“Seven Freckles” & “Sun Alley”
The Kids Are Alright
Did those who grew up in the German Democratic Republic feel the oppressive weight of the Wall? Did it make the journey to adulthood harder? Michael Tager analyses two films about young people in the GDR.
By Michael Tager
How do we grow with walls surrounding us, separating our streets and families? It has to have an effect, right? There must be a trace of the Berlin Wall on the bodies of the generations who grew up with it there. Did those who grew up in the German Democratic Republic feel the oppressive weight of the Wall? Did it make the journey to adulthood harder? It feels inevitable that the youth at the time would be profoundly affected by its existence. And they probably were, but they also probably weren’t. Kids are kids. Wherever they are, whatever is going on around them.
Sieben Sommersprossen debuted in 1978, Sonnenallee 20 years later, but each film is set more or less in the same time period – very much in the heart of the GDR era. Yet it’s the timeless theme of the transition out of childhood that takes center stage.
Sieben is a sweet film about the last summer camp before adulthood, one last chance for romantic connection, sports, Shakespeare, clandestine meetings, the distant thought of rock music, and adulthood. “I don’t want to grow up,” Karoline says. “We’re in no man’s land,” Robbi tells her in return, knowing that their childhood is behind them. They are utterly serious, as only teenagers faced with inevitably can be.
Summer moments are of the utmost importance, low stakes played high. Aside from one reference to the war and a deserter’s execution, the GDR barely seems to exist. Only the here and now is important. After all, “They only react to rock,” which is patently untrue. Except when it isn’t.
In Sonnenallee, the burgeoning adults indeed only respond to rock – the Rolling Stones in particular. But behind the rock ’n’ roll, lusting, and general boy-driven buffoonery, there is a very real ascension to maturity. Will the boys from Sonnenallee join the Party, the military? It’s a real question. High stakes through laughter.
Sonnenallee is backwards-facing, sweetly nostalgic of an unlikely time and place. “Once upon a time, there was a country and I lived there,” Micha says. “If someone asks me what it was like, it was the best time of my life because I was young and in love.” He is on the cusp of growing up, but he’s not fearful. He’s confused, he’s dumb, but he’s ready.
What’s surprising about these complementary depictions of an in-between age is how absent the fear of the GDR is. In Sieben, the Party is only alluded to. Was this an earnest attempt to depict how life should and could be? In a telling scene, a member of the Party arrives on site during the rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet. Will he break up the play? Well, no, because he likes culture. In context, the scene makes sense: pretend that oppression doesn’t exist, and when it is there, focus on its benevolent side. A beautiful lie to fit the time.The Party is everywhere in Sonnenallee. They ask for papers, date sisters, break up night clubs, buy contraband records for their own underground parties. But they’re played for laughs. Everyone in authority is a fool or corrupt or both. Where Sieben felt like they ignored the Party out of willful blindness or in appeasement of unseen forces, Sonnenallee minimizes the menace.
When the now is uncertain or intolerable, cinema turns to escapism. When the now is safe and free, cinema returns to problematic questions and the exploration of pain. When the Wall was high, perhaps filmmakers wanted to give their audience safety and pleasant warmth. Sieben is bright and nostalgic, a coming-of-age story that is laser-focused on the dream of young love. It’s beautiful of course, but in context, it feels (understandably) safe. Which makes sense.
Perhaps Sonnenallee asks uncomfortable questions beneath its sophomoric comedy, and that’s because it’s afforded the opportunity to. It can depict the foolishness and baseness of the Party, because it’s ironically safe to, 1999. Could someone film a movie on the street that ran through the East and West and not include the Party? Sonnenallee can choose to show the joy in life for this particular man and his group of friends in the GDR because they were young and stupid and in love. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and so is the freedom to indulge in it.
There’s a difference between the reality of teenagedom during the GDR and how the movies display it. The difference is time and space, much like the gap between the movies’ debut. But while the image of teenagedom is different, perhaps we can assume that teenagers never change.Youth are resilient and their worries and passions are both micro and macro in scale. Yes, they’re worried about the world and the pressures facing them, but they also understand that the tiny issues are somehow the most important. They want to be entertained and fall in love, they want to hold on to the present and wish for a better world, be it in the past or the future. The fall of the Wall will have an effect on their lives, sure, but in some ways, it’s irrelevant. The kids are going to be all right, one way or the other.
Michael B. Tager is a writer and editor from Baltimore, MD, USA. He has degrees in writing and psychology and minors in film and theater. He has reviewed music, literature, film, and television. His work has been published widely. Find more of it at michaelbtager.com.