A GDR filmmaker’s trip to the ‘gateway of the world’
Dennis Basaldella, Berlin and Hamburg
At a glance, it’s a plain black and white photo from the mid-1950s. But Hafenbild mit Blick auf Hamburg – meaning ‘picture of the harbour with a view to Hamburg’ (Figure 1) – might turn out to be more than this title offers us: an example of how Hamburg’s harbour has become not only a symbol of yearning and nostalgia throughout the centuries, but also an icon of the city, and sometimes too a manufactured symbol of freedom, or new beginnings.
The picture shows a partial view of the harbour. A steam-driven boat struggles with the waves at the left in the foreground. At the right a launch with tourists is arriving. In the background one can see the ‘Michel’, the most famous church in Hamburg, with its characteristic steeple. This photo was taken by East German freelance filmmaker Horst Klein (1920-1994) in 1957 and has been preserved in the archive of the Filmmuseum in Potsdam (Klein 1957-1958, p. 139). For more than 50 years Klein worked in the GDR (Basaldella 2020). We do not really know what idea of Hamburg Klein had during this time, but when Klein travelled from Berlin to Hamburg in 1957, we do know that he hoped to restart his career. Knowing that Hamburg was a media city, Klein imagined Hamburg welcoming him. At this time, the GDR, and especially the state-owned Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA) film studios, were renowned for their film culture and industry, and film technicians from East Germany for their craftsmanship, and perhaps Klein felt this was more than enough to give him an introduction, the new start he was so hoping for.
As has every port in the world, the harbour of Hamburg has always been a vital part of the city to which it belongs. Always a trading place, goods of every kind are exported and imported through the harbour, satisfying daily needs, and sometimes also saving lives. Following World War Two, for example, when Hamburg was the only port in the British Zone of the Occupation and one of the few remaining in West-Germany, arrivals of goods and food stuffs helped the German population survive those lean early post war years. The harbour and the goods and materials traded there have returned wealth and prosperity to the city for centuries, particularly while Hamburg was a member of the Hanseatic League (1356-1862). But the port was always more than a place for goods and materials arriving and leaving: this harbour received those wanting a new life as well as those looking for new beginnings on unknown shores. Immigrants and adventurers arrived in the hope of a better life, while others farewelled their homeland. Whichever way you look at it, Hamburg harbour could be a launching pad, and this applies to Horst Klein anticipation of his film career in West-Germany.
Hamburg should have been a launching pad for Klein when he arrived there in June 1957: four years before the Berlin Wall is built and divides the two parts of Germany until 1989, and four years too before we can identify the wall as symbol of the Cold War. Ever since he was a young man, the cinema had been in his sights, and was soon to be at the center of his life. After a brief stint as an amateur filmmaker and then field camera operator for the Wehrmacht Propaganda Troops during the Second World War, Klein launched his career as a freelance filmmaker and producer in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1948. While it seems he always wanted to be attached to an institution, one of the most important characteristics of his work is that he chose to freelance: in this way he could maintain his independence – especially when it came to his role in the production process. However, despite the fact that Klein was improving his position as a freelance filmmaker in the early 1950s in the GDR, and forging continuous and reliable subcontracting work with the young television industry there, he did not feel himself to be as free as he would like, or be in a position to realize his clear vision of a life as a freelance filmmaker. So, he decided to leave the GDR and seek work in the Federal Republic of Germany. On the invitation of a friend, film producer Ludwig Boehner, he visits Hamburg from June 29th till July 4th 1957, and applies as a cameraman at the Nord- und Westdeutscher Rundfunkverband (NWRV), the precursor of today’s public service TV channels Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) and Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR). But things don’t work out the way Klein had hoped. He returns to the GDR on July the 4th, despite the fact that political circumstances in his home country didn’t allow him to realize his vision of freelance work: to have a long-time contract with a state-owned institution while still being a freelance filmmaker.
