Alexandra Seibel

In April of 1956, a West German film production company organized a discussion panel that set out to negotiate a fervent question. The question was directed toward Berlin's postwar youth, printed on red billboards throughout the city: ''Are you really like this?'' "This" meant deviant, delinquent, or dangerous.

The actual reason for posing the question at this particular time was the promotional campaign that had just started for Georg Tressler's teen movie Die Halbstarken (West Germany, 1956). Even before its completion, the film gained special attention with the public, not least because of the title ''Halbstarke'' and its pejorative association with rebellious youth, considered a social problem since public awareness for juvenile delinquency—not unlike the moral panics about juvenile delinquency in the U.S.—hadbeen generated by media reports which exaggerated youth culture as deviant and dangerous.

Die Halbstarken, produced by the Austrian-born director Georg Tressler, became one of the biggest postwar box office successes in Germany. It was released in the U.S. that same year under the English title Teenage Wolfpack and was reviewed in Variety as follows:

It is the first German pic on juvenile delinquency, one of postwar Germany's biggest problems. It makes an obvious attempt to cash in on the wide popularity of American pix of the same sort, such as Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause. It's an obvious effort to give young Horst Buchholz, idol of local bobbysox set and winner of the 1955 Federal Film Award . . . the opportunity to come along. Halbstarke (which means ''Half-Strong Ones'') has the kids, the basic problem and also the realistic approach . . . , but all similarity with its American predecessors stops here. Neither can it stand comparison with Hollywood pix on the same subject. It's little more than a mediocre documentary report concentrating on a corny thrill story. Nevertheless, the film will appeal to mass audiences here, particularly juveniles. (Nov. 14, 1956)

In this essay, I explore the influence of American youth culture on Germany and Austria in the '50s and investigate how films like The Wild One (1953), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Blackboard Jungle (1955) shaped the screen images of youth in German and Austrian films of the time. I will particularly focus on the representation of girls and discuss how their precarious relationship to consumer culture reveals the ambiguity of postwar society vis-à-vis a growing influence of American pop culture in central Europe.

As the sociologist Thomas Grotum has pointed out, the so-called Halb-starken-riots in West Germany reached their peak between 1956 and 1958 and were especially hyped by the yellow press and their journalists, who eagerly reported on local "Panthergangs," ''packs of gangsters in Munich," and ''criminal boys in Essen" (Die Zeit, April 26, 1956). The term ''Halbstarke'' itself dates back to the turn of the century, when supposedly rebellious urban male youth from lower classes were labeled ''Halbstarke.'' In the mid-fifties, however, the public equated nonconformist young people with deviance and delinquency, in large part due to the unwillingness of the media to differentiate between ''real'' juvenile criminals and comparatively harmless groups of young people roaming the streets (Grotum, 224). In Austria, we find a similar situation: according to the sociologist Kurt Luger, less than 10 percent of young people were actually involved in criminal acts, but this criminalized minority was greatly exaggerated by the media (Luger, 112).

Interestingly, the representation of teenagers had changed significantly between the immediate years after World War II and the more prosperous years of the mid-fifties. As the film historian Jürgen Felix has argued, in films immediately released after the war (like Irgendwo in Berlin/Somewhere in Berlin, 1946; or ... und über uns der Himmel/The Sky Above Us, 1947), youth represented the idea of hope, optimism, and the possibility of future, especially with regard to the ''Wiederaufbau,'' the reconstruction of society after the devastation of the war. Due to the ''re-empowering of the generation of fathers'' in the course of the German economic miracle in the '50s, the images of youth changed again. Growing up in the midst of a prospering society, young people indulged in what was dubbed the ''teenager revolution'' that got imported from the U.S.: they danced to rock 'n' roll music, went to the movies, and drove motorcycles—in short, they resorted (in the perception of their parents' generation) to anomie, deviance, sexual regres sion, and conspicuous consumption. In other words, the danger for young people emanated not—as one might assume in the midst of the Cold War— from the East; instead, the bad influence stemmed supposedly from the West because the promise of easy living threatened to undermine German working morals. Thus, the generational conflict in the fifties in Germany (and the same can be said about Austria) took place within a republic already oscillating between moral restoration on the one hand and technological modernization on the other (Felix, 317).

