From Flappers to Nazi youths, Matt Wolf’s film charts the evolution of western culture’s most present sub-group. Betty Wood talked to author Jon Savage about his book’s adaptation for the screen
It’s hard to imagine a world before teenagers, but until the beginning of the twentieth century, there was no adolescence – first you were a child, and then you went to work. With the end of child labour, and the onset of the First World War, a divide emerged between infancy and adulthood, populated by young people rebelling against the disillusionment of war, control and regimentation. And these young people wanted to have fun.
Matt Wolf’s film Teenage tells the story of how the teenager came to be in the first half of the twentieth century, through the eyes of Swing Kids, Nazi Youth, party-girl Flappers and liberated Sub-Debs. Based on the book of the same title by music journalist and author Jon Savage, Betty Wood spoke to Jon ahead of the film’s release.
Betty Wood: Teenager was published in 2007: how did the film come about?
Jon Savage: I’ve worked in television on and off since 1979, and I made a couple of films, including a documentary about Joy Division, and I knew I wanted to turn the book into a film. After publication, I talked to various people and production companies, and they all wanted to change the idea – I didn’t want to do that.
I was introduced to Matt Wolf by a mutual friend. We talked and we met, and he got the idea of the book. Matt’s younger than me – he’s now 31, I’m 60 – and I wanted that difference of the generations to make it interesting and to give it that fresh approach. He’s also based in New York, which is very important as I always saw it as an American story.
Betty: How were you involved in developing the film?
Jon: First we looked at archive footage over a few years, to see whether we had a film – no archive footage, no historical documentary. We watched about 70 or 80 hours of footage over a very long weekend at my home in Wales, and at the end of it we realised we had a film.
After that we started working out the details; single authorial voice over or something different? Whether there’d be reconstructions, etc. Matt and I worked closely on the script. Then Matt went off and filmed the reconstructions and did what directors do, and spent a lot of time working on sound design etc. It really is Matt’s film, but I was very involved in the early production process.
Betty: Wandervogel, Scouting, Jitterbugs – what’s your favourite early 20th century youth movement?
Jon: I loved the Swing kids. There’s a bit of footage in the film from 1938 from Chicago Swing Jamboree, attended by about 200,000 people, and it’s completely intense and insane. It’s an integrated audience of blacks and whites, very revolutionary in America at the time, and the music is just wild! It looks like so much fun. Swing is the first kind of youth culture as we would understand it – it was available to school kids as well as university kids, a whole new world of music and slang and clothes and dancing. It was really exciting.
Betty: Has it become more difficult to engage with ‘teenage’ culture the older you’ve gotten?
Jon: Do you mind? The short answer is no. If you’re going to be a historian, you have to transcend your subject and experience. We all have a youth and we’ve all got opinions about it, but if you’re going to tackle a subject properly in history, you have to step outside your own experience. I wasn’t alive in ’44: I didn’t experience it. It’s an exciting challenge.
A lot of adults think ‘Kids aren’t what they used to be’, or ‘It was better when I was young’, but that’s bullshit really. Each generation has its own time, its own challenges. You can’t just apply the values of your generation to young people today – it’s boring when people do that.
Betty: What were you like as a teenager?
Jon: Until my early 20s I was a dreamy bedroom child, listening to weird music and reading weird books. Then I started going out a lot, I got into punk rock and had a wild time. Because I had a youth, I don’t have a hankering to keep having a youth now. In my own personal life now I’m pretty boring: I don’t go out a lot, I fall asleep on the sofa, I do yoga and walk every day, I don’t drink. BUT when I was younger, I was a very bad boy. My body can’t keep up now!
Betty: War seems to be have been an accelerant in the creation of the ‘teenager’ through disillusioned youth and ‘lost generations’. War has also changed in terms of how we wage it – how is this reflected in today’s teenagers?
Jon: War has become increasingly de-personalised, conducted by drones. I think the fact that we have troops still involved in a conflict is very significant. It sends a really bad message from the government down to young people. The government should be leading by example, it is sending young people off to war. I have intense sympathy with, ex-servicemen. They go through a terrible time.
