Monday, March 24, 2008

Military History and Warfare: 'Kolberg' - A Nazi Epic

On 30 January 1945 ‘Kolberg’ premiered simultaneously in bomb ravaged Berlin as well as to the besieged sailors and soldiers surrounded at La Rochelle in western France. ‘Kolberg’ was the last major film of the Third Reich and told the story of siege the East Prussian town by Napoleon’s forces in 1807. Involving entire army units as extras and with a budget of eight and half million Reichsmarks, it was also the most expensive film the Nazi regime ever produced.

As a result of policies brought into force in February 1942, the entire German film industry was put under the ownership of a government holding company. Film distribution was centralised and ownership of theatres was severely restricted. At the same time, the Ministry of Propaganda took complete control of film content whilst film critics were given clear instructions as to how films should be reviewed.

On 1 June 1943 Goebbel’s wrote to the leading film director Veit Harlan as follows:

“I hereby instruct you to produce a major film ‘Kolberg’. The aim of the film is to demonstrate on the basis of the example of the town which give the film its title that a nation which is united at home and at the front can overcome any enemy”

At the beginning of the war, Goebbels had insisted upon the production of documentaries that chronicled German military successes. However, by 1942 the reversals on the Eastern Front and the entry of the Americans into the war meant that these kinds of films were no longer possible. Goebbels resigned himself to the production of entertainment films arguing that occasional escapes from the realities of the home front would prepare the German people for a war of attrition that lay ahead.

The story of the heroic decisions of the town of Kolberg to resist the French invasion despite the surrender of the local government authorities, appealed to the Reich propaganda minister who saw it as useful in rallying the German people should the German army be forced onto the defensive.

‘Kolberg’ falls into the category of propaganda film which was direct and involved historic individuals and events designed to carry a message about the current situation. Goebbels had previously commissioned ‘The Great King’ (Der Grosse Konig) about Frederick the Great of Prussia triumphing against all the odds through raw determination during the Seven Years war.

A small sample of the dialogue between the mayor of Kolberg and the garrison commander Gneisenau reveals the running theme of the film;

“No we’re not going to give up now. And even if we have to dig our nails into the grounds of our town, we’re not going to give up…I’d rather be buried…than surrender. Gneisenau, Gneisenau, I have never bent my knee before to anybody. But I’m doing it now, Gneisenau. Kolberg must not be surrendered, Gneisenau!”


It is especially fascinating to consider the sheer amount of effort that went in to making the film at a time when resources were growing increasingly scarce. Goebbels made it clear from the start of the production that the unconditional support of the Wehrmacht was expected. As such, 180,000 soldiers were diverted from the front at a time when Soviet forces were about, or towards the end of the shooting had already crossed into East Prussia. Despite a shortage of ammunition on the Eastern front, factories worked overtime to produce blank bullets for the film. Goebbels clearly saw this film as a work that future generations of Germans would go to see and regard as an expression of the resilience and success of the Nazi regime.

In spite of logistical difficulties, shooting started in the actual location of the city in East Prussia. The film was shot in expensive Agfacolour film with more than 3000 metres and 110 metres length. By the end of the shooting, ninety hours of unedited footage had been collected. Putting the film together was a painstaking process at the UFA studios of Neudabelsberg in Berlin. Editing of the film took place at a time when the city had been paralysed by air-raids and resources of any kind were difficult to obtain. Despite these problems, the film appeared in UFA’s progress report of autumn 1944 as having entered the last stages of production and would be ready for release by November 1944. Goebbels postponed the film’s release until he had had a chance to personally review the material. He asked for a shortening of the battle sequences in favour of more character development. As a result the film was only ready for release in January of 1945 when few German cities still actually possessed functioning cinemas. Ironically by this stage, the town of Kolberg itself was about to fall into the hands of the Soviets.

The production and release of ‘Kolberg’ summarise the total loss of contact with reality which became the most prominent feature of the Nazi leadership and Hitler and Goebbels in particular during the final months of the war. Director Viet Harlan later summarised his own views on the motivation of the regime in releasing such a film so near the end;

“Hitler as well as Goebbels must have been obsessed with 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. And what better way to make miracles than to utilise the ‘dream factory’ that is film.”


Nazism 1919-1945, vol.4 ‘The German Home Front’ in World War II, ed. Jeremy Noakes (Exeter, 1998)

Aristole A. Kallis, Nazi Propaganda and the Second World War (New York, 2005)

Scott Spector ‘Was the Third Reich Movie-Made?’ Interdisciplinority and the Reframing of Ideology” in The American Historical Review vol. 106, No.2 (April 2001)

David Weinberg, ‘Film in the Third Reich’ in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol.19, No.1 in Historians and Movies: The State of the Art Part 2 (Jan. 1984)

Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (London, 2001)

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