Its a story we all think we know. Following World War II, the baby boomer generation was born. After living through the stifling conformity of the 1950s, American teenagers rebelled. It all started with Elvis, then the British Invasion and the hysteria known as Beatlemania. Teenagers got wrapped up in that no-good rock n roll and by the end of the 1960s they were painting their faces, taking hallucinogens, and singing kumbayah at love-ins. Or at least thats how it looked to their parents, the so-called greatest generation who prided themselves on having fought in WWII to secure freedom for the United States and the world. The counterculture that emerged in opposition to the older generation in the 1960s was the defining moment of the emergence of adolescence as something markedly different from childhood or adulthood.
Or was it?
Not so, say Matt Wolf and Jon Savage. These two have recently teamed up to turn Jon Savages book Teenage into a documentary film. The film Teenage begins with some familiar images of post-WWII adolescent rebellion, then rewinds. The story that follows is one that begins at the end of the nineteenth century, when the end of child labor spawned a new stage of life: adolescence.
The film Teenage is, most simply, a collection of primary sources. It is a stream of footage and images overlaid with teenage voices that recreates an era previously lost to history. Before Elvis swinging hips, the Beatles shaking heads, and the defining moment of the 1960s counterculture, before they were all wasted! (thank you, Pete Townshend), teenagers existed. Teenage shows the lives of these early-twentieth-century teenagers, as they rebelled against the older generation and tried to shape the world they would one day inherit.
What drew you to this project and did you have any previous interest in history or historical documentary filmmaking in particular?
Well, Ive always been kind of obsessed with archival material and Ive actually never made a film that takes place in the present. All of my films deal with biographies or cultural materials from the past. I had never done a project that was this broad in scope, but I was inspired by the book by Jon Savage. I knew Jon Savage through his book Englands Dreaming which is really the definitive history of punk rock. And so I was really excited to read Teenage when I heard about it because one of my obsessions is hidden histories or forgotten biographies and Teenage is just filled with those. I was just fascinated by all the youth groups Id never heard of and the biographies of these forgotten teenage figures. I was also intrigued by this project of looking at things through the lens of a prehistory and doing a whole prehistory of a phenomenon that we all are familiar with and we all understand. I love the idea of doing a story that ends with the beginning. So, I got inspired to make a different kind of historical film, one that doesnt take on the image of the Ken Burns, but that does something different. I felt like Jons book was infused with that punk rock sensibility and I wanted my filmmaking to be, too.
- Check out U.S. History Scenes interview with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns
What about the book Teenage made it seem like it would translate well into a film?
All I wanted to do was see things that were being described in the book. I wanted to see the Wandervogel, I wanted to see images of the German swing kids that were being discussed in the book, and so it was basically that curiosity to see what these young people look like, to see their faces and their style.
How did the collaboration between you and Jon Savage get started?
We made a rule for ourselves early on that any story we told had to have a strong basis in actual archival footage. So, our whole process was grounded in archival research and we collaborated with a professional archival researcher. Our lead researcher was Rosemary Rotondi and she enlisted researchers at the National Archives in Washington, DC, a researcher in London, and also we worked with researchers and scholars in Germany as well. We would feed lists of topics to these researchers and they would give us footage and based on what we found we would develop our story and also seek more footage with more specific goals in mind. Early on we decided we didnt want to have a central, authoritative expert telling the history. We wanted to tell it from the point of view of youth to really embody the kind of emotional experience and that spirit of rebellion that kind of comes out from the teenage experience. Jons book has tons and tons of first-person quotes from real teenagers from these periods and so he continued to source more of these quotes and we sourced a lot of them from a German author as well. Those became the fabric of the script thats used for narration in the film.
So, it sounds like instead of starting with a story and finding evidence to fit that, you started with the sources and let them lead you to the story?
Yeah, we had a basic argument in mind, which is that there are these competing definitions of youth that start percolating after the end of child labor when this new second stage of life emerges. And we wanted to identify what those competing definitions were and what these different models were for dealing with youth: were they a problem, were they an opportunity, were they, kind of, heroes or were they villains? We decided that those themes and those competing attitudes played out most intensively in America, England, and Germany. So, we kind of telescoped our focus to those regions and to stories that played out these themes between adults trying to control youth because they represent the future and young people fighting back trying to create their own world. And that was the filter through which we looked at material and we tried to sketch out a path in which this emergent idea of the teenager was being created.
Could you say a little more about the extensive archival research? How much time did you spend and what kind of efforts went into that?
