THE GREAT KING/DER GROSSE KONIG: An Epic Film Biography of Frederick the Great…One of the Most Lavish and Popular Films of the Third Reich
Bicorns, tricons, and mitred grenadiers’ caps!---and that’s just the beginning of this terrific epic and epochal biographical study of the Hohenzollern monarch Frederick II, now known to military history as Frederick the Great (1712-84.)
This reviewer’s immediate opinion is that both the acting and the battle scenes are far better done in The Great King than in both the 1956 King Vidor and 1971 Russian filmversions of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
According to German critic Gunther Schwark in the Nazi cinematic journal Film-Kurier---the cover of which is shown in the Historical Scholarly Slide Show bonus section included in this superb film package---“Colossal battle scenes of never before seen power and vehemence have been staged. What impressions when the Prussian musketeers in endless phalanx (in effective sloping perspective to the viewer) line up for a fight with lowered bayonet, when enormous cavalry regiments attack, when an army of many thousands on the march fills the whole plain in full width and depth.”
States the IHF catalog entry on the saga, “Filmed at the height of Nazi Germany’s triumph---in late 1940 and early 1941---The Great King was Germany’s most ambitious film to date. Both Goebbels and Hitler were fascinated by Frederick the Great, and had frequently invoked him in their propaganda as a proto-National Socialist hero, in terms calculated to enhance Hitler’s own prestige and authority.
“The Great King extended this mythmaking onto the plane of grand movie spectacle. Amidst vividly realized battle scenes, Frederick is shown rallying his armies back from crushing defeat, leading Prussia’s way to brilliant triumph in the Seven Years War”---known in American and Canadian history as the French and Indian War---one of my favorite historical periods since childhood.
“His generals counsel capitulation, and his subjects succumb to despair, but Frederick soldiers on; his strength of will is Prussia’s safeguard and salvation. The film’s concluding montage underscores this message, showing an omniscient Frederick, his gigantic (blue) eyes”---like Hitler’s also more famous pair---“in an unmistakable reference to Germany’s own Fuhrer.”
Continuing on this latter theme, German author Rolf Giesen---in his 2003 study Nazi Propaganda Films: A History and Filmography (McFarland & Company, Inc.)---wrote, “Linda Schulte-Sasse concluded her analysis of that (director Viet) Harlan movie by looking at a scene that shows the ‘fascist’ potential of the Frederick legend: the montage sequence ending The Great King:
“It is a coda that is ‘tacked on’ to the rest of the film after the story is definitively over, after a spectacular (and specular) battle has at once destroyed and saved the social body. It stands out from the rest of the movie and from the rest of the Frederick genre by dispensing altogether with cinematic realism in favor of a style that recalls the work of Leni Riefenstahl, as well as Hollywood’s religious epics.
“It is, moreover, an attempt to show Frederick’s omnipotent gaze in cinematic terms. Multiple exposures superimpose Frederick’s giant eyes over the windmill that throughout
the film stands metaphorically for Heimat/homeland, over a plow cutting the earth, and over peasants plowing and sowing fields.
“Finally, the Prussian flag flaps in the wind, and a poem appears on the screen whose text is sung by a (nondiegetic) chorus: ‘You black eagle/of Frederick the Great/Like the Sun/Cover/The abandoned and/Homeless/With/Your golden/Wing.’”
Concludes the catalog description, “Yet, what seems most striking about The Great King today are its frank depictions of popular war-weariness and complaint, served up by the everyday Prussians--- miller’s daughters and foot soldiers---who foreground the film’s storyline.
“Otto Gebuhr---who had long specialized in Frederick roles on screen and stage, plays the lead; director Harlan’s wife---the inimitable Kristina Soderbaum---the miller’s daughter. Directed by Veit Harlan; music by Hans-Otto Borgmann, featuring also Gustav Frohlich (as Maj. Rochow), black and white, 116 minutes, German dialogue. Switchable English subtitles.”
