Ku’damm 56 is a thought-provoking period drama, offering a fresh, female perspective of 1950s Berlin.
When a German friend recommended watching a programme about a 1950s family who own a dance school, I had my doubts. Would this be a tiresome, nostalgic piece, showcasing the clichéd spectacle of housewives in aprons and circle skirts? Or, worse still, would it be a trivial watch, depicting the harmless yet banal goings on of the dance school? But luckily, my preconceptions of Ku’damm 56, released in 2016, couldn’t have been more wrong…
Capturing 1956 Berlin in all its colour in just three episodes, the series follows the lives of a family of women. There’s the tyrannical mother, Caterina Schöllack, a conservative figure with high social expectations for her daughters. Through these girls, Helga, Monika and Eva, we see the limited routes available to women, from Helga’s typical housewife role to Eva’s career in nursing. Monika, however, rebels, refusing to comply with the strict ‘domestic science’ institution, where girls were taught how to be the perfect wife. At the heart of the programme is a fabulous Rock & Roll soundtrack. This is not mere background noise - the music and dance of American youth culture threatens to overthrow the regimented foxtrot of polite Berlin society.
Yet Ku’damm 56 is by no means a glossy programme which overlooks Germany’s National Socialist past. Alongside the beautifully shot, chocolate box views of the Kurfürstendamm, we are confronted by the remnants of the war, with its rubble and destruction. Helga, Monika and Eva, the new generation, are shown in many ways to be ignorant of their country’s past. Yet, uncovered in the show is the unending trauma of a Holocaust survivor. Not only this, but behind the decorum of 1950s life, the past threatens to tear down the respectable facades of former Nazis.
Ku’damm also shines a light on the damaging consequences of the repressive roles allotted to men and women in the 1950s. The programme explores the reprehensible treatment of ‘hysterical’ women, featuring electric shock therapy which makes any viewer wince.
Homosexuality too is heart-wrenchingly portrayed. Suffering from this ‘Krankheit’, as it is referred to in the show, a gay character seeks to be treated for his so-called disorder and can only meet with men under the cover of darkness. It is to these issues which Ku’damm 56 does justice.
However, deeply problematic is the programme’s portrayal of rape. Without giving too much away, I was left speechless when a rapist undergoes an apparently miraculous redemption, precipitated by none other than his victim herself. This violent attacker is transformed by her victim’s empathy and seems to be recast as a possible romantic lead. More worrying still is a YouTube video of these ‘lovers’, made by a Ku’damm fan, which, accompanied by romantic music, conveniently airbrushes the relationship into a passionate love story. But does Ku’damm itself reinvent this character, romanticising the acts of a rapist? Or does the director confront us with the reality of 1950s attitudes, where victims were stigmatised and rapists could evade punishment?
The male abuse of a vulnerable woman particularly resonates in 2020, where powerful men have hit the headlines for similar acts of horrific exploitation. Certainly, Ku’damm is not a cosy look at 1950s life. Focusing on sexuality and women’s roles, it’s at times vibrant and uplifting, at others uncomfortable and jarring. Still, it makes compelling viewing and I’m keen to watch the next series, if only to check that the abuser will get the fate he truly deserves.
Ku’damm 56 and 59 are available to watch on ZDFmediathek.