Wall flowers

East German youth navigate nihilism and naturalism.

Those crazy kids in Germany just couldn’t get enough of the juvenile delinquency flicks Hollywood exported to Europe in the late-’50s. And when Blackboard Jungle triggered riots in West Berlin, the reverberations resounded all the way over on the other side of the wall.

East Germany was so smitten, it even incorporated its own ostensibly Socialist spin on J.D.-mania into a homegrown cinema that emerged in the GDR around this time. Known as Berlinfilms, these gritty, documentary-like dramas were styled after the Italian neorealism of Rosselini and De Sica — and even though they were careful not to step on too many toes (you could count on nearly every Berlinfilm to dutifully supply a denouement finding reason to criticize the West), these movies were a bold first step away from the tediously preachy Socialist-Realist cinema of Stalin.

Director Gerhard Klein and screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhasse were responsible for some of the better Berlinfilms, with one of their key collaborations being Berlin-Schönhauser Corner. Although the film might strike some modern viewers mostly notable as a cultural curiosity or even as slightly hokey, it’s easy to see why Communist party functionaries took the movie and its “nihilist” tendencies so seriously back in the day. The film’s portrait of vaguely alienated East German teens may seem rather tame nowadays, but it stands in stark contrast to the party’s official ideal of helpful, focused and eternally optimistic Socialist youth.

The kids in Berlin-Schönhauser Corner spend their days hanging out at the titular junction, jiving to rock ’n’ roll and engaging in periodic, semi-spontaneous acts of petty vandalism. The grown-up’s aren’t much better, and some are just as lost as their children — embodied here by a single mom locked in an unhealthy relationship with a married man. The movie compensates with a strong moral center in the form of at least one adult voice of reason, but this particular role model is of course too conspicuously positive and “square” for the kids to heed, at least until the film’s final act.

The movie’s young hero is Dieter (played by Ekkehard Schall, Bertolt Brecht’s son-in-law), a rebel without a cause who loves his motorcycle more than his girlfriend (a pony-tailed vision in toreador pants and a bullet bra). Dieter eventually gets involved in a murder that causes him to flee to the West, a faux-promised land revealed as a grim, Orwellian prison when the kid winds up in a capitalist “re-education camp” where he’s threatened by thugs with big sticks. “You’ll learn what freedom is!” they snarl at him, and this a full half century before Abu Ghraib.
The plot sometimes verges on melodrama, but the tone and specific details of Berlin-Schönhauser Corner feel alive and strangely authentic, a unique fusion of Socialist time capsule, proto-rock dreams and dirty-dishes-in-the-sink vérité. The black-and-white cinematography looks fresh and gutsy on this new DVD from First Run Features (the latest in their ongoing line devoted to East German cinema), and Wolgang Kohlhasse himself shows up on the disc’s big extra, a 38-minute interview. Full of humor and juicy anecdotes, the screenwriter addresses his symbiotic relationship with the image-savvy but poorly read Klein, his admiration for neorealism and the film’s history and reception.

Kohlhasse turns up again as the writer and co-director of Solo Sunny (also on DVD from First Run), a latter-day Berlinfilm that was a huge hit in East Germany in 1980 and is still regarded as a major pop culture phenomenon. Renate Krossner (Go for Zucker) stars as Sunny, a flamboyantly neurotic free spirit who sleeps with whomever she likes, “calls a pig a pig” and throws out her laundry rather than waste her time washing it. An aspiring singer in a roving troupe that’s part jazz-rock-funk fusion band and part Weimar cabaret (complete with a creepy master of ceremonies), Sunny hides her deeply rooted insecurities under some truly atrocious late-’70s fashions and a self-possessed demeanor that swings between charming and obnoxious.

Essentially a series of snapshots of a life (as well as of a time and place), Solo Sunny follows Krossner’s character as she performs a series of less-than-inspiring gigs, takes up with a saxophone-playing philosopher (and then lashes out at him for practicing the same free love that she preaches), gets fired from her band, attempts suicide and begins a painful recovery process. Blending performances and backstage drama, the film’s loosely constructed naturalism owes more than a little to Robert Altman’s ’70s output, a body of work that Krossner would have been perfect for.

With a face that’s glamorous one instant and plain to the point of ugliness the next, Krossner’s Sunny is the ultimate artiste as enigma (in a society inhospitable to both). It’s never even clear if she’s a genuine talent or just another impostor looking for a way to pass the time in East Berlin, but either way, Solo Sunny gives us a heroine so engaging that we don’t realize how damaged she is till she’s wormed her way into our hearts.

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