Noted author Harry Waldman’s 2008 study---Nazi Films in America, 1933-42 (McFarland)---“The most elaborate German historical spectacle of them all---one that really glorified Hitler---was Veit Harlan’s (and Goebbels’) The Great King, produced by Tobis in 1942…In Austria, where Hitler was born, its title was Der Fuhrer seines Volkes/The Leader and His People” (and yet, oddly, is anti-Austrian.)
“In this film, Frederick the Great is near the end of his life,”(sic: he lived another 25 years!) “but he refuses to give up even after Austrian forces defeat his Prussian Army at
Kunersdorf in 1759, and his generals sink into despair. Only a miracle can save the House of Brandenburg” (as the Hohenzollerns were then known). “It materializes when
Russia’s Peter the Great (sic) comes to the rescue.” (Actually, it was a later successor, Tsar Peter III.) “Revived, Frederick scores victories at Schweidnitz and Freiburg, winning the Seven Years’ War in 1763 in Europe.” Actually, Mr. Waldman leaves out the victory before these two, that of Torgau of Nov. 3, 1760, and it is on this one that The Great King, focuses as His Royal Majesty’s comeback, from the Siptitz Heights.
Waldman does, correctly state, however, “Goebbels awarded Harlan’s film the rare Nazi honor, Film of the Nation.” Otto Gebuhr was proclaimed by Hitler as a State Actor as well.
The first Frederician film of the new Nazi era was Der Choral von Leuthen/The Hymn of Leuthen, and it premiered on Feb. 3, 1933, just four days after Adolf Hitler had been appointed German Reich Chancellor. Thus, it was produced under the hated Weimar Republic that preceded the Nazi Third Reich, and also starred Otto Gebuhr. It was followed by the regime’s own first Frederician film in 1935---Der alte und der junge Konig/The Old King and the Young King.
According to author Erwin Leiser in his 1974 book Nazi Cinema (Collier Books), “An advertising brochure for The Great King quoted Frederick as follows: ‘The year will be hard and difficult, but we must keep our heads up, and every man who loves and honors his country must stake his all.’”
“In an essay entitled History and Film, Harlan wrote that in The Great King he had tried ‘To bring credibility to the character of the King. I avoided any kind of heroic pose, since I wanted to show the harassed face of a man who after his defeat had almost collapsed under the weight of the responsibility he had shouldered,” as, indeed, Hitler himself would also do after his 1943 defeats at Stalingrad, Orel/Kursk, and in Tunisia, until the end of the Second World War.
Thus, when he hears the news of the death from smallpox of his prized heir---his nephew Prince Heinrich---we see the grieved King weeping on his minister’s shoulder. Earlier, when the Prince had secretly stolen away to see King Frederick by hitching a ride on the back of Maj. Rochow’s coach, his uncle slaps his lieutenant nephew across the face, then kindly sits him down for a hot meal.
“You are the hope of the State,” His Majesty tells him---the State being the King. “I don’t think much of the Crown Prince” (of whom he later asserts, “I resent the bastard!”), and places further confidence in his young heir by secretly telling him, “You’ll have to replace me someday.” At the latter’s death, he stifles his grief, to soldier on. “I am on duty!” der Alte Fritz/The Old Fritz declares solemnly, full of purpose and determination.
Continues Leiser, “It was not Harlan’s intention merely to repeat popular anecdotes, but to show the King ‘as I think he must have been.’
“The Great King was so clearly modeled on Hitler that he had a print made and sent to Mussolini. The Propaganda Minister issued instructions that reviews of the film should in all circumstances avoid making comparisons between Frederick the Great and Hitler and drawing ‘any analogy with the present, particularly with respect to the pessimistic mood which frequently dominates the commentary at the beginning of the film and which in no
circumstances is to be identified with the attitude of the German people in the present war.” The film premiered in Berlin on March 3, 1942, and by then, grumbling from the German people and armed forces over the war was beginning to be heard.
Continued Leiser in a chapter entitled The Hitler Prototype , “The setting is Prussia after the defeat at Kunersdorf in 1759. Half the Prussian Army has been killed in the battle (sic); the whole of the King’s entourage considers the situation hopeless and wants peace at any price, but all turns out well in the end.
