Color, 1967, 91 mins. / Directed by Joachim Hasler / Starring Frank Sch÷bel, Chris Doerk, Regine Albrecht, Madeleine Lierck

Format: DVD - First Run Features (MSRP $29.95) / Letterboxed (2.35:1) / Dolby Digital 2.0

How can a movie be thoroughly innocuous and compellingly weird at the same time? Look no further than Hot Summer (Heisser Sommer), an East German rendition of the Frankie and Annette beach musicals pouring out from AIP during the 1960s. Apparently the Cold War and the grip of Communism in East Berlin had little effect on the spirits of beachgoing youths who, according to this film, have little to think about besides kissing members of the opposite sex and dancing around in the countryside.

There isn't much actual plot to go around, but here's the idea. A group of nineteen Berlin "teens" decide to take a break from the "long, hot summer" in the city and hit the Baltic sea for some sun, romance, and frolicking in the waves. Crop-haired Stupsi (German pop star Chris Doerk) is wary of the boys and mockingly sings with her female companions about the wiles of those naughty rascals, while the boys (including hip-twisting singer Frank Sch÷bel) bicker and fight about who gets to pair up with whom once they meet the girls again at the ocean. Along the way boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and various couples dance in front of windmills, hop around inside haystacks, and sing to a comical St. Bernard. It's all very energetic and, well, very strange indeed.

Viewers of the fascinating story of Communist "tractor musicals," 1997's East Side Story, will have an inkling of what to expect from Hot Summer, though the film really needs to be experienced from start to finish for the full effect. Though most of the bodies on display are barely dressed, there's nary a flicker of real sexual desire in the entire film; at least Frankie and Annette managed to slip in a few double entendres here and there. Instead everyone seems intent on putting out as much energy as possible during their numbers, all of which are fortunately bouncy, catchy, and visually interesting. Director Joachim Hasler makes inventive use of the scope frame, another nod to the AIP beach films, as the performers line up in odd configurations and do unexpected things like hanging from windmill blades.

The nifty visual compositions are rendered quite well by the First Run DVD, which is framed at 2.35:1 but appears to be mildly cropped on the right side, judging from the cartoony opening credits. The elements seem to be slightly faded over the years, resulting in flesh tones that look a little off during outdoor scenes, but overall the presentation is quite nice and boasts a warm color palette. The burned-in subtitles largely succeed in translated the songs with rhymes intact for English speaking viewers; inexplicably the disc also contains an optional subtitle track that doesn't seem to serve any fuction at all.

Considering the limited means available, First Run's DVD is a good introduction to both Hot Summer and its offbeat national genre. A bizarre music video short featuring Doerk in pigtails and animated segues comes off like a cross between Wonderwall and Lene Lovich; a DEFA promo devotes 11 minutes to highlights from the major East German cinema; and "Hot Summer Is Cult: An Introduction" places the entire film in its historical and cultural context. Hopefully this will be just the first of an ongoing look at Cold War era escapism, where even the most generic of genre imitations takes on a fascinating, delicious life of its own thanks to its home country's unique point of view.

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