Summer of ’44 (Die Freibadclique)

Germany (2017) Dir. Friedemann Fromm

Teenagers in any country in most eras were more interested in living their lives and having fun than being concerned with what the adults were up to do, and this extends to the youth of Germany during World War II. With no interest in Hitler’s campaign, they are about to find the war is to change their lives in others ways.

Five 16 year-old friends – Onkel (Jonathan Berlin), Knuffke (Theo Trebs), Bubu (Andreas Warmbrunn), Zungenkuss (Joscha Eißen), and Hosenmacher (Laurenz Lerch) – known as the Poolside Clique, are enjoying their lazy days in the summer of 1944. But they are about to experience a rude awakening when they all missed their call-up to the Hitler youth army and are forced to attend by the Waffen SS.

Now serving at the western front, Hosenmacher is killed by an air attack, just as Onkel and Knuffke manage to secure their release by blackmailing their general. But before they can return home, the remaining four are split into two with only Onkel and Bubu making it back and Knuffke and Hosenmacher missing and thought dead. This was just the start of the big changes to their lives.

Before we get into the review I have to explain how the DVD cover art and plot synopsis created the impression this was going to be a very different film from what we actually get. The additional legend “The Last Battle for Germany” and the imagery of Onkle with a gun and German tanks is also very misleading, as this is actually closer to a coming-of-age tale that is low on actual combat sequences.

Perhaps it was thought the original German poster of the five friends topless at poolside and the title The Poolside Clique wouldn’t be as enticing for international audiences, but that doesn’t make the deception any less egregious. The film is based on the novel by Oliver Storz and was in fact a TV movie in its native Germany which shows in certain aspects of the presentation, like the credits and awkward editing.

Director Friedemann Fromm opens with a blood covered Onkle running through the rain at night with a gun in his hand, but we have to wait until the end of the film to find out what is actually happening. However, Fromm teases us with quick flashes of the scenes either surrounding or leading to this moment to ramp up the interest, though the pieces mostly fall into place the further along into the film it is before the big reveal.

With the protagonist being teenagers, we are afforded a different perspective for telling what feels like another WW II story in a bulging catalogue of them. For instance, the five friends seem to be living a rather peaceful, stress-free existence despite the ongoing global chaos. The German army is desperate for more manpower, they get the youth to volunteer by telling them they need a mandatory X-ray examination then bully them into signing up.

A number of Eric von Stroheim types bark orders and insults at full volume, hardly the best way to motivate your own soldiers, which prompts the lads to rebel and find a way to get sent home. More trouble arises however – Onkle and Bubu become deserters after being reassigned to another squad, and Knuffke, now missing an eye, is working as a driver for a top Polish aide’s wife Gunda (Vica Kerekes).

Since we are dealing a bunch of sexed up teens, their libidos lead them all into scrapes, heightened by the fact the war is still ongoing but still could have occurred under any other circumstances. I assume the narrative is that teens will be teens regardless of the situation and forcing them to grow up to suit a distorted and pernicious ideal has far-reaching consequences.

I don’t know exactly if this could be considered an anti-war story per se, but it does make the most of its period setting to offer another appraisal of its futility and emotional destruction of the innocent. War makes monsters of us all, and this story proposes the young aren’t immune from this, and explores the folly of how their youth is taken from them and for what?

However, there is a tiny snag in how the characters may be 16 but most of the cast will never see 25 again, not to mention they all act in a very adult manner, although we can possibly put that down to the fact the teenager as we know it is a decade or so away from coming into being. Their reasoned, philosophical objections to fighting and war, cleverly thought out plans to avoid this, and how they address their issues later on does admittedly goes long way to ruining this illusion.

Evidence of this being a TV movie is found in the structure of the storytelling, where it is easy to see how this would have been broken up by commercial breaks. As such, this has a slight episodic feel to it, with the story seemingly progressing in great leaps rather than incremental steps. The second half has a sense of detachment to the first half, with the war no longer a factor it is barely mentioned, save for one poignant reference in the last scene.

Yet, as much as we would hope for younger actors to make this more credible, the nudity, sexual content and the fact the lads all drink and smoke like adults wouldn’t be possible with a real aged cast. Therefore, we make do with the fine bunch assembled to embody Storz’s characters for the screen, it’s a shame that only Onkle and Knuffke really get any proper development arcs with Bubu a distant third.

Summer of ’44 probably would be better as series considering the breadth of the story being told can’t be successfully contained to just 104 minutes. If you don’t pay attention to the fraudulent DVD artwork, this might appeal as an occasionally stirring human drama.