or kill their parents, in an earlier Brothers’ Grimm version of the tale), are violent, with Hans blowing himself up in the middle of the village. Stalina makes a mockery of the GDR’s claim to be country where children were to be the future of socialism; it also dismisses any belief that children could even be manipulated for that purpose.
Children manipulate each other in Land Beyond the Rainbow. The witch in this re-telling has become a devil, or rather, the evil Hans. He has imprisoned Marie psychologically, forcing her to watch him crush baby chicks that she then buries. She cannot leave, believing, perhaps, that she can save him, or at least prevent him from further cruelty. The Rainbowmaker, the “good” boy, is a silent, effeminate character, with longish hair; the Rainbowmaker must wear a headband that keeps his bangs out of his eyes – forcing him to see. Marie completes the triangle of lovers as the girl who is torn between two suitors, playing both of them, yet afraid to lose either of them. The Rainbowmaker tries to convince Marie that she is too good for Hans; Hans walks over and yanks Marie away from the Rainbowmaker’s side. She turns back to look at the Rainbowmaker, but she does not protest as Hans pulls her along.
At a 2012 Modern Language Association session, the fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes once dismissed this film (and thus my reading of it) as “ekelhaft,” disgusting, one that he saw only as Kipping’s chance to get back at a system that wronged him. To be sure, the film can be disturbing: If senseless violence and greed were not enough to make the audience uncomfortable, then the practical violence of skinning a pig and pulling out its entrails is enough to make even village butchers avert their eyes. Still, fairy tales are not really fairy tales without an element of the horrific that fights against an element of goodness. Ultimately, Land Beyond the Rainbow is an apocalyptic fairy tale where love not only does not conquer all but exists only within the duality of love and hate.
This is the fairy tale of ages that is also the heart of this “disgusting” film: the three children, those three entities, function as one. Juliette, Paris, and Romeo; Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost; Adam, the serpent, Eve; Eve, Cane, and Abel; Joseph, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary. These three children are in passionate love, in all senses of the word, and it is up to us to keep our eyes open to watch and understand them and thus Kipping’s dystopian fairy tale, even when it offends our sensibilities.
Red Riding Hood Fights Back
In the East German (DEFA) 1962 fairy tale film Little Red Riding Hood (Rotkäppchen, dir. Götz Friedrich), we meet some of Red Riding Hood’s friends – and enemies. Her best pals are the ever-worried Rabbit and the clumsy and rather childish Bear. The Big Bad Wolf finds a partner in crime, Fox, both of whom are out to get Red Riding Hood and co.
As in the original story, Red Riding Hood must bring Grandmother a basket – no wine this time, but rather a healthy pail of milk, some bread, and the time-honored remedy for colds, a bit off snuff. While the three friends stray from the path and play around, Bear accidentally knocks over the pail of milk. No problem – Rabbit runs home to bring a new pail of milk, only to return and find Bear and Red Riding Hood leaving the path for the forest again. The wily Fox has tricked Bear to go in search of honey, while Red Riding Hood goes to pick mushrooms for Grandmother. Rabbit’s hand-wringing and begging earns him Red Riding Hood’s anger, telling him not to be a Hasenfuß (a scaredy cat; literally, a rabbit’s foot).
Predictably, it is a set-up: Fox and Wolf attack her, but they are no longer working together: Wolf hits Fox over the head with a stick and turns to snatch the girl, but Red Riding Hood has outsmarted him. She blows a handful of snuff in his face. He then sneezes so much that he must crawl away, with Red Riding Hood throwing stones after him. Fox has meanwhile finished off the rest of the basket’s goodies, but the exhausted Red Riding Hood is gleeful – she has outsmarted Wolf and does a little victory dance.
The jarring part of this scene is Red Riding Hood’s anger. She throws the stones not only to scare away Fox, but to hit him, that is, to hurt him. The fight has left her with dirt smeared on her face, her clothes disheveled, and a look of hatred that the camera captures in a close-up. What is the purpose of showing this new side of Red Riding Hood? She has defeated Fox, but the traditional fairy tale lesson is lost, since she once again wanders into the forest, allowing Wolf time to beat her to Grandmother’s. It is a turning point that is not really a turning point.
In a film that is otherwise careful to avoid outright violence (her hunter-father carries Wolf away to a place where he can do no more harm, his hunting rifle unused), Red Riding Hood’s reaction suggests a different kind of moral. Perhaps she will keep her promise to never stray from the path again, perhaps not. What is certain, though, is that the next time she encounters an evil-doer, she will know how to take care of herself.