“The King survives an assassination attempt---in Nazi films, men like Bismarck and Frederick the Great are---thanks to providence” (which Hitler also often invoked) “immune from the assassin’s hand. Frederick wins the Battle of Torgau, and the Russian Empress’s death” (Tsarina Elizabeth) “turns the Russians from enemies into allies” (an incident famously recalled to the cornered Fuhrer in the Berlin bunker by Dr. Goebbels on Apr, 12, 1945 with the sudden death of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.)
“The alliance is short-lived, since the new” (pro-Prussian) “Tsar is murdered” (succeeded by his German-born wife, Catherine II, also later termed the Great), “but the Russians stay in the King’s camp for three days, during which he wins the decisive battle against the Austrians. While Prussia celebrates the victory, the King rides back to Kunersdorf” (alone) “where he had suffered his worst defeat. ‘And new life awakens at this scene of horror.’
“The end of the film is a vision of a Germany which has won the Second World War” (as Hitler fully expected to do, well into the spring of 1945), and is recovering from his exertions. The King is’ deeply moved and profoundly grateful,’ and enveloped by a
loneliness for which there is no relief. His life now belongs only to Prussia, just as Hitler was officially wedded only to Germany” (Eva Braun Hitler notwithstanding.)
Indeed, King Frederick II did have a long-suffering Queen to whom he was legally married, the result of a loveless, childless, and arranged union that also suffered from the fact that its groom was, in fact, a homosexual. She is sympathetically portrayed in the film as a long suffering, dutiful, concerned, and even loving spouse, but one whom is “Not needed---never. Never.”
Stated Leiser, “A number of key scenes in the film make direct reference to Hitler. The Army High Command was not overjoyed by the scene in which Frederick takes over the supreme command from Count Finken, and continues the war against his generals’ wishes. ‘Those who are afraid can go home,’ contemptuously remarks this ‘greatest general of all time,’ the prototype of Hitler.” Indeed---after the fall of France in 1940---it was Gen. (later Field Marshal) Wilhelm Keitel who coined the famous term of his Fuhrer being the GROFAZ, an acronym for that earlier term.
“The King calls ‘tradition’ an excuse for arrogance. Like Hitler, he expects no privileges as regards food, and does without sleep.”
In the film, His Majesty takes his dinner on a plate and sits on s dusty staircase in order to bolt down a few mouthfuls, disdaining a cup of “contraband” chocolate from Vienna, giving the leftovers to his faithful servant Franz. The latter promptly dies of poisoning, which the King rightly ascribes to a Habsburg plot to kill him. Pacing his room alone at night, his officers stand outside the King’s bedroom door, comparing his gait to the
ticking of a clock. Hitler, too, turned night into day as his lost war went on, holding daily military situation conferences both at noon and at midnight.
“He wears his tattered Order of the Black Eagle, as Hitler wore his Iron Cross. In one episode, he foreshadows Hitler directly. The Bernberg Regiment loses its standard and is stripped of its stripes, flag, and insignia because at Kunersdorf it ‘preferred life to victory.’ Col. Bernburg shoots himself”---and is depicted falling off his horse, a bloody wound in his skull---“and the King’s comment on his suicide is: ‘As he ran away from the battle, he ran away from life.’” (Col. von Retzow takes over, and goes on to lead the disgraced regiment back to glory and the monarch’s favor.)
“After the failure of the last great offensive launched by the 6th SS Panzer Division in Hungary,” Leiser resumes, “ Field Marshal Keitel sent a telegram to SS Group Commander Sepp Dietrich: ‘The Fuhrer thinks that the troops did not fight as the situation demanded, and therefore orders the SS Divisions Adolf Hitler, the Reich, the Death’s Head, and the Hohenstauffen to remove their stripes (together with their embroidered Division names),” an incident that was featured in my own 1999 work Guarding the Fuhrer: Sepp Dietrich, Johann Rattenhuber, and the Protection of Adolf Hitler.
