In Hamburg, Gerd (Gerd Kruskopf) has just been released from prison. In an effort to put his life in a motorcycle gang back together he looks for a job and to rekindle his relationship with Sonja. But Sonja has moved on and is having an affair with a small time crook named Ulli (Paul Lys). But when Ulli is killed trying to steal back a car he had already stolen, his brother Mark (Hans-Jürgen Modschiedler) ends up encountering the disillusioned Gerd.
Rocker (1972), a West German made for television movie is a frank and realistic snapshot of Hamburg’s biker subculture. Director Klaus Lemke fills his film with popular music tracks by The Rolling Stones and Van Morrison that move from diegetic to non-diegetic, connecting scenes of social realism with melodrama. Rocker, within this complex of sound and image, dissects the seductive machismo of crime and paint a portrait of failed father figures.
Both Ulli and Gerd treat Mark as an adult while simultaneously remaining protective of him. Each is ruled by narcissistic tendencies that, despite their posturing, makes them paradoxically Mark’s most dangerous enemies and greatest allies. What’s interesting about the character of Mark is that he expects no less of his would-be father figures. He knows he cannot help Gerd nor Ulli but that, nevertheless, his very presence gives their lives shape and meaning.
A sense of resignation permeates Rocker from beginning to end. Not only is Mark resigned to his fleeting relationship with flawed father figures, but those figures themselves are unwilling and unable to change. Sonja, who figures largely in both Gerd and Ulli’s lives is equally resigned when it comes to her romantic relationships. For Lemke it seems that with poverty comes a sense of alienation and resignation.
These associations with poverty are common in West German films of this period. The New German Cinema obsessively sought a new national identity in the aftermath of the economic miracle and the fall of the Third Reich. Rocker, from the vantage point of the working class in Hamburg, attacks the imported American notions of “rock n’ roll” and the “cool” criminal head-on with brunt force. Systems of culture and of justice in West Germany have failed Ulli, Gerd and Mark equally; casting them adrift with no sense of recourse other than to enact those fantasies that they desire the most and were gleaned from American gangster movies and Elvis records.
The whole of Rocker can be summed up by the sequence where Gerd and Mark stop at a roadside diner. Having procured a motorcycle, Gerd is giving Mark a lift to his parents’ house some two hours outside of Hamburg. They stop at a diner where Gerd struts about like Marlon Brando intimidating patrons and ordering beers for himself and the under-age Mark. But when an angry patron totals Gerd’s bike, Gerd can do nothing but weep like a child as Mark watches blankly.
The relationship between Mark and Gerd is the emotional core of Rocker and remains the most appealing aspect of Lemke’s biker drama. When Rocker first aired in the early seventies it was a sensation and a critical darling that spawned numerous imitators including Wim Wender’s Alice in den Städten (1974). But where Wender’s found a connection with Antonioni’s portraits of ennui in Germany’s alienated working class, Lemke found only an inevitable self-destruction.