Kolberg: Veit Harlen. The last Chapter of Weimar and Nazi cinema
Kolberg: Veit Harlan 1943-1945
In this course the argument is being posed that each significant piece of propaganda is analysed according to its target audience bearing in mind the preferred reading which went behind the investment. Propaganda targets will inevitably change with circumstances. Kolberg was demanded when the tide of war had turned and Goebbels recognised that a blockbuster of highly significant proportions would be central in rallying the German people at a time when suddenly they were really starting to realise that wars could go both ways.
Kolberg was in the genre of the historical heroic uplifting where victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat through blood sacrifice. It was June 1943 when Goebbels first ordered Veit Harlan to make Kolberg. By this time the tide of war had taken a significant turn. Only a few months after the defeat at Stalingrad the German Afrika Korps and their Italian allies had surrendered in Tunis. Nearly a quarter of a million troops were lost, half of whom were German. In addition, in May 40 U-Boats had been lost and the Battle of the Atlantic had been effectively lost. Also during these months RAF bombing raids were beginning to break through in greater numbers and cities in the Ruhr region were suffering badly.
The Allies had also demanded unconditional surrender from Germany. There was to be no repeat of the options given at the Treaty of Versailles. In the winter of 1942 at the height of the Stalingrad crisis Hitler had demanded ‘Total War’. In reality the Nazi economy was still not functioning along these lines unlike Britain who as early as 1939 had begun to achieve better production figures than Nazi Germany.
The position of women within the Nazi Germany was at stake. The Kinde, Kuche, Kirche ideology would have to go. Hitler was forced to concede that women would have to be drafted into the war economy. Up until that point out of 8.5 million women working fewer than one million had been working within the armaments industry. (Kershaw, 2000 p 568)
For Goebbels the stakes could not be higher for Kolberg …fits exactly the military and political landscape that we shall probably have to record by the time this film is shown. It was a recognition that the war was not going to be won easily which had been the expectation up until December 1942. (Goebbels, cited Taylor 1998 p 196).
There was effectively no budget limitation, it would take what it would take. Overall it cost 8.5 million Marks which Harlan noted was about eight times the cost of a good film at the time. (Taylor citing Harlan, 1998 p 196). The logistical effort was almost unimaginable, and even more shocking when the dramatically worsening crisis at the front is taken into account. Harlan employed 6,000 horses and 187,000 soldiers at a time when the Red Army had already crossed the border into East Prussia. Harlan’s speculations on the underlying reasons for this prodigality are instructive:
Hitler as well as Goebbels must have been convinced that the distribution of a film like this would be more useful than a military victory. They must have been hoping for a miracle. And what better to perform a miracle than this ‘dream factory’ that is the cinema? (Harlan cited Taylor 1998 p 197)
One is tempted to thoughts that people can become victims of their own propaganda although it seems unlikely that the Nazi High Command could foresee the swiftness of the collapse until well into 1944.
The film itself is set during 1806-1807 at the time when Napoleon was riding roughshod over the German principalities. This was to end in the humiliating Treaty of Tilsit. Historically Kolberg resisted through its formation of a citizens militia. It did eventually succumb and surrender. The film ignored this and also the fact that the British had sent aid to the citizens of this old Hanseatic port town now in Poland. There is no mention in the film of the Treaty of Tilsit and deliberate historical absences rather than a direct falsification of facts was the position taken. The military leader who finally organise the heroic defence was Gneisenau who had had a pocket battleship named after him in the Nazi navy. Gneisenau brings into play the core principle of Hitler’s notion of the Fuhrerprinzip in relation to Frederick stating that it is the leader’s job to lead.
Paul Wegener plays the defeatist leader of the Military defence who is replaced by Gneisenau at the request of the Mayor representing the heart of the people.
The heroism of the people was the essence of what Goebbels was after and is summarised in the patriotic poem of Korner quoted in the film: The people arise, the storm breaks out. This inspired the name of the citizens militia formed in the last weeks of the Nazi Reich. Children, old men and invalids were armed and called the Volksturm. The film it seems was a precursor of the reality which probably wasn’t quite what the Nazi High-command had expected.
In the film Maria played by Harlan’s wife Kristina Soederbaum provided a romantic interest demanded by Goebbels to attract the generic mass audience. The necessity of sacrifice and stoicism in the face of adversity was emphasised throughout as both her family and love interest are steadily lost through the film. That was to be the woman’s role.
The propagandist effects are pretty standard, building a tale of historical heroism into a lesson for the nation. The rise of the people and the removal of defeatist leaders, heroic resistance against overwhelming odds are standard fare for the genre.
The conditions of exhibition are interesting. The world premier took place in the besieged fortress of La Rochelle on January 30th 1945, with performances in Berlin on the same day. However the main Ufa-Palast am Zoo was already turned into rubble and the film was shown in two smaller cinemas. By the beginning of March the film attracted 200 people to its afternoon showing in a cinema seating over 1,000. The population was already beyond propaganda as the Russians poured over the Elbe. By the 19th of March the real Kolberg had been evacuated and Goebbels noted that this news was not to be released as it would obviously undermine the effects of the film. (Taylor, 1998, p 206). Goebbels was to commit suicide on May 1st along with his wife who had killed the children earlier. After the war Harlan was tried for war crimes based upon his involvement with Jud suss. He was eventually acquitted.
Taylor noted that Goebbels was well aware of the dangers of being overly propagandistic. Entertainment which could help the ideological war in more subtle ways was necessary nevertheless there was a place for directly propagandistic narratives and myths which needed to be produced on the heroic scale required for the heroic demands being required. In that sense Harlan was probably right, for we can argue that the form itself needed to be of a scale of the underlying tasks being asked of its audience.
Kershaw, Ian. 2000. Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis. Harmondsworth: Penguin
Taylor, Richard. 1998 2nd Revised Edition. Film Propaganda: Soviet Russsia and Nazi Germany. London: I. B. Tauris