Hot Summer

Director: Joachim Hasler              
Frank Schobel, Chris Doerk, Hanns-Michael Schmidt

When I was young, I would sometimes use my wild imagination to picture the various hardships I would be going through had I been born behind the Iron Curtain. Back in my mind, I did have an idea that communist life couldn't be as bad as I saw it in various Hollywood movies and TV shows. But even before I reached my teenage years, I realized that true communism must still suck to live in. After all, I had a taste of it growing up here in You can always tell which teens lied about their age at the OktoberfestCanada, where the government has flirted with socialism for the past several decades; though it has brought some nice things like health care, I have seen it also create true horror, such as The Evil Known As Canadian Films. (In other words, heavy on the art, with virtually no entertainment value to be found.)

It goes without saying that I wasn't exactly exposed to a lot of the viewpoint of communism from the communists themselves. Only just recently did I learn the horrors that the youth behind the Iron Curtain had to face, and that came when I watched the 1967 East German youth-oriented movie Hot Summer. Just from the title, I could tell this would be a heavy-handed piece of propaganda. After all, hot things are frequently red in color, aren't they? So I then sat down and started to watch the abuse that East German teens had to go through during the late '60s, which included leaving their parents to go on a long holiday without adult supervision, hitchhiking, smoking cigarettes, singing and dancing to pop songs, sometimes engaging in sex - huh?!? What's going on here?

Seriously, I had a pretty good idea of what communist life was like in a lot of Iron Curtain countries before seeing this movie. The most recent lesson I had was when I reviewed East Side Story a couple of weeks ago, which was a documentary on Iron Curtain musicals. Funny how coincidences can happen in the world of unknown movies; when I originally wrote the review, I mentioned in one part how I'd like to see some of those musicals. Just before I was about to put up the review, the generous folks at First Run Features offered to send me a DVD of Hot Summer, one of the movies showcased in the documentary. Excited to have the opportunity (as well as to save a couple of bucks from not having to rent a movie), I said yes, wondering before its arrival just how different it would be from the American teen-oriented musicals of the same era, like the Frankie and Annette Beach Party series. Well, as it turns out, it actually isn't that much different from what the Americans were making at the time. In fact, the most surprising thing about the movie is that it is virtually free of what might be considered to be pro-communist propaganda. And the little that's there is so subtle, so small, that there is the possibility that this material may not have even been intended to be propaganda.

Like many of those American teen musicals, Hot Summer barely has any plot to speak of. In fact, I am not sure if it's of minimum size to be even considered a plot - the premise of the movie is only expanded just enough so that there's justification to bring teenagers together away from home and their parents so they can fool around together (in more than one sense of the word), as well as to make excuses Strip poker East German style!for them to break out singing and dancing every few minutes. The movie starts off with a group of female teenagers (including East German teen pop sensation Chris Doerk) preparing to leave the big city in order to spend a lengthy vacation on the Baltic Sea coast. To their horror, they quickly stumble across a group of male teenagers (among them Frank Schobel, another East German teen pop sensation) who are also preparing to make the trip to the coast - and they are equally horrified to know that a group of girls will be there to spoil their vacation. (I can't help but think that the people who wrote this movie forgot what it was like to be a teenager.)

As you might expect, an instant rivalry appears between the two groups, and each side makes a real effort to humiliate and put into their place the other group, not just during the trip there but in the first few days at the coast. Though deep down they all feel some attraction to various members in the other group, pride for one's buddies usually wins the day. After all, didn't Marx and other communist philosophers have the theory that the group is more important than the individual? Maybe these teens aren't actually thinking like these philosophers, but they do try to rally their comrades against drifting from the group agenda. Not only with spoken words, but often with songs, like this one:

A man who is still half a kid
Can at times act pretty stupid!
They think they're such big guys
But really they're babies in disguise!
They're so proud to have to shave
But they don't know how to behave!
They roll their eyes, that's not half!
They act crazy and make me laugh!
A real man can do without
Such juvenile tactics, no doubt!
He doesn't whine and plead
Like a little bitty kid!
If at first he does not succeed
And I don't say he's just what I need
I don't need such silly pranks!
To them I say: Hey, no thanks!

