Triumph of the Will, The Eternal Jew, and Kolberg are key works in Nazi cinema, and collectively they conceptualize three major phases of the rise and fall of the Third Reich: the prelude of Nazi glorification via the documentation and stylization of the famous Nuremberg rally in Triumph; the official policy that prepared the populace for an us-or-them program, codifying divisive tactics in the repulsive Eternal Jew; and the vain, desperate call of 'total war' in the Agfa-coloured Kolberg, made as the thousand year Reich was crumbling in 1945.
Triumph has been around on home video for decades, whereas Eternal circulated on VHS in various subtitled and dubbed versions, but Kolberg over the years developed a peculiar cult reputation as Joseph Goebbels' most decadent exercise in propaganda - a kind of politicized Heaven's Gate so bad and celebratory of Nazi values that it deserved to disappear from any public showings.
The futility of the project is legendary: make a homegrown epic in scale to Gone With The Wind to motivate the population for one last fight for one's homeland. Never mind that you're using soldiers, arms for pyrotechnics, and money needed at real ongoing battlegrounds, nor that few cinemas are functioning.
In their 1984 book, The Hollywood Hall of Shame, the Medved brothers had a great deal of fun ridiculing the complete foolishness of Goebbels' ill-conceived masterpiece, but unlike Triumph or Eternal, the last film completed under the Third Reich mostly plays like a standard WWII propaganda piece, with some historical tweaking of figures and events to heighten Goebbels' message of 'total war.'
Most labels would rather spit out period propaganda films on DVD without any contextual extras (and without any fanfare), but like their historic release of The Fall of Berlin, IHF has assembled a package that covers the events of Kolberg's real-life defense against French soldiers, and the film's production. Of key interest is a vintage newsreel in which Goebbels gives his famous 'total war' speech in 1943, setting up the tone and propagandistic threads within the film's narrative.
Directed and co-written by the Reich's top director, Veit Harlan, the screenplay was subsequently reworked and tweaked by peers, including amateur screenwriter Goebbels. The pen of the Minister of Propaganda is potently evident in the character Gneisenau, who worked with town mayor Nettlebeck and together defied the King's wishes for capitulation to Napoleon's troops, since the French Emperor and his men were already stationed in Berlin.
In the film, Gneisenau's a sharp-voiced crusader who insists Nettlebeck must follow protocol with complete discipline before taking any action, as in the film's ditch-digging sequence where Gneisenau utters Goebbelsian logic: "What would happen if people only obeyed orders they considered right? You were right before, but what is the point? We'd be on the road to anarchy!"
Actor Horst Casper comes off as a mythically dashing alternative to the buzzard-like Goebbels; he speaks with a similar verve & animated physicality, and mimics the Minister's punchy oratory tenor. When speaking of Kolberg, the town's name is uttered like a Holy place that dare not be touched by any infidels (in this case, the French).
The town is clearly a symbolic representation of the last remnant of German purity. This theme - oddly evoking Scarlett O'Hara's famous statement of the relationship between land-and-Tara and tradition - is slapped way up front when virginal townie Maria (played by Harlan's wife, Kristina Soderbaum) manages to bring Nettlebeck's plea for support directly to the Queen, in Konigsberg. Bathed in a virginal haze and surrounded by cool blue and green colours, the Queen utters, "There are few jewels left in our crown. Kolberg is one of them," and to let it fall would signal complete capitulation to the infidels.
Perhaps the only overtly symbolic representation of anti-Semitism comes from an eerie sequence involving Maria's arty and selfish brother Klaus, who disgusts his father when he toasts the French Emperor with enemy soldiers in the family kitchen. An opportunist and total fool, Klaus later has a bizarre rant that directly mimics Peter Lorre's confession to the German underworld in M (1931) who've convened to sentence child-killer Hans Beckert (played by Lorre). As Beckert grabs his hair, mushes his face, and shrieks "I can't help myself," Klaus does the same, shouting "I can't," as he's unable to be a man and commit to fighting the French.
In mimicking the famous confession scene - also excerpted in Eternal Jew to establish a relationship between Jews and child molesters - it subliminally infers that wimpy Klaus is much more than a weakling and common traitor. Klaus' ultimate fate is also set-up as a kind of a just dessert befitting a good German whose squandered his heritage, and now become a selfish wastrel, endangering a nation's singular stand against an unclean world.