Looking for Breadcrumbs – The Fairy Tale Film that Never Was
Empty filmic spaces tell us as much about life and politics in East Germany as do the movies that made it to the Big Screen. I have often wondered, for instance, why the socialist film production company DEFA never made a live-action film based on “Hansel and Gretel.” DEFA pulled out most of the stops for other Brothers Grimm fairy tales favorites, like Red Riding Hood (dir. Götz Friedrich, 1962), and The Frog Prince (dir. Walter Beck, 1988). So what kept them from imagining a full-length movie version about two hungry siblings, a controlling stepmother, breadcrumbs, and a gingerbread house owned by an evil witch? There is, after all, much to love about the brother and sister team of Hansel and Gretel, who, chased away from home, wind up in an adorable cottage where the sister is in charge of fattening up her brother for the witch’s meal. Pathos, irony, murder, and a reminder to never, ever use edible objects to mark one’s way through the woods: this fairy tale had it all.
To be fair, the fairy tale did make its way to the Dresden animation studio as a 1975 hand puppet short feature. A year later, the comedic duo Rolf Herricht and Hans-Joachim Preil played the parts of Hansel and Gretel in a trailer for DEFA’s summer film line-up. In this brief version, the “children” encounter an attractive, singing witch, who wants nothing more than to lure them into the magical world of cinema during vacation. Perhaps part of the trailer’s cast made filmmakers nervous about any further mention of Hansel and Gretel. The witch was none other than the young Nina Hagen, who a few months later followed her expatriated stepfather Wolf Biermann from East Germany into the West and a successful record career.
But the Grimms’ fairy tales had staying power, enough to overcome even political intrigue. Given the line-up of DEFA fairy tale films, it seems more plausible that the story itself presented too many obstacles. Key parts of the tale would have proven difficult to change for a happy socialist ending, and DEFA filmmakers were most successful when they did not tinker too much with the general arc of the Grimms’ narratives. “Hansel and Gretel” is about a society marked by insufficient food supplies, parents who force their children out of the house and Gretel’s heroic saving of her brother by pushing the witch into the oven to burn to death.
These were not topics that could be transformed into a feel-good, socialist-humanist morality tale. Two desperate German children tricking an elderly woman in to a fiery death would have summoned unwelcome images of the Holocaust – an association that would have been impossible to ignore or treat lightly. The witch would have to be burned properly for the end to make any sense, as demonstrated by Rudolf Jugert’s forgettable 1971 West German production of the fairy tale. In that 8 mm version, a confusing blinking red light pulsed underneath an apparently cold oven, making it more of a convenient container in which to jail the witch instead of a place to turn her to ash. This was one part of the German national heritage that the East was willing to ignore. Still, “Hansel and Gretel” marks the top of many lists of DEFA movies that are noticeable for their absence. One wishes that DEFA might have given it a shot.
Gangs in Postwar West Germany. Sort of.
What is it about youth on the verge of disaster that makes for such compelling films? The best part of them, of course, comes with the inevitable sacrifice of one of the young protagonists, preferably a suicide or murder that – although useless for the individual in question – catalyzes the rest of the group (or the film audience) to see the error of these adolescent ways. If we can see all of this drama unfold in black and white, in the 1950s, in a West German production that was as much about postwar anxieties about youth as it was about caring what happened to young people, the film gets better before we even watch it. Give it a cool English title for export and those American GIs stationed in West Germany in the 1950s, and show it in retrospectives alongside its (much better made) East German parallel Berlin Ecke Schönhauser, and you have a film worthy of its would-be James Dean-like coolness, auf Deutsch.
I am talking, of course, about Die Halbstarken (dir. 1956, Georg Tressler), the West German production about a wanna-be gang of young people who get involved in the usual juvenile delinquency problems: unfair and rigid parents who will not admit that they have financial problems, let alone solve them; a disinherited son of said parents; sex and the dangerous promise of it; alcohol, including the timeless tradition of raiding the parents’ liquor cabinet; hip music and dancing; high-maintenance hair-cuts (for the young men – girls had it so much easier in the 1950s); the eternal search for the perfect leather jacket; a cash shortage related partially to the desperate need for a Big Car (a Buick, of course); gunfire; poorly-planned and dangerous shenanigans-cum-heists; and – most important – teenage boredom. A bonus is the lead hooligan, the actor Horst Buchholz (aka Henry Bookholt) as the gang leader Freddy, best known for his role in The Magnificent Seven. The unfortunate English titles are variously Teenage Wolfpack, Wolfpack, and, once in a great while, the more accurate Hooligans. The movie can be downloaded for free in German and English at the Internet Archive, and is the perfect film for fans of such movies as Blackboard Jungle and all things that are a memorial to James Dean, whether as part of a course on post-World War II Germany or Cinema of Divided Germany or sexuality or anyone who just really enjoys pop culture of the 1950s.
