US politician Adlai Stevenson said, “That which seems the height of absurdity in one generation often becomes the height of wisdom in another.” I’d add that the reverse is true; the height of wisdom to the older generation often looks pretty stupid to the young, and these differences in perception make for fertile filmic ground. A good movie on this subject shows us both sides of the generation gap story, without judgement, so that we reach the end credits feeling, if not older, at least a little wiser.
Having said that, Hollywood usually prefers the route of listening to only one side of the argument. Look at the stifled boring old people! Alternatively, look at the young people with no manners and heavy weaponry! Gran Torino, The Lost Boys, Rebel Without A Cause, Dead Poets Society, Grease, Footloose… These are great films, but they all suggest that there can’t be any real understanding between generations. At best there’s toleration. Films such as Freaky Friday, Secondhand Lions and On Golden Pond that aim to find some sort of resolution are harder to come by.
Recently German cinema has taken a different route. Here are three films that have used different periods in Germany’s own history to really effectively look at the differences between age and youth in a fresh light. From the Thirty Years’ War to the end of the 1980s, these movies share more than a theme in common. They also share strong performances, thoughtful scripts, and a passion for telling a story in unexpected ways. As an aside, the three directors vary in ages (Marco Kreuzpaintner, director of Krabat, was born in 1977; Sönke Wortmann, director of The Miracle Of Bern was born in 1959, and Wolfgang Becker, director of Good Bye Lenin! was born in 1954) so maybe concern about the generation gap doesn’t belong solely to the old or to the young, but affects everyone. At least that’s one thing we all have in common.
Good Bye, Lenin! (2003)
Alex Kerner takes part in a protest rally, and when his mother witnesses his arrest she has a heart attack. From the beginning, Alex has the burden of guilt placed upon his shoulders; his need to challenge the status quo means the near-death of his mother. But after eight months in a coma she recovers a little, and the doctors tell him any sudden shocks or surprises could kill her. Unfortunately, this is East Berlin in 1989, and the Wall is about to come down.
In a time of momentous change Alex and his friends try so hard to maintain the illusion that they are still good Communists. They come up with elaborate explanations for why new advertisements can be viewed from the windows, and even make their own news reports to persuade Alex’s mother that things are the same. Alex yearns for the new life offered by the West, but he can’t talk about this to his mother. And she, in turn, has issues that she can’t discuss with him, such as why his father left them and escaped to the West many years ago. The past and the future are both off-limits, but that doesn’t mean they can’t love each other.
It’s an empathetic and tragicomic look at a mother-son relationship. Ingenious and surreal at times, the farcical elements never outweigh the heart of the film, which is, for me, this lesson – the need for stability and the desire for change are not impossible to reconcile, as long as we can be kind to each other and maintain a sense of humour. Which this film definitely can.
Krabat And The Legend Of The Satanic Mill (2008)
Krabat began life as a traditional Wendish tale, and then became a children’s novel by Otfried Preußler. It tends to be marketed nowadays in this country as a German version of Harry Potter. Which is fair in that it’s about magic and growing up and learning how to cope with power, and unfair in that there’s no upbeat happy business whatsoever and it’s set in the seventeenth century during the time of the Black Death.
Krabat is an orphan who wanders the countryside, alternately begging and freezing, until he hears a voice that tells him he could become a great sorcerer. And so he follows the voice to a watermill, and becomes an apprentice of the Master, along with eleven other boys. The Master teaches them how to make bread, and also how to perform black magic. There’s none of that business about helping people out and doing good with their abilities. This is about the acquiring and keeping of power, and the Master makes sure none of his apprentices can get to the position where they could challenge him.
There’s also some deeply scary business about the cloaked figure who visits the mill and collects the bread, and a bit of a love story, but the focus of Krabat is definitely on the struggle between the apprentices and the Master. When the older generation refuses to relinquish control, what can youth do? Should teenagers blindly follow their elders, or does there come a time when it’s necessary to stand up and forge a different path, away from the evil of the past? These are pertinent questions disguised as a fairy tale. But then, that’s what fairy tales are for, isn’t it?
This version of the story has great production and a real sense of scope to it, as the camera flies over the land, giving a bird’s eye view of a cold, unfriendly landscape. It gives you a good idea of why a boy would choose evil magic and a bed over being well-behaved and starving in the snow. There’s also an animated 1978 version of Krabat by Czech director Karel Zeman called Krabat – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice which is meant to be very beautiful, and is pretty much impossible to get hold of.
The Miracle Of Bern (2003)
In 1954 West Germany played Hungary for the World Cup final in Bern. They were the underdogs, and had already played Hungary at the group stage, losing 8-3. Nobody thought for a moment that West Germany had a chance of winning. I’m guessing you can see where this film is going. But the film is not about the football match itself. It’s about eleven year old Matthias, who is football-obsessed and has an unlikely friendship with one of West Germany’s best players at that time, Helmut Rahn.
Matthias is Rahn’s lucky mascot and believes he needs to be at the stadium for Rahn to have a chance at scoring a goal, but Matthias’ father has just returned from eleven years in a Soviet POW camp and he’s got no time for any such nonsense. Instead he wants to instill some traditional German virtues into his family, which is going to be a tricky business after a decade spent without him. Still, the film doesn’t take the route of making the father an unsympathetic character, and instead we see the effort that the entire family makes to reintegrate him. Matthias’ mother in particular is a great character (played really well by Johanna Gastdorf), and she is no doormat after her years as sole breadwinner.
The Miracle Of Bern is not a sad film, although it shows how West Germany struggled to forge a new identity following the war. It can be very funny, and it never fails to convey a sense of optimism for the future in the form of Matthias. And, as is necessary for any sporting film, it has a really uplifting ending, in which Germans, young and old alike, find a reason to be proud of their country again. It’s a really moving and enjoyable family film.
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What can we learn about the generation gap from these three films? Firstly, we can learn that there were some really talented young German actors from 2003 onwards. These movies rest on the performances of Louis Klamroth (The Miracle Of Bern), David Kross (Krabat) and Daniel Brühl (Good Bye, Lenin!), and all three make you believe in the realities of their situations.
There’s also the fact that there are no easy solutions to the problems they face. It costs them all a great deal to stand up to the older generation and find an answer, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. But, however they resolve their problems, it gives you hope for the future that they do it with courage and caring. Modern German cinema offers us some great role models without compromising on action, humour, or intelligence.
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