In this respect, it is of utmost importance to consider the role of the U.S. in the reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War. Shortly after the war and, as the Austrian historian Reinhold Wagnleitner has pointed out, after European self-inflicted annihilation and cultural ruin, ''it seemed that the United States alone had a corner on the codes of modernization. Especially the fascination that the myth 'America' had for young people must not be underestimated in this context'' (Wagnleitner, 2). In Austria, for example, the impoverished and starving population was extremely grateful for the material support supplied especially by the U.S. in the course of the Marshall Plan. These relief measures had a tremendous impact on the image of America as a country of affluence, freedom, modernization, and consumer culture—in short, everything every young citizen in Austria and Germany was dreaming of. Also, in comparison to the British, French, and Russian occupation forces, the U.S. was much more effective in controlling the reorganization of the democratic process and of cultural life in Austria. Pax Americana was secured by the massive export of U.S. culture. Good connections to the population by the U.S. army and the ISB (Information Service Branch, of the cultural and propaganda department of the U.S. occupation force) prepared the culture for a positive attitude toward everything American. The ISB became particularly active within the realm of symbolic capital: press, radio, publications, information, film, theater, and music. It is also particularly informative that the cultural missionaries of the U.S. emphasized similarities within a European-American culture and attempted a conscious exclusion of African American culture and mixed cultural forms. In that vein, U. S. propaganda officers completely underestimated the impact of pop culture, and it was only through the tremendous success of jazz that they eventually engaged with these aspects of popular culture as well. Overall, as Wagnleitner concludes, the ''activities of U.S. cultural officers had opened unimaginable possibilities for the U.S. culture industry . . . which allowed the path to modernization to seem on the whole, to be an 'American' one'' (Wagnleitner, 295). And this appeared to be of special political relevance in the context of the Cold War.

In Germany and Austria, both parents and children were fascinated by the imported mass culture from the U.S. But whereas the adult generation desired affluence and prosperity associated with an American standard of modern living, they rejected the imported codes of youth culture and rebellion as propagated in films like Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle. Whenever the yellow press reported on juvenile delinquency, they never forgot to blame mediated U.S. youth culture as the imported bad influence on young domestic people. This allegedly bad American influence was dubbed "Ami-Kultur" and referred to "low" cultural artifacts such as pulp fiction and comics, films and music, or in short, everything young people embraced to protest parental authority. The consumption of rock 'n' roll, together with films like The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause, articulated a symbolic resistance of mostly working class (male) youth rebelling against cultural tastes of a bourgeois mainstream. U.S. commercial culture, then, signified both desirable affluence and prosperity on the one hand, and on the other hand, youth culture, ''Halbstarken riots," and the decline of high cultural standards.

In the following, I read the youth films of Georg Tressler in relation to the imported ''Ami-Kultur'' with a particular focus on the representation of girls and their relation to consumer culture. As I demonstrate, the moral positioning of teenage girls is coded in terms of an increasingly affluent society gone wrong: their fate of either becoming a ''good'' girl or a "bad" girl is mostly played out in relation to their consumer habits.

Die Halbstarken opens within a frame similar to the opening of Laszlo Benedek's The Wild One: it designates itself, in a sensational mode, as a ''true story of youth in between the longing for adventure and crime.'' At the same time, this self-designation is coded as a moral warning. Essentially, Tressler equates youth culture with criminality in his juvenile delinquency film. But before his teenage protagonists are punished for their obvious wrongdoings in the course of the narrative, the film focuses carefully on a variety of locations that are typically associated with youth and youth culture. These ''spaces of transition,'' as Lesley Speed has dubbed them with regard to the works of Erik Erikson and Lawrence Grossberg (Speed, 26), are associated with youth and youth pics; they epitomize a certain state of being in between a young person and an adult, a transitory and fragmented rite of passage. Unlike the makers of American youth pics, where diners and cars play an important role in teenage culture and teenage rites of passage, Tressler spatialized the ''cool places" of the young within the context of postwar Berlin: public pools, the Italian espresso bar, a basement, bombed out industrial wastelands, and an empty boathouse all signify places of subcultural prac-

