Appellate Judge James A. Stewart wouldn't join a young Communist group. He's glad to know that makes him a rebel.
"Where you won't find us, you'll find our enemies."
That's a quote from an East German policeman in Berlin-Schönhauser Corner (Berlin-Ecke Schönhauser). In 1957, when the movie was made, East Berliners could still travel across the border to see movies. Films like Blackboard Jungle "had caused a number of riots in West German cities," the text essay on the movie says, and East Berliners were tasting the freedom youth movies hinted at.
How do you reach teens who want this freedom stuff and turn their fancies to Socialism? With movies from DEFA, the East German film arm, of course. The filmmaker here was Gerhard Klein, who directed the "Berlin films," which captured the "poetry of daily life." He and screenwriter Wolfgang Kolhaase created a movie which shows that the freedoms of the West that young people craved weren't all they were cracked up to be.
It didn't convince me that all those East German police officers around every corner were really wonderful people. Still, Berlin-Schönhauser Corner might be nostalgic for East Germans of a certain age. It's the latest in the DEFA Film Library series from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Facts of the Case
"You're a good worker, a good man, but evenings you play tough," a co-worker tells Dieter (Ekkehard Schall, In The Dust of the Stars). The co-worker's recruiting for a young Communist group, but Dieter will have none of it. He'd prefer to hang out on the Schonhauser corner with his buds, even when he has to deal with the occasional trip to the police station because someone broke a streetlight.
He's been getting out of trouble so far, with the help of a brother in the police force, but luck's running out for him and Kohle when a friend gets involved with a fake ID operation. A confrontation with the friend sends Dieter and Kohle on the run—to the West.
Where should I begin? Maybe at the beginning, since the music over the credits is almost a waltz. Wouldn't rock 'n' roll be more appropriate for a movie about young people in trouble, even in East Germany? The music jazzes up a little bit as the movie goes on, but could never be called rockin'.
It's also hard to believe these young people as layabouts when they're so polite and the boys wear jackets and ties. It seems that Dieter's only real crime, until he's actually threatened with a gun and defends himself, is not joining a Communist group. As I watched, I rooted for him to keep defying authority, not to buckle under and become a good Communist. I'd like to think any young East Germans who saw this back in 1957 felt the same way.
Among the movie's assertions are that defection is the last refuge of criminals, that the reason East Germans who defect don't come back is that the West Germans don't let them, and that gangs of bullies await the East Germans who go over. In the scenes that depict the sins of the parents to show why their kids turned out badly, a wistful longing to cross the border is equated with adultery and beating up your kid.
There's lots of unintended comedy, but I can't fault the direction—the movie captures East Berlin every bit as beautifully as The Naked City captured 1940s New York City—or the acting. The shadows that run through the movie have a noirish feel. Even if he's not really allowed to be tough, Ekkehard Schall, the son-in-law of Bertolt Brecht, shows promise as an actor and screen presence. The movie also gave Ilse Pagé, a popular West German actress, a career start in the role of Dieter's girlfriend Angela. It may be propaganda, but it's done well.
One of the extras really baffled me. While the 38-minute short, "Kohlhaase on Klein," undoubtedly had a lot of insight into the work of Gerhard Klein, what it did not have was subtitles. If you can speak German, it might be worthwhile, though. An essay on the film and biographies of the director, screenwriter, and leads, being in English, were useful.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Berlin-Schönhauser Corner may seem campy today, it also has a lot of images of East Berlin life, from the tiny apartments to the construction site where the workers find an unexploded bomb.
Perhaps the East Germans wanted to leak this film to the West, to convince the authorities and others that anyone who wanted to defect was a layabout or criminal.
The weirdest thing is that, even though it toes the party line, Berlin-Schönhauser Corner was still banned eventually.
This can be taken as both an excellent example of filmmaking and a piece of unintended camp. It's not for most casual viewers, but I'm glad it's around. For anyone studying the Cold War era, Berlin-Schönhauser Corner and other DEFA releases are valuable resources, both as examples of propaganda and as records of everyday life in East Germany.
Not guilty. The defendant is free to go—even to defect to West
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• "Kohlhaase on Klein"
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