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  • Finding navigable waters:Inter-German film relations and modernisation in two DEFA barge films of the 1950s
  • Stefan Soldovieri (bio)

Inter-German film relations during the 1950s and the significance of transnational contexts in the history of the postwar German cinemas have been obscured by preconceptions about the movie industries on both sides of the German-German border.1 Whereas the West German cinema of the 1950s and early 1960s was typically seen in terms of entertainment and a retreat from history and politics, the GDR movie industry was regarded as a cinema of socialist-style problem films, worker-heroes, and antifascist epics in the service of the state. This starkly conceived opposition between the perceived functions – entertainment and escapism on the one hand and ideology and education on the other – of the cinema in the two Germanys served to disconnect them from one another in investigations of postwar German film.

Since unification, inter-German discourses in a range of areas have received new scholarly attention. In the area of cinema, too – and particularly during the period leading up to the fortification of the German-German border on 13 August 1961 – it has become increasingly clear that the geographically divided German movie industries were inextricably bound up with each other. International film festivals, import and export policies, trade journals, efforts to mount German-German co-productions, the indus-try-specific receptions of Hollywood and global film trends, and the border cinemas in the West accessible to GDR citizens, for example, are among the arenas of direct and refracted cinematic discourse between the two German states.2 As differently modernising states, the two Germanys also defined themselves with respect to other global players. These countries included not only the ideological poles of the United States and the Soviet Union, but also European, decolonising, and peripheral nations that could serve as stages for projecting distinct national identities.3 Even though many types of border traffic were hindered after 1961, cinematic interactions continued in variously mediated ways throughout the history of the GDR.

Due to the relative permeability of the inter-German frontier during the period, the 1950s produced the most intensive exchanges between the German movie industries in East and West. A pair of films by director Hans Heinrich, one of a number of movie industry professionals who worked for DEFA during the 1950s while residing in West Berlin, circumscribes the decadein several respects. Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Merry Barge, 1950) and Alter Kahn und Junge Liebe (An Old Barge and Young Love, 1957), two light entertainment films set in the [End Page 59] romantic milieu of Germany's inland waterways, allow for soundings of inter-German film discourses in the domain of popular cinema as they bear on the interconnected issues of national identity, cold-war politics, and modernisation.

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Figure 1.

Billboard advertising The Merry Barge (1950) at the bombed out train station in Potsdam. [Photo courtesy of BA-FA, Sign. 8473. © Herbert Kroiss, Photographer.]

Throughout DEFA's history, satisfying the entertainment needs of GDR audiences would remain an unsolved problem for the GDR movie industry. In order to help meet the chronic demand for light entertainment, the GDR imported some 70 features produced in the Federal Republic over the course of the 1950s.4 Film traffic in the other direction was decidedly more modest. Among the few films to make the passage from East to West were the Wolfgang Staudte films Der Untertan (The Kaiser's Lackey, GDR 1951/FRG 1957) and Rotation (GDR 1949/FRG 1954), as well as a few literary adapta-tions.5

In 1950, the year that The Merry Barge was released in the GDR, nine films produced on the other side of the inter-German border were licensed by the East German distributor Progress. While this number would drop off dramatically in 1951–1953, the policy of liberalisation brought on by the Socialist Unity Party's (SED) 'New Course' in the wake of Stalin's death and the worker's revolt on 17 June 1953 allowed Progress to increase imports from West Germany once again beginning in 1954. The New Course promised increased attention to the...


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