Yeah. We worked with over a hundred archives and the process unfolded over four years. We were really looking for stuff that didnt feel like stock footage, that felt like real home movies, amateur films, or unedited rushes from a journalists camera. So that was the kind of material we were after. Every time we would approach an archive we would get a lot of stock footage, but there would be something in there that was different, that felt actually subjective and from the point of view of a real person. We would highlight and flag that material and ask the archivist if they had anything else like that. And then there were some more obscure topics, for instance the German Wandervogel, the German youth movements, the German swing kids, or the Bright Young Peoplereally specific youth movements that we knew we wanted to portray. The kind of material on those movements is very scarce so we did more specialized and intensive digging as we searched for footage on those movements.
Can you tell me more about what Ive heard you call the living collage approach and how this was different from other historical documentaries youve worked on or seen?
Yeah, I mean I think the conventional logic of historians or documentary filmmakers is to use primary sources to illustrate facts and to illustrate things that are being said. Its about literal illustration. We took a different approach. We use archival material a little more expressionistically and lyrically, you could say. Like I said, I felt like Jons book really had this punk quality to the way that he looked at early twentieth century history and I wanted my filmmaking, too, to have that quality. So, we were talking early on in our process about punk, and Jon remembered that in the 1970s he saw these young punks wearing thrift clothes from previous youth cultureslike rocker suits and zoot suitsand they would cut them up and literally reassemble them with safety pins into something that was clearly contemporary and new. And that visual premise really inspired me. What if we take all of these fragments of youth from the past, these images from films and photographs, but also voices of youth from primary sources, and what if we collage them together to make a new work that deals in the past but is meant to resonate in the now and to help people reflect on the world of youth now, today? So in a sense we kind of felt like the film was a living collage, inspired by this thing Jon had observed with punks in the 1970s in England.
So once you decided on that approach, how did you go about deciding what to leave out of the film? What are some of the interesting things that got left on the cutting room floor that got left out from choosing to focus on the United States, England, and Germany?
One thing in particular I was really fascinated by were the French zazou. They were a movement that was really similar to the Hamburg swing kids, but it was in France and we found literally no footage of them so that was one thing we couldnt cover. There were also just some moments in the genesis of teenagers as a market demographic. For instance, when The Wizard of Oz came out, Judy Garland released a dress line at Macys and there was pandemonium outside of Macys with young girls trying to buy the dress, but we couldnt find anything on it! No images, not even any headlines. So theres always kind of beats in this history that reinforce our ideas but there just wasnt visual material for so we just couldnt focus on that. But, theres so much that we did find that it was easy to kind of focus on that stuff.
The film is centered around four main characters: Brenda Dean Paul, Melita Maschmann, Tommie Scheel, and Warren Wall. What was the motivation behind using these characters to frame your story and the decision to feature womens voices and black voices?
Basically, I wanted to telescope into the experience of individuals. I knew this would be a panoramic cultural history, but I thought the film might need what I call beats, in which people have a moment to slow down, and really just experience the portrait of an individual. Its something thats in Jons book that I really loved. To me, it was important to create a certain kind of demographic diversity for the characters that we chose with one idea that they were all teenage rebels in an unconventional sense. I think Brenda Dean Paul appealed to me because she was like a proto-Lindsay Lohan type. The media and paparazzi were obsessed with her and loved to condemn her and she kind of fell apart publicly. But, she was kind of glamorously identified with being young. With Melita Maschmann, theres so much hypnotic imagery with Hitler Youth in the masses, but its so rare to really focus on their experiences from the point of view of an individual. I think whats not often really known is that young people who joined the Hitler Youth or the BDM (the girls division) were really rebelling against their parents generation and they were kind of coming at it from a place of desperation because Germany was in such economic and political turmoil. They were looking for a new model and a new path that was different from their parents and I think it was really important to, I wouldnt say humanize, but to kind of show how teenage rebellion could go wrong in a way, but also could be a deeply political impulse. And then, Tommie Scheel is so important to me because he is this character where pop culture and politics collide. Hes doing what kids do, like listening to music, dressing up in cool clothes, and dancing but, the way that hes doing it is actually an incredibly subversive form of rebellion. He and his friends were risking their lives. And it was super inspiring to me to see the political dimension of culture like that. And then Warren Wall was so important because there was such a dearth of material on African American teens from this period. They were completely excluded from the official records of the day. And we searched and searched for any young people of color and it was very challenging. But, in this sociological study called Negro Youth at the Crossroads, we found this extended interview with an African American boy scout from the 1940s. It was such a good portrait of a person at that time and I knew I wanted to bring to light that point of view. But I also saw Warren as an unlikely kind of rebel. Hes trying to advance in society and, more or less, hes a kind of square hampered by the color of his skin and that breeds a kind of rebellious impulse as well. So I thought it was a really important contrast to a lot of the other more flamboyant characters that are profiled. And to me they all form this kind of composite portrait of the teenager that was about to be born.