“There is also a rebel in The Great King---Sgt. Paul Treskow, whose action decides the Battle of Torgau. Gen. Ziethen” (of the famed Ziethen Hussar cavalry) “is to attack on a given signal. When the signal is not given and the sergeant sees that his regiment is in danger” (from a rearward Austrian attack), “he gives it himself on his own authority. The
King promotes him to officer rank” (which he does not know), “and orders him to be bound to the wheel for three days for showing lack of discipline.” The sergeant had been married to Luise after the battle, and at their wedding feast dance, she is presented with a custom-made regimental jacket to fit their new “mascot.” It is then that the heroic sergeant is called to accounts by His Majesty for daring to act on his own.
“Treskow does not understand the King’s attitude and decides to desert, only to be killed in the next battle. His crime was his unthinking insolence in assuming that an insignificant sergeant could take the initiative instead of doggedly obeying orders…There is only one way for him to atone for his sin---he must die for Prussia,” and he does.
Continued Leiser, “In his diary, Goebbels comments on the success of The Great King…’The film works extremely well as political education. We need this today. We live in a time that could do with some of Frederick’s spirit. The difficulties confronting us can only be mastered if we stretch ourselves to the utmost. If we can overcome them, we shall undoubtedly stiffen our national resistance…’
“On the protest of the generals at headquarters against the film’s suggestion that Frederick the Great had been left in the lurch by his generals in his hour of need, Goebbels writes: ‘It’s strange. The gentlemen at the Foreign Office feel themselves responsible for every mistake in foreign policy in the last hundred years. The gentlemen at the Army High Command feel guilty about every bit of General Staff inertia, even if it happened in the Seven Years’ War.’
“Goebbels considers this ‘as ‘short-sighted as it is foolish,’ and notes that Keitel was very taken with the film, and managed to calm the disaffected General Staff. He also remarks that the film provides an extremely vivid picture of ‘the solitude in which the Fuhrer lives and works today’” at Fuhrerhauptquartier/Leader Headquarters, “and that The Great King was released at just the right moment ‘to give additional weight to the gradual introduction of tougher methods in fighting the war.’
“The Propaganda Minister’s diary also reveals ‘what a comfort this characterization of the great King’ was to Hitler, who---under the influence of the film was very receptive to Goebbels’ proposals for intensifying the war effort.”
Both Hitler and Goebbels were very well read devotees of German history, and they also knew that Frederick had not been the only Hohenzollern monarch “left in the lurch” by his generals. Indeed, World War I Lance Corporal A. Hitler’s very own Supreme Warlord---Kaiser Wilhelm II---had been deserted by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and Gen. Wilhelm Groner at General Headquarters at Spa, Belgium in November 1918 when the Imperial High Seas Fleet sailors mutinied rather than sortie out to sea again, Red Soldiers’ and Workers’ Councils sprang up across the Wilhelmine Reich, and a Republic was declared. They told him that His Majesty’s army would obey their orders, but not his. Hitler was to face his own problems in that regard and, indeed---even as The Great King was released in March 1942---military plots to assassinate him were also afoot.
In his 1960 biography Frederick the Great, German author Ludwig Reiners sets the stage for what the entranced viewer will, indeed, behold in the spectacular opening scenes of The Great King: “Leaving his main army under Prince Heinrich in Silesia, the King now marched north with 50,000 men to intercept Austrian Gen. Loudon before he could join the Russians, but Frederick failed, and on Aug. 12, 1759, he faced the combined armies of over 70,000 men at Kunersdorf, near Frankfurt-am-Oder.
“As usual”---and like Napoleon later---“it was Frederick who attacked, striking at the Russian flank and overrunning it. All his generals---including Seydlitz---then begged him to rest on his laurels. The enemy had suffered heavy loss, and would be certain, they said, to withdraw in the morning, but Frederick was determined to strike such a blow that the Russians would never dare tread on Prussian soil again---and disregarding his generals’ sound advice---ordered the attack to continue.
