“Before Pearl Harbor, I was playing with paper dolls… After Pearl Harbor I never played with dolls again.” Matt Wolf can think of several favorite quotes from his new documentary, Teenage. Based on British writer Jon Savage’s book of the same name, Teenage recounts the birth of the teenager, but in a different way than one might expect. There are no Teddy Boys and no clips from Rebel Without A Cause or Blackboard Jungle. Rather, the film begins during the Industrial Age towards the end of the 19th century, and ends when the term enters popular vernacular in 1944.
“I think the foundation of the film is at the end of World War I; young people were all of a sudden perceived as this social problem,” Wolf explains. “They’re funneled into this war. Nobody knows what’s going to happen [and] by the end of it young people are massacred. They’re used as cannon fodder. That’s what really creates the generation gap and sets up the tension that drives our story, and that still exists today between adults and young people.”
Ambitious in scope, Teenage touches on myriad groups of youths in Germany, Britain, and the US. Four characters recur throughout the film: a British beauty and “Bright Young Person” named Brenda Deen Paul, a member of the Hitler Youth named Melita Maschmann, a black Boy Scout named Warren Wall, and Tommie Scheel, a member of a group of teenagers who rebelled against Hitler through American swing music known as the “Hamburg Swings.” These characters, however, are not the sole focus: Teenage also includes 19th century hooligans, the Wandervogel, the “Lost Generation,” flappers and Flaming Youth, the “Victory girls” of WWII, and “jitterbugs” and swing kids.
Some of the footage is reenacted, but much of it is pulled from archives and private collections. One particularly memorable video features the future British Fascist Party leader and friend of Hitler, Oswald Mosley, and his friends mock-acting in drag. The narration is limited to extracts from diaries and mémoires, voiced by actors Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Julia Hummer, and Jesse Usher.
We sat down with director Matt Wolf, co-writer Jon Savage, and producer Jason Schwartzman to discuss what it means to be a teenager.
EMMA BROWN: What were your biggest concerns as a teenager?
JON SAVAGE: Trying to get along with my parents was one. Trying not to get into real trouble at school was another one. Trying to find a balance between what my parents and my school expected of me, and what I wanted. We go into [that] in the film, now that I think about it: adults trying to control kids and kids trying to get some self-determination. I knew I didn’t want to be what my parents wanted me to be—if you don’t want to be what your parents want you to be, what are you going to be?
BROWN: What did your parents want you to be?
SAVAGE: [sighs] Oh, they wanted me to be an accountant or a lawyer. [laughs] [to Jason Schwartzman] Did your parents want you to be anything?
JASON SCHWARTZMAN: Just to get an education, was a big thing. So I didn’t come through on that one. [all laugh]
SAVAGE: How about you, Matt, did your parents want you to be anything?
MATT WOLF: I was defining my independence in an overachiever kind of way, as a political activist. I was a gay rights activist when I was 14 and started making videos when I was 16. I was determined to move to New York. My parents were like, “Okay!”
BROWN: How did you choose which characters from Jon’s book to focus on?
SAVAGE: I think it was an organic process.
WOLF: Yeah. I see the four characters as this composite portrait of the teenager who’s about to be born. I really love how they contrast each other. You have a 1920s Lindsay Lohan-type figure [Brenda Deen Paul]—the drug addict who wants to be famous. You have the political person in Melita Maschmann. You have the punk in Tommie Scheel. Then you have a do-gooder, overachiever who just wants to fit in, but is oppressed because of race. We had to strike a balance between country and era and class and race, and also sensibility. We wanted characters who we had a lot of information on so that we could generate a lot of details from primary sources. Most of the details are not imagined, but are based on truth.
BROWN: When you wrote your book, Jon, which character did you start with?
SAVAGE: One of the first things I said to Matt was, I’d like us to get us to 1920 within five minutes of the film starting. Because of the footage, obviously, a film was very different from the book. I started the book with two characters, both in 1875. The first was a young lady called Marie Bashkirtseff, who you may know about. Marie’s book is fantastic; there are these lines that leap out. She says, “I want to be famous, I want to do this.” She represents —this is part of the dialectic of the film—she represents a kind of idealized teen. The achieving teen. The teen that adults can hold up and say—
WOLF: You are the future.
SAVAGE: And the future’s going to be great. The other kid is the [14-year-old] mass murder Jesse Pomeroy, who looks like Robbie Williams. Perhaps I ought not to say that, but in the picture in the front of the book, he looks just like Robbie Williams.
WOLF: And he represents a hell.
SAVAGE: And the way that adults look at youth as a nightmare. Still now, in the media, you either get the idealized youth, or you get, “Oh my god, look at kids today, they’re killing people.”
BROWN: I found it a bit strange that Marie was idealized youth, because her diary, which she later published as a book, started off as sort of frivolous— “I have a crush on this boy.”
WOLF: She’s a very precocious figure. She was a superstar as a teenager for publishing this blockbuster book.
SAVAGE: And it was just at the emergence of youth being defined as a separate stage. Someone like [19th and early 20th century psychologist] G. Stanley Hall, who’s one of the crucial definers of that stage of life, writes about her in his book and saying she is an example of this stage of life and how good it can be.
BROWN: But you didn’t include her in the film because there just wasn’t enough footage from that time?
