Losing a Guardian Angel

The film poster for "Bockshorn"

The film poster for “Bockshorn”

What would you do if a creepy man in a bar claimed that he had sold your guardian angel – but could get it back to you for a price? If you are Mick, the older of the two boys living on the street, you might be wise to this trickster “Landolfi” and tell him to get lost. If you are the young Sauly, you might be confused that he knew your name (Mick’s “He overheard it!” does not convince you) and begin to wonder whether you had been living without a guardian angel all this time. It would explain a lot for two homeless boys trying to figure out how to get to the beach. Sure, they’re pretty clever and know how to survive – but is that enough?

Mick and Sauly (filmportal)

Mick and Sauly (filmportal)

Frank Beyer‘s 1983 film Bockshorn (Taken for a Ride) – tells the story of two boys’ adventures hitchhiking through a fictive country that looks suspiciously like America and Cuba. They let themselves get tricked (ins Bockshorn jagen lassen) into Landolfi’s attempt to punish them for rejecting his favors. Although they had wanted to make it to the beach, Sauly becomes literally sick with the thought that he might be missing a guardian angel, so they go off to look for it in the town of Prince. Mick, trying to solve the riddle of this guardian angel story, tries desperately to find the Mr. Miller who supposedly bought the angel from Landolfi. The joke is on him, since everyone in the town is named Miller and no one has a clue about angels, real or imagined. The boys continue on their way, Sauly gets sicker and Mick is at his wits’ end. They track down Landolfi, but even his incredulity that they would have believed such an absurd story is not enough to turn their fate around. Sauly, still longing for a guardian angel, uses his last energy to try and attack Landolfi, but falls to this death.

Sauly attacking Landolfi (filmportal.net)

Sauly attacking Landolfi (filmportal.net)

If Sauly’s tragic death seems to be the result of a con man’s evil sense of humor, we would not be so moved by the poetics and larger moral tale of the film. In some ways, Sauly and Mick had both lost their guardian angels long ago when they wound up homeless. Although they try to look out for one another, they are ultimately only two children faced with a world that does not want them. Mick is not old enough to be a father figure for Saul and himself both; the few adults who want to help them turn out either to be scheming against them or not entirely trustworthy. In the family town of Prince, not a single Mr. Miller takes them in. On a farm, the family offers to let them stay in exchange for back-breaking work for Mick. The disappointment turns the film title’s warning into an ominous foreshadowing. There is no reason to think that Sauly would have lived happily ever after had he not been bullied about by Landolfi in the bar; the problem is that he and Mick were in a place where there was no one to care for them. It is more than a road movie, despite some characterizations of it as such. Hitchhiking is not child’s play, and their initial good luck at tricking adults out of money and food does not make them good candidates for the open road. They did not have a family or home, a situation they are confronted with at every turn when everyone else seems to have one, whether biological or a family of like-minded friends. That is the real tragedy, and one that is not new to the twentieth century. Homeless children are not safe in or from society, and there is nothing they can do but hope the next truck driver who stops for them is honest and will get them to the beach. They had been tricked long before they met Landolfi – they had no escape for a life in which the search for a guardian angel is their best hope of survival.

War Orphans in Film – No Happy Endings

Of all of the post-World War II films that addressed the problems of orphaned children, the Hungarian film Valahol Európában (Somewhere in Europe, also known as It Happened in Europe, 1947) elicited the most shocked public outcry about the youngest victims of the war. Directed by Géza Radványi, who wrote the screenplay with writer Béla BalazsSomewhere in Europe continued with the filmic trope of pointing unrelenting, accusing fingers at the adults who had allowed the onset of a war (i.e. pretty much everyone) that continued to punish young people long after the last shots had been fired and bombs had been dropped in Europe. Unlike the films Somehwere in Berlin (Irgendwo in Berlin, dir. Gerhard Lamprecht, 1946, DEFA/Germany) or Germany in the Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero, dir. Roberto Rossellini, 1948, France/Germany/Italy), Radványi’s work focused on war orphans themselves, instead of employing children as part of a larger plot about societal renewal. Somewhere in Europe is a cry of anguish, not a lesson on shame or the politics of reconstruction.

cropped-hanging.jpg

Screenshot of children attempting to hang the conductor in “Somewhere in Europe.”

Radványi positions a group of wandering children who find their way to an abandoned castle against the adults of the surrounding village who gleefully shoot at – and in one case kill – the “juvenile delinquents” who steal food and supplies in order to (barely) survive. He does not pretend that the children are innocents; indeed, he highlights the ways in which the war and its end pushed young people into criminal acts. Most haunting is perhaps the scene at the castle where the children decide to hang the once-famous conductor who also resides there. When the slightly older leader of the group, Peter, stops them from killing the older man, he asks what motivated them to want to execute another war refugee. The answer: “For fun.” These are children who have learned not only to fend for themselves, but to imitate the behavior of the adults they have encountered, and who abandoned them.

