Sunday, 2 May 2010

Teenage Wolfpack (1956)

The 1950s was definitely the golden age of the juvenile delinquent movie, and apparently not just in the US and Britain. Teenage Wolfpack (Die Halbstarken) is a German example from 1956, and it’s pretty good.

The problem with a lot of JD movies is that the juvenile delinquents turn out to be just Good Kids Who Are Misunderstood. And the movies turn out to be disappointingly bland. That’s not the case with this one. These kids are the real thing. They’re nasty little hoodlums.

The leader of the gang is Freddy (distinguished actor Horst Buchholz in one of his first leading roles). Freddy has boundless self-confidence, outrageous ambitions and a propensity for violence. If he had the brains to match he’d be extremely dangerous. Fortunately for the world Freddy has some deficiencies in this area. Any problem that can’t be solved by hitting someone tends to leave him baffled.

He’s recently been re-united with his kid brother Jan (or Johnny as he’s called in the English dub). Their father has gone guarantor for a large loan to their uncle, who has defaulted. The father is left with a debt he can’t pay, and the resultant stress is causing problems at home. So Johnny wants to get his hands on enough money to pay the debt, and to relieve their mother from the strain of having to deal with the angry father. Freddy assures him the money will be no problem. He has a plan that will net them both lots of money. Freddy doesn’t intend to be a loser like his dad; he’s going to be a big shot.

Unfortunately Freddy is the kind of guy who comes up with ingenious criminal plans that are guaranteed to fail because they’re over-complicated, they depend on nothing whatsoever unexpected happening, and they’re silly plans to begin with. So the stage is set for Freddy and his brother and Freddy’s whole gang to very soon find themselves in a world of trouble.

Freddy also hasn’t figured out that his girlfriend Sissy isn’t the sweet young thing she appears to be. In fact she’s an absolutely classic femme fatale, ready to switch her affections to whichever brother seems most likely to end up as leader of the gang in the long term, and ready to entice both brothers into foolhardy criminal adventures if there seems a good chance she’ll get a share of the loot. And she’ll double-cross anyone who gets in her way.

Georg Tressler was a prolific director in both TV and movies in post-war Germany and he does an impressive job. While juvenile delinquent movies more often than not have a distinctly camp flavour to them, this one has much more of an atmosphere of menace, frustration, suppressed violence and hopelessness.

The acting in general is rather good, with two performances that really stand out.

Horst Buchholz plays Freddy like a much more wired, strung-out and dangerously out-of-control version of James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. In my personal view Buchholz’s performance is just as overwrought but rather more convincing than Dean’s.

Karin Baal, who was fifteen at the time, is even better. Sissy is a very scary young lady. It’s a truly remarkable performance.

Teenage Wolfpack is one of those movies that mixes exploitation with some ambitions towards serious film-making, and with some success. It’s a somewhat dark but still highly enjoyable movie, and well worth a look.

It’s in the public domain and is therefore very easy to get hold of.

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