Napoleon's Siege of Kolberg in 1807---Nazidom's 1945 Doom Previewed
Nazi propaganda film Kolberg was released in 1945, even as Germany herself was collapsing.
States the box liner notes, "One of the Third Reich's most ambitious spectaculars, three years in the making, Kolberg mobilized Germany's most talented artists and thousands of extras to recreate the true story of a Prussian town's rebellion against Napoleon's army of occupation. Laced with anti-Christian symbolism and National Socialist ideology, the film is a mirror of Hitler Germany's own war for survival.
"In its characterizations of Kolberg's besieged citizenry, the epic allegorically reflects the spirit of fanatical resolve to fight on that Nazi propaganda was attempting to instill in the German population during the final years of World War II. The film was directed by Veit Harlan, with music by Norbert Schulze."
Here is what author Erwin Leiser wrote in his 1974 study entitled Nazi Cinema: "Right up the end (Nazi Propaganda Minister Dr. Josef) Gobbels endeavored to persuade the masses to believe in final victory, a tactic designed to keep their fighting spirit from flagging. On Jan. 7, 1945, he wrote: 'A people of honor should not rest on its laurels. The laurel wreath is wound round the head leaf by leaf, won by noble endurance, fighting spirit and heroic courage, until it forms a full crown round the gallant brow.'
A few weeks later---on Jan. 30, 1945---the 12th anniversary of the Nazi "seizure of power," the last 'Film of the Nation,' Veit Harlan's Kolberg, had its premiere. On June 1, 1943, Dr. Gobbels had written to Harlan, "I hereby commission you to make the epic film Kolberg. The film is to demonstrate---through the example of the town which gives it its title---that a people united at home and at the front will overcome any enemy. I authorize you to request whatever help and support you deem necessary from all Army, government, and Party agencies, and you may refer to this film which I have hereby commissioned as being made in the service of our intellectual war effort.'
In his autobiography, Harlan recalls that Gobbels ordered him to use the historical events that occurred at Kolberg in 1806 and 1807, and to invent a love story to go with them, as he had already done for his Frederick the Great film" (entitled The Great King, and also available on DVD from IHF).
"In conversation with Harlan, Gobbels identified himself with Nettelbeck, the mayor of the beleaguered town of Kolberg, who called on the population to form a civilian militia and make a stand against Napoleon's army.
"Gobbels saw this militia as a kind of SA (Storm Troops). He wanted it emphasized that at least as far as Kolberg was concerned, the real hero was Nettelbeck, and not the great Gen. Gneisenau.' Without belittling Gneisenau's contribution, Gobbels wanted to show that in the conflict between the Army and the Party organizations, it was the latter who came out on top.
"Although the historical Nettelbeck was a small, thin man, in the film he is a rugged, earthy father figure. The film's aim was to prove that it was the people---and not the military---who wanted to resist to the last, and that 'every Prussian, whether civilian or in uniform, has to be a soldier.' According to Harlan, Hitler wanted Napoleon to have an 'awe-inspiring appearance;' he admired the French Emperor because---so Gobbels assured Kolberg's director---he had prevented the Germans from doing away with the whole miserable 'specter of nationhood' in Europe. 'Now Europe will have to learn to be German.'
"Gobbels noted in his diary: 'I expect extraordinary things of this Harlan film. It fits exactly the political and military landscape we shall probably have to reckon with by the time the film can be shown.' On the day of the film's premiere, this landscape was the ruins of Berlin and the beleaguered fortress of La Rochelle.
"A print of Kolberg was flown to La Rochelle" (and parachuted in!) " and to mark the first performance, Gobbels sent the commandant a telegram: 'The film is an artistic hymn of praise to the courage and endurance which is prepared to make the greatest sacrifice for people and homeland. It will therefore have a worthy opening performance to mark the close ties between those men fighting at the front and at home who are displaying to the whole nation the virtues in this film.
"My wish is that the film will be accepted by you and your courageous soldiers as a document of the unwavering resolution of a people which, in these days of worldwide struggle, united with those fighting at the front, is willing to emulate the great example of its glorious history. Heil to our Fuhrer!'