IHF's DVD comes with an informative essay by John Abbott in the colour booklet, and a hugely elucidating slide show that describes the production's many oddities. According to the commentary, the Reich's No. 1 director wrote in his memoirs that his first edit was loathed by Goebbels, and the film was tweaked by UFA's leader, director Wolfgang Liebeneiner. The film was subsequenlt recut in light of Harlan's decisions to film and interpolate scenes of suffering when Goebbels wanted the battle for freedom to be virtuous, and mythic.
(In terms of technique, Harlan also contemporizes the assault by showing an unending stream of exploding, burning, and crumbling buildings, with sound effects recalling newsreel footage of Allied-inflicted trauma.)
While the film maintains some stirring action set-pieces and scope, some scenes suffer from odd editorial decisions, with an obvious loss of continuity from forced transitions between locales, and a sense of lost montages that may have smoothened the bridge between a scene's low and high points.
In spite of trims made to the film's spectacular battle in the denouement, the montages are still kinetic and exciting. Harlan and longtime cinematographer Bruno Mondi labor on shots with beautifully coordinated smoldering black clouds that waft upwards and enhance, if not reveal, further destruction from French artillery bombardment.
Another scene involving the flooding of the lowlands also builds with a punchy energy, and uses one of the better cues in Robert Schultze's often grating score. (The march music - with unseen large orchestra - that bookends the film is deliberately contemporary, and clearly ties the film to the present, when the fetishistic music was prominent in newsreels and films.)
Unlike Scipio Africanus (1937) - Mussolini's own attempt to create a fascist epic - Harlan knew how to move the camera, and he made better use of equipment, expensive colour film stock, and available funds in exploiting masses of moving soldiers and townsfolk in wide, expansive shots, and an impressive aerial glimpse evoking the grandeur of D.W. Griffiths own epics.
IHF's print may well be as good as the film will ever look on DVD. Goebbels reportedly struck 40 prints for circulation among executives and high-level soldiers before the film's feeble premiere, and since screenings thereafter were few and far between, along with postwar Allied confiscation, there may never be any negative from which to create a clean print. (The complexities in restoring a Nazi-era epic are better chronicled in KINO's superlative DVD of Baron Munchhausen.)
The restoration applied to Kolberg is mostly evident as noise reduction, dirt removal, and some colour balancing, and while a single layer DVD, it's a good transfer that shows little compression. The source print suffers from moments of harsh contrasts when figures stand against white backgrounds, and Maria's entry into the Konigsberg castle and her meeting with the Queen are hampered by a wavering and loss of green, leaving fluctuating levels of red and blue colours. (The sequence, however, is preceded by rare colour footage of the Konigsberg castle that was damaged during the war, and obliterated in the late sixties by the new Soviet authorities.)
The film also contains some of the most peculiar optical wipes: Harlan employed a thick black bar that whips across the screen to start the next scene, or had it drop anti-clockwise like a drawbridge. Collectors should also note that scenes between Napoleon (frothing at the mouth) and his pale and pasty lieutenants (one promised the baronial seat of Kolberg) are in French; since a German print was used for the DVD, the original German subtitles - permanently etched into the print - are optically fuzzed, and the new English subs cover them.
At a fairly brisk 107 mins., Kolberg really kicks into gear in its second half, and as the slideshow makes clear, the film follows most of the events of its key historical figures. (In 1965, the film was given a theatrical run in Germany, accompanied by a documentary designed to separate fact from Goebbelsian fiction). The action scenes are top-notch, and the acting - wimpy Maria and her fop brother excepted - are less hackneyed than the embellishments in the Medveds' entertaining and informative book.
An expensive but compact propaganda epic, Kolberg is less inflammatory than Eternal Jew, but it should be taken with a lot of salt, and viewed as a document of propaganda and folly.
Like director Harlan, actress Soderbaum fell into disfavor after WWII, and their careers faltered after enjoying a steady run of hits during the Third Reich. Harlan's other pre- Kolberg works include Opfergang /The Great Sacrifice (1944), Immensee (1943), Die Goldene Stadt (1942), Der Grosse Konig /The Great King (1942), and the infamously racist Jud Suss /Jew Suss (1940); all were photographed by Bruno Mondi, who managed a more steady career after the war, shooting the popular Agfacolor Sissi trilogy during the fifties.
Wolfgang Liebeneiner was later 'asked' by Goebbels to direct Das Leben geht weiter / Life Goes On, an epic designed to help the populace cope with attackes from Allied invaders, and never lose faith in total victory. The footage from this never-finished magnum of absurdism was lost after the war, and has remained a kind of Holy Grail for archivists. In 2002, the history of the production and fate of the missing footage was wittily examined in the Emmy Award-winning German doc, Das Leben geht weiter (2002).
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan