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HOT SUMMER – The DVD Review

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Reviewed by Sam Moffitt

In my years as a Movie Geek I have watched a lot of strange stuff.  I can well remember the first time I saw Eraserhead, at the Naro theatre at midnight, sometime in 1979, in Norfolk, Virginia,  during my Navy years.  I recall seeing El Topo and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls at the Tivoli Theater in St. Louis in the early 80s.  I saw Le Bete, a wonderful mix of art house and horror movie by Walerian Borowczyk in a theatre in Barcelona, Spain, again during my time in the Navy, with a packed house of Spanish, French, English and Dutch (and who knows how many other nationalities) cinema fans who loved the movie so much they gave it a standing ovation.  That is one of my fondest movie memories (if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend La Bete, and everything else Borowczyk has done.)

But without a doubt one of the most odd and disorienting movies I have ever witnessed is a Communist  Beach Party musical from East Germany made in 1968.

A little background first, a few years ago I found a great documentary called East Side Story at one of the libraries here in St. Petersburg.  I recommend that as well, it tells of a whole genre of musical comedies made behind the Iron Curtain, during the Cold War.  These films were made in Russia, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria, all the Warsaw Pact countries, from 1945 right up until the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union became history.

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The very idea is mind boggling.  Musical comedies with a Socialist/Communist background?  Socialism has never been known for any sense of humor , and setting it to music?  According to East Side Story there were a lot of them made,  and some are exactly what you would think.  One from Bulgaria features a chorus line of girls, wearing work coveralls and dancing with a hammer in one hand and a pipe wrench in the other.  Very, very strange.  What if the Nazis had made musical comedies?  Oh, wait, they did!  But that is a whole other story!

One of the movies discussed in East Side Story looked intriguing.  Hot Summer was made as a deliberate attempt to create a Frankie and Annette Beach Party movie in a Socialist country.  We learn that young people all over the Eastern Bloc, throughout the Cold War, loved anything American, music, television, comic books,  movies.  Rare screenings of a Beach Party movie would brings out hundreds of kids, eager to get a look at Capitalist decadence.

And in the heady days of the Prague Spring, when it appeared that Socialism might loosen up a bit and allow some freedom for people living in those countries, that optimism was injected into Hot Summer, a rousing, feel good musical dedicated to youth, bikinis, the mating ritual, and uh, collective bargaining.

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We start on a high note as Chris Doerk, (pronounced dork, I am not kidding) a major singing star in East Germany of that time period, and 10 other girls sing the title song, and do some very basic choreography in a city square.  And quite frankly I love it, I have watched this movie 3 times all the way through and put it in sometimes just to hear that opening song.  If you watch it you’ll see what I mean, and that song will stay in your head for days afterward, it is wonderful.

The girls are joined by 10 boys who also sing and dance. Then we see the amazing sight of both groups hitch hiking, with their luggage, to the Baltic Sea for their summer vacation.  Did East German truck drivers really pick up 10 people at a time who were hitch hiking?  I have no clue but in this movie they do.

Right from the beginning the boys and girls circle each other like two alien species.  There is constant arguing and insults from both groups, the girls especially spend the whole movie cutting these guys down verbally at every opportunity.   Again, was this normal in Germany at that time?  Or is it a Socialist thing?  No matter, the movie works, in it’s own special way.  Hot Summer plays like a movie made on another planet where boys and girls on summer vacation do NOT automatically fall into each others arms and  find lots of excuses not to.

Chris Doerk’s character in particular is really scary. She reminded me of the Anti-Sex League in George Orwell’s 1984.  This girl is NOT going to get laid and that’s all there is to it! And she doesn’t want anyone else getting laid either, even though some of the girls are swooning at the thought of being with the boys.  She is attractive, don’t get me wrong, but with her dark hair cut severely short and  an unromantic attitude that borders on psychosis she is like an Anti- Doris Day, dancing and singing about how she really doesn’t need a man and men are such jerks anyway, just big over grown babies really. This girl not only has on a chastity belt it’s welded shut and padlocked! And the guys just stand around and smile about this and come up with insulting songs of their own about how they love girls but just can’t trust them.

