Having seen Rossellini’s Open City (1945), I had certain expectations for a film made in the last days of WWII. The country of origin being Nazi Germany brought with it additional expectations. The film shattered all of them. It felt polished and without any propaganda. It tells the story of two bargeman named Willy and Hendrik. They haul goods along the rivers as part of a train of barges. The two men have lived together so long and so closely that their individuality is at risk. This is best shown by an early scene in the movie. While at a stop, one of them goes into town to visit a girl who works as a waitress. He stops by a shop and picks up a hat. He goes to a restaurant and meets her. We soon find out that the other man is also there to meet her. The two of them don’t know they have come to see the same girl. They don’t find out until one of them spots his friend while watching the waitress walk away from his own table. When he comes over to his friend, they find that both of them have purchased the same hat. They’re like brothers attached at the hip. Except that they are attached at the barge. The lifestyle ensures that they will be two people who live as one.
The two shrug their shoulders and return to the ship. The title of the film comes from the fact that traveling in a barge takes one under the bridges along a river. The two men watch the girls on the bridges. They look up at them and understand that something is missing in their lives. They toy with the idea of buying a motor so they can travel under their own power. It turns out that kind of freedom is out of their reach financially. One night while they are tied up under a bridge, they notice a woman leaning against the railings. They believe that she is going to jump, but she throws some money over the edge instead. Together they go to investigate. Convinced that she will attempt to kill herself, Hendrik tries in vain to comfort her. The two leave her on the bridge and return to their barge.
Later in the evening the woman visits the barge. Her name is Anna Altmann, and she agrees to pay for passage to Berlin. It’s her arrival and the short time she spends with them onboard that changes both the bargees lives. After they drop her off, they start calling on her. The film doesn’t provide us with step by step scenes that develop the relationships and move us towards a resolution. The outcome of encounters with Anna are uncertain and betray little of her preferences regarding the two men. As each man finds out a little more about the guarded Anna, they feel a need and right to investigate. It’s as if Anna is undergoing an interview. If she passes, then she will choose one and leave the other with the barge.
Berlin was on the brink of destruction during shooting, but we never see any sign of it’s impending doom.
It’s the cinematography and Hannelore Schroth as Anna Altmann that make the film work. As you would expect from a German film, there is an expert use of light and shadow. However, it gets out of the way to keep us focused on the characters. The camera does the same. It moves a fair amount, but it does so in a fashion that adds to the experience rather than calling attention to itself. It moves gracefully in, out, and around the way I remember Max Ophüls’ camerawork being.
Hannelore Schroth’s small body makes her instantly vulnerable around the two men. She has a beautiful face that makes you light up when she smiles. With a few alterations to her expression, she is on the defensive. Schroth makes Anna completely believable as an emotionally wounded woman who wants the two men’s company and is scared of it at the same time. That fear is felt by the audience in her body language and expressive face.
The film is filled with tender moments. My favorite one in the movie is at Anna’s apartment when she offers to clean some tar off of Hendrik’s finger. Hendrik tells her that it won’t come off, but she insists. They lean in close to each other and a curl of Anna’s hair comes down almost touching Hendrik’s face. He cannot resist and he blows on it to push the hair out of the way. Anna responds that he can’t just blow at her. He apologizes, explains why he did it, and promises not to do it again. She returns to treating the finger and the curl drops again. The camera shows their faces in shot reverse shot and while their eyes watch each other carefully. She looks right into his eyes and he says, “I didn’t blow.” It’s a very intimate moment and Anna allows him to stay and play the accordion for her.
I’m amazed that I enjoyed this film as much as I did considering all the circumstances of its production. It’s difficult to find, but I recommend it.