Movies + TV

Teenage: An Interview With Jon Savage & Matt Wolf

A clip from the new documentary and some thoughts on the power of youth movements.

The trailer for Teenage.



If you’re planning to see the new documentary Teenage, which is out March 14 in the U.S. and now showing in select cinemas in the UK, definitely bring a notebook and pen. The first time I watched it, I filled pages with notes on the teen movements I learned about! It’s based on a book of the same name by the British punk historian Jon Savage, which outlines the development of the concept of “teenagers” from 1900 to 1945 and the hidden histories of young people who made powerful contributions to society and culture during that period.

The movie, directed by Matt Wolf, lays out how Germany’s most infamous collective of young people, the Hitler Youth, was created by the Nazis in order to direct the power of teen determination in their favor. I loved the idealism of the German Wandervogel, a group of teens who longed to return to nature after the horrors of World War I; the tenacity of Hamburg’s World War II–era Swing Kids, who flouted the law and partied to verboten American swing music; and the unwavering determination of the White Rose, a student organization from Munich that fearlessly spread anti-Nazi propaganda (and whose members were eventually executed for their activism).

The coolest part of the movie, which also explores American and British teen subcultures, is how it subtly positions teenage girls as the ultimate revolutionaries, as in the stories of White Rose member Sophie Scholl and the British hedonist Brenda Dean Paul. Although the movie ends just after WWII, the world-changing powers of teenagers (especially teenage girls) that gathered force during the first half of the 20th century can lives on today, perhaps more than ever.

I recently spoke with Jon and Matt about their inspirations and goals for Teenage, the importance of taking young people seriously, and what has—and hasn’t—changed about teenage life in the past 100 years.


LAURA SNAPES: I find it hilarious when adults freak out over selfies, as if the concept of image-conscious teenagers were anything new. Your book and film tell the story of Brenda Dean Paul, a 1920s socialite who was notorious for being a narcissist.

JON SAVAGE, author: People talk a whole lot of crap. Brenda is a fascinating character. She published a wonderful biography in 1935, and a lot of the stuff in her section comes directly from that book.

And the footage of the Hamburg Swing Kids that you used in the film came from home movies, right?

Yes. I think it was shot by rich kids, since they had their own camera. It’s extraordinary that it exists. In constructing the film, we had a problem: During these stages of youth culture’s development, almost all the footage of teenagers was by adults, from an adult perspective, so if we were going to show the dialectic between the adult perspective and the teenage perspective, we had to get it from [teenagers’ home movies], diaries, and autobiographies.

We didn’t want the material to be a dry, adult voiceover–type thing where you’re being told. We wanted to place you in the state of what it was really like to be a young person in these particular times, places, struggles, and situations, and give you some emotional taste of that. Otherwise, [the story] would have been lifeless and dead, and being a teenager is very emotional—you feel things very keenly then. What happens in your adolescence and teenage years stays with you for the rest of your life.

Based on your research and your personal experiences, do you think there were times where teenagers were more valued in the wider culture?

Oh, god, no. It was all ghastly. I was 16 in ’69, at the tail end of the hippie thing, and I remember adults looking at me disapprovingly because I had long hair. I used to go around by myself a lot, and I’d scowl at them—I was pretty sulky. I remember feeling very disapproved of.

But of course there are always adults who want to encourage you, too. When I interact with adolescents now, I regard it as my job to pass on information—not to say, “Oh, we were much cooler than you.” That’s completely irrelevant. Each generation has its own circumstance and its own task.

I was a rural teenage girl who couldn’t find like-minded peers that easily, and alienation fed so much of my identity. Do you think teenagers experience isolation in the same way now that they can interact with one another online?

You’re always going to have alienated adolescents. That doesn’t change. If you can survive that without any major damage, it actually gives you a lot of power. When you’re a teenager, you’re tasked with engaging with your peers rather than your parents, and the next step is to disengage from your peers and form your own identity, which is absolutely crucial. It’s always the marginalized weirdos that I’m interested in—those are the people who come up with interesting ideas and good art. I never wanted to be normal. I thought it was so boring.

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9 Comments

  • Jes February 6th, 2014 7:17 PM

    I feel like learning about the history of teenagers will be like learning about my great grandparents and great great grandparents. It will be a connection to people with whom I have a connection. I can’t wait to see this movie!

  • Beatrice February 6th, 2014 7:34 PM

    Wow I never thought of featuring someone like Savage, but what a fantastic choice. England’s Dreaming taught me everything I know about punk history.

    http://fromthekittywell.blogspot.com/

  • NotReallyChristian February 6th, 2014 8:14 PM

    Oh my God I was SO obsessed with this book when it came out. It was the year I turned 16, and I would go into the bookshop every week to sneak-read parts of it (I hid one behind the other books between visits so it would always be My Copy) and then I finally bought it myself and was reading it ALL the time during my GCSEs. Hopefully the film is good too but the book is just packed with SO much information, it’s kind of long but really gripping and just totally amazing. Really for years I sort of thought of it as one of my special books that no one else knew about (even though I’m sure it sold a lot and whatever, no one else I knew had ever read it) and part of me feels weird that people will see the movie and read the book and stuff. So maybe don’t read it, OK? Ok.

    P.s. I’ve always had a very intense relationship with books …

  • TessAnnesley February 6th, 2014 8:19 PM

    OH MY GOD
    I HAVE WANTED TO MAKE A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT ALL THOSE GERMAN KIDS FOR YEARS
    I BET THEY DID IT BETTER THAN ME
    SO KEEN TO SEE IT

  • katiekatie February 6th, 2014 8:25 PM

    I am an alternative, politically conscious, aesthetically innovative, smart, sassy girl & i will see this movie ! :)

  • Lascelles February 6th, 2014 9:39 PM

    1875 to 1945. Not 19. Welcome to Rookie Laura :D That was an interesting read.

  • Soupboy February 7th, 2014 12:45 AM

    Did they remake the trailer? Because I remember seeing a different version that I never found again.

    One of my English teachers gave me a $25 dollar giftcard to amazon a year ago and I bought the book. It’s actually right next to me. I read the first chapter and now after all this I’m definitely going to finished it!

    I couldn’t be happier with this interview and the actual film. I’m glad someone is capturing, bring out, and putting it out into the big world on how teenagers are and will ALWAYS be part of a revolution. WE ARE EVOLUTION!

    “Our teachers and our parents didn’t understand us…….we knew who we were the time had come to declare it” THAT IS SO FUCKING PUNK!!!!

    Hazel also interview them: http://blog.urbanoutfitters.com/blog/teenage_film_interview

  • Chorvelynne February 7th, 2014 4:46 AM

    Interesting! I must watch this!

  • addie February 7th, 2014 11:44 PM

    I saw this at a local film festival and it absolutely captivated me- the narrative is engaging, the footage is beautiful, and the entire concept is just so interesting to me. I would very much recommend this to everyone who’s considering seeing it! I’m definitely going to see it again when it comes to theaters.