"The commandant replied: 'Opening performance of color film Kolberg took place today at La Rochelle Theater for soldiers of all units of defense zone. Deeply moved by the courageous action of the Kolberg Fortress and incomparable artistic presentation, we add to our gratitude for the dispatch of the film on Jan. 30th our renewed vow to emulate the heroic struggle at home, and not to fall short of them in out perseverance and initiative. Long live Germany; long live our Fuhrer!'
"Shortly afterwards, La Rochelle surrendered. The fact that Kolberg fell into Soviet hands while Kolberg was running could clearly not be made public, but it was not difficult to read between the lines of the belatedly published news that the fortress commandant had been given the Oak Leaf decoration" (to the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross) "for the decisive part he 'had played' in its defense. While Kolberg was shooting, Soviet forces took Kiev, and pressed on towards Germany.
"By October 1944, they had crossed the East Prussian border. The (Western) Allies meanwhile took Rome and landed in northern France, entered Paris and Amsterdam, and by September 1944 had crossed the western German frontier. While Kolberg was shooting, the Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz, the July 20, 1944 attempt on Hitler's life failed, the German Volkssturm/People's Militia was formed, and the German offensive in the Ardennes was launched to halt the Allied advance.
"As early as December 1943, Harlan had told a press conference that the film 'Is intended as a memorial to Gneisenau and Nettelbeck and to the people of Kolberg; but above all it is a memorial to the German people today.' In reality, the example of Kolberg demonstrates the absurdity of last-ditch resistance propaganda and the horrors of total war. The film's message for the most part rebounds against those who commissioned it. Behind the fustian dialogue, one can detect the cynicism of the propagandists, who even went so far as to appeal to religious sentiment...
"Shortly before his death, Harlan said in an aftermath that he had 'No intention of belittling this film in any way or of disparaging its human approach, but it was obvious to everyone who worked on the film and everyone who saw it later why it was made. So the film was propaganda for something which people knew there had to be propaganda about, and it wasn't all that dangerous.'
The author concludes that this is "A curious apology for a film which combined the theme 'Now, people, rise, and storm---break out!' from the Wars of Liberation with a demand for total war, and which was aimed at persuading the last surviving civilians to die for Hitler. The speeches in the film are in part verbatim quotations made by Gobbels and other propagandists at Volkssturm rallies held while the film was being shot. What the film failed to show was the Fuhrer's attitude to his people.
"One of the highlights of Kolberg is the moment when Queen Luise, that embodiment of all that is Prussia, grants an audience to a simple Kolberg girl" (played by Kristina Soderberg) "with the symbolic name of Maria. To the accompaniment of melting celestial music, the Queen tells the farmer's daughter that she receives daily reports from Kolberg, and that Maria can be proud of her home town. She then embraces Maria with the words, 'This is how I take Kolberg and Prussia to my heart. There are only a few jewels left in Our crown. Kolberg is one of them.'
"Adolf Hitler's attitude was somewhat different. In a speech to his Gauleiters/Regional Leaders in 1944, he remarked that the German people did not deserve to survive if it could not win the war...'"
Leiser does not tell the reader, however, why Maria was meeting at all with the Queen, the latter the mother of the future Kaiser Wilhelm I of Imperial Germany. Maria had been sent by Nettelbeck through enemy lines with a message from him as mayor for the eyes of the King of Prussia only. When the monarch's adjutant refuses to get her an audience with King Frederick Wilhelm III, she is invited to see the Queen instead, and the scene takes place in an aura akin to Bernadette-at-Lourdes in the presence of the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ.
No such reverence, though, is given in the film to the King himself, who is shown to be weak and indecisive in the face of Gneisenau's later 1813 admonition to call for a people's rising and to "Remember Kolberg!" six years before. This, too, was on-going Nazi propaganda against the ousted former German ruling house, the Hohenzollern Dynasty.
