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Kolberg (1945)

Updated: Nov 10, 2023



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Welcome to National Socialist film club, draw yourself up on Uncle Adolf’s knee, help yourself to some pretzels and a beer stein (authentic Bavarian cuisine), and settle down to Kolberg (1945)—ein treuer Deutsche filmspiel.

The first point to note about this film is the quality—this film was made at the close of WWII and the colour quality, the location shots, and the interior sets are better than anything I’ve seen from Hollywood at the same period (i.e. in a country overflowing with resources compared to the then straightened Germany).


It’s just much better than anything Hollywood could throw together—Hollywood films at the time are mostly indoors, mostly filmed with cheap sets. Well, perhaps if the Germans spent less time and money on aesthetic films they might have won—but, overall, the whole idea that the rather Bohemian crew who ran Germany would rather see a beautiful film made than win the war fits with the whole National Socialist Weltanschauung...

The second point I noticed about this film is that it helped me to realise just how democratic National Socialism was—in a visceral way, I knew it in a theoretical way but you can’t beat the actual experience. This is summed up in the opening scene above—the volk march, arm-in-arm, singing desperately romantic songs about “the blood red sun dawning” and “the final fight begins, only cowards remain behind” as they troop to their rather snooty and precious king to demand arms.


The whole scene is very democratic—this is a film about the people versus the stuffy aristocrats. The people—enthused with the will (natürlich)—are going to single-handedly repel Napoleon from Prussia. Meanwhile, Prussian officialdom—princes and soldiers—fiddles and prevaricates and just wants to give in and have a quiet life (get on with business).


The people, however, say nein! The context for this film was that Germany was in collapse so the population were to be called up into a “Home Guard”, the Volkssturm, to beat back the invaders. This film takes a moment in Prussian history (always martial) where a rag-tag people’s army fought back against the French and prevailed.

The message is obvious: we’re in a serious situation, like old Kolberg, and we’re going to have our barns burned down and have to flood our fields to stop the French (Allies)—but the volk in arms will unleash a storm that cannot be stopped! The will will (sic) prevail over technology and material superiority.


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Within the film, Hitler appears, almost as a caricature, in the figure of the leader of the citizens of Kolberg, Nettelbeck (a prickly name for a prickly character). It’s a strange personification—Nettelbeck is the tribune of the people, like Rienzi, and he instantiates this rough (like very rough loo roll) peasant wisdom.


Just watch the clip below where he grumps at his young cosmopolitan relative, it could be any confrontation between, say, a UKIP voter in Britain who runs an army surplus store and their trans LGBT+ nephew who works as an Instagram influencer—and, naturally, voted to stay in the EU.



It’s the clash between near and far—between rough-hewn peasant wisdom and airy-fairy cosmopolitanism. The youth, more interested in his violin, is exposed as so selfish and disloyal that he refuses to rise to visit his father with Nettelbeck (“People can go everywhere today,” harrumphs Nettelbeck, and we could imagine the same from a Trump supporter after a Thanksgiving altercation with a young relative just back from college—or even some “square” in the 1960s bewailing his son’s electric guitar; essentially, it’s a perennial struggle—between violin and “get a proper job”).


The odd thing about “Citizen Nettelbeck” is that he is very unsympathetic as a character—he looks ugly, this thick-set peasant; even his name is unpleasant—he’s “a nettle”, a prickly character. And he sounds ugly—his speech pattern is obviously modelled on Hitler, as are his general ideas and mannerisms. Nettelbeck is this guy with salt-of-the-earth wisdom whose novel thought patterns that defy the experts and stubborn (thick-necked) refusal to surrender lead to victory in the end.


Along the way, he harangues and berates various cowardly merchants, geriatric military men, and incompetent soldiers. In the end, he prevails—and thanks to “Nettelbeck’s militia” the town is saved, albeit with some destruction to property (though Nettelbeck is considerate for all homes, high and low, and not just those that belong to the snooty ship owners who want to flee at the first opportunity on their vessels but still want to have their houses saved—just like Uncle Adolf, no German is lost to Citizen Nettelbeck).



In the clip above, you pretty much can imagine what it would be like to be summoned to Hitler’s bunker and to encounter the man himself as he pores over his maps and documents, shown under the low lamplight which illuminates the dust in the air, and to be treated to this confidential and avuncular description as to how Hitler has worked out that “the pen-pushers”, “the aristos”, “the whiners”, and “the officer corps” just haven’t grasped how war has changed and how we need to do things now.


You get an impression in this moment of the “Hitler magic”—as Nettelbeck lays it out, confidentially. Somehow, it’s all in hand—if only the idiots from the old guard would get out of the way (if it fails, it’s down to them—not Nettelbeck). He is both traditional in his wisdom but modern in that he has grasped that the technology has changed—the artillery is different now. These fools refuse to listen to a man of genius and imagination—gottdamit.


The basic theme in the film is weak and incompetent aristocracy forced into action by “good peasant horse sense” delivered “auf gut Deutsch”, a literal line in the film—and also the name of an early volkisch newspaper (the phrase itself is a common idiom, but the significance would not be lost on the audience). No—Citizen Nettelbeck disdains some fancy-dancy jargon-laden proclamation (in Latin, or some such language) and cuts through the bureaucracy with just plain English (innit?).