“By now, his men had been on their legs for 15 hours and were nearing exhaustion. Their progress slowed up, then stopped altogether, then Loudon’s fresh” (white-coated) “cavalry counterattacked, and the Prussians began to waver. Soon, they were retreating, flooding back. Frederick was in the fray, trying to stop them, had two horses shot out from under him; a ricochet flattened his snuffbox.” (In the film, later on, Frederick offers Russian Gen. Chernikov some snuff from it, and the latter answers, “Only to hold the tin that all Europe is talking about!” so His Majesty makes him a present of it.)
“’Will none of these blasted bullets hit me?’ He looked round. The remnants of his army were flying, panic-stricken, into a gathering mist. No Prussian army had ever been
seen in such a state before” (“I saw back wounds!” Frederick laments in the film.) “It was time to leave, but Frederick still stayed, gazing…”
All of this is superbly shown in this magnificent film, which begins with the king addressing his assembled field commanders: he on a small knoll above them---standing in his characteristic way with his famous cane, wearing his singular bicorn hat---and they in a body below him. Then it’s off to the battlefield, where the viewer beholds lines of mitre-capped Prussian grenadiers advancing up the slope of a hill, followed by line infantry, wearing bicorn hats. On the crest are seen white-jacket Imperial Austrian infantry and artillery, firing on the advancing men below, a scene of vast cinematic scope and proportions. The appearance of the Austrian cavalry---and the unseen, off-camera Cossacks---turns the tide against the Prussians, however.
“That evening, Frederick wrote to von Finckenstein in Berlin: “My coat is riddled with bullets. My misfortune is that I am still alive. Our losses are very considerable; of an army of 48,000 men, I have---as I write this---not 3,000 left. All are in flight, and I have lost control of my men. You would do well to look after your safety in Berlin. I have no more resources, and I will tell you no lies: I think all is lost. I shall not survive the downfall of my country. Farewell forever. Frederick.”
The above scene is duly depicted exactly and dramatically in the film, and the Queen is ordered also to “Take the treasury to Magdeburg.” “This time, the pathos was genuine. Frederick was on the brink of ultimate despair. Sitting in a peasant hut” (which the film shows as a miller’s house) “amidst the wounded and the dying, tortured by gout in one
arm and both feet, spitting blood, he decided to relinquish command to one of his generals: ‘Finck gets a hard commission…He must keep my brother (Prince Heinrich)---whom I appoint Generalissimo---informed of everything…My brother’s orders must be obeyed, the army must swear allegiance to my nephew,” and all of this is seen as well. “I don’t have gout in the head!” Frederick protests tartly to one of his officers.
Film critic Rolf Giesen devotes an entire chapter---entitled The Great King---in his study Nazi Propaganda Films: “Now that bombs were already falling on the German capital and the countryside---and now that the Russian campaign had come to a standstill not far from Moscow---the only chance of political escapism was a recollection of the historical…:monumental personalities, heroic idols from the past. Goebbels himself up to the last reminded Hitler of Frederick II, whom he once called the first National Socialist/Nazi.
“So Veit Harlan’s next film after Jud Suss/Jew Suss was allowed the then unheard of budget for a German movie of 4,779,000 Reich marks in order to tackle the biography of Frederick the Great…Such a project had first been suggested by Emil Jannings in November 1939…
“Goebbels and Hitler had both read Frederick the Great’s writings several times, and both quoted them at critical moments of the war…Goebbels also seems to have preferred a film that was more powerfully military-and propaganda-oriented, with the Prussian Army’s major defeat at Kunersdorf…as the starting point of the plot.
“This would make it easier to stage the ‘miracle of the House of Brandenburg’ and the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1762 with the victories at Schwiednitz and Freiburg all the more effectively. Nobody is able to defeat the Great King…
“Harlan was excited: ‘For the film The Great King I got everything which I considered necessary. I got 5,000 horses when I needed them, and I was allowed to film battles of every extent with real soldiers! Money didn’t matter. (SS Police) Gen. (Kurt) Daluege put almost the entire (!)Berlin police at my disposal.’ …
“As ever, Harlan this time, too, made the most of the opportunity to cast his wife Kristina. She appears as a young miller’s daughter who confronts, unbeknownst to her, the King while he is billeted in a bombed out mill” (actually, in the miller’s house, not the mill, which is on fire and burns down, hit by shells.)