Because of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, people aren’t totally behind this conflict. I think most British people don’t think highly about it like they do the Second World War, where it was unarguable: Hitler had to be stopped. Now… We don’t have to be involved.
And in many ways I regard [it as] the post-imperial hangover, still thinking we’re a world power. We’re not. We haven’t been since the end of the Second World War. Punk was about that as well – it was basically saying, get over it. I think … It’s more of a miasma than it is something that’s in your face. It encourages violence; young people are being sent out to die.
Looking at the point of view for people who do sign up, you have to give them respect. The First World War was very different: the footage we use in contrast to the troops from the Second World War, they just look so fed up. World War Two, people knew they had to do it; with World War One, people clamoured to go to war. It’s so weird, the difference between that feeling and of course what actually happened. And those who were clamouring for war in 1914 had no idea of what was going to happen to them, and that’s the real tragedy of it.
Betty: The film covers the Hitler Youth movement, and does an excellent job of showing how alluring and ‘rebellious’ Nazism was to some young Germans in the depression, through the eyes of Melita Maschmann. Was this a difficult subject matter to tackle?
Jon: It was. Obviously it’s very problematic: someone asked me yesterday, “Why did you include it?” The Hitler Youth was a youth culture; a key slogan was “Youth will be led by you.”
It was presented to young Germans in 1932-34 as a rebellious thing to do. If you’re doing history, it’s all very well to say of Melita, ‘She’s a horrible little fascist…’ But why did she make those choices? What did she think she was doing, in the context of the times? That’s when you start to understand people. People understandably have a knee-jerk reaction, but you have to think about it. Why did they do it?
Obviously in the film, we make it absolutely clear the whole thing was a complete disaster, which of course it was, and it was very important for us to include it. Matt found it very difficult. Matt is Jewish, and an early version did include Anne Frank. He phoned me up one day, as he was totally creeped out by it, it was so upsetting.
In an earlier version, you saw Hitler two or three times, and I said to Matt, who totally agreed, that it was getting into Nazi-porn– we needed to cut this right down. You only need to see Hitler talking once, just to make the point. We were very aware of not glamourising it, but also for it to be part of the story because it’s an example of how youth can be corralled and corrupted. I think we did it well.
The Nazis delivered people between 12 and 18, bound and gagged into the war machine. They had no responsibility, it all ended really badly. Kids of 13 fighting against Russian tanks, with hardly any weaponry – the Nazis were almost like a suicide cult, they weren’t thinking or caring people at all, they were destroying them and killing them, a bit like today’s suicide bombers.
You’re a music journalist, and music plays an enormous role in the film. Did you feed ideas through to Bradford Cox of Deerhunter, who created the soundtrack?
Jon: No, Matt dealt with Bradford. In the early stage of the film, I sent Matt a disc of stuff I like, not thinking about the film, but just thinking he might like it. It was a mix of Krautrock and ambient, modern electronic music, all of which I really like, and which is also quite dreamy and filmmaker-like.
I was very pleased with how Matt pulled in. He’s done a fantastic job.
We knew we didn’t want to include too much historical music in the film because it just doesn’t sound very good. In an early cut, we had The Dixie Land Jazz Band from about 1917, and it just sounded awful we tried putting effects on it, so the first actual contemporary music really you hear at any length in the film is ‘Till Tom’ by Benny Goodman, from a Hollywood film, so it’s really well recorded and not scratchy. It is a problem when you’re dealing with historical material, how to make that stuff sound good.
Betty: I thought it was interesting that music, rather than cinema, seems to emerge from the film as the biggest influence on youth culture. Was it?
Jon: The problem is of course is that we could have included lots – but don’t forget how much film companies charge to use even tiny amounts of footage. The budget would have doubled to include every film we wanted, and one is always working within these constraints.
Feature films were basically out of it… as it happens there’s not that many feature films from the 1920s; there’s a clip with Clara Bow which is fantastic, and we included a tiny clip of Judy Garland, from one of Andy Hardy film’s – it’s as much as that. Film was massively important for the development of youth culture, but music was as well. And in a way, music moved quicker – films had to be planned, it was a year’s work, as opposed to music, which you had to put together quite quickly and release.
Teenager is in cinemas now. For more information on the film click here