Freddy (Horst Buchholz, center) casts an ominous stare with his buddies in Die Halbstarken (1956).

tices which are to be celebrated and exposed at the same time. The celebrated authenticity of the postwar reality with its bombed out houses was mostly generated through location shooting and the expressive cinematography of cameraman Heinz Pehlke (Grob, 217).

The ambivalent stance of the parent culture vis-à-vis the young generation is especially played out in a scene that takes place in an Italian espresso bar, where the teenagers gather and dance to rock 'n' roll. The Italian owner, himself a recently moved migrant and therefore still a foreigner within a very homogenous national framework, tries to navigate his rebellious customers with a mixture of contempt and humbleness: ''Signore Spaghetti,'' as he is nicknamed, is economically dependent on his young customers as much as he is scared by them. The youth challenge the hegemonic culture of a reestablishing postwar society and its petit bourgeois values—at least on a symbolic level—by wearing jeans and black leather jackets, riding motorcycles, and so forth. At the same time, they already stand for the increasing purchasing power typical of a rising teenage consumer culture: after the decline of the Halbstarken riots in 1958, teenagers were primarily perceived as consumers. A critical twist in this shift was the possibility for girls and women to "conquer" public spaces. It is especially this relation of females to youth culture and consumerism that is a structuring moment in Georg Tressler's youth films.

The female protagonist Sissy (Karin Baal) in Die Halbstarken, a teenage girl of 15 from the lower classes in postwar Berlin, dreams the dream of material abundance, upward mobility, and transcendence of her working-class status. Her purchasing power, though, is dependent upon her boyfriend Freddy (teen star of the time Horst Buchholz), who is the leader of a small gang and commits petty crimes. But whereas he "only" wants money in order to lead an eventually decent life with wife and family, Sissy is coded as a teenage femme fatale straight out of an American film noir. Not only does she reject a projected position as potential wife and mother, but when Freddy invites his brother Jan to Sissy's house and asks him to "feel at home"-imply-ing that Sissy is preparing for their dinner—the first conflict arises. We see her in a medium shot in front of the kitchen stove, her face distorted with disgust. Too obvious is the anticipated family scenario with her as the caring wife, and too close is the deterrent model of her working-class mother, who does the laundry in the backyard, with her face having aged too early because of too much work. Sissy desires purchasing power, not motherhood. But her appetite for luxury, diamonds, and fur coats exceeds by far the "healthy" and socially desired consumer attitude of an average teenage girl and future housewife. Eventually, she not only tries to seduce her boyfriend's brother to plot a new crime, but also cold-heartedly shoots an old man, then her own boyfriend Freddy.

Compared to her malicious noir character, Freddy appears as an admittedly confused but ultimately decent boy, a potentially responsible member of society who can be reunited with his father at the end of the narrative. Sissy, on the other hand, is comparable to the character of Sal Mineo in Rebel, who is too "pathological" (he is a potential homosexual and he has killed puppies) to be reintegrated into society (see Biskind, 197). Unlike Plato, though, Sissy is not killed at the end of the film, but taken to prison. One can easily imagine how Freddy's lawyer pleads for mitigation of the sentence because the boy seems relatively harmless in comparison to his evil girlfriend. Also, Freddy's father, who has so far been characterized as a violent but ultimately impotent patriarchal figure, takes on responsibility for his two children (and again, this is similar to the ending of Rebel, where the father of Jim Stark finally "takes control" by shutting up his wife and embracing his son "like a man"). Freddy's father, however, represents a failing generation of fathers who are to blame for being unable to introduce a system of moral values to their children (their sons, that is) that would keep them from falling prey to the lures of consumer culture. In the moment of Freddy's arrest, however, a biker gang passes by as if directly cast from The Wild One: this last shot signifies once again the ongoing dangers of an Americanized youth culture and its deviant tendencies.

