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When we were 17: Youth at the crossroads

100 years, 12 life stories

Our project takes you on a journey from 1914 until the present today - a century of turning points in Germany’s history, experienced by 12 people at a turning point in their lives. Here’s a look behind the scenes.

When we were 17: Youth at the crossroads

Seven reporters, 12 life stories, 50 hours of source material and roughly 365 days of work to translate the idea into an online special. So much for the numbers.

For "When we were 17: Youth at the crossroads," we took our protagonists back to where they spent their teenage years. Those places were where German and European history was made: from Ypres in Belgium to the Berlin Wall and back. We marched through woods alongside German soldiers, both male and female. We retrieved boxes with old photos from cellars. And we collected exclusive footage from archives all across Europe.

How do teenage years sound? Our films start with music. We wanted to know which songs our 17-year-olds listened to over the past century. Some sang themselves, others dusted off old records or cassettes. And one of our interviewees, 89-year-old Esther Bejerano, moved us all with a performance on her accordion.

"When we were 17…" occasionally made us forget about the here and now. We were filming a scene about public transport ticket inspections in divided Berlin. And who got on the train with us? Ticket inspectors. We didn’t have tickets. That's a 40-euro fine here in Germany. Oops!

On the fields of Flanders in Belgium, we crawled through World War I trenches. In the Magdeburg Börde region, we simulated attempts to escape from the GDR via the Iranian-Afghan (!) border. We found out that the deaconry in Kaiserswerth was turned into an Alsatian military hospital.

It was also a year of sporadic laughing fits. Like when we were shooting a funeral scene and suddenly the cemetery gardener turned up in the picture on his lawn mower. We had to repeat the scene - and it wasn’t the only one. It sometimes seemed as though somebody was making sure that every time we hit the record button, some kind of building work started: railway announcements blared from loudspeakers, or takeaway shops put their music on full volume. We would sometimes make it to the third repetition of a scene before we - and our protagonists - burst out laughing. But somehow we managed.

"When we were 17…" is now online. We hope you will enjoy reading the stories and watching the films.

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