A kind of “East Berlin Graffiti,” set in a street right against the Wall, “Sun Alley” is a lively, beautifully played coming-of-ager that takes a comic look at an era usually portrayed through bleak dramas or espionage thrillers. This notable feature debut by young legit director Leander Haussmann requires a certain memory ofthe period, and is packed with refs that work only with local auds. But the overall tone is engaging enough to capture a small market outside German borders, especially at specialized weeks and on cable.
Title refers to a street that wound through West Berlin but whose tail ended up in the East, next to a checkpoint, when the Wall went up. The young people who live there are mirror images of their counterparts in the West area, except that they have to buy their pop records on the black market, watch Western TV illegally and ape Western manners without really understanding their origins.
Micha (Alexander Scheer) is a skinny, bespectacled geek who lives with his family in an apartment across from someone they suspect is a Stasi agent. Micha’s father (Henry Huebchen) constantly watches Western TV and moans about “shitty Eastern goods”; Mom (a drabbed-down Katharina Thalbach) is a mad ditz who’s secretly trying to escape with a stolen passport; and his sister (Annika Kuhl) is an insatiable man-eater. An uncle (Ignaz Kirchner) regularly visits them from the West, smuggling in forbidden treats.
The life of Micha and his buddies consists of listening to banned pop music, hitting on girls and generally partying. Politics scores low on their scale of interests, and their only reminder of state authority is in the form of a pompous area warden (producer and co-scripter Detlev Buck) who vainly tries to restrain their impetuousness.
But the main object in life for Micha and his pal Mario (Alexander Beyer) is to get laid. While Mario is deflowered by a Sartre-loving weirdo (Elena Meissner), Micha dreams of sex with the neighborhood’s blond teen goddess, Miriam (Teresa Weissbach) — an act that eventually requires considerable patience and ingenuity on his part.
The salty, middle-finger humor is typical of Buck’s own movies (in one of which, “Jailbirds,” Haussmann appeared), but as the movie progresses from one vignette to another and the characters slowly evolve, a genuine nostalgia develops for a time in Berlin’s unique history that’s gone forever. Most of all, the movie doesn’t look down on its characters: These “Easties” are as smart, inventive and proud of their lifestyle as the arrogant “Westies” who tease them from an observation platform. For brief moments, as in a dance-hall scene, the pic becomes a semi-musical, mimicking such movies of the era as “Saturday Night Fever.”
Ensemble playing is excellent, as is the well-structured script, busy with character and incident. Lothar Holler’s large main set, with the street, Wall and checkpoint, often takes on an unreal, theatrical quality, and period details of dress, language and props are spot-on, enhanced by a slightly washed-out look that recalls Orwocolor of the period. Pic was one of last year’s biggest grossers among German productions, with a sturdy 2.2 million admissions.