Painted lips, slicked-back hair and pumping fists form the core of Matt Wolf's documentary Teenage, an impressionistic history of how our concept of the teenager came to be. Composed almost entirely of dazzling archival footage — young people laboring, exercising, fighting, dancing, drinking and playing — the film traces the history of the teenager from the late 19th century to 1945.
It's an impressive journey: The film winds through Europe and the United States, both World Wars and many subcultures to get to the birth of the teenager in its recognizable form today. But 78 minutes and a lot of black and white later comes the realization that we're not really any closer to understanding the teenager, past or present.
Footage from England, Germany and America composes most of the film, which covers various forms of youth identities, from juvenile delinquents, flappers and Hitler Youth to jitterbugs, sub-debs and victory girls. Teenage progresses chronologically, hopping across the Atlantic so many times it's hard to keep track of what country's actually on the screen. Though transitions are sometimes marked, more often than not footage of one country simply blends into footage from another.
In one successful juxtaposition, an FDR speech about America's youth, running over images of well-dressed and carefree American teenagers, is directly followed by footage of a youthful crowd attending a Nazi rally. But in another instance, footage of American and English flappers of the 1920s runs up against images of the nature-loving Vandervogel, then back again to American flappers and imitators of actor Rudolph Valentino, with only accented voiceovers as indicators that our location has changed. (Four actors, including Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw, provide narration.) This is presumably meant to show the similarities of youth across national borders, but its main effect is disorientation.
As entrancing as the images are, and as interesting as the history may be, the material of Teenage doesn't easily lend itself to narrative, which is where a few innovative scenes come into play. Interspersed with the archival footage are four segments with actors based on real people: British flapper Brenda Dean Paul, Hitler Youth member Melita Maschmann, rebellious German Tommie Scheel, and African-American Boy Scout Warren Wall. Filmed in color but with just enough vintage effects applied that they look like the rest of the film, these short segments zero in on figures particularly indicative of their time, lending some personality to what would otherwise be a film full of anonymous black-and-white bodies.
At 19, Brenda Dean Paul is the life of the 1926 British flapper scene before she develops a morphine addiction and falls prey to societal shunning. Around the same time, Tommie Scheel is part of the Hamburg Swings, a group of friends who reject the dominance of the Hitler Youth, play smuggled American records at their secret parties, and end up in trouble with the Gestapo.
Though a number of factors contributed to the birth of the teenager, Teenage focuses on two forces in particular: consumerism, primarily seen through an obsession with American music; and, perhaps more notably, the impact of World Wars I and II and the various labor programs which readied youth to fight in them. While teenagers are generally associated with cultural consumption — of fashion, music, film and so on — their labor and role in the World Wars is often overlooked in the development contemporary youth culture.
This thread begins in England, where rapid urban industrialization, evolving child labor laws, and a lack of compulsory education left children to wander the streets, form gangs and commit sometimes heinous crimes. The Boy Scouts, founded by Englishman Robert Baden-Powell in 1908, had the double advantage of occupying youth and preparing them for military service. Later, in the Great Depression of the '30s, Roosevelt started the Civilian Conservation Corps, also designed to keep young men busy, employed and in good physical condition.
In this vein comes the most surprising — and chilling — part of the teenager's history. Around the same time as FDR's employment program, millions of young Germans searching for community, adventure and something to do, enrolled in the Hitler Youth. Though ostensibly more focused on recreation than on premilitary training, the Hitler Youth were obsessed with exercise, physical condition and bonding with their "Aryan" countrymen.
Underscoring the initial popularity of the National Socialist Party among German youth is this acknowledgement from Hitler: "When an opponent says 'I will not come over to your side,' I calmly say, 'Your child belongs to us already.'" But as scary as this piece of history is, we're left wondering exactly how it contributed to the birth of the modern teenager, if at all.
Teenage certainly has a point of view, but the mechanics of its argument are buried beneath washed-out images and soft voiceovers. Part of this fuzziness is due to the film's adaptation from Jon Savage's 2007 book of the same name, a massive, obsessively researched history (which, coincidentally, Savage wrote after a documentary series on the topic fell through). In serving as a complement to the book, Teenage aims more for atmosphere than for evidence, providing a meditative rather than an analytic argument. This is assisted by the entrancing, sometimes ethereal music of Bradford Cox, of Atlas Sound and Deerhunter fame, which helps unify the disparate images into a coherent force. But for those wishing to more fully understand the history of the teenager, the film is fairly dependent on the book, for which it nearly serves as a very long, promotional video.
Despite its polemical weakness, Teenage is an enveloping experience, a reminder of history's power in shaping what appear to be cultural constants. The film casts a spell comparable to that of a youthful daze, dragging the viewer along from dance party to battleground, uncovering a relatively unexamined past. If only it gave us the tools to comprehend it.