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November 18, 2006
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
November 15, 2006
In 2003 Antje Aschied published Hitler’s Heroines: Stardom and Womanhood in Nazi Cinema. The hyperlinked review of the book is quite scathing about the methods behind the book arguing, correctly in my view, that there was a lack of historical contextualisation and and over-reliance on textual analysis devoid of anything else to claim that aspects of the text could be read as ruptures and disjunctures in the approach of Nazism to wards femininity.
Textual analysis is an important research tool which itself can be informed by a range of methodologies. Nevertheless there is a tension between textual and contextual which is very hard to resolve. Here Erica Carter’s excellent review article of relatively recent textual analytical approaches to film history makes the point very clearly in her summing up. Despite the excellence and usefulness of the books she is reviewing which rely upon analysis of few texts in minute detail: What however, of those methodologies from the field of film studies – genre, star and auteur studies, for instance – in which the single text is decentered and made part of larger systems of signification? (Carter, 1999, p 583).
Well it isn’t rocket science to note that there were contradictory features within Nazism indeed David Kershaw argues that Hitler deliberately encouraged competition amongst his followers on a divide and rule basis.
Only picking three stars to study seems like a flawed method if one wishes to draw conclusions about the Nazi attitude to women. The three stars in question: Kristina Soederbaum, Zarah Leander and Lilian Harvey were not true Aryans in of German stock, two being Swedish and one English. Any study would only be firmly based if comparative work was done across all the leading actresses.
Furthermore the key element of audinece is missing from the equation. As reviewer Jana Bruns scathingly and rhetorically asks:“is it conceivable, for example, that stars like Leander, Soederbaum and Harvey damaged the regime by unraveling Nazi gender essentialism and allowing viewers to align with different identities?”
Whilst textual methods of research can be extremly useful it is usually better to triangulate research across several methods. Qualitative types of audience research should be obligatory when the issues are as high stake as close analysis of the ideological functioning of Nazism and its successes and failures.
It seems worthwhile to at least contextualise a little. The position of Soederbaum is intersting to say the least. She was a star alongside Veit Harlan in the infamous rabid anti-semitic piece of direct propaganda Jud Suss which was also directed by Harlan. (Soererabum was also Harlan’s wife). The audiences were clearly so disrupted by the transgressive nature of woman that they rushed out and rescued all the Jewish women in concentration camps.
As if that particular piece of propaganda context were not enough Soederbaum also stars in another Veit Harlan foray into direction into direction Kolberg. Please see introduction to the film on this blog for more details.
This was an enormous propaganda exercise which was being made in the teeth of total collapse of the regime on all military fronts. Nevertheless the propaganda value was considered so important that large number of front-line troops were used as extras and the budget was huge. From the perspective of -unraveling Nazi gender essentialism_ the issues were rather more serious for the average German with the Soviets knocking at the door of Berlin and British and American troops rapidly thrusting deep into German territory over the Rhine.
Out of the 35,000 books on the Nazi regime this one may not get to the top of the pile.