In the film, the confrontation is ably depicted thus: the King asks her if she is going to rescue his picture on the wall, and she responds, “It shall burn, he who burned our mill. What a great Sovereign! Dead bodies everywhere! The war is terrible. We didn’t want it. Why didn’t the King pay for it?” She asks “the major” if he wanted it, and the disguised King sadly shakes his head, his face covered by his hand. Solicitous at last after her outburst, she brings him a new, lit candle over which to warm his hands. After she leaves, Frederick takes the broken door of her clothing armoire to block out a window letting in the cold night air. Later, raising a lantern to see The Great King pass by during a night review of the Prussian camp, Luise realizes who “the major” had been: the King himself.
“To achieve a love story (the King was obviously too old at this juncture),” Leiser attests (he was but 50!) “Harlan invented a corporal” (sic, he was a sergeant), “who is caring for the miller’s daughter, Luise.” Although Harlan was pleased with the finished film, his boss---Dr. Goebbels---was not, and even thought about firing Harlan as director in favor of someone else. Jannings allegedly agreed with him.
“Part of Goebbels’ criticism originated from the fact that in the movie a Russian general named Chernichev helped the King to victory; however, on June 22, 1941, Germany had invaded the Soviet Union. For this reason, Harlan’s version had to be corrected, and Paul Wegener---who had played the character---was invited to expensive retakes written by Gerhard Menzel and Hans Rehberg…
“Other actors’ footage was deleted entirely and landed on the cutting room floor: Lola Muthel as Madame Pompadour, Hilde von Stolz as Dauphine, Auguste Punkosdy as (Austrian Kaiserin/Empress) Maria Theresa, and Ernst Fritz Furbringer as Louis XV, but in the end, Harland didn’t lose the Minister’s confidence. The altered version let the
Russians become Frederick’s allies only in order to stab him in the back,” and this is, in fact, the final version that viewers today will see in The Great King. Ironically—and oddly!---the Goebbels-approved remake overlooked the fact that in 1941 it was Hitler who had reneged on the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact by stabbing Stalin in the back!
“Never would a ruler like Frederick capitulate”---and by implication, neither would Hitler, his 20th Century successor, memorialized in thousands of Nazi picture postcards. This was the very essence of The Great King. Usually, the King had been played on the
screen by actor Otto Gebuhr…Harlan was going to cast the part with Werner Krauss, but Hitler himself ordered him to stay faithful to Gebuhr, who had been a supporter of the National/Nazi idea long before 1933.
“In the movie, Otto Gebuhr, unfortunately, speaks in a somewhat lower Berlin street idiom, which of course was impossible for a King such as the educated and distinguished Frederick, so he had to be dubbed over in several takes in order not to be ridiculed….Harlan received the German film ring.”
A valuable part of the overall package of The Great King---as, indeed, with all IHF productions---is the section entitled Historical Background, a still picture slide show with expert commentary. It points out that Frederick II---like Hitler--- was “A man forever apart and alone,” and one of the early scenes shows him in the miller’s house studying his own picture on a wall, the same one that Luise had said, “Let it burn.”
It also notes that script writing on the film began in the summer of 1940---a high water mark of Nazi military victory and power in conquered Continental Europe---and was approved by Dr. Goebbels directly. It has one of Frederick’s closest military associates---Dessau, called in Frederician times Der Alte Dessauer/The Old Dessauer---asserting to a civilian delegation of the Mayors of Berlin and Magdeburg, “To grumble is permissible, but to doubt the final victory is the highest treason,” a Nazi slogan that became the mantra of the Party in the final two years of World War II on the home front.