The ex-Crown Prince, Wilhelm, was still living in Nazi Germany in 1945, and Hitler likely feared an Army plot to kill him and then supplant the regime with a restored Hohenzollern monarchy, perhaps in a regency of the Crown Prince's own eldest son. Indeed, even as the Third Reich was overrun in 1945, Gobbels's slogan proclaimed "1918---never again!" an allusion to the loss of the war and the flight of the dynasty's top two figures---the Kronprinz and his late father, Kaiser Wilhelm II---to neutral, neighboring Holland.
Leiser rejoins his narrative: "The leading characters in Kolberg have historical names, and the film's prologue assures us that the story is based on 'historical fact.' The most important parts of the story, however, are wholly invented. In the film, the siege of Kolberg comes to a halt because the beleaguered town's stubborn resistance leads to a quarrel between the French generals. One of them wants to take the town at any price, which would earn him the title of 'Duke of Kolberg;" the other is anxious to stop the senseless bloodshed.
"This kind of quarrel between enemy generals is the miracle on which Nazi propaganda repeatedly staked its hopes. In reality, the French entered Kolberg, and their artillery batteries stopped firing because the attacking forces were informed by a Prussian courier that a truce had been agreed. Gneisenau---the film's young hero---was, in fact, 47 years old when he commanded the troops at Kolberg.
"He never entertained any prospect of capitulation, nor was he the author of the proclamation 'To My People,' which was signed in 1813 by King Frederick William III. The subplot in which Gneisenau persuades the King to issue this proclamation by describing Kolberg's resistance was added to avoid having the film end with the fall of Kolberg. By referring to the Wars of Liberation, which brought about Napoleon's downfall, the film was able to turn defeat into victory.
"Gneisenau's predecessor, Col. Loucadou, is also maligned. The film suggests that this old-style career officer was unwilling to fight, and had Nettelbeck---the town citizens' representative---arrested and sentenced to death. The historical Loucadou only threatened to do this, and the fighting began when he was, in fact, still commander at Kolberg. The film makes no mention of the fact that the British came to the town's help. It uses the relationship between Gneisenau and Nettelbeck to show how everyone---even the leader of the militia---had to submit to discipline.
"'You want to lead, and can't even obey orders" is what in effect Gneisenau says to Nettelbeck, who, after refusing to obey what he takes to be a wrong order from Gneisenau, finally submits to his commander's directive that no one can simply obey the orders he considers right and sensible: 'Granted, you are right in this instance, but does that really matter? That would be the shortest route to anarchy.'
"Gneisenau 'You can only apply the right that is based on law and discipline.' The alternative to obedience at any price is contrasted with chaos.' Just as Gobbels---on Feb. 4, 1945---had remarked that the mere thought of defeat for National Socialism/Nazism conjured up 'visions of European chaos.'
"The German people is represented in Kolberg by the Werner family. The father sacrifices his farm to the scorched earth policy, lighting the fire himself and perishing in the flames. His son Friedrich, a member of Maj. Schill's volunteer corps, dies in action. The second son, Klaus, is a caricatured 'man of the world,' refusing to join the ranks of the fighting community, irritating the wounded hero Schill by playing the violin, and losing his nerve when he hears the cannon fire.
"He is killed by a shell while trying to save his violin from an already evacuated house. His sister, Maria, the family's sole survivor, is in love with Schill in a timid, devoted kind of way; as her hero sails off to new wars, she is left behind on the shore. When the siege is over, Nettelbeck salutes her: 'Yes, you gave your all, Maria, but it was not in vain...Fine things have always come through hardship, and when someone takes the hardship on herself on our behalf, that's a really fine person, Maria. You stayed in your place, you did your duty, you weren't afraid to die. You helped us to win, Maria, you, too!'
Continues Leiser, "Kolberg clearly demonstrates the schizophrenic nature of Nazi propaganda. Did not Hitler in 1940 stand at Napoleon's grave just as the film's Napoleon stands at the grave of Frederick the Great? Did not Hitler in the Europe of his time play Napoleon's role as oppressor of defeated nations? Is there not a resemblance between the images of people in Kolberg jumping from their burning homes in a desperate attempt to save themselves and the pictures taken by SS Gen. (Jurgen) Stroop in the Warsaw Ghetto?