WOLF: With this whole film, we had this kind of rule that anything that we made a story about had to have a basis in archival footage. Even the characters that we brought to life, like Tommie Scheel, I wasn’t going to just completely shoot the world of Tommie Scheel. It needed to integrate seamlessly with archival footage to lend authenticity. We had to be quite selective in terms of what characters we chose, to kind of focus in on them.
SAVAGE: [Tommie Scheel] is incredibly important, because those kids, the Hamburg Swings, were doing what kids do now: they’re playing records, they’re having fun, hanging out, probably having sex. Because they’re living in Nazi Germany, it was treasonous. It was against the regime and they were packed off to concentration camps. It was an example of the kind of tensions in the film—the struggle of young people to get some sort of freedom.
WOLF: The reason that Hitler and the WWII experience of Germany is so important to our story is that Hitler both empowered and destroyed young people like nobody else in history. He put them at the center of a social movement to rehabilitate and re-imagine a country that was in incredible trouble. He saw them as an opportunity to advance very evil political goals, and he destroyed them.
BROWN: Do you think that youth needs a struggle to define itself?
SAVAGE: I think it’s inevitable. I think kids now get on better with their parents; there was a real generation gap in my youth. The simple fact of being the young person, of coming out into the world, is a struggle in itself. You’re protected by your parents and your peers and your school and then, suddenly, you’re out in the big wide world and it’s really tough. That’s always going to be a struggle.
BROWN: When did you first have that moment of “I’m out in the big bad world and it’s really difficult?”
SAVAGE: [laughs] Well, I was training to be a lawyer. Oh man, it was so bad. I was working in the city of London and going to punk shows at the same time. It was really, really tough. And that’s why I identified with punk, because I was desperate. How about you, Matt?
WOLF: I published the underground newspaper in my high school, and I used it as a platform to come out as gay. I published an article that a Christian student wrote about why homosexuality is a sin. I dropped a thousand copies into the center of my high school and just went to the bathroom and just barfed.
SAVAGE: [laughs] That’s great.
WOLF: I came out, and then the newspapers were spread everywhere, all over the floors. Every class I had.
SCHWARTZMAN: Holy shit.
BROWN: That is so brave.
WOLF: I didn’t think of it that way. I didn’t have any friends. I just wanted to express myself and I was good at writing.
SAVAGE: There’s also nothing like the desperation you have at that period. The same as [Matt], I did a fanzine and got involved with punk. Everybody hated it. You’ve got that energy. You’ve got that need. You just don’t care, do you?
WOLF: No. Now, as we make things and put them out in the world, we think about what other people will think of them. As a teenager, that was just not on my mind. It was more of a pure, I need to get these ideas, opinions, feelings out on my own terms. I see that in characters in the film too, in a way.
BROWN: And what about you, Jason? When was your “I’m out in the real world” moment?
SCHWARTZMAN: There’s two. My dad died when I was 13. I remember I had a band, my band was already playing at that point, and we had our band practice. Usually, when I’d play my drums, my dad would come down and tell me I was being too loud. I remember when my band was playing, I had to go get something from upstairs. I went upstairs and I heard how loud it was in the house. I thought, “Oh, god, we’re gonna get yelled at.” Then I thought, “No one’s going to come anymore. I have to manage the levels now.”‘
And then, in LA, where I grew up, at 15, you have to go to a Driver’s Ed type class if you have any hope of having a license. Then you take a student driver car and there’s a person next to you who’s an adult teacher, and you go driving. I remember reading a book about how to drive, but then the guy picks you up, you get in the seat and turn on your blinker, and then you just go. I remember thinking, “They’re older and they know how to drive and I’m 15, I don’t know how to do this!” It’s a horrifying feeling. It’s just very not right. I’m young, I need to be protected.
BROWN: Do you think nostalgia is a bigger part of being a teenager today? A lot of the teenagers in your film make statements along the lines of “we are the future.”
WOLF: This is an idea that John and I had. In the ’70s, he saw young punks taking thrift clothes from previous eras and cutting them up and reassembling them with safety pins. He called it living collage. I think it’s a real analogy for the way that all teenagers—especially alternative, against the-grain-teenagers—form their own identity: they absorb cultural material and information like sponges and re-mix it up into something that feels completely new to them. I don’t wish I lived in the ’40s, but in the whole style of the film it’s about emulating this teenage paradigm of picking and choosing things from the past and experiencing it and internalizing it in a new way that feels contemporary and fresh.
SCHWARTZMAN: Do you wish that you could live in a different time? Are you nostalgic?
BROWN: I’m often nostalgic, but I don’t wish that I could live in a different time, because I’m a woman.
WOLF: That’s true.
SAVAGE: That’s a good point. Being gay, same deal, really. I do think that people now, in Britain and in America, are afraid of the future—don’t want to think about the future.
WOLF: The future is very apocalyptic.
SAVAGE: Or adults are. Hence all the zombie movies.
SCHWARTZMAN: The only time I feel like I don’t see it is in technology—young people who push forward new apps or new ways to make air conditioning turn on and off based on your body temperature.
WOLF: You hear about “retromania” and the argument that our culture’s obsession with the past prevents people from truly thinking forward and being innovative—
SAVAGE: I don’t buy it.
SCHWARTZMAN: Yeah, I don’t buy it.
WOLF: When we do things that are innovative, it’s a combination of indulging in certain kinds of retro-nostalgia, but also innovating upon those traditions.