They also seem like people that kids who watch the movie could relate to.
Totally and I think, you know, some people have asked what about the kids who were conformist, the kids who kind of sit in their bedroom just kind of toiling away. What I would say is that this film is not necessarily about typical youth, its about exceptional youth. All of those characters were exceptional youth. They werent only operating on the status quo, they were going to the extremes. And those were the types of characters and the types of youth that I was most inspired by.
Most of us have spent most of our teenage years taking history classes. After working on this film, what do you feel was missing from the history your were taught? What do you wish, when you were a teenager in the history classroom, wouldve been included in the story?
Its so funny because I actually didnt connect to history when I was in high school. Its not a subject I really paid attention to or realized I was that interested in. I think that often the thing thats missing is the subjectivity of people in the time. And Im sure theres curriculum and historians who really emphasize that but as a teenager myself, studying history, I dont think I ever connected to the subjective experience of people who were living through those events. It was really an emphasis on the broad strokes. I think that was kind of my angle with this film, really making something that is comprehensive but highly subjectivesomething thats told from the point of view of youth. I think its an entry point for people and comes from a place where we find universal sentiments that kind of cross different generations and eras as well.
How could you imagine a teacher using this film in the classroom?
I think it would be interesting for them to tell the story of an individual character, to talk about the experience of an individual as a way to look at broader historylooking at Melita to talk about the rise of Nazism and fascism in WWII. But I also think that whats unique about this film, perhaps, is that it uses the past as a way for us to reflect on today. Thats really my goal, is for people to look at the past and see how the patterns and dynamics in youth culture and in history repeat themselves. So, I figure it could be a useful exercise to watch excerpts from the film maybe around the Great Depression and the crisis surrounding unemployment and to ask young people to reflect on how they see those things playing out today with the incredible unemployment of young people and the occupation movements that have exploded around the world.
Do you feel like theres a message for American teenagers?
I guess my message is that rebellion is often disregarded as this emotional rite of passage and teenagers are often condemned by the older generation for not being creative, for being apolitical and apathetic, but I would argue through this film that theres a great political and cultural substance to teenage rebellion and that its hard to identify the most meaningful strands of them as its happening. It takes time and retrospect to really understand those things. Teenagers should be looked at in a more thoughtful way. We should recognize that young people are always imagining the future and that their impulses are meaningful.
Do you feel like the film has a message for academic historians as well?
Well, I think the film would be controversial for academic historians. It uses recreations in a fairly seamless way. It uses primary sources in a way that doesnt fully contextualize. It is a living collage and in that way the project might be perceived as controversial to a traditional historian or an academic. But, Im coming at it from the perspective of a filmmaker, not as an academic and Im inspired by these primary sources and interested in experimenting with them to paint a picture of a time and a place, to really explore something that feels very familiar but that is a story that we havent heard before.
If there are people interested in tracing some of the things that show up in the film, how would they do that?
I think the primary sources for our four main characters could be interesting. Melita Maschmann, the Hitler Youth girls story, was published in a book that Melita wrote called An Account Rendered, which is a really fascinating book thats recently been republished. Brenda Dean Paul wrote a diary. Its very rare and hard to come by, but it was called My First Life, by Brenda Dean Paul. Tommie Scheels story is a story of swing in Nazi Germany, was accounted in a book called Different Drummers. And then Warren Walls experiences and interview is in the sociological book called Negro Youth at the Crossroads. So I think those are four great places to start in terms of identifying these characters and to look further into their background.
- Melita Maschmanns An Account Rendered: A Dossier on my Former Self
- Read Helen Epsteins New Yorker piece on Melita: I Was a Nazi, and Heres Why
- Read Lynda Maureen Willets M.A. Thesis: Women Under National Socialism: The Case Study of Melita Maschmann
- Read Brenda Dean Paul: 1920s society drug addict from the Writing Womens History blog
- Preview Michael H. Katers Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany
Do you think, after doing this project, that youll embark on another broad, historical project like this again?
I dont know. Im not currently working on one, but it was an incredible challenge to wrangle this much material and to deal with such a larger topic. Im interested in continuing to work with archival material, to tell stories from the past that I think might resonate in the now.
For more on the history of teens, check out the Teenage film blog: http://www.teenagefilm.com/blog