"The French round-up of peasants and their irritation with the recalcitrant citizens of Kolberg find parallels in Nazi policies during the Second World War. Isn't the glorification of discipline in this devastated town a demonstration of the slavish obedience principle taken to absurd lengths? And doesn't Kolberg also unconsciously pay tribute to the resistance to Hitler? What must have gone through the mind of someone watching the film in the embattled fortress of La Rochelle or the burning city of Berlin when he heard Gneisenau's final words about the people rising up at last to shake off their chains? 'The people rise, the storm breaks out,'---but might not the storm destroy those who unleashed it?'"
This writer feels obliged to here point out that is precisely what King Frederick Wilhelm III did fear in 1813---a popular uprising---which, in fact, his successors' regimes faced twice: in 1848 and1918. Hitler also feared such a revolt, particularly since he had lived through the German civil war of 1918-19, and dreaded it so much that he told his architect Albert Speer that the third German Reich Chancellery (he had lived and ruled from the first and second)---to be built after the Nazis had won the war (!)---would be designed in such a way as to prevent such a rising. In at least this respect, though, Adolf Hitler outdid his former Emperor: the Kaiser, not the Fuhrer, was overthrown by a popular revolt. The German people supported the Hitlerite regime and war until both ended in 1945.
Rejoins Leiser, "What was being alluded to in the conversation between Gneisenau and the King, the enthusiastic pioneer of the civilian militia idea and the hesitant Head of State who asks what the people have to offer him? The film's Gneisenau talks the language of the Propaganda Minister. Is this scene a coded appeal to Hitler, echoing Gobbels' intervention at the Fuhrer's Headquarters after the showing of the Frederick the Great film?
"The expenditure lavished on Kolberg assumed grotesque proportions. Veit Harlan had more troops at his disposal for his war games than did both sides put together during the actual battle for Kolberg (!). In spite of the enormous supply problems, no expense was spared as far as Kolberg was concerned. Press reports on the shooting were vetoed---the enormous amounts spent on the film might well have provoked a public reaction.
The total cost amounted to 8 ½ million Reichsmarks.
"For one scene, Charlemagne's Imperial Crown was used."
Continues Leiser, "Harlan recalls that he had 10,000 uniforms made and that he used 6,000 horses; 187,000 soldiers (!), according to Harlan's own estimate, were withdrawn from active service. The actor who plays Schill in the film was an officer in Gen. Vlasov's Cossack regiment."
Former Red Army Gen. Andrei Vlasov had deserted to the Wehrmacht after his capture in the Soviet-German War, and raised an army of volunteers later called "the Vlasov Army" to fight for the Reich, but Hitler always mistrusted them, fearing that they---like Napoleon's German troops in 1812 in Russia---would turn on the Nazis, and so didn't use them. After the war, the members were virtually all turned over by the Western Allies to Stalin and tried as traitors to the USSR, which they were.
Continues Leiser, "Several trainloads of salt were used to transform fields and rooftops into a snow-covered landscape. For the sequence of the French attack across flooded fields, Harlan asked for 4,000 sailors. The Admiralty refused, but he got then after an appeal to the Propaganda Ministry.
"In retrospect, Harlan admitted that a 'law of madness' prevailed, and everyone submitted to it though they knew it was madness (!). Hitler as well as Gobbels must have been obsessed by the idea that a film like this could be more useful to them than even a victory in Russia. Maybe they, too, were now just waiting for a miracle because they no longer believed in victory in any rational way. In the cinema's dream factory, miracles happened at home quicker than they did at the front.'"
Throughout their political careers, both Hitler and Gobbels had always believed in and demonstrated mythmaking. Indeed, it not only brought them to power, but kept them there until both shot themselves. To give them credit, had not Josef Stalin carried out a successful scorched earth policy---the original one, by the way---and then rallied his own army to counterattack in a winter battle with the Germans at the very suburbs of Moscow? Indeed, he had, and it was not for nothing that the Russians drew even Hitler's begrudging admiration as "The stronger, Eastern nation!"
