Monday, March 20, 2017

Hot Summer (East Germany, 1968)

East Germany's DEFA Studios brought a brave face to the task of emulating whatever global cinematic trends were necessary to compete for their audience with popular films imported from the West. In this they were largely successful, creating along the way unique takes on both the western and sci-fi genres. That said, Hot Summer, which was intended to be a socialist answer to AIP's Beach Party movies, must have been something of an uphill battle. The studio, dependent on government funding, had to obey their masters' edict that their films, while entertaining, had to tow the party line—a policy that resulted in musicals in which coverall-wearing workers did pirouettes on the production line. Meanwhile, films like Beach Blanket Bingo were as pure a celebration of American-style leisure as had ever been committed to film.

Evidence of this contrast can be found in the film's oft-reprised title song, which eschews celebrating sun, sand, and surf in favor of just telling us how incredibly hot it is (“the rays are merciless….we’ll get a mighty bad sunburn”)--almost to the point of praising the joys of heat stroke. The film follows two groups of teenagers--one all boys, one all girls, and each numbering about a dozen-- as they make their way to a seaside collective farm where they will spend the Summer. For the larger part of the film these groups are treated, not as collections of individuals, but as sort of collective gender masses that act in concert with their designated leaders. Those leaders are kai, played by Frank Schöebel, and Stupsi, played by Chris Doerk. Both Schoebel and Doerk, who were married at the time, were popular singers of the day, which means that Hot Summer forbodes From Justin to Kelly.

From the start, Hot Summer exhibits a confused attitude toward teenage sexuality. In contrast to the boy and girl crazy teens of the Beach Party movies, the boys and girls of Hot Summer regard each other with a puerile antagonism unbecoming to "teenagers" that are clearly well into their twenties. At one point, the boys set mice loose in the girl’s dormitory and, at another, steal the girls’ clothes while they are swimming. The early song numbers, which are shrill and brassy to a one, consist of the two groups facing off from opposite sides of a room and practically screaming the lyrics at each other.

Stupsi, for her part, is like a one woman Anti Sex League. Her signature song is a jaunty little ditty in which she opines that men are stupid apes not worthy of any woman's time. When one of the girls is mistakenly assumed to have slept with one of the boys, she is cruelly ostracized from the group. In this context, Sumpsi's boyish look and butch haircut can't help but make one wonder what was intended with all this.

Despite all this rancor, the boys and girls, once they arrive at their destination, dutifully pair up, as if obligated to do so by the kind of movie that this is. And with that, Hot Summer takes a turn toward the dark side. A love triangle that develops between Kai, his best friend Wolf (Hanns-Michael Schmidt), and Brit (Regine Albrecht), a pretty blonde, threatens to divide the group ("are we a collective," asks one of the boys. "Or just a gang?) Brit has a mildly hedonistic personal philosophy—expressed in the motto “i do what I love and love what I do"--that seems to infect the whole gang, demoralizing them to the point that they take a joyride in a boat belonging to the collective. They are busted by the police. Heads are hung and lessons learned.

A note on the songs in Hot Summer: as for those in the film's first half, I really can't say much more than that they are brassy and shrill, as well as a little manic. None of those qualities are alleviated by the fact that these songs are shouted like an accusation from across a room. Happily, at the movie’s midpoint, the quality of the songs miraculously improves, starting with a song sung around the campfire that is actually quite lovely. This is followed by the welcome addition of a Brechtian cabaret number and a couple of rock and roll tunes sung by Frank Schöbel that allow the young cast to dance in a normal, human manner.

As for the choreography in the rest of the movie, it darkens my heart to say that it is impossible not to laugh at it. It’s a style of dance that combines rhythmic shuffling, shoulder shaking, and the occasional arm wave to stultifying effect—and which achieves an almost caustic level of ridiculousness when performed by several cast members in tandem. Occasionally we will see a dancer embark on a cartwheel or somersault, the resolution of which we are not made privy to.

I enjoyed watching Hot Summer, although I can’t find much to say that would recommend it. When a film industry is subject to the kind of imposed limitations that East Germany’s was, it is sometimes fascinating, not for what it does, but for what it tries. Such is the case here.

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