Living on a boat is not easy. You’re in a constant fight against the elements and there’s no end to the maintenance. Boat owners will tell you that, if you want to know what it’s like to own a boat, “stand in the shower and tear up twenty dollar bills.” Yet, the idea of living on a boat is appealing. That combination of the freedom to travel around in a place you call your own is hard to beat. Small wonder that those same boat owners who’ll tell you a boat is a “hole in the ocean you throw money into” continue to own boats and continue to love it, warts and all. There are several movies about life on a boat. The films about sailing are usually adventures (White Squall, All is Lost, Kon Tiki), and the ones with houseboats are usually comedies (Houseboat, The Horse’s Mouth, Sleepless in Seattle). Then there are the barge films (Binnenschifferfilme).
While sailing films are about striking out into the unknown and houseboat films are about living somewhere that just happens to be on the water, barge films fall somewhere in between. They are often aquatic road movies, with the characters slowly traveling from place to place, entering the lives of people then departing. Barge films are exclusively European.1 Films such as L’Atalante, Beauty and the Barge, Unter den Brücken (Under the Bridges), The Hornet’s Nest (which is more of a houseboat film), and Young Adam explore the details of life on a barge. They are often comedies but even the funny ones have moments of drama—barge life is no bed of roses. DEFA made two such films—The Barge of the Happy People (Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute), and Old Barge, Young Love (Alter Kahn und junge Liebe).
The Barge of Happy People
The Barge of Happy People follows the misadventures of Marianne (Petra Peters), who inherited a barge from her father and is trying to make a go of it in spite of advice to sell it from other barge owners. When Marianne goes to apply for a Befähigungszeugnis (a license needed for different trades in Germany), she is denied because of her age, so she hires her uncle August (Alfred Maack) to captain the ship until she turns twenty-one. The problem is, August has only ever piloted sailing ships and knows nothing about engines. August hires Michel (Fritz Wagner) as the machinist, unaware that Michel has long had a crush on Marianne, but Marianne doesn’t feel the same way. Things get more complicated when a trio of musicians joins the crew and romantic rivalry develops between Michel and musician Hans (Joachim Brennecke).
The Barge of Happy People is based on a book by Jochen Klepper, a writer best known today for his Christian hymns. Klepper was the son of a Lutheran minister and was studying theology the University of Breslau when he dropped out to become a radio announcer. He lost that job when Hitler came to power because Klepper had made committed the unforgivable sin of marrying a Jewish woman, and a Jewish who already had two daughters to boot. As Hitler’s war effort heated up, Klepper realized the danger his wife and her three daughters were in. He managed to get one of the girls out of the country before Adolf Eichmann refused to grant a visa to the daughter still in Germany. Like the popular actor Joachim Gottschalk (see Marriage in the Shadows), Klepper, his wife and his step-daughter decided that suicide was preferable to what was likely to happen to them next. They turned on the gas and commuted suicide on December 11, 1942. After his death, a selection of entries from his diaries was published under the title In the Shadow of Your Wings (Unter dem Schatten deiner Flügel).
Petra Peters got her start playing the lead in Arthur Maria Rabenalt‘s 1949 DEFA film Christina (Das Mädchen Christine). Rabenalt must have been impressed because he cast her in his next film as well, Anonymous Letters (Anonyme Briefe), this time a West German production (for more on Rabenalt, see Chemistry and Love). She followed this with two more West German films—Girls Behind Bars (Mädchen hinter Gittern) and You Don’t Play Around with Love (Man spielt nicht mit der Liebe)—before returning to DEFA to star in The Barge of Happy People. This would be her last role in an East German film. From here on out, she would appear in West German films until her move to Britain with her husband Albert Lieven. During this time, she stopped acting in movies, working instead as a playwright. After Lieven’s death in 1971, Peters returned to film in smaller roles and appeared in the 1976 Hammer film To The Devil a Daughter. She died in Munich in 2004.
The Barge of Happy People was a hit in both East and West Germany, and remains one of the fifty top box office films from the GDR. Reviews were positive, with the East German newspaper Neue Zeit claiming the film was in the tradition of the “Soviet comedies” (trust me, it wasn’t), presumably because saying it was in the tradition of the Ufa films would have caused no end of trouble for both Heinrich and the folks at DEFA.
As the tensions between East and West grew, DEFA decided that it was time to move away from lighter fare like this and concentrate on films that more obviously endorsed socialism.2 DEFA still made a few light comedies, as well as musicals and fairytale films, but most of the films, once they stopped allowing West Germans to direct, had strong socialist messages—films such as The Council of the Gods, The Axe of Weilbeck, and The Invincibles. If a film was funny, it was funny with a socialist message (The Kaiser’s Lackey), and if a film was romantic, it was romantic with a socialist message (The Story of a Young Couple). This would be the pattern from here on out. It was okay to be a little silly—just make sure the audience knew where you stood politically.