Rejoins Harlan, "Gobbels was not pleased with Kolberg's sentimental, romanticized 'drawing-room scenes---to which Harlan still referred with pride in his autobiography---nor with the way the film depicted the horrors of war. He was uncertain how the population would react to a realistic presentation of their own situation dressed up as history. The film was not meant to encourage defeatism, so Gobbels ordered cuts involving sequences which in Harlan's own words described 'For two million Reichsmarks the horrors of total war.' A memorandum to Gobbels from the-then State script supervisor, Hinkel, dated Dec. 6, 1944, includes a list of the changes ordered by Gobbels and approved by Harlan.
"He promises to deal with them quickly: '1) Cut all the mass battle and street scenes and replace with scenes featuring the familiar characters, 2) Delete the birth scene from the moment when the pregnant woman is brought into the town councillor's house up to the scene following the birth of the child and the removal of mother and child from the house, 3) Cut the hysterical outburst by the brother Klaus, 4) Cut the Queen Luise audience scene by removing one or two close-ups of Frau von Meyendorff and Frau Soderbaum (the two actresses involved.) "5) Cut the argument between Gneisenau and Nettelbeck about the command at Kolberg. Delete the sentence about him (Gneisenau) having sole responsibility.' Hinkel also mentions in this memorandum a scene which in his opinion is 'An even more effective passage from Gneisenau's speech on the marketplace' which 'for obvious reasons could be put to excellent use,' and which includes among other things, sentences like 'You have lost everything, but you have also won everything...Germans of every region, take your cue from Kolberg...I see the dawn of German freedom rising.
"On Gneisenau's arrival in Kolberg, Nettelbeck is said to have gone down on his knees in front of his new commander. In the film, he does this during a conversation which is reminiscent of one of Gobbels' wartime speeches, or of the dialogue between the U-boat commander and his crew in (the film) dawn: 'Gneisenau: '35,000 men, Nettelbeck, and at least 500 guns, and all directed against this town. Do you realize what that means? Compared with this, everything we've experienced up to now is child's play.'
"Nettelbeck: Commander, will you please tell me frankly what you are trying to say?' Gneisenau: 'We are finished, Nettelbeck, it's senseless to go on. We cannot hold the town!' Nettelbeck: 'And?' Gneisenau: 'Surrender, Nettelbeck!' Nettelbeck: 'Oh yes---like Magdeburg, Erfurt, Stettin, and Spandau.'" In Napoleonic times, Spandau was a Prussian fortress outside Berlin. During 1947-87, it served as a prison for the convicted seven Nazi War Criminals from the first Nurnberg Trial.
"'It was all in vain, then? The end---dishonor?'" asks Nettelbeck. "Gneisenau: 'There is no dishonor when soldiers have fired their last bullet---even Blucher had to surrender!'" Referred to here is Prussian Field Marshal Prince Genhard Leberecht Blucher von Wahlstadt (1742-1819).
"Nettelbeck: 'But, commander, we haven't fired our last bullet! And, after all, Blucher did not have to surrender the town he was born in. You were not born in Kolberg, Gneisenau. You were ordered to Kolberg, but we grew up here! We know every stone, every corner, every house, so we won't let go now! And even if we have to hang onto the soil of our town with our fingernails, we won't let go! No, they will have to hack our hands off one by one, kill us one after the other. Gneisenau, you can't expect an old man like me to dishonor myself by handing our town over to Napoleon, and I have promised our King, too. Better to be buried under the ruins than to capitulate! Gneisenau, Gneisenau, I have never gone on my knees to anyone before. Now I'm doing it. Gneisenau, Kolberg must not be surrendered!'
"Gneisenau: 'That is what I wanted to hear from you, Nettelbeck! Now we can die together!'
"As in Dawn, being ready to die a hero's death is all that counts. In the reality of 1945, the miracle that saved Kolberg in the film never happened, but something Nettelbeck says in the film was true for many people: 'And if we can't live as men, then we'll live like mice, like moles.' In the still-unoccupied parts of the Reich, the film was hardly shown.
