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  • Authority, Mobility, and Teenage Rebellion in The Wild One (USA, 1953), Die Halbstarken (West Germany, 1956), and Berlin - Ecke Schönhauser (East Germany, 1957)
  • Sebastian Heiduschke

In the famous bar scene of Laslo Benedek's 1953 landmark film The Wild One, Mildred asks Marlon Brando's character, Johnny, the leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" When Johnny replies "Whaddya got?" he sums up the problems between 1950s American youth and their parents. Two German films produced a few years later demonstrate a similar generational conflict coupled with the teenage quest for mobility in the divided Germany. However, Georg Tressler's Die Halbstarken (West Germany, 1956) - known to American viewers as Teenage Wolfpack - and Gerhard Klein's Berlin - Ecke Schönhauser ("Berlin - Schönhauser Corner"; East Germany, 1957) complicate the issue of teenage rebellion as they interweave the transnational trope of paternal authority with narratives of mobility that emphasize the sociopolitical climate of East and West Germany.

Departing from these postulates, I analyse the two teenage rebel films to show instances in which East and West German cinema shared common ground in the years leading up to the building of the Berlin Wall; further, I explore the variations and differences that help us understand the complex nature of German cinema as cultural representations of two competing political ideologies in the post-war period. Read in conjunction with The Wild One - one of the archetypal films about teenage rebellion - I argue that the two German films provide ample opportunity to observe variations of societal conflicts in the 1950s and allow viewers to catch a glimpse of disorder within the social order of the respective countries. Even more, regardless of the political framework of the society, I contend that all three films suggest similar solutions to the problem of juvenile delinquency by proposing the notion of revisiting authoritarian structures.

Because the German films resemble the Hollywood example in composition and structure, The Wild One provides a helpful framework for the analysis of the East German Berlin - Ecke Schönhauser and the West German Die Halbstarken. [End Page 281] Benedek's film serves as an example of Hollywood films about teenage rebellion that had emerged as subgenre of the 1950s melodrama and projected a "complex and paradoxical [. . .] view of America" torn between liberalization and regression into conservative structures (Schatz 223). The rebel films commonly exhibited an "interrelated family of characters [. . .], repressive small-town milieu, and [. . .] preoccupation with [. . .] sociosexual mores" (Schatz 224). The parental generation is depicted as having become too tolerant, failing to set rules for teenagers, and thus is unable to reclaim power over the adolescents - though perhaps with a faint glimmer of hope that love might be the path to return to society. At the same time, casting stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando in the roles of teenage rebels invited young adults to emulate the rebellious behaviour of their idols. The tragic end of the young protagonists in the films validated the moral superiority of the older generation and demonstrated that engaging with the problems of disoriented adolescents required stern, adamant action on the part of the authorities. Thomas Doherty has shown that these films were also created particularly for teenage audiences as a means of self-realization, solidarity, and celebration of a new teenage culture. Dean and Brando as hallmark faces of a changing American society signalled the arrival of a cinema that sent a problematic and contested message of a liberated, unbridled youth culture (Cohen; Gilbert).

This message was universal, and the transnational appeal of the Hollywood rebel films comes to light in the German films' resemblance to their American predecessors - and in the problematic reactions of rioting German teenagers. Hollywood had gained a strong presence in West Germany after the Allies made a clean sweep of the Nazi film industry in 1945 and introduced their own films to a thirsty audience sponging up commercial entertainment. After the "feverish self-examination" (Bailey 26) of the post-war USA embellished in the films of Hollywood directors Nicholas Ray and Laslo Benedek had caused a discussion about US morals due to the copious depiction of crime, disorderly behaviour, and the ousting of sexual...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-026X
Print ISSN
0037-1939
Pages
pp. 281-299
Launched on MUSE
2013-09-20
Open Access
No
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