East German ennui never sounded so good to Judge Bill Gibron.
We are very closed, culturally. Sure, there are all these pronouncements about how technologically connected and open we are in this nu-world post-millennial market, but the cold hard fact remains that we know little of the struggles and significance such elements as music, movies, and other forms of entertainment had on the indigenous population of the rest of the planet. Even worse, we are so wound up in our own travails that we can't fathom that others around the globe share our passion, our pipe dreams, and our pain. This is especially true of the nations caught behind the Iron Curtain, Eastern Bloc bastions that were isolated and insular thanks to strict, domineering Soviet expansionism. Yet within these restrictive, repressive regimes, artists continued to create. Proof of this exists in the fascinating East Germany documentary Whisper & SHOUT! As much an overview of the punk/glam/new wave scene of the late '80s as a political screed, it's an instructive and illustrative guide about what it took to be a rocker within a less than free domain.
The set-up is devastatingly simple—we follow several bands as they rehearse, tour, and take on the day-to-day struggles of mock rebellion in an oppressive regime. At one point, a member of the group Feeling B marvels about the day he learned you could get "certification" to "perform live." That's right, as he makes a meager broth in the back of his dilapidated van, he explains the baffling bureaucracy that gave government approval to what some might see as anti-Communist radicals. In another telling moment, hair metal lite glam rockers Silly struggle with the definition of "success." One argues its playing to appreciative fans all throughout the small villages and venues in their homeland. Others claim it's about being on the pop charts. Then one surprisingly thoughtful member suggests it could be both. This suddenly shifts the post-performance mood in the room from pleasant to pensive. As they ponder the significance of the statement, the female lead singer smiles. "Yeah, but this crowd was shit" she laughs.
All throughout, bands like Sandow, This Pop Generation, Chicorée, and Die Firma offer up sonic snippets of their work, and for the most part, we can see the sense of compromise involved. There is no cocky confrontation a la The Sex Pistols or The Clash (as with most musical movements, this part of the world seems a good decade behind the times) while the message can vary from "life sucks" to "love sucks." What seems to be missing—or maybe the translation from German to English is misinterpreting—is a sense of conflict. Many of the groups in Whisper & SHOUT! seem resolved to an existence where fame and fortune are dictated by a Party Member in Moscow. They don't challenge the status quo so much as bristle against it once in a while, only to slink back to their spandex and torn jeans. Certainly, as the documentary wears on, we get the distinct impression of artists being stifled, their creativity and its potential outlet obviously limited by political ideology. Still, it would have been nice for this DVD to add some sort of addendum. It would be interesting to see what happened once the Berlin Wall came down and suddenly, something like Silly had access to the entire global stage and not just their own unique part of it.
As for the disc itself, First Run Features delivers a definitive transfer that does a good job of hiding many of the movie's low budget, 16mm elements. The 1.33:1 image does have lots of grain, and some age issues, but overall, we get a very good, very watchable picture. As for the sound, it's thin and tinny, but not at all unlistenable. The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is unquestionably the victim of ancient recording technology, and the band sequences can sound like a muddle of fuzz and fury. As for added features, the DVD does offer text-based information on the bands featured (lists of members and discographies), as well as the filmmakers. Again, something other than the standard bio stuff would have been nice.
About two thirds of the way through the film, we are privy to backstage conversation where various band members discuss their careers and career options. One's content being a chimney sweep. The other loves working as an apprentice cabinetmaker (unless his boss is angry or upset, that is). Oddly enough, none seem settled on the idea of being rock stars. Perhaps that's the most telling element of Whisper & SHOUT! In the West, youth are free to dream, no matter how outlandish or impossible their desires may be. But in the East Germany of the late 80s, there was no such luxury. Everyone had to be practical and part of the collective goal, even if all you wanted to do was ROCK! This fine documentary illustrates that effortlessly.
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