Director Harlan depicted his main character thus: “Germany had to expand or perish, as a man of peace forced into war by other nations,” as his admirer Napoleon himself tried
to portray himself a generation later, and Hitler still later after that as an admirer of them both. Indeed, Napoleon stood at Frederick’s tomb at Potsdam in 1806, and Hitler at Napoleon’s in Paris in 1940. The Emperor of the French is said to have sighed, “If he (Frederick) “were alive, we wouldn’t be here,” to his assembled marshals and generals.
The director’s cut was presented to Dr. Goebbels for his review in May 1941, the month of the German airborne attack on Crete and Rudolf Hess’ peace flight to Scotland. Dr. Goebbels noted in his diary on June 1st, “The opposite of what I had hoped for and expected…I am very disappointed.”
He felt that there was way too much of the love story of “Luise and Paul” and not enough of the film’s central figure: His Royal Majesty himself. Thus, the changes he demanded, the commentary asserts, “Did the trick. Harlan’s revised film opened to enormous acclaim…and box office success.”
Frederick’s generals are shown in a tent just off the Kunersdorf battlefield when they are told the shocking news of the rout of the Bernburg Regiment, and one of them suggests, “let’s go look for death, since it can’t seem to find us!” and yet all survive to vainly try to persuade their Sovereign to surrender. Conversely, the victor of Kunersdorf---Austrian Gen. Count Loudon---declares “The King of Prussia will never rise again!” and Frederick’s own generals are seen to agree with him. The victorious Loudon is told by Austrian Count Kaunitz, “Only the Habsburgs have the right of empire” over fragmented Germany. Loudon also compares Frederick to the hero of the House of
Habsburg, Prince Eugene of Savoy---victor of Belgrade. Until Hermann Goring was named Reich Marshal by Hitler, Prince Eugene was the highest ranking military figure in
martial history. When the Austrians learn that Frederick has rallied another Prussian Army of 46,000 men to march on Torgau, Loudon and the others are on their way to be
received by the Austrian Kaiserin. He laments that “We are singing and he is marching!” as the film depicts Frederick alone in his coach, heading toward his next battle.
And what of the historic Battle of Torgau that this unique film depicts so splendidly? Here is Ludwig Reiner’s account: Austrian Gen. “Daun had installed his army of 65,000 men (half again as large as Frederick’s) in inaccessible positions protected by hills and gullies at Torgau…Frederick decided on a bold maneuver. He himself with half his army would march right round Torgau and attack Daun from the rear, while the other half would deliver a frontal attack on Daun’s flank
“…Frederick had to give command of this second body to Ziethen, a man with plenty of dash, and excellent as a general of hussars,” and he is thus ably portrayed in the film. “The two attacks, with about 22,000 men in each, were, of course, intended to coincide…The rout of his army at Torgau left Daun stupefied…After Torgau, France was ready for peace…Frederick bore the whole fate of Prussia alone.”
Earlier the viewer has seen the defeated Prussian monarch sitting on a log in the cold after Kunersdorf---even though it was August!---saying that he was going, “To hell, Schenkendorf. It’s warm there. I have to defrost!”
At the King’s comeback Battle of Torgau---shown so well in the film---he faces 65,000 Austrians surrounded by lakes and ponds and all packed into a very small space. His
Majesty tells von Ziethen that he will wage a classic “Cannae” encirclement maneuver by attacking his foe on all sides simultaneously, with the famed hussar commander leading the charge in the first assault. In his post-combat victory bulletin to his queen, Frederick chortles, “We have destroyed 65,000 Austrians at Torgau!” Ironically, three years after the film opened, the Americans coming east linked up with the Russians going west at Torgau on the Elbe River in April 1945, thus dooming Hitler.
Despite their earlier disgrace at Kunersdorf, the triumphant King---wearing his trademark queue pigtail and ringlet hairstyle---tells the assembled Bernburg Regiment, “Brave men! All is forgiven and forgotten, but I will never forget this day!” and rides off in the film on his white charger, to their cheers of “Long live our old Fritz!”
In compelling the Russian Army to remain with him for the three days prior to the Battle of Torgau, Frederick tells Gen. Chernichev, “I certainly won’t ask the Russians to fight for me, but only to march with us, so that Daun will only order half of his men to attack me,” a smart stratagem that worked.
