Out of the graves, out of the rubble …
The German war film in the 1950s
The war film as historical revisionism
The war film as a genre has never had it easy in Germany. Even today people prefer the label “anti-war film” to avoid the impression that a film is guilty of glorifying or trivialising warfare.[i] There is a suggestion that a war film in and of itself exhibits an affirmative attitude – an argument which, when considered analytically, is as difficult to maintain as it is for films which were indeed anti-war films.[ii] The problematic war film discourse may well have its origins in the German position in the Second World War: with the attack on Poland, the occupation of France, the air war over England, the battle for Stalingrad, and not least the “scorched earth policy” in Eastern Europe, Nazi Germany left countless war crimes of Nazi Germany in its wake. In contrast to the United States which intervened as a regulative counterbalance on the side of the Allies, from a German perspective there can be no conceivable utopia of a just war. Both the German Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS were guilty of committing horrendous massacres including against the civilian population. Underlying all this were the regime’s inhuman policies on deportation and extermination. To depict the war from a German perspective meant it was necessary to deal with this part of the nation’s own history – or to edit it out which is tantamount to historical revisionism.
Therefore a compromise was reached which reflected the historical picture of the postwar period. In the films of the 1950s – and it is no coincidence that these films appeared at the same time as the rearmament of the Federal Republic in 1955 – internal polarities were created which circumvented the embarrassment of a friend-foe polarity which often lent itself to the generic war film from the United States. Instead of the demonisation of an external enemy – from a Nazi perspective undoubtedly the United Kingdom and later the Soviet Union – the enemy was conjured up from within the German ranks themselves. Evil manifested itself in loyalty to the recognisably destructive and corrupt Nazi regime. As a member of a supposedly neutral Wehrmacht, the honest soldier was ultimately well suited to be a tragic identification figure, as “one of the people”, initially only following orders, until he rebels at the pivotal moment.
This rarely takes on the form of a system-toppling revolution, but rather is a precarious revolt by the individual against autocratic tyrannical superiors and which ultimately represented the purported dichotomy between the “people” and the “Führer”. The war films of the postwar period essentially suggest that the simple soldier, the submariner or the gallant airmen was an upright and humane representative of Germany who had sometimes himself become a victim of the fanatical elite. The crimes of the Wehrmacht did not fit into this picture. The German war film of the 1950s confirmed the myth of the upright Wehrmacht which Hitler and the SS had led to ruin. The Holocaust – the persecution and extermination of Jews and other victim groups – was usually discussed only on the periphery and almost never in a visually explicit way. According to the logic of the films, responsibility for the crimes lay first and foremost with Hitler, Himmler, Göring, and other representatives of the Nazi regime. The simple soldier on the other hand served as a suitable point of identification for an audience that only too well remembered the bombings, the fallen relatives and sons, and the invasion of the Allies.
The war film as a German genre
From around 1955 the German war film generated a wave of successful productions which were motivated by the establishment of the Bundeswehr and quite possibly also by historical distance (a decade), and by the Cold War between the USSR and the Western powers. They were not always combat films along the lines of the American model which were primarily concerned with battle experience, but harked back to the tried and tested formats of the barrack yard films of the Weimar period or the ever popular doctor films. The film series 08/15 (from 1954) by Paul May, with Joachim Fuchsberger in the lead role and based on the novel of the same name by Hans Hellmut Kirst, dealt with the lives of ordinary soldiers in the army barracks (“Gunner Asch” and “08/15” became familiar terms for the average man). der arzt von stalingrad (FRG 1957/58, The Doctor of Stalingrad) by Genre-Profi Géza von Radvanyi and based on the bestselling novel by Heinz G. Konsalik blended the war film, melodrama, and the medical film. The character of the doctor appeared here as an unproblematic identification figure – a guardian angel free from all ideology. In more combat-oriented films such as Frank Wisbar’s hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben (FRG 1958/59, Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever) and haie und kleine fische (FRG 1957) the German soldier was depicted as an intrepid and inherently apolitical warrior who of course opposed the Nazi system.
Even the feature films which were directly based on historical characters offered a “critical perspective” when portraying the resistance to Hitler. This is true of the spy thriller canaris (FRG 1954) by Alfred Weidenmann as well as for the Stauffenberg drama of der 20. juli (FRG 1955, The Plot to Assassinate Hitler) by director Falk Harnack. With die brücke (FRG 1959, The Bridge) Bernhard Wicki ultimately created the bitter endpoint of this blossoming of the German war film and in so doing successfully avoided the ideological traps that had exposed his predecessors to criticism. The following text will analyse the war films of the period according to their motifs and approaches and thereby show how these films summarised the social mood of those years.
The construction of the dissident
ein leben für deutschland – admiral canaris: the alternative title of canaris almost overarticulates what this biopic promised its audience at the time. It constructed a hero of the resistance against the criminal regime of the Nazis, and someone who was also in and out of the upper echelons of the leadership. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (O. E. Hasse), head of German counterintelligence between 1937 and 1944 is – so the film reveals – more than critical of the Hitler regime. This eventually brings him into the circle of conspirators against the “Führer”. As a result of this, the chief of security Heydrich (Martin Held) becomes his most dangerous enemy. Heydrich tries to undermine the system from within and in so doing mirrors Adolf Hitler’s earlier insidious subversion of the Weimar Republic.
After Heydrich’s assassination at the hands of Czech dissidents, Canaris temporarily assumes control and warns – in vain – against a war with the Soviet Union. When he joins the conspirators of 20 July he is unmasked by ardent Nazis, removed from his position, and executed as a traitor. He thus becomes a mythical hero of the insurrection, of the failing regicide, who although unable to change the course of history nonetheless shows that there were “upright Germans” even in times of terror. However, measured against the historical figure, this mythologising strategy reveals itself to be a nostalgic image that shamelessly condones historical revisionism. The film also became a censorship case because before the film’s release and following pressure from the Foreign Office, the FSK (Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft or Voluntary Self Regulation of the Film Industry) recommended the removal of newsreel images of the crowds cheering Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg. People were reluctant to be reminded of the popular reception which facilitated Hitler’s road to power.
Weidenmann’s production is interested in the elitist but unequivocally moral German of integrity. O. E. Hasse plays Canaris as a superior agent who foresees the downfall of the system in its excess of power. With technical tricks and at the side of beautiful women he projects a type of superior white “elite man” which anticipates a famous British counterpart: James Bond. Unlike his English colleague he has to pay for his rebellious spirit with his life. The German intelligence service is portrayed here as a highly effective and forward-looking institution which to all intents and purposes could have prevented the war – had the upright officer class remained in power. Weidenmann’s film conveys the attitude of “Hitler’s right-wing opponents” around Stauffenberg, who would have indeed eliminated the unpopular tyrant, but who would also have affirmed militarism as