As Jürgen Felix has argued, this equation of youth culture and juvenile delinquency in Die Halbstarken negotiates the reaction-formation of a reestablished father-generation in West Germany vis-à-vis an emerging alternative youth culture on the one hand and a progressing "Americanization" of Germany on the other. At the same time, though, I would like to argue that for Tressler, this moral ending and the connotation of youth as materialist, hedonistic, and criminal doesn't come easy. It is true that at the end, the syntax of the gangster genre domesticates, so to speak, the semantic excesses of the youth pic. Nevertheless, in the course of his narrative, Tressler cannot help but celebrate the cool places of youth culture and the anarchic energies of teens dancing to rock 'n' roll: when suddenly in the espresso scene, a record of a marching song gets accidentally played, the teenagers mock and despise this piece of military memory. In all their "deviance," as they are perceived by the parent generation, they come out as far more sympathetic than the generation of their fathers, who have marched to military music on the actual battlefields of Europe in World War II.

Deviance, however, is coded differently when it comes to gender. Whereas rebellious boys can still be potentially useful citizens, deviant girls are in a much more endangered position. German reviewers of Die Halbstarken acknowledged the different trajectories of the teenagers with relation to gender: ''A boy who can steal a car, can also repair it and become a mechanic," the German critic Helmuth de Haas pointedly remarked, ''but I am worried about Sissy: what is to become of her? A gangster's moll or a mannequin?" (Die Welt, Sept. 29,1956).

Although Tressler could not repeat his great success of Die Halbstarken with any of his following films, his next project, Unter Achtzehn/Under 18 (1957), produced in Austria, once again negotiates the themes of youth and deviance. This time, the course of the narrative alters significantly from Die Halbstarken, not least because of a different gender perspective. Attention rests solely upon the female character, Elfie (Vera Tschechova, granddaughter of actress Olga Tschechova), a working-class girl like Sissy, who, again, wishes to transcend the lower status of her class. At the beginning of the film, she tries to reach this goal by capitalizing on her ''half-strong'' boyfriend; she then chooses not to become the gangster's moll (like Sissy), but rather a live store mannequin. In prudish postwar Vienna, where the story takes

This ad for Unter Achtzehn (1957) indicates the isolation of Elfie (Vera Tschechova) in contrast to boys in other films.

place, such a mannequin would have been immediately equated with prostitution. A female social worker—played by the famous Austrian actress Paula Wessely, who also produced the film—intervenes on behalf of the morally "endangered" girl Elfie. Through her character, a therapeutic/diagnostic discourse gets introduced into the narrative suggesting that society as a whole and the family in particular are pathological and in need of help. The fathers are still suffering from the war, the mothers are either weak or irresponsible, and living conditions are impoverished. Peter Biskind argued for Rebel that "the film attacks the family on behalf not of the kids but of the experts" (Biskind, 197), and this analysis holds true for Unter Achtzehn as well.

Another striking difference between Die Halbstarken and Unter Achtzehn concerns the representation of youth culture itself. Whereas in the former, youth practices its rebellion through spectacular outfits, music, and nonconformist behavior, in Unter Achtzehn these are hardly represented at all. The remaining handful of "half-strong ones'' in the film pathetically approach the social worker for help in order to get their local hangout established, something completely unthinkable for "real" youngsters. Thereby, the therapeutic discourse of the social worker addresses youth via different gender perspectives: if the young ones are male, they are potential criminals, whereas if they are female, they are potential prostitutes. Elfie's attempt to become a mannequin in a noble boutique is coded as morally unacceptable and finally exposes the precarious intersection of consumerism, femininity, and public space.

Typical locations of youth cultural expression are to be found in public space, a sort of ''hiding in the light'' according to Dick Hebdige, that has traditionally precluded the participation of girls. As Angela McRobbie has famously argued: ''Girls had to take care not to 'get into trouble' and excessive loitering on the street corners might be taken as a sexual invitation to the boys. The double standard was probably more rigidly maintained in the 1950s than in any other time since'' (McRobbie, 117).