The film conveniently glosses over the fact that the Tsarist Army took Berlin’s surrender in 1760---the year after Kunersdorf---but notes Frederick’s victory at Schweidnitz of two years later. The 1760 surrender was mentioned in IHF’s presentation of the 1950 Russian film The Fall of Berlin. In The Great King, we see the castle gunpowder depot at Schweidnitz completely blown up by Prussia’s famous Trauntstein artillery.
The movie winds down with the Prussian victory parade in Berlin of March 30, 1763 with flags flapping, flowers being thrown by a happy populace---as with Hitler in July
1940---and the grenadiers doing their famous goosestep past the reviewing stand that features His Majesty’s empty chair amongst the assembled honored guests.
Frederick, meanwhile, has his plain coach driven to the Cathedral at Charlottenburg. As he enters the nave of the church, he intones, “Let us begin” the thanksgiving service. The surprised organist asks, “Is Your Majesty alone?” “Yes. I stand alone,” he says, quietly, and takes a seat in the empty church, hand to forehead, weeping silently.
There are also several other standout moments in this truly terrific cinematic portrayal of an era almost never depicted by Hollywood: the Bernburg Regimental standard bearer hides his flag even as he flees the lost battlefield of Kunersdorf, and later refuses to let Luise tear it up for bandages; she collapses, crying, among the dead and wounded. We see The Great King’s historic shadow on the exterior wall of his Potsdam palace---Sans Souci/Without Care---and then flashbacks of him playing the flute, fondling his whippet’s head, and viewing volumes of Plato and his French philosopher friend Voltaire on his bookshelf in happier, more peaceful times.
Others show Luise handing Paul a traditional Prussian white skull-and-bones banner on black cloth that she personally has made for the Bernburg Regiment; the dying Paul tells The Great King “Sgt. Treskow reports to the cemetery.” His Majesty gets off his horse to take his dead soldier’s hand and to say “Goodbye my comrade.”
Still others depict the King being wounded by an enemy bullet---“The fur coat---the fur coat has saved him!” an aide exclaims---as His Majesty is pulled from his horse. Remounting, Frederick II looks skyward, opining, “The bullet that kills me comes from up there.” After berating von Ziethen for lecturing him on religion, King Frederick is told
of his nephew’s early demise, “The gods claim those they love.” Der Alte Fritz retorts, “Then I’ll be a thousand years old, because they sure don’t love me!”
The Nazi film production moguls of Hitler-Goebbels-Harlan give their product a history lesson in politics via Frederick‘s allowing one of his brothers to tell him his honest opinion of why he lost at Kunersdorf.
The Generalissimo of the Prussian Army---Prince Heinrich---takes the bit between his teeth with relish, his voice rising to a screaming rant: “You asked the impossible of both our Army and our nation. You underestimated the Russians and the Austrians, and brought all Europe against us! Our father had a lifetime of peace, and built roads instead! We need to make peace with the French, the Austrians, the Russians, and the Swedes! We need peace---form an alliance with France!”
Frederick’s retort is that a German Empire can and will only be built around Prussia as its core, not the Habsburgs, that his generals are plotting against him, and that even his family is opposed him, then tells him that---had he been killed---Prince Heinrich would even then be the King of Prussia. So saying, he tears up his will, throws it into the fireplace, and also relieves him of command of the Army, which he takes back personally.
“I know about the Treaty of Versailles” (a sly Hitlerian allusion to 1919). “I know about the Pompadour State.” (Hitler hated the idea of women in politics.) “The French will always be the enemies of Prussia!” (as in 1806, 1813, 1870-71, 1914-18, and 1940-45, they indeed were.) “I have no room for traitors in my State! You should be decapitated!” (as, indeed, were the men of the 20th of July in 1944.)
First, last, and always, it was a political message that Hitler and Goebbels were advancing in The Great King, but that doesn’t take away one whit, in my view, of the viewers’ overall enjoyment of this truly wonderful biographical yarn and historic saga.
The Great King/Der Grosse Konig DVD