Movie Review: Cold War Cinema at the Goethe Institute

Reviewed for LAist by David Grossman.

Berlin - Ecke ShönhauserWhen I hear the name Goethe (pronounced ger-the), my mind goes to the writer's remarkably sad book The Sorrows of a Young Werther and the copycat suicides that it inspired (a trend only slightly more bothersome then hearing people still say "Not!" à la Borat). Despite the gloomy connotations of its name, the Goethe Institute has found a way to stage some pretty cool events like this year's "Starring Berlin" series, which showcases 40 films set in Berlin as a tribute to Los Angeles and Berlin's 40 year sister cityness (let's just pretend that's a word). The 20th screening in the series feature two films dealing with post-WWII Germany, Ingo Rasper's comedic short Dufte and the surprisingly free-spirited East German film Berlin - Ecke Shönhauser.

Dufte, which means "scent" in German, is one extended gag with the punch line coming at the end. It deals with a train ride from Berlin to Leipzig and the struggle to get coffee amid post-war rationing. While the end could be interpreted as anti-authoritarianism=morality and common sense, the film plays it mostly for laughs.

The most surprising feature of Gerhard Klein's Berlin - Ecke Shönhauser is that it's East German. Made in 1957, four years before the construction of the Berlin Wall, the films features German teenagers whose desires seem universal. All they want to do is dance, smoke, steal and get the hell out of where they are. ID cards are the only stable part of anyone's life, and even those are being constantly examined.

The film focuses on four East Berlin street toughs, some of whom are beaten by their parents, some of who are willing to break streetlights for a Western mark. The war hangs over all of them, quite literally at one point when a bomb is uncovered at a construction site. Some turn to love, but mostly they turn to the west, and to get there some turn to crime. Freedom doesn't turn out as great as expected. In the end, the film urges viewers not to pin their hopes to any one political idea, but to make their lives for themselves. Pretty revolutionary for a bunch of dirty Commies, eh?

Klein's vision of teenage rebellion recalls Nicholas Ray's cult classic They Live by Night for how it romanticizes the illicit, though I preferred Berlin - Ecke Shönhauser because it doesn't drag like Ray's lovers-on-the-run film noir does. More than a blip in Eastern German Cold War cinema, Berlin - Ecke Shönhauser still stands as an act of artistic rebellion.

The Goethe Institute is a fine place to see a movie. Five bucks will get you a better movie-going experience than the Beverly Center, not that that's hard to achieve. The "Starring Berlin" screening series continues through June 25.

WHERE: 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100, (Between Fairfax & LaBrea)