Before the uptake of portable cameras and ‘snap shot’ photography, allowing everyone to easily and cheaply take their own pictures, postcards were one of most important photographic ways to document one’s travels and voyages abroad. But this was more than a way to remember all the foreign and exotic places one had visited or present them to those left at home. The postcard could connect these places to one’s own reality (cf. Holzeid 2011, pp. 295-298). From the beginning however, these postcards showed idealised pictures of places, or those spots identified in the touristic sense as places one must visit, or as more representative of a particular place. As Horkheimer and Adorno argued, by doing so, these idealized images became part of the Kulturindustrie [culture industry] (cf. Holzeid 2011, pp. 270-271). Hamburg‘s harbour is then a site for both representation and commerce; indeed, for centuries it was one of the ideal images to represent Hamburg. While Berlin has the Brandenburg Gate, Hamburg’s harbour offers the city image within a maritime frame: and this hasn’t changed since the modern period of mass tourism began in the 20th century. People also perceive the harbour not as a single place, but as a complex, an ensemble, enriched with a spirit of adventure and the alluring aftertaste of exotic places and exotic peoples (cf. Amenda / Grünen 2008, pp. 56-67). Since the early part of the century, the harbour has been a core element for tourism advertising and marketing for the city of Hamburg. The harbour skyline with its different sights, such as the Bismarck Monument in St. Pauli, the Michel steeple, or the various arrayed ships are essential decorations in this panorama, which has become not only the marker of Hamburg as a “Gateway to the world”, but also an identifying image, a signature for the city’s heart and soul. Here is an endlessly repeating icon in the mass media which identifies Hamburg also with a sense of freedom (cf. Amenda / Grünen 2008, pp. 81-85 and especially for advertising in the 1950s the image on p. 82).
Despite the fact that Klein’s Hamburg trip didn’t turn out the way he planned, he documented his days in the city in a work diary with text and five photographs. While the text mainly describes his efforts and thinking as he put together an application for a job as a cameraman, and therefore focuses on this work, the photographs are what we can call ‘classic holiday pictures’: one image shows Klein’s hotel, another, the high-rise building where Klein’s host Ludwig Boehner lived, and the third shows a view of the lake Inner Alster. The remaining two pictures focus on the harbour boat trip he took. The first one shows a view from the boat on the harbour with a few passengers in the foreground and larger ships in the background. The second one reveals the cityscape I have already described (cf. Klein 1957-1958, p. 138-139). The two first photographs showing the hotel and the high-rise building, typical for the newly rebuilt city structure in the post-war period, are more or less interchangeable and without their captions it would be difficult to identify them as pictures of Hamburg. The other three can be more easily connected to the city – even though the view of the Inner Alster can be recognized, you would require a good knowledge of the cityscape to do so. Therefore, by looking at the last three pictures, one might argue in this context that a trip to Hamburg is not complete until you have visited the harbour, and what could be better than a boat trip to see the port from the water? This view of the city seen from the water brings a wholeness to the experience. Even though it’s not known how many other pictures of the sights Klein took during this trip, we can argue here that the harbour becomes a central part of this photographic documentation. The harbour of Hamburg is once again a repeating image – and thus an iconic symbol of the city every visitor must see during their visit. Furthermore, the harbour stands in for the city as a whole: Hamburg is the harbour and the harbour is Hamburg.
These pictures – all holiday pictures – are not only a documentation; they also serve as a memory of the places Klein visited and therefore are markers or signs of the trip as a whole. That’s also why he describes them as a bildlicher Rückblick [a photographic review] (Klein 1957-1958, p. 139) of his trip. They seem to be all together what Roland Barthes calls the studium, summing up all the things (of Hamburg) that give pleasure, or give a general sense of the topic (cf. Barthes 2012, pp. 33-35) – and speaking of a trip to Hamburg, by documenting those things Klein personally liked during his trip. Paying attention to the studium allows the spectator to understand the intention of the photographer-maker of the image (cf. Barthes 2012, p. 37).
Most images of Hamburg, such as the ones with the interchangeable buildings of Klein’s hotel and the high-rise building where Klein’s host Ludwig Boehner lived and the view of the lake Inner Alster, can be described as studium, i.e., “… they please or displease … without pricking…they are invested with no more than studium” (Barthes 1981, p. 27). They are informative because they are showing where Klein has been during these days, but don’t evoke more than a general interest. Meanwhile, the harbour and here especially the image described at the very beginning perhaps appears in Barthes’ terms instead as the punctum, that concrete yet abstract thing which “pierces, pricks you, and even if this punctum remains different from person to person (cf. Barthes 2012, pp. 35-36) and “…that accident which pricks … [the observer] (but also bruises … [him], is poignant to … [him])” (Barthes 1981, p. 27). It is the composition of the element of the water, tourists looking from a boat towards the shore, the busy and typical boat scenery in the foreground and the eye-catching silhouette of the ‘Michel’ in the background as a central landmark of the Hamburg skyline at that time. For Barthes, the punctum is that part of the perceived image which is highly personal.
