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.