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The bridge between “the herald of the volk” and the “the aristocrats and the monarchy” is found in the figure of Gneisenau—the only person in the film who manages to put Nettelbeck in his place. I found Gneisenau to be the most sympathetic character in the film, mainly due to the fact that man who portrayed him, Horst Caspar, had a magnetic film presence. He’s almost a corrective and antithesis to Nettelbeck—thin, refined, and educated, whereas Nettelbeck is fat, uncouth, and self-taught.


Gneisenau’s role is really to “smooth out” Nettelbeck’s rough peasant wisdom and place it in a “tidy” and “useful” form. Hence the film actually starts at the end, with Gneisenau explaining to the king how “the Kolberg model” and “Citizen Nettelbeck” have inspired him and how he sees, in full German Romantic mode (blood-red evenings and trees heavy with autumn fruit), a grand volks-heer.



You see here how Hitler was regarded within the regime’s own mythology—he is the “inspiration”, he provides “the spark”, and then more refined, younger, and perhaps even more intelligent men take the “spark of genius” and develop it into a workable general operation. Hence there is actually a modesty within how Hitler was portrayed within the regime—this “wise old uncle” behind the scenes providing both the conscience and the inspiration for capable younger men.


The king, however, remains suspicious—he belongs to the decadent aristocracy, you see. He doesn’t trust his volk—sees their enthusiasm for battle as “a rebellion” (whereas Nettelbeck, like Hitler, is one with his people).


You can almost see Hitler, one arm at a right-angle, twirling his hand, and expostulating in that guttural metallic voice, “If only, Gneisenau, if only the Prussian aristocrats would show some backbone—if only these desk-bound dwarf-men would have a little vision. I see a people’s army, Gneisenau. We must clear them out, Gneisenau—after the war I demand a complete reorganisation of the officer corps. Tell Himmler to begin a preliminary study at once…”

The odd thing is that the Nettelbeck character couldn’t really exist outside of this film—he’s actually ugly in the physical sense, and his character is almost wholly unsympathetic (well, he has his tender moments—but it’s hard to like him because he’s abrasive and…kinda arrogant).


Although he is clearly a surrogate figure for “der Fürher” he is not shown as infallible, and is actually mocked in some places. It’s a curious situation—yet the film is really “about him” (although it has a tacked on love story following a young lieutenant and Nettelbeck’s niece, but that’s not where the meat is). Really, Nettelbeck couldn’t be the main character in any other situation, where attractive people are the main characters—except he could be in Hitler’s Germany, where Hitler was the main character.


Perhaps it points to a more “liberal” attitude in National Socialist culture—it’s hard to imagine anyone producing a film in the USSR where a historical character was clearly “Stalin” and then having that character being a fool, and for the people who made the film to get away with it (without being shot). Yet Nettelbeck is definitely Hitler—and yet he’s not portrayed in a totally positive light (even though we’re basically with him and he’s vindicated in the end—at a cost; or, perhaps, that late in the war, with his faults more apparent, people just risked more in their portrayals…).



Hitler’s other “appearance” in the film is in the portrait above—which depicts King William III of Prussia (otherwise not a sympathetic character in the film, but he only makes cameos—so in his portrait he’s just “the boss”). The portrait has him posed as with official portraits of Hitler and appears hung in the same way—and makes “appearances” in key scenes. Hence the Führer manifested in the film in two ways, as Nettelbeck and as this ever-watchful portrait—both humble and regal at the same time, a true “peasant king”.


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The female lead is rather insipid—and bit too plump, I think (rather jowly). I presume she embodied some ideal of “German maidenhood”—despite being an unmarried girl, she looks more like a mother already (perhaps she’s already produced 9 children for the fatherland—gold star for her).


She tends to cluck over the other characters somewhat—and looks like a hen. She’s also another “bridge to the aristocracy”—in an act of “brave German womanhood” she delivers a secret message through the French lines to the king (she actually has to hand it to the queen—and the two women have a moment of Germanic sororal unity, with the young frau moved to speechless tears just to be in the presence of her true liege monarch).


“Just two Aryan girls having a moment.”

It makes for an unfavourable comparison to the facetious Meghan Markle, anyway (who thinks to curtsy to the queen is just lol and likes to say it in public interviews before the impotent Harry)—in Kolberg we see, somehow, German womanhood aligned in an “understanding beyond words” against the rather insipid king.


*****


Overall, it’s not a film like its Allied contemporaries—it’s more realistic than its Hollywood counterparts, the characters seem “more real” and true to life, whereas Hollywood tends to produce cut-out characters. The quality is higher in terms of costumes, colour (then in its adolescence), outside locations, and interiors (for that matter)—and even the music is better than contemporary Hollywood products, not being so melodramatic.


It’s an insight into the National Socialist ideal—the volk and its peasant leader, its peasant tribune of the people, whose rough-hewn wisdom is ignored but, once refined, will save the day and lead the country to higher things.


As you’d expect, it’s not really “transferable” because, unlike Hollywood, being dominated by a cosmopolitan race, the Jews, this is a film that is by and for Germans (right down to the extensive time devoted to folk dances)—and it speaks to German archetypes and stock-characters (which if I knew Germany better, I’d probably recognise).


Overall, I didn’t like Nettelbeck—he comes over as a nasty and arrogant bore; but I liked Gneisenau, who seemed refined and sensible. And, anyway, as it happens, “the volk in arms” didn’t save Germany—contrary to the advice of Citizen Nettelbeck (or his later incarnation, anyway). Nevertheless, ist kino, ja?






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