Swing skirts, acrobatic dance moves and the unmistakable sounds of ‘50s rock ’n’ roll: that’s how Ku’damm 56 begins. In the show’s opening moments, viewers meet Monika Schöllack (Sonja Gerhardt) and her dance partner Freddy Donath (Trystan Pütter) as they’re competing at Berlin’s first rock ’n’ roll dancing championships. To a saxophone-heavy beat, in a dimly lit space filled with cars and twirling couples, Freddy throws Monika into the air. The camera catches her in mid-flight, and the thrill of the moment feels infectious. Indeed, with the sights, sounds and general vibe, it’s easy to forget that they’re in post-war Germany, in a divided city partly in ruins, and in a society trying to move on from its recent horrors.
STREAM IT: Ku'damm 56 is streaming now at SBS On Demand. (And as a special treat, it's follow-up series Ku'damm 59 is streaming now too).
As it steps into the lives of Monika, her strict mother Caterina (Claudia Michelsen) and more dutiful sisters Helga (Maria Ehrich) and Eva (Emilia Schüle), that stark contrast sits at the heart of Ku’damm 56. Taking its name from the bustling Charlottenburg street of Kurfürstendamm — where, in 1956, dance studios and high-end shops sit in the shadows of the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church — the series explores not only the clash between rebellion and austerity that rock ’n’ roll so potently symbolises in the wake of the war, but of a blossoming future versus a troubled past.
A society on the cusp of change
After its lively opening scene, Ku’damm 56 swiftly jumps back to four months earlier, with the bulk of the series taking place as Monika makes her way to the rock ’n’ roll dance championships. She seems vastly different when she’s seen riding the Berlin U-Bahn towards Kurfürstendamm station. In fact, when she initially crosses paths with Freddy — already a rock ’n’ roller and reading a magazine with James Dean on the cover to prove it — he saves her from strolling out of the train doors while the locomotive is still in motion.
Their lives continue to intersect at the Galant dance studio owned and run by Caterina, where Monika, Helga and Eva have lived since before the Second World War. The studio is a focal point as well as a weathervane — as change bristles within its walls, change also echoes throughout society. It’s not just rock ’n’ roll that’s making its presence known, to Monika’s joy and Caterina’s displeasure. It’s the idea, after two world wars in short succession, that life should be better. From music and dance to attitudes about women and sexuality, the Schöllack family is striding into an evolving realm.
With the look and energy of a German-set Grease combined with the reflective insights of Mad Men, Ku’damm 56 explores a generation of Berliners coming of age in shifting times, and driven by the fresh memories of history to create something new. The world is forging a different path after decades of conflict, and Monika and her siblings are as well, although it’s far from a smooth process.
Women striving for something more
Arriving home with the news that she has been kicked out of school for failing her home economics lessons, Monika is the black sheep of the family long before she discovers rock ’n’ roll. Constantly sporting a faraway look in her eye, she’s the opposite of her sisters, who have happily chosen more traditional paths. Helga is set to marry lawyer Wolfgang von Boost (August Wittgenstein) and devote her life to being a housewife, while psychiatric nurse Eva is trying to get the much older Head Professor Fassbender (Heino Ferch) to propose. Caterina wastes no chance to remind Monika of her shortcomings; however with her husband and the girls’ father failing to return from the war, the stern matriarch has problems of her own.
Ku’damm 56 follows the Schöllack women at a time when their lives are defined by set expectations. Monika, Helga and Eva are supposed to learn how to take care of their own households, find husbands and become compliant wives and doting mothers, while Caterina is supposed to spend the rest of her days mourning her husband and living vicariously through her daughters. “A woman is to add beauty to a man’s life,” Monika remarks, recounting her lessons. When she shares this maxim, it’s with an evident sense of defiance. She knows what’s expected of her, and she knows that the life she’s expected to live won’t make her happy.
From the moment that Monika is pulled back onto the train by Freddy, the Schöllacks’ existence begins to change. Monika soon finds herself in a complicated relationship with Joachim Franck (Sabin Tambrea), the arrogant, troubled son of a millionaire factory owner, which starts with horrendous force. Helga learns that married life isn’t quite what she expected, especially with Wolfgang keeping his distance in the bedroom. And Eva is torn between following her head by continuing to pursue the professor, and following her heart towards Rudi Hauer (Steve Windolf), the soccer-playing husband of a patient.
Each of their journeys offers a snapshot of a tumultuous period — from the response to sexual assault, to the treatment of homosexuality, to the literally shocking treatment of women deemed hysterical. As Monika and her sisters weather all of the above and attempt to make their way out the other side, Ku’damm 56 becomes a portrait of change, resilience and determination. Indeed, that makes so gripping.
Ku'damm 56 (and follow-up series Ku'damm 59) is streaming now at SBS On Demand: