245: Strawberry Statement’s 50th

Archival Spaces 245

50th Anniversary, The Strawberry Statement (1970)

Downloaded 19 June 2020

The Strawberry Statement (1970, Stuart Hagmann), based on a bestselling book by James S. Kunen, premiered 50 years ago on 15 June 1970. That academic year I was a college freshman in Athens, Ohio, when reading the novel was de rigeur. as were other youth movement favorites, including One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest (1962, Ken Kesey), Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1966, Richard Fariña), Getting Straight (1967, Ken Kolb), and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968, Tom Wolfe). I read them all, was active in the peace movement, traveling to Washington in November 1969. Early March saw large demonstrations at Ohio U. against a planned tuition hike, where local farm boys were given badges and billy clubs to beat up students. Two months later, the University closed prematurely, due to four days of partially violent anti-war demonstrations, in the wake of the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State killings at our sister school. Naturally, I had to see the movie, The Strawberry Statement.

Starring Bruce Davidson, Kim Darby, and Bud Cort, Statement’s locale was moved by Hollywood from Columbia University, the site of book’s action to a fictitious university in Stockton, CA, representing San Francisco State, a hotbed of student radicalism at that time. In the film, an apolitical male student joins campus protests, because he is getting a lot of sex meeting young women at demonstrations. Even though the film won a Jury Prize at Cannes, The Strawberry Statement flopped miserably, attacked by American critics, and shunned by under 30 audiences as completely inauthentic. With a production budget of $ 1.5 million, the film’s domestic gross amounted to $ 804,274, a $ 2 million loss, if you add advertising costs. For me and my friends, the film was a typical Hollywood cop-out, which disappointed as much as the studio adaptations Getting Straight (1970, Richard Rush) and Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1971, Jeffrey Young) would be. In truth, I remember very little about The Strawberry Statement, except for the climactic scene which featured John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band performing “Give Peace a Chance,” while riot police toss tear gas and beat up students.

The Strawberry statement would hardly be worth a mention, much less a blog, except for the fact that the film had a strange afterlife. In the Communist German Democratic Republic, of all places, a dubbed version became a huge box office hit, a symbol of resistance for young people living under East Berlin’s authoritarian regime. I first heard this story from Prof. Jörg Schweinitz, who had grown up in East Germany and I met at a conference in Leipzig in 2016. He later sent me an article, published in 2010 in an anthology on film reception, “Ein amerikanischer Spielfilm als ‹Kultfilm› in der DDR” (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/278749912_Ein_amerikanischer_Spielfilm_als_Kultfilm_in_der_DDR_1968_The_Strawberry_Statement_und_die_Dialektik_der_Rezeption). According to Schweinitz, the West German synchronized version of StrawberryBlutige Erdberren (Bloody Strawberries), premiered in the GDR on 3 March 1973. While West Germans have no cultural memory of the film, hardly any East German who entered adulthood in the 1970s has forgotten it, many having viewed it multiple times. Even after German reunification, the “cult film” remained popular in the East, a worn out 35mm print playing weekly for years in an East Berlin cinema. As late as 2003, the German distributor purchased a new print, specifically for screenings in East Germany.

For Germans born in the GDR in the postwar period to 1960, The Strawberry Statement became a part of their collective imaginary, identifying them as a community, much as The Rocky Horror Show (1975) functioned for British and American kids coming of age around the same time. The question is why? Schweinitz notes that the GDR under Erich Honecker was going through a particularly repressive period, during which the Communist government rigorously controlled all aspects of daily life, especially public media. The Strawberry Statement offered youth there a vision of sexual liberation, “a playfulness, desire to break out, youthful romance, moral commitment, and gentle irony” (Schweinitz, p. 459), so completely different from the humorlessness and prudishness of Stalinist bureaucrats. The film’s soundtrack alone, featuring rock stars John Lennon, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Neil Young, Buffy St. Marie, and Thunderclap Newman, presented songs that were unavailable for purchase and could only be heard on West German radio.

Like Cat Ballou (1965), To Sir With Love (1967), and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), The Strawberry Statement was one of the few American films purchased by the Communist state film distributor for screening in the GDR. One can speculate that the government thought the film’s unflattering view of the United States fit in with its anti-American policy. But as Schweinitz notes, the reception context is everything. Whereas American youth saw the film as a disingenuous product of Hollywood fantasy, East Germans viewed the film in an environment of a repressive regime. East German youth clearly identified with the students in The Strawberry Statement, seeing their (sexual) revolution for the hell of it in stark contrast to the tired, old revolutionary slogans of their elders, and offering them a powerful fantasy of liberation.

Kristen Van Buren and Bruce Davison in The Strawberry Statement (1970)

Given the film’s importance in the collective imaginary of his generation, Schweinitz makes the final theoretical point that we must modify our parochial notions of national cinema, including not just domestic productions, but also widely distributed foreign titles, if we are to understand how cinema enters into our cultural memory. I would add that moving image archivists should probably be preserving dubbed versions of foreign language films that have had a demonstratively similar impact on the collective imaginary, a practice that is rarely implemented at the moment.

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: