Director: Reinhard Hauff (West Germany). Year of Release: 1988
A young woman from the provinces with a Farrah Fawcett perm is just arriving at Berlin’s Zoo station. She is confused that the Berliner U-Bahn (underground train) has sections where the train goes overground. More worryingly, everything in the station is too loud, too hectic, too impersonal. She tries asking passers-by how she gets to Kreuzberg, but everyone is too busy and involved in their own business to give her the time of day.
All of a sudden, everyone bursts into song. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we have wandered into a musical. We see groups of businessmen, of alcoholic beggars, of punks, and of construction workers, all standing side-by-side, singing and dancing. You may be inured to the conventions of musicals and fine with this. For me, it reflects a larger problem I had with the film – there are a lot of individual characters, many of whom have speaking parts, but its hard to distinguish between them.
So, what’s it all about? For better or worst, this is a film which can be summed up in its brief online description:
“Film version of the musical by the same name: Sunnie, a girl from the province, comes to Berlin to meet rock star Johnnie who had given her his address after a concert. On the subway to Kreuzberg, Sunnie becomes acquainted with a couple of strange people, among them ‘asphalt cowboy’ Bambi. Bambi tells Sunnie that Johnnie’s address in Kreuzberg does not exist. Together, Sunnie and Bambi try to find the rock star in bustling metropolitan Berlin.” That’s about it.
Linie 1 is based on the incredibly successful stage musical by the wonderful Grips theatre, based in Moabit, North Berlin. This is a theatre which I wholeheartedly recommend, and its probably worth watching Linie 1 there. But you can achieve different things with different media. Some things work on stage which feel laboured on screen (and vice versa, of course). Linie 1, the film, rarely feels more than an unsuccessful attempt to fit the rhythms of a stage play into the constrictions of film.
You also feel the sense of youth theatre from the off. Young actors wear clothes that are better suited to people slightly older than them – the punks – or 2-3 times their age – the strange lad in a trilby and trench coat. It is all slightly distracting, like someone’s been spending too much time in the dressing up box. For some reason, this sort of thing tends to work in the theatre, but on screen it is a great distraction.
There is also the problem that quite literally, the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It starts at Bahnhof Zoo, goes to Schlesisches Tor (the final station in West Berlin) then returns to Zoo, stopping off at the odd station on Linie 1. All scenes take place either in the train or inside a station. This is ideal for the limitations of a stage play, which is unable to show a variety of different locations. In a film, it’s all too static.
The plot, such as it is, is episodic. With the help of some strangers, Sunnie travels over Berlin (well, the parts covered by Linie 1), trying to find Johnnie. On her way, she meets a series of quirky characters who either admonish her or give her advice. Generally speaking, most characters who appear in one scene disappear, never to be seen again, apart from a cast reunion in one of the final song and dance numbers.
The most memorable meeting is with the Wilmersdorf Widows, men in drag playing reactionary old women moaning about how things were much better in the good old days. They are confronted by a woman on the train who says that unlike theirs, her father wasn’t a Nazi. It’s a neat little scene, which again could work well on stage, but here it feels like something to be get over with before we move onto the next scene which os about something else entirely.
My final gripe (and I realise I may be coming over as a Wilmersdorf widow here) is that a musical lives or dies by how good the songs are. Yet ask me now, around an hour after I left the cinema, to sing you any of the songs in Linie 1, and I couldn’t. I do remember a rap halfway through which showed that although German hip hop is now quite sophisticated, once upon a time it was a white man emoting in the same repetitive whiny voice over the sound of a simple beatbox.
For all this, I can see why people would enjoy Linie 1. There’s a nostalgia element on so different levels – for people who remember West Berlin (I don’t), who saw the stage musical way back when (I didn’t), or just have a fondness for 1980s films (not really). It’s a feel-good film, not just because of the sentimental ending, but because it helps people remember a time when things seemed less complicated.
But you know the feeling when you go to a party, and it’s not just that you don’t know anyone, but you don’t even know how to start a conversation with the people there? That was, basically, my feeling. I just couldn’t work out what we had in common, what we could talk about. I’m positive that there were things in there that I fully missed, and that this is entirely my problem, but ultimately, I just didn’t get it.