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Half way through I didn’t think there would even be any kissing, like a Bollywood musical.  No there are some tentative moves toward a little romance, German style, but this movie never comes close to the AIP films it is trying to emulate.  The girls do look good in their bathing suits, and even wear bikinis in some scenes.  But there are none of the leering close-ups of jiggling behinds and bouncing boobs you get in say, Beach Blanket Bingo.

There also is no East German equivalent of Eric Von Zipper and his Rats and Mice, and that really is a pity.  I would love to see how the East German’s would have even attempted the concept of outlaw bikers who also are played for laughs.  No there are no attempts at character’s like Don Rickles, or Buster Keaton, none of that.

But like their American counterparts these are supposed to be teenagers, on a break from high school.  Naturally the youngest looking ones appear to be about 24.  And how do I know for sure there are 10 boys and 11 girls?  Because there is constant counting of heads and making sure they all stay in a group.  Every five minutes  somebody is counting off how many boys or girls are present and how they are a “Collective” damn it, and they need to behave like one!  And not surprisingly there is a not so subtle message that seeking your own happiness is actually pretty selfish.  As long as one person in the collective is not happy what right do you have seeking yours, at the expense of “The Collective”.

I’m not a right winger by any means, but I’m really glad I wasn’t born into a Socialist country.  These kids have to hitch hike to their vacation spot.  And the “resort” they stay at looks more like an Army barracks.  Boys and girls sleep on cots in a big open area with no privacy what so ever.  I’m pretty sure the boys were drinking beer in one scene, where they play cards sitting in the water in beach chairs, and that is the only sign of a party.  The wildest thing they do is steal a boat to take it out on the Baltic, because they can’t afford to rent one.  Those crazy East German kids, what a crew!

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The skipper of the boat complains to the cop who shows up to deal with the situation that these kids “have everything they need!”  They do?  None of them even has a motor scooter, much less a car.  And the character of the cop is really interesting, he is all for the kids, tells the skipper to calm down and try and recall his own youth. They’re only young once, let them have some fun, is the boat damaged?  Chill out gramps!  Probably the most laid back cop in movie history!  The exact opposite of real East German cops in other words

And what is most weird and disorienting about Hot Summer?  It works!  It really is a feel good movie, it is so full of pep and energy you can’t help but get caught  up in the enthusiasm of the moment.  I didn’t think German would be a good language for singing but the music works beautifully, (although it is not even close to rock and roll, sort of amped up lounge music) especially that lovely title song which is reprised at the end before the kids all head back to school.  I would love to have the soundtrack to listen to while driving around St. Petersburg, (what would the rap fans make of it?)

I love hearing German spoken, I find it soothing somehow, and have watched so many German movies, just to hear the dialog, that I can understand quite a bit without the sub titles.  English was derived from German after all.  But at the same time I love French movies, especially their gangster movies, but find their language annoying.  I have no idea what that says about me, but there it is.

The dvd includes a written introduction ” Hot Summer Is Cult” by Claudia Fellmer putting the movie into context with German film making and music of that time, and describing how the movie came about and was produced.

There is also a music video of Chris Doerk  that makes Hot summer look positively main stream.  In it she is wearing a sort of Southern Belle outfit, complete with a parasol and singing about her boy friend, who is a bug collector! There are lots of close-ups of beetles and other insects while Chris sings her song.  It looks from about the same time period as Hot Summer, Chris’s hair is longer and she is wearing white lipstick!  There are also shots of the bug collector flying through the air with his butterfly net!  It only runs about 3 minutes but sort of looks like a David Lynch film if he had been born in East Germany!

The dvd was released by IceStorm/First Run Features and another extra is a long preview of other East German features they are distributing,  all of which look (as Arte Johnson used to say on Laugh-In) very interesting!

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