And yet in the case of the harbor images here, are we not identifying the repetition of the same which gives the image its iconic status? While each image may be slightly different in his picture composition, essentially the same elements must be there to create the iconicity. The fact that Klein has chosen the harbour picture with the Michel in the background, surely repeats this iconic language? This is the same language we find reproduced in so many other images representing Hamburg and from the mass media.
As the symbol of Hamburg – the harbour everyone is familiar with – the harbor is that repeatable image found in so many different medial variations, forms and shapes. Especially in cinematic form, Hamburg as myth continually returns to us. We can see this if we take the 1944 Helmut Käutner film Große Freiheit Nr. 7 [Great Freedom], also known in English as Port of Freedom, with a scene of the now classic boat trip in Hamburg’s harbour (although Nazi warships had to be concealed to create the harbour in its mythical dimension, i.e., to signify freedom).
Or take the 1977 Wim Wenders film The American Friend, where we see the camera dwelling on the classic Hamburg docks (although Wenders seems to challenge myth by evoking a city haunted by its past).[i] Of course there are so many of these pictorial representations, in paintings or graphics like the nocturnal NDR night interval image designed by Ivar Radowitz, right down to those familiar and recurrent motifs of Hamburg seen from the water on coffee mugs sold in tourist shops throughout the city.
Klein offers us more of this maelstrom of images as he replicates this icon that he too identifies in place of the city. Those images are metonyms, but they also point us to Barthes’ idea that the photograph in this form is a type of myth creation: here the harbour is manufactured as a sign for freedom. Freedom is also then the city. But freedom is a general, non-specific description and has many guises. It can be a political concept (for example, as mentioned above in Käutner’s film), or be a physical or abstract, mental and emotional concept.
Thus, the harbour is that gateway opening to this “freedom”, whatever it might stand for, and the manufacture of myth – so much more than a place limited by streets and district borders. We might speculate that at first these images stood for Klein’s desire to commence a new career in a place symbolic of freedom, but this was not what eventuated. Rather, this short sojourn and the few photos which remain from it, became the launching pad for another but no less productive career in the GDR. His career as a filmmaker lasted until 1990 during which he produced overall nearly 900 contract works for many state institutions such as the FDGB (Free German Trade Union Federation) or the FDJ (Free German Youth). He also produced contract works for GDR television, where finally realized the vision of freelance filmmaking he had always dreamed about.
On the other hand, the political freedom he perhaps was seeking in 1957 would soon be closed off with the historic events that followed – the building of the Wall, the Cold War, and the more than 30 years hiatus before Hamburg could again become an option for a new passage with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
Amenda, L. & Grünen, S. (2008). “Tor zur Welt”: Hamburg-Bilder und Hamburg-Werbung im 20. Jahrhundert [“Gateway to the world”: Hamburg Images and Hamburg Advertising in the 20th Century]. Munich: Dölling und Galitz.
Barthes, R. (2019): Die helle Kammer: Bemerkung zur Photographie [Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography]. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp Verlag. (Original French Title: La Chambre Claire. Note sur la Photographie), Translated by Dietrich Leube.
Barthes, R. (1981): Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Original French Title: La Chambre Claire. Note sur la Photographie), Translated by Richard Howard.
Basaldella, D. (2020). Ein Leben für den Film: Der freie Filmhersteller Horst Klein und das Film- und Fernsehschaffen in der DDR [A Life For Film: Freelance Filmmaker Horst Klein and Film and Television Production in the GDR]. Marburg: Büchner-Verlag, Wissenschaft und Kultur.
Holzheid, A. (2011). Das Medium Postkarte: eine sprachwissenschaftliche und mediengeschichtliche Studie [The Postcard Medium: A Linguistic and Media-Historical Study]. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag.
Klein, H. (1957–1958). Der Weg meiner Lebensarbeit: In einer betrogenen Generation 1957–1958. [The Way of My Life’s Work: In a Cheated Generation 1957 –1958]. Written diary of Horst Klein 1957-1958. Legacy Horst Klein (N008/3368). Filmmuseum Potsdam, Germany.
[i] For an account of the recurrence of these harbour representations in cinematic forms see Amenda and Grünen (2008: pp. 87-92).
About the Author
Dennis Basaldella is film historian, particulary of GDR and GDR amateur film. His doctoral dissertation was published in 2020 as EIN LEBEN FÜR DEN FILM: Der freie Filmhersteller: Horst Klein und das Film- und Fernsehschaffen in der DDR [A life for film: The independent film manufacturer Horst Klein and the film and television industry in the GDR] by Büchner-Verlag.