"As the Red Army marched into Guben and Babelsberg, work was still being done on the editing of the second negative. In Breslau, and Danzig, the film was sent into action, as it were; it was shown to the fighting units and the people of the beleaguered cities. Goring, Himmler, Donitz, and Guderian were given copies. The Volkischer Beobachter/People's Observor correspondent saw the film's version of Kolberg in 1807 'As if it were part of ourselves,' referring to 'its uncanny relevance to our times,' but the catastrophe could not be halted by the film.
"Hitler evaded responsibility for his actions by committing suicide. Gobbels followed suit. On Apr. 17, 1945, a few days before his death, he told his colleagues at the Propaganda Ministry: 'Gentleman, in a hundred years' time, they will be showing a fine color film of the terrible days we are living through. Wouldn't you like to play a part in that film? Hold out now, so that a hundred years hence the audience will not hoot and whistle when you appear on the screen.'...
"The hero's role which Gobbels chose for himself has long since lost any credibility it might have had. The myth that under Gobbels' control of German cinema important works of art were created could only persist over the years because so many films of the period were either banned, or have been lost, but it is clear that his propaganda did not lose its dangerous powers of suggestion with the collapse of the Third Reich.
"Kolberg was shown in Argentina after the war as Burning Hearts, and in Switzerland as The Renunciation. One newspaper commented on the film's 'ostentatious dishonesty' and expressed a hope that the common sense of the Swiss would react 'against this retrospective infiltration of Nazi refuse.' The Zurich Film Advisor, however, praised the film as a 'a hymn to loyalty, but also to Prussianism."
In the volume finally published in 1978 under the title Final Entries, 1945: The Diaries of Josef Gobbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment makes several notations regarding the real Kolberg. For instance, on March 5th, he writes, "The enemy has captured Belgard and Koslin. The Military Commandant of Kolberg---if he can be so-called---made a proposition to the Fuhrer that the town be surrendered (!) without a fight. The Fuhrer immediately removed him and put a younger officer in his place. Have these degenerate generals no sense of history or of responsibility? Does a present-day Military Commandant of Kolberg nurture the ambition to emulate a Loucadou rather than a Gneisenau?" he asked himself.
The very next day he noted that "Soviet assaults on Kolberg and Belgard were repulsed..." and on the 8th that "...Attacks on the southern edge of Kolberg were defeated..." and on the 9th, "In Kolberg the situation is unchanged."
Gobbels later scribbled, "Heavy attacks on Kolberg from all directions were repulsed, but with fairly heavy losses to the garrison..." and a later entry for the same day added, "The garrison of Kolberg has beaten off all enemy attacks with severe losses." This continued on into March 13th, and on the following day, he wrote, "Only at Kolberg did the enemy attack fairly strongly yesterday," but by the 16th stated, "The enemy has forced his way into Kolberg and fierce street fighting had flared up. By the day before yesterday (the 14th), a total of 40,000 out of the 50,000 refugees assembled in Kolberg had been evacuated..."
Later that same day, Dr. Gobbels added that, "In Kolberg the final battles are apparently taking place. Our men are no longer in a position to offer coordinated resistance to the enemy." On the 18th he noted, "We have now had to evacuate Kolberg. The town, which had been defended with such extraordinary heroism, could no longer be held. I will ensure that the evacuation of Kolberg is not mention in the OKW (High Command of the Armed Forces) report. In view of the severe psychological repercussions on the Kolberg film, we could do without that at the moment."
My own view of the film is that it is a good, engaging, and interesting look at a little-known aspect of the Napoleonic Wars, as well as a fascinating sidelight on the Second World War and the fall of the Third Reich. The battle scenes---particularly of the bombardment of Kolberg---are very effective. The love story between Schill and Maria is also believable. See the DVD and judge for yourself. One hopes that the foregoing will add not only to your understanding of this movie, but also to your enjoyment. As Gobbels' answer to Gone With the Wind, it is worthwhile in and of itself. I highly recommend it.
Kolberg: The Apotheosis Of Nazi Cinema