Radványi offers a supposedly happy end for everyone. The local villagers realize that they should be helping the children instead of treating them like the enemy; the children wash their dirty faces and put on suddenly clean clothes and happily wave from their castle – officially now theirs – to the conductor as he heads off across the green pastures of Hungary towards, one presumes, a rekindling of his musical career. I find this “happy ending” rather unhappy and troubling. Forgetting the fact that, in hindsight, the castle would likely have been nationalized in the next years, we are still left with a group of children who have no means of feeding themselves. There is no garden in sight, and the larder of meat left by the conductor will run out at some point. True, the villagers have recognized the errors of their ways. But for how long? There is no talk of caring adults looking after the children’s well-being, or even feeding them. When do the children start pillaging again? The castle is not an orphanage. It is at best a temporary solution, one well-suited to the needs of the time, that is, to find a place where children could be forgotten, at least temporarily.

Screenshot of wandering orphans in "Somewhere in Europe"

Screenshot of wandering orphans in “Somewhere in Europe”

I do not think that Radványi or Balazs intended for their audiences to take away this other message of accusation; the story of war orphans, however, had few happy ends in any postwar society. Somewhere in Europe, in this sense, unconsciously documents this second act of tragedy, in which adults learn to feel solace that children can be saved – from themselves and from their experiences. It is only a temporary salvation; not even a fairy tale would know how to fix this tragedy. If this reason is not enough to bring Somewhere in Berlin more fully into international scholarship and history and film studies classrooms (it has excellent English subtitles, since the United Nations supported the postwar international distribution of the film, helped along by such politicos as the then-French president Auriol Frack and his Dior-clad wife exclaiming that this was a “must-see” film), then the curious use of the nineteenth-century American melody of the folk tune “O Susanna” that the children sing-shout in the castle would surely peak anyone’s curiosity.

Gangs in Postwar West Germany. Sort of.

cropped-teenage_wolfpack_poster_02.jpg 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), DVDCoverDieHalbstarkenthe 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 WolfpackWolfpack, 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. 

Food, Love, and Fairy Tale Films

Screenshot, "How to Marry a King"

Wedding Banquet, “How to Marry a King”

This still is from the East German fairy tale film How to Marry a King (Wie heiratet man einen König) from 1968, directed by Rainer Simon. It is a good example of the Janus-faced approach that the German Democratic Republic had regarding its films, especially those guaranteed to attract a young audience: On the one hand, the Ministry for Culture praised this film’s attention to detail, from the medieval castle and court set to the division between royalty and “the people.” On the other hand, socialist functionaries complained that young people would miss the subtlety of a king and queen struggling to make sense of love and passion as a means of making sense of the world around them. What particularly worried the powers-that-be was the lengthy banquet scene – reports before the premiere insisted again and again that children would be bored watching the couple eat.

How wrong the critics were – a good feast was and is a treat for the eyes and imaginations of young and old audiences alike. The sheer variety of the dozens upon dozens of dishes, from stuffed pig to exotic fruits make for mouth-watering scenes, must have provided audiences in a country not known for its abundance of food a hint of what could be. Before the Happy Ending comes, a fairy tale must stop several times along the way, and a good banquet for royalty is a satisfying test of the couple’s ability to get along. Does one need to understand the erotic undertones of the King (played by the theater actor Eberhard Esche) placing a cherry on a point of the Queen’s (Cox Habbema) crown to smile at their playfulness? Would a child not be able to laugh at the Royal Couple teasing each other with food?  It is not quite a scene from the cafeteria lunch room, but the use of mealtimes to grab the attention of a cute girl or boy is hardly an adult invention. How much more satisfying – for adults and children – to watch a couple begin a relationship by trying not to spill wine on each other than to see them kissing (too obvious and boring for the grown-ups; too icky for youngsters to suffer through).

Perhaps, though, socialist functionaries were more worried about the food on the Royal Couple’s table than about viewers’ attention spans. Nowhere in the film is there a suggestion that the Royal Couple is evil for having access to seemingly all the food in the world. Nor do any peasants watching the banquet appear to harbor ill-well towards those with more of, well, everything. After leaving the darkened cinema with its sense of magic and possibility, would East German audience members be able to imbue their rather more modest evening meal with passion, fun, even flavor? Love in the time of socialism was certainly attainable – but for most East Germans, it would not be accompanied by a wedding banquet of excess. The film’s popularity and the Ministry for Culture’s dissatisfaction with it might have been two sides of the same Royal Coin: the East German population watched a utopia that still seemed within reach, while the modern-day rulers knew that such dreams, even in 1968, would never come true. How to Marry a King, then, offered the wrong rewards for a socialist Happy End. Exotic foods would never be part of even the most ambitious five-year plans.