The beach party film – a long forgotten genre of American Cinema that produced dozens of formulaic features, complete with bikini-clad beach bunnies, the blindingly white smile of Frankie Avalon & tons of catchy pop songs. With titles like Beach Blanket Bingo, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini & Muscle Beach Party, these movies (mostly released from American International Pictures) flooded movie palaces and drive in theatres across the country throughout the sixties, but the popularity of these movies weren’t just contained to the states. Surfing the Atlantic to Germany, the beach party film genre reached East Germany with the 1967 film Heisser Sommer (Hot Summer), directed by Joachim Hasler. This cult classic was recently screened as part of the Knoxville German Film Festival. In order to understand the importance of this seemingly harmless teen musical, one must first take a look at the highly charged environment it was produced in.
The Berlin Wall was constructed only six years before Heisser Sommer was released. A divided post-war Germany was still trying to find its own identity – both in the East and the West. Sexual freedom, the reidentification of the family unit and the new roles of females in the workplace were just a few of the issues that every German struggled with. And as the Federal Republic of West Germany quarreled with the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union, the Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft (also known as DEFA) began to release films that promoted Socialism under the guise of competing with Western Cinema. One of their most famous releases was Heisser Sommer, the German answer to Frankie & Annette. The campy but catchy musical follows the exploits of ten teen boys & eleven teen girls and their attempts to enjoy the Hot Summer (complete with amorous dance numbers, a love triangle and a stolen fishing boat joyride).
DEFA’s plan was to reach the disaffected youth of East Germany through a film stylized after the beach party movie genre, a hugely popular selection of movies in the 1960s. Heisser Sommer featured the real life husband and wife team of Chris Doerk and Frank Schobel, stars that were already popular in East Germany at the time. Strangely, DEFA’s film served as pure escapist fun for the monotonous life of East German youth trying to escape the Orwellian trappings of their country.
It’s hard not to enjoy the catchy tunes and campiness of the movie (even with subtitles). Viewed as a weird and kitschy film offering in today’s popular culture, Heisser Sommer was a very innocuous and innocent musical at the time. I think movies like Heisser Sommer & Beach Blanket Bingo were welcome distractions for audiences on both sides of the Atlantic during the height of the Cold War. The plots of these movies were very easy to follow. In comparison to the movies of today, I guess Heisser Sommer and its ilk would be sort of comparable to summer popcorn flicks and Disney musicals of today. These spectacles aren’t really meant to make you think about anything really “heavy” but merely just offer an escape, a momentary pause on the troubles of people’s lives and just enjoy a laugh or a song over an hour and a half.
From a film critic’s point of view, you have to prepare yourself for the movie you’re going to see. Going into something like Heisser Sommer, you realize you’re not going to be viewing a substantive social commentary on the youth of Germany put against the backdrop of the GDR. Instead, you anxiously wait to see the East German take on the adventures of Frankie & Annette. Heisser Sommer is a guilty pleasure, like Grease or Rocky Horror Picture Show. They’re not meant to be taken seriously.
From a critical point of view, the film is pretty standard. DEFA’s high production values combined with a recognizable ensemble cast made a highly enjoyable film that enjoyed high success at the box office. An unsuccessful sequel to Heisser Sommer was released five years later to little fanfare and hardly the box office numbers that its predecessor generated. If you replaced Heisser Sommer’s numbers with the catchy tunes of Glee and Pitch Perfect, you would easily have a movie that today’s audiences would eagerly watch. Sometimes, a movie is just that – a movie; something to just be enjoyed and not be taken seriously.