Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
First Run Films' fascinating series of East German DEFA (Deutsche Film) films from the Communist era continue to fascinate, unearthing new revelations about life, movies and censorship behind the Iron Curtain. Touted as the East German answer to Rebel Without a Cause, 1957's Berlin-Schönhauser Corner certainly lives up to the comparison. Teenagers hang out at a key street corner, only to see their efforts at individualistic expression confounded by disapproval from all quarters, including the police.
Although far more realistic than typical East German propaganda, Berlin-Schönhauser Corner has a definite, well-handled collectivist message. Finally fed up with his brother's disinterest in joining an approved youth association, one character expresses it all: "What's the matter with you? We're trying to build socialism here!" Like many truly creative East German pictures, the authorities initially suppressed Gerhard Klein's teenage epic, until art critics campaigned for its release. It became one of the most popular DEFA releases ever.
A group of disaffected teens hanging out under an elevated train overpass do a poor job of dealing with their problems. Construction worker Dieter (Ekkehard Schall) has a chip on his shoulder because his older brother is a policeman, and refuses go join a worker's club. He'd rather pursue the young and attractive Angela (Ilse Pagé). Angela spends her evenings on the street because her widowed mother is entertaining her boss in their apartment, hoping that he'll divorce his wife and marry her. Young Kohle (Ernst-George Schwill) courts official disapproval to slip over to the Western sector to see violent American movies. His drunk of a father gives him regular beatings. Finally, Karl-Heinz (Harry Engel) is far along the road to becoming a full-fledged criminal. He steals ID cards for West German gangsters and tries to ensnare Dieter in various crooked schemes. Karl-Heinz's parents secretly despise the East German system and are conducting illicit business of their own with the West. Already confused and misguided, Dieter and Kohle get in a violent fight, panic, and bolt for West Germany. They fall into the hands of "asylum counselors" who run a prison-like clearinghouse for young defectors, hoping to glean information damaging to the Communist government.
The parallels between Berlin-Schönhauser Corner and Hollywood's teen pix of 1957 make the show fascinating viewing. The commie kids have next to nothing but share the same complexes and nervous energy as their capitalist counterparts. If they're lucky, they might have a bicycle. They frequent rough dance halls to rock out to officially discouraged music, but nobody has a record collection or even a radio. They instead dance on the concrete under the elevated train, making their own music by humming and clapping. Passers-by glare at them in disapproval. When kids are this eager to live, we can't help but sympathize with them.
Berlin-Schönhauser Corner is a social problem film not that far removed from American TV 'issue' dramas of the 1950s. A main character is a stern but caring policeman (Raimund Schelcher) who tries to motivate the kids into staying out of trouble. The main problem is not that society is bad (no East German film would ever say such a thing) but that the kids just haven't awakened to the glories of a worker's society. But there are no long propaganda speeches per se. Instead, the screenplay puts its lessons into action. Dieter thinks that communal solidarity is a drag, and he gives his policeman brother a hard time for being a sell-out. Dieter doesn't want to join the worker's social club, but his instincts are good: his fast thinking averts a possibly deadly accident on the job.
Hardship is also to blame. Angela's mother is having a tawdry affair with a married man, foolishly thinking that he'll become a new father for Angela, and provide for them both. Instead, mother's poor example inspires Angela to 'go all the way' with Dieter, with predictable consequences.
But the lion's share of the fault goes to those gangsters and spy-provocateurs in the "decadent" West side of Berlin. Without making a single speech, the film shows Karl-Heinz corrupted by piratical thieves and murderers. They eventually entice him into playing the fall guy in a violent swindle. Karl-Heinz in turn compromises both Dieter and Kohle, getting them both in trouble with the law. When Karl-Heinz pulls a gun, the boys end up as refugee-prisoners in a house run by West German spies. The inmates prey on one another while the headmaster's behavior is highly suspect; a "counselor" is a thin-lipped intellectual analogous to the monstrous Nazis in old Hollywood pictures. The place is littered with decadent Western girlie magazines! As the loving police advisor warned them back in East Berlin, anybody who does business in the West puts themself in peril; only one of the three boys will come back alive.
Berlin-Schönhauser Corner posits a sinister espionage system at work in the West but makes no mention whatsoever of the dreaded STASI, the ruthlessly inhuman East German secret police examined in the superb film The Lives of Others. We'd think that the kids pictured in this picture would all be rounded up and sent to work camps! The irony is that the inflexible, paranoid East German culture ministry saw Berlin-Schönhauser Corner only as a problem picture. The official government position was juvenile delinquency didn't exist in the social paradise of East Germany, and therefore couldn't be portrayed in a film, no matter what the reason. Trying to do anything artistically worthwhile -- even in support of socialist-democratic standards -- must have produced frustration on an epic level.
Gerhard Klein's direction is spirited and creative, showing a good eye for East Germany's less-than-beautiful city streets. To his credit, no particular visual contrast is offered with the West. Some of the teens look to be in their mid-twenties, which only makes the film look more like its American counterparts. Ekkehard Schall is expressive as the conflicted rebel, while Isle Pagé is perfect Deutsche Date-Bait in a sweater and ponytail. Berlin-Schönhauser Corner isn't a camp embarrassment, but a solid drama that lets us see intelligent filmmaking trying to break through in a stifling environment. And hey, we all want to build a better society, even if a socialist dictatorship isn't what we have in mind.
First Run Films' DVD of Berlin-Schönhauser Corner is a quality transfer and encoding of a smartly produced show. The careful B&W photography looks great, especially in the many low-key night-for-night scenes. An accompanying text essay gives a thoughtful history of the politics behind the production and near-suppression of this East German teen classic. An interview extra features screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase talking at length about his director Klein and working conditions in the German Democratic Republic in the late 1950s.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Berlin-Schönhauser Corner rates:
Video: Very Good ++
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Text Essay and Filmographies, Interview docu Kohlhasse on Klein
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 30, 2008
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson
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