By 1957, DEFA was getting flak for making excessively didactic films. It seemed like every film had some expository dialogue that related the events in the film to Marxist philosophy. This wouldn’t have bothered the powers that be at all, but even in a non-capitalist country such as East Germany, it was important to get butts in seats, and audiences on both sides of the border were avoiding DEFA films in favor of their more frivolous and more entertaining West German counterparts. DEFA decided to tone down the preaching. As it was made clear that capitalism leads to bad decisions and corruption, the filmmakers could do what they liked. This was demonstrated in 1957 with Old Barge, Young Love.
Old Barge, Young Love
Like The Barge of Happy People, Old Barge, Young Love deals with a romantic triangle. This time, the story concerns two barges and a tug that are operating on the Havel river in north-eastern Germany. One barge is owned by Hein (Alfred Maack), who is trying to get the mortgage on his barge paid off so he can turn it over to his son Kalle (Götz George) debt-free. To do this, Hein has taken on a huge shipment of cement that overloads the barge and threatens it with stranding if the channel gets too shallow. It’s easy enough to figure out what’s going to happen then.
Kalle has the hots for Anne (Maria Häussler), the daughter of another barge owner named Hermann Vollbeck (Gustav Püttjer). Anne’s been studying shipbuilding in Berlin and is home for the holidays to help her dad on the barge. Also attracted to Anne is Horst (Horst Naumann), the captain of a tugboat, but Horst is a bit of a cad and full of himself. Anne seems to fluctuate between Kalle and Horst, which pisses off Hein to no end.
Storywise, Old Barge, Young Love is pretty much by the book. There are know real surprises here. We know that Hein’s barge will run aground at some point, we know that Anne will choose the Ernest Kalle over the playboy Horst.
As with The Barge of the Happy People, the cast Old Barge, Young Love had a cast featuring many West German actors. It was Götz George’s third film, but his first starring role. It would be one of his only East German efforts. Horst Naumann, on the other hand got his start at DEFA, but Old Barge, Young Love would be his last feature film for the East German film company. He moved to the West in 1958. Maria Häussler (who spelled her name then with an ß, but whose name is usually spelled now with two esses) This is one of the only films to star her. She mostly worked in theater and voiced several West German radio plays.
Old Barge, Young Love wasn’t the hit that The Barge of Happy People was, but West Germany had become more restrictive about what East German films could play there. It didn’t help that critical response to the film was lackluster, with critics calling the film clumsy and dull. Then in 1973, the West German production company Terra Film made a musical by the same same name that was a hit. Coincidentally, perhaps, Horst Naumann appears in both movies.
Both DEFA films were directed by Hans Heinrich. Heinrich’s films had more in common with the films of West Germany than those made by his fellow directors in East Germany. Like Gerhard Lamprecht, Werner Klingler, Georg C. Klaren, Arthur Maria Rabenalt, Erich Engel, and Paul Verhoeven, who went to East Germany in the early fifties to get their films made, Heinrich’s style was heavily influenced by the old Ufa studios. His films are more romantic and traditional, and aside from the occasional lip service to socialist values and the casting of successful entrepreneurs in a bad light, there’s not much about Heinrich’s films that peg them as products of East Germany.
Heinrich was born in Berlin-Charlottenburg. He started working with film early on when he dropped out of technical school and got a job in a film lab. He started making short films for Hitler’s Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labor Front) and working as a film editor on several feature films until he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. After the war, he was hired by Wolfgang Staudte to work on The Murderers Are Among Us. He must have impressed Staudte, because he was hired to work as an assistant director on Staudte’s next two films, The Adventures of Fridolin (Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B.) and Rotation. Heinrich finally stepped into the director’s shoes with The Barge of the Happy People.
Heinrich made a few more films in East Germany, most notably My Wife Wants to Sing, but Heinrich and DEFA were never a very good fit. He lived in West Berlin and was constantly fighting with the authorities about the lighthearted nature of his films. I imagine the term “formalism” got thrown a bit—a term often used in the Eastern Bloc anytime someone didn’t like something but couldn’t give you a concrete example why. After the problems he encountered getting My Wife Wants to Sing made, Heinrich threw up his hands and left DEFA, resuming his career in the West. He worked on several movies and TV shows in West Germany. Heinrich died in 2003 in Berlin.
Heinrich’s barge films are not masterpieces. They are light and silly, and Heinrich’s style is so rooted in the old Ufa style that they could have been West German films. The fact that they aren’t has more to do with the times than the films themselves.
IMDB page for the The Barge of Happy People.
IMDB page for Old Barge, Young Love.
Buy Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Barge of Happy People).
Buy Alter Kahn und junge Liebe (Old Barge, Young Love).
1. There has been the occasional U.S. film that features a barge (Moontide comes to mind), but America’s riverways aren’t that conducive to barges. You’re more likely to see a film about life on a raft (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) or a riverboat (Steamboat Bill, Jr., Show Boat) than a barge.
2. This wasn’t a unilateral choice. By 1950, Hollywood was already busy making virulent anti-communist films, and all of the left-leaning talent had been sidelined or neutered thanks to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
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