Under the Rubble of Pop Culture - Youth in German Cinema
by Christian Buß
Youth is not only a condition. It is also a product: a product that has been marketed mainly by the big music broadcasters. VIVA and MTV defined their youthful clientele's attitude towards life by producing the appropriate media models. Quite often, German cinema limits itself to reproducing this value adding iconography. The recent crisis of music television might therefore be seen as an opportunity for German cinema to create different images of youth. Maybe that is why we now see film productions in which the representation of youth as administered by VIVA and MTV is being undermined, converted or even totally destroyed. For under the rubble of youth culture lies – youth culture!
Love, Respect, Revolution
"Status Yo!" (2004) by director Till Hastreiter deals with this topic in the most radical way. In his HipHop drama, he follows teenage sprayers, breakdancers and MCs through the neighborhoods of Berlin-Friedrichshain and Berlin-Mitte, telling the story of their struggles for love, respect and self-realization. All actors are lay actors and Hastreiter allows them to speak their own language and presents them as heroes of everyday life. The director, who once was a HipHop artist too, organizes the emerging plethora of film material like a DJ organizes his vinyl: He remixes it into a somewhat different Symphony of the City. He tested reactions in front of relevant audiences in youth centers and multiplex cinemas and repeatedly re-edited his work. In this way – far from the usual market ploys – he consistently designed "Status Yo!" according to the needs and perceptions of his young audience.
Similarly uncompromising, although more theatrical, is Neco Celik's film "Urban Guerillas" (2003): Born in turkey and raised in Berlin-Kreuzberg, Neco Celik talks about growing up in the multi-ethnic streets of Berlin; he deals with the HipHop techniques of self-presentation against the background of a quasi-documentary type of filmed reality. In this way, audience and film heroes come together as close as possible – without the story ever losing its dramatic dimension.
Hans Weingartner's film "Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei" ("The Edukators", 2004) also embarks on this strategy: a coming-of-age-story which talks about the re-politicization of youth in an equally stringent as well as light-handed manner. Weingartner's protagonists speak the idiom of globalization adversaries – but behind these revolutionary platitudes there are complex characters who arrive at an attitude despite the surrounding chaos of diffuse emotions and a feeling of political powerlessness. The film "The Edukators" is a cheerful anti-capitalist pamphlet, in which the film director uses the youth culture iconography propagated by VIVA and MTV for his own purposes. In this clutter of signs and ideologies, he searches for identity – and allows his heroes to find one. No trace of arbitrariness there.
An Obstacle Course of Trials and Embarrassments
Struggling for one's own place as well as for sexual, social and political identity in particular are the main concerns of adolescence. Strangely enough, German cinema just recently considered the idea that young people could enjoy watching other young people's identification process. In US cinema the teenager had been established as a protagonist in a highly successful cinema segment at the beginning of the 1980s with the various high school comedies of John Hughes ("Breakfast Club"), whereas German cinema presented youth mainly as a subject of pedagogical concern. Only a few years ago, German film producers came to discover the narrative and commercial potential that is embedded in the difficult to define stage between childhood and adulthood. The success of an obscure US teenage comedy like "American Pie" that attracted an audience of over six million viewers in Germany might have fired up the imagination of some investors. Youth suddenly became mainstream in German cinema – with all its positive and negative effects. On the one hand, there were films like Hans-Christian Schmid's "Crazy" (2000), in which the protagonists are forced through an obstacle course of trials and embarrassments in order to go through a healing process of self-assurance. On the other hand, films like "Harte Jungs" ("Ants in the Pants", 2000), only serve the purpose to ridicule teenagers by reducing them to the uncontrollable flow of their bodily fluids.
Norm and the Pleasure of Deviation
Adolescence is a phase in life, when one desires to fulfil the norm, but also has to learn to value one's own distinctiveness. Dealing with this basic conflict generates a comical or dramatic surplus. The arrangement with one's own body, often experienced as strange if not imperfect, is narrated in quite different ways in German productions of the recent teenage film wave: Dennis Gansel's film "Mädchen, Mädchen" (2001), for example, is the female version of "American Pie" and describes – even coarser than the original – the experimentation with weird stimulants. What apple pie is for the guys, is a bike saddle for the girls. Sex education by means of popcorn cinema. Still, at the end we all learn that in sex everything is permitted as long as it is fun.
Maria von Heland shot her film "Große Mädchen weinen nicht" (2002) with a deeper understanding of the psycho-social accompaniments of women's puberty. In this adolescence thriller the female protagonists develop not only a consciousness of their sexuality but also a consciousness for the politics of sexuality that governs the world of adults. A feeling of strangeness, both within one's own body and within one's own milieu, is the point of departure for all initiation stories. In this way, the better films dealing with youth and adolescence often tend to present a cartographic image of the immediate environment of their protagonists. In "alaska.de" (2000) Esther Gronenborn portrays a neighborhood of pre-fabricated tower blocks with a documentary sense for detail equal to Züli Aladağ's boxer melodrama "Elefantenherz" ("Elephant Heart", 2002) with its dreary gray of the Ruhr region. What distinguishes both films is their precise description of the psycho-economic conditions the juvenile heroes have to cope with.
The Teenage Sociotope as a Wasteland of Meaning
Meanwhile, in some of the best coming-of-age studies, the protagonists appear as if they were cut directly out of the adult world. In these narrative field studies there are no signs of diplomacy and politics, and destructive impulses unfold with a deadly force. Henner Winckler's "Klassenfahrt" ("School Trip", 2002), for example, is a sparse travel report of the inside of a completely normal young delinquent, whose lethargic behavior which includes anything from table tennis to frustrated drinking binges suddenly changes into a murderous scenario. Here adolescence is a wasteland of meaning, which apparently can only be overcome by acts of violence. A similar story is told by Achim von Borries, whose set design for "Was nützt die Liebe in Gedanken" ("Love in Thoughts", 2004) is a veritable show of strength. The film reconstructs the historical case of a fatal suicide pact: In a country house around Berlin at the end of the 1920s, some young people plan their own suicide during booze ups, romantic simulations, dancing to swing and strangely modern looking attempts of scratching records on the gramophone. Here, the teenage sociotope becomes an autonomous area, where pedagogical interpretations and advice remain fruitless. So youth remains – like current German cinema as a whole – its own vast field, that keeps up its enigmatic stance.