A REVIEW OF THE FILM GUTER JUNGE (2008)
Guter Junge (A Good Boy), directed by Torsten Fischer and starring Sebastian Urzendowsky in the title role, was released on German television in 2008 It is 90 minutes long.
Love in the Fourth Reich ****
Two good-looking boys are flirting. Sven (Sebastian Urzendowsky) encourages Patrick (Sandro Lohmann) to try different poses before his camcorder. A laughing Patrick mischievously flashes his naked bottom at him and blows kisses. It is a charming scene full of laughter and youthful spontaneity. Surely only homophobic dinosaurs could object? But wait, I failed to mention that Sven is 17 and Patrick looks, horror of all horrors, only 13 or 14, an age gap about as grotesque as that between Romeo and his 13-year-old Juliet. Besides, this is the 21st century, not the barbarous Renaissance, and we are looking at this literally through the eyes of Sven’s father Achim (Klaus Behrendt), watching the scene recorded on his son’s camcorder, not through the eyes of the misguided or socially irresponsible bard. By this stage we have been left in no doubt that Achim is a genuinely loving parent, but as in other respects he is a quite ordinary, decent, modern bloke (a divorced taxi driver), he naturally cannot control his visceral revulsion. “You disgusting, dirty pig!” he shouts as he punches his son hard in the face, leading the boy to attempt suicide.
Sven is adamant he loves Patrick and could never therefore hurt him. This failure to see things the correct way unsurprisingly infuriates his father. Achim, whose socially acceptable love life consisting of a failed marriage, a failing relationship and a visit to a prostitute, runs in interesting juxtaposition to Sven’s forbidden one, is certain enough of knowing what real love is to assure his son he knows nothing about it. Unfortunately, Sven is not convinced, possibly because Achim sees no need to offer a rational explanation for something so obvious, and asks his father to lock him up in his bedroom to stop him following his longings for younger boys. Only Achim’s girlfriend Julia realizes what Sven needs is “help”, in other words having his mind reprogrammed enough to understand that what he has experienced as impulses to love are really so unspeakably evil that he will no longer wish to act on them, and may thereby come to terms with an emotionally and sexually sterile life. But silly Achim won’t subscribe to the modern dogma of immutable orientation and clings with predictably tragic consequences to the belief his son can be changed.
There is one serious incongruity, which nearly derails this as a story with clear meaning. Almost the entire story of Sven’s love life concerns the clearly pubescent Patrick, who is not only encouraging rather than merely consenting, but even after his mother discovers enough of the truth to denounce Sven and Sven calls off their friendship, continues to pursue him to his home and to try to undermine his resolve with dazzling smiles and more blown kisses. And yet what actually seals Sven’s fate is picking up on a train and attempting to seduce a boy of ten who looks even younger and obviously uncomfortable. Though Achim warns Sven he could have gone to prison or a mental asylum for what he did with Patrick, it would require looking at their story with myopically jaundice-tinted 21st-century glasses to see Sven rather than society as the abuser, if this had really happened to him. The ten-year-old who is frightened enough to run away is a very different matter and out of character. It is as if the script-writer realized at the last moment that what he had written looked dangerously discernible as an indictment of society rather than a look into the quandary of how to control Sven, so brought in the little-boy scene in a clumsy effort to restore the balance.
There were a couple of decades halfway between the Third Reich and today when most Germans’ reactions to Sven’s feelings for Patrick would have been far more indulgent. Germany and other countries that had experienced National Socialist rule were then what were derisively known as permissive societies, which is to say they were taking deeply to heart the lessons from the generation before and flirting with freedom and toleration. Guter Junge illustrates how thoroughly these lessons have now been forgotten. Even as I write, the grandchildren of the Third Reich have whipped themselves up into such fury that they may not be able to send one of their M.P.s to prison for having pictures of naked boys innocently playing out of doors (once an everyday sight in the warmer parts of the world), that they are introducing new thought-crime laws to imprison anyone having pictures of even clothed children that, in the imagination of their judges, are felt to be erotic. I am sure Herr Hitler would be proud of them; without doubt it will help restore prison numbers to the impressive levels of his day.
Watching this film, it is much easier to understand how ordinary Germans could once have felt such effortless hatred and contempt for innocent Jews; it is a deeply chilling reminder of how easily people who believe in their own decency can be led into such a total lack of sympathy or understanding for those classed as “others” that they feel sure of seeing wrong where there is none.
The comparisons Guter Junge impels me to make with the Third Reich are an indictment of global culture today rather than of Germans in particular. The latter are still more restrained and humane than many in their adoption of the particular mania that ruins Sven’s life: in none of the three countries most responsible for ending the Third Reich, for example, would it be still possible to produce a film for television nearly as honest and neutral as this mostly is on the subject of Greek love. It is especially depressing though to see good lessons forgotten where they had for a while been well learned.
The film is excellently acted by the main protagonists. The varied music is especially well chosen and holds the audience’s attention during the more meandering scenes of this good but very depressing story.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on imdb.com and amazon.com on 20 December 2014. Slightly reworded for this website 3 December 2021.
The best comments will be collected at Letters To The Editor (some editing may be involved)
Sam Hall 6 December 2021
Was Sven’s incident with the ten-year-old an incongruity or the end result of the physical and mental pummeling he’d endured – mainly at the hands of a father who’d shown no interest in his son until charged with the mission of extirpating his sexuality and capacity to love. The fact that the father is not a bad man, develops a genuine concern for his son, is only evidence of this film’s determination to leave no screw unturned.
In such a grim film, the brief, albeit quickly-snuffed, relationship between Sven and Patrick is the most shocking incongruity – a genuine moment of brightness amid the relentless gloom. But Patrick’s winning, infectious smile cannot, in this world, catch on, and is duly cured.
Sven was an averagely mixed up seventeen-year-old youth, fatherless and a bit adrift. His penchant for shaving his body hair showed his trepidation at approaching manhood. To have taken on a senior role in a romantic relationship with the rather love-struck Patrick seemed set to offer both boys a fair helping of what they clearly needed.
So it was incredibly sad, late in the film, to see Sven’s disturbed attempt to recreate the bright Patrick-moment with an unknown, uncomprehending child. By hook or by crook we Frankensteinian brutes will create the monsters we so inexplicably crave.
It’s notable how repulsive the adult world is in this film. Disengaged for the most part, they hover oppressively and voyeuristically over Sven’s life, chortling over his masturbation and bathroom habits. All good fun, apparently, as long as the young man remains safely tucked away in his claustrophobic little room. Call us when you’ve met a nice girl.
These “grown-ups” are nothing but a bunch of insecure, past-it, hook-up loafers, still boozily trying to recapture the romantic thrills which properly belong to youth. Not only do they refuse to grow up, they sure as hell aren’t going to let any young whelps get the jump on them.
The final scene is the perfect apotheosis of despair this film courts from the start. A maximum security lockdown, father staring blankly into dead air, Sven lost, dislocated, his physical location no longer traceable or relevant. The memory of him, already fading, is superimposed on our collective gargantuan life-sentence of cold state security – a fitting endpoint and inevitable destination of today’s whole damn shooting match.