Well... it's not quite the title track for How To Stuff A Wild Bikini, but it'll do. Seriously, though, the soundtrack for Hot Summer has a number of remarkably goofy songs like this one. And I personally though that the movie's
willingness to break out singing every few minutes or so soon proved to be very tiring. But individually, the songs are fun to listen to with their campiness, while at the same time you are realizing that at one time these pieces of fluff were "with it" with the youth of that day. (The soundtrack album was a big hit, by the way.) Even if you find the songs somewhat dumb you'll probably agree that they are at least sung with energy and conviction. It's also interesting to listen to the styles of the songs, since they are similar to the styles of American teen pop in that day. There is the (expected) slow summer-fading-away ballad, but there are also "duel" numbers, when the boys and the girls sing separate lines of the songs.

I doubt very much it is a coincidence that a couple of these "duel" numbers at times sound remarkably similar to Here Come The Jets from West Side
. Especially since the stalking motions and circling the actors engage in during these numbers sometimes echoes the style of dancing found in West
Side Story
! The most interesting thing about Hot Summer's dance numbers is
the amount of effort made to make the actors lookWe had Saturday Night Fever - the East Germans had Hay Fever! like they are dancing when they actually aren't dancing at all. True, there is occasionally a span of a few seconds when it could be considered that the participants are actually dancing. But as I mentioned with East Side Story, the Powers That Be behind the Iron Curtain frowned upon frivolous activities like dancing. So as a result, the teenagers here will cartwheel, spin in their seats, jump in the air, shuffle their feet, and strike dramatic poses - but seldom actually dance. It's quite interesting to watch, sometimes in an unintentionally funny sense when they do something like bounce up and down rapidly (as well as the fact that care was done to have this energetic activity shot from above the waist, a la Elvis.)

Goofy or not, the dancing and singing these teenagers engage in are, for the most part, the most interesting things about them. Seen together, the behavior of the boys and girls is at times a little exasperating; even though they are teenagers, they act remarkably childish at times. It's no wonder the movie spends more time with the more mature girls, because for the most part all the male characters - even Schobel - come across as if they were ten years old. Each of them has little personality, and seldom do any of them separate from their pack. The girls also stick together for the most part, and like the boys many of them aren't developed in the slightest, even with the characters of the two identical sisters. On the other hand, while Doerk's character may not be developed much more than her co-stars, she does bring to the movie energy and spunk, so that even when she isn't singing she manages to stick out in the crowd. The character of "Brit" (who takes the communist philosophy of free love to heart) also manages to stand out from the other girls, though her character and her "hobby" are not really touched upon until late in the movie.

Even then, the movie doesn't really expand on her character that much. Still, there are some interesting moments surrounding this character, though none of them are love scenes - the participants keep their clothes on, and their togetherness comes across as if they had just spent a long time looking at the stars. In the morning, when Brit returns to where the girls have been staying (in the island's meeting hall which belongs to The Collective), her friends are upset with her - not just because of her behavior, but the fact that her staying out all night put them all at risk from the adult authorities. "If you were alone, you could what you please, " one of the girls snaps at Brit. That's not the only possible pro-communist suggestion to be found in the movie. There is an emphasis on sticking together (such as the girls and boys sticking for the most part within their group), though one boy is quick at one point to separate themselves from any old rabble, exclaiming, "Are we a collective or just an ordinary gang?"

If these (and a few Those lyrics - all those girls - beds - short haircut - are you thinking what I'm thinking?similar moments) were intended as propaganda, then they
don't come across very strongly. Maybe they were just placed in so that The
Powers That Be Would be satisfied. It could also have been an attempt to mask some material that has hints of being anti-communist. Near the end of the movie, after the boys and girls get in trouble after joyriding on a fishing boat, one boy exclaims that the authorities will "bash our skulls in." When they are subsequently locked up in a warehouse, we see them look up longingly at an open window - and later on they escape to freedom through this window. It's not just the boys who provide some of these possible hints, but also the girls. In the opening credits, a chorus sings a song which contains the following lyrics:

Just for once I want to go wild
And act like a child!

I confess I can't be totally sure whether those particular lyrics - or any of those other elements I noted in the previous paragraphs - were indeed intended to be propaganda of one kind or another. But it's fun to try and spot anything that might be propaganda, and then  to subsequently try and determine if it is or not. This, as well as the novelty of seeing an Iron Curtain teen movie - and one that's a musical to boot - make Hot Summer a curio that is definitely worth a look. Even if the movie's official motive to entertain sometimes comes across flat to the average 21st century viewer, the passage of time has given the movie an extra dimension that makes up for it.

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See also: East Side Story, Shock Treatment, Voyage Of The Rock Aliens