One of the key sites in this film is the city’s swimming pool – a public setting that allowed for a gathering of youth. This kind of public setting that seemed to be a harmless or at least neutral part of the built landscape was suddenly the domain of the Halbstarken. The teenagers at the pool smoke, harass the lifeguards, tease the girls. Other public areas include the gas station, where the protagonist of the story, Freddy, works when he and his boss can be bothered to allow this brief interaction with true wealth: gas-guzzling big cars that young men without connections or a decent robbery can only dream of. His buddies hang out there, watching expensive cars drive by on their way to assuredly exciting places. The kids drink Coca-Cola and eat “exotic” foreign treats like candy, talk about society in the most derogatory terms possible – and in a new, adolescent language that seems foreign to adults around them – express their hopes and fears, both in rebellion of and embrace of a new modernity. The ultimate public space becomes the “Espresso” club, where these young good-for-nothings can dance, drink alcohol, and be in charge of their world: Adults fade into the background.
In this film, the role of girls among boys, but also boys among boys, is particularly interesting: peers become a reason to show off, to get in trouble, and to drag others around them into situations that they have a hard time getting out of. Thus, the very same society that the Halbstarken want to leave behind them looks eerily like their own society, where people go along with other people in the interest of fitting in, almost consciously ignoring the frightening everyday life and consequences for their actions that they have created for themselves. Ultimately, members who get out of this society find themselves confronted with it violently – more violently than any adults could have imagined for the teenagers – and are forced to “grow up” in the face of a society whose morals are, at least here, at best ambivalent.
But why do we care so much about this era? To begin, the 1950s offered a new age in West German, and thus Cold War, history. With the introduction of a new currency in West Germany (the Federal Republic) in 1948 (replacing the Reichsmark with the Deutsche Mark), the financial aid package “Marshall Plan” funded by the United States, and a joint US and West German priority of bringing the country out of its postwar social and economic destruction, West Germany was in the midst of its “Economic Miracle” years – a term often used by outside observers and Germans themselves. A new consumer culture had evolved, with a stress on the return to a traditional nuclear family, with a working father and a stay-at-home mother (see Robert Moeller’s book on the subject, Protecting Motherhood: Women and the Family in the Politics of Postwar West Germany). Commodities such as new kitchen appliances, fashion, evenings out (including at the cinema) and cars marked a decided public sense of having left the Second World War behind. Travel, too, was a key part of this era, marked especially by the Volkswagen Beetle – which also helped enable a near manic-desire for West Germans to travel (for more on this topic, look at Rudy Koshar’s German Travel Cultures). It was not unusual to see a packed VW of family or friends descend upon a Spanish beach just for the weekend.
But such periods of a seeming utopia also have other, darker sides. Not everyone can be part of the miracle, and some people do not want to be. West German adolescents comprised one of the most important group of outsiders, sometimes excluded, and other times simply disgusted by, the appearance of a society that had “made it.” Indeed, adolescents became one of the most important participants in this new society: some young people embraced a consumer culture that they could now afford; others refused to part of that society and developed their own sub-culture, referred to by the adults around them (and seldom themselves) and as”Halbstarken,” or “Hooligans.”
“Hooligans” (although better than the movie’s English translation, which brings up images of Nazi werewolf movements or animal viciousness in general) is perhaps an unfair translation, since it connotes people who are interested only in getting whatever they want, at any cost, with a palpable desire to leave destruction – or at least defacing of public and private property – in their wake, and without a political or even consciously social agenda. The Halbstarken might better be described as a post-World War II “lost generation,” with some roots in the interwar lost generation years that provided little meaningful existence for young people. The Halbstarken-Hooligans had a political and social agenda: the protesting of what appeared to be a hypocritical, bourgeois society that allowed no criticism, and certainly allowed no open discussion of the sudden disappearance of all mentions of the Nazi period.
The Halbstarken wanted meaning in their lives, and they found it in their subculture of – literally – their bodies. Fist-fights dominated many Halbstarken activities, part of an attempt to both reject and threaten the “peaceful” culture of traditional society. In fighting each other, they let it be known that they were ready to fight others, and not only metaphorically. In common perceptions, at least, violent fights between police officers and these young people were daily news in most large cities; teachers complained of their disruptive behavior in class (if the students even showed up), and many a politician put it on his or her agenda to “deal with” these young people for once and for all. The public feared the potential aggression of these young people, believing Halbstarken of perhaps not only creating chaos but also destabilizing the government and the regime.
Still, what we see with this movie is a kind of Bildungsroman, an attempt to find meaning in life without responsible adult or traditional societal directives. Perhaps ironically, these sorts of inner voyages cannot truly be separated from the very society that a subculture rejects. The Halbstarken had a “uniform” of their own – leather, denim, slicked back pompadours – all iconic symbols that defined the group for each other and for the “insiders.” It is thus not surprising that, ultimately, the identities of these young people eventually transitioned into their participation in traditional society, with university studies, jobs, and families. That is to say, there could be no sequel to Die Halbstarken that would not be a boring and disappointing follow-up of teenagers turning into their own bourgeois parents. No wonder we cling to these heroes and heroines who were not afraid, to the point of folly, to ridicule the very cinema audience watching them.
For a German discussion of using this film in teaching, see Michael Kraus’s curriculum suggestions auf Deutsch.