If there has historically existed an activity in the public sphere in which women were allowed to move around freely and without harassment, it was, of course, shopping. As argued by scholars like Mica Nava and others, the intersection of femininity and consumerism can be traced to the beginning of modernity and the rise of mass culture. Already by the late nineteenth century, the emerging commercial culture had an empowering impact on middle-class women, who were allowed to roam the semipublic space of department stores. Their newly acquired independence (and I cut a very complex argument very short at this point) challenged the authority of a concerned male-dominated public. In response, the argument that was put forth against the female shopper claimed that the wide variety of consumer goods on display in department stores were a moral threat to easily seduced females. Mindless women shoppers would be poisoned by consumer products, an unhealthy desire for glamour and romance would be incited, and their senses would become confused (Nava, 63).

In the context of postwar Austria (in Unter Achtzehn), Elfie's affinity for consumer culture and the sexually charged lures of the ''economic miracle'' are immediately coded as a morally inflicted position. The potentially empowering aspect of Elfie's desire to become a mannequin and to be looked at in a semipublic space (the store) is denied by the narrative, both in terms of her class and her gender position. The social worker wants her to go back to her laundry job because she cannot imagine that the young girl could be able to capitalize on her good looks and to control the male gaze by making money out of it at the same time. But Tressler lays bare the hypocrisy of postwar society by depicting her not as a fallen angel but as a potential businesswoman. For the American reviewer in Variety, these double moral standards put forward by the narrative are not comprehensible: ''Scripters are to blame for such nonsense as not permitting an 18-year-old 'bad girl' with a million dollar figure to become a mannequin and ordering her to work in a laundry instead'' (Variety, 1958). Elfie, for sure, almost ends up in a striptease club and becomes the mistress of a rich married man before she gets reunited (thanks to the social worker) with her former poor boyfriend. At the end, the discourse of the state institutions (the police, the social worker) contains the semantics of the exploitation genre (since Elfie's adventures in the striptease club are shown to full length), and her desire for upward mobility gone wrong ends in a morality play. Her attempts to make a career out of her good looks are replaced by the promise of a petit bourgeois family life. The happy ending is uneasy: it is surprising and unbelievable at the same time.

As I have tried to show with respect to Georg Tressler's youth films, and first and foremost his big box office success Die Halbstarken and other films following in its vein, the male characters are modeled after their American predecessors played by James Dean and Marlon Brando. They challenge the authority of their parents—notably their fathers—by participating in sub-cultural practices such as wearing leather pants, riding motorcycles, and listening to rock 'n' roll. The films oscillate between celebrating these practices as spectacular and subversive and condemning them as materialist and prone to criminality. Most interesting in this respect is the representation of American pop culture and its supposedly bad influence on German and Austrian teenagers. The dangers for the young generation emanate from the ''West'' (and, interestingly enough, in the context of the Cold War, not from the East). It is the West and its promise of high living standards, affluence, and fast cars that eventually spoil German working morals and decency. As I have tried to argue, these films can be read as a reaction-formation of a father-generation that not only tries to negotiate an emerging alternative youth, but also a progressing ''Americanization'' of German and Austrian culture. American jukeboxes and big limousines represent an excessive materialism of the ''West''; its promises of''easy living'' and exuberant consumerism threaten to undermine the moral codes of respectability and decency in the young generation. But it is especially the precarious positioning of girls and their affinity to consumer culture through which the true lesson of postwar ideology can be taught. If their appetite for ''Western'' luxury and purchasing power grows too strong, their integrity is immediately at stake. They either assume the role of the glamorous but ill-fated teenage femme fatale, and embrace consumption to the point of becoming commodities themselves, being put on display as prostitutes and strip dancers—or they have to confine themselves to the dull eagerness of becoming a German or Austrian housewife. Tough choice.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment