Tuesday, January 10, 2012

17. TEENAGE WOLFPACK (DIE HALBSTARKEN, 1956)

I first became aware of TEENAGE WOLFPACK some years ago, while revelling in a wonderful Something Weird compilation that collected, I swear, at least a full hour of trailers for films I'd never heard of, mostly imported Euro JD and crime pictures. The sheer onslaught of this unknown terrain became positively delirious, especially when the trailer for this early Horst Bucholz film introduced the future MAGNIFICENT SEVEN star as "Henry Bookholt"! But as this DVD proves, this really happened once upon a time, right here in our own backyard. The film (whose original title translates as "The Hooligans") appears to have been at least partly acted in English, at least in those scenes featuring Bucholz and Christian Doermer (who plays his brother) and was dubbed or post-synchronized into English at Film Sync, Inc. (a New York-based precursor of Titra - Peter Fernandez dubs the voice of the young barman, Klaus) and then distributed in 1957 by Distributors Corporation of America (DCA), the same outfit that issued a sexed-up version of Freda and Bava's I vampiri as THE DEVIL'S COMMANDMENT. Though a main titles card introduces the film as a true story set in Germany, DCA took great pains to disguise its origins, apparently concerned that anti-German biases were still running strong a full decade after the war's end.

Bucholz plays Freddy Borchert, a charismatic but tough teenager surviving on the streets of West Berlin after being thrown out of his home by his overly strict father (Paul Wagner). His brother John (Doermer, "Jan" in the original) is still living at home and has been forbidden to associate with his older brother, whom he admires - as do all the other local teens and kids. However, against the wishes of their mother, John informs Freddy of the family's terrible money troubles, which pressures the ambivalent teen -- responsible enough to hold down a job at a filling station that requires him to be courteous, but arrogant enough to indulge in pickpocketing and other forms of thievery --  into planning a bank truck heist. When things do not go entirely as planned, Freddy loses face among his followers with disastrous results.

Clearly made with the intention of duplicating the success of films like THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, this film was sold by DCA on the considerable strength of "Bookholt's" appeal. It may seem a strange thing to say about a film that's been forgotten in America, but here, in his fourth credited screen appearance, Bucholz actually pulls off something comparable to what John Travolta achieved in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. He is positively magnetic in his dramatic scenes, which lets us believe the power he exudes over his mates, but he explodes onscreen -- as they say -- when he jitterbugs with his girlfriend (future krimi queen Karin Baal) at a local bar (that German counterpart of our shake shoppe), and though this film is now nearly 60 years old (!), his sense of sartorial style -- black shirt with white buttons, black leather pants -- remains absolutely rock-star contemporary. Not only does he have the James Franco smile down, but to look at Bucholz and Baal in the film's promotional photos, one is struck by their similarity to the look credited to Astrid Kircherr in her early photographs of the young Beatles, with Bucholz showing a stupefying resemblance to Stuart Sutcliffe. This movie is now regarded as one of Germany's first postwar classic films (it was even remade as a TV movie in 1996) and it made Bucholz an overnight star in Germany; within a few years, he would break out into English-language productions like TIGER BAY. Though she rarely worked outside her home country, Karin Baal ("Karen" on the US posters) is no less impressive. Playing a 15 year old girl, she looks and acts sophisticated beyond her years, but was in fact only 15 in real life; never was she more photogenic or captivating than she is here. A soda-sucking Lolita who matures on our watch into a manipulative, trigger-pulling femme fatale, Baal's Sissy Bohl is an unforgettable character. The jazz swing music heard throughout the picture was the work of future krimi composer Martin Böttcher.

According to the IMDb, there is a 10-minute difference between the German and US running times, and Amazon.de sells the original version in a few different DVD configurations, including a deluxe two-disc set. I can see my fascination and curiosity leading me down a costly path.

Viewed on Alpha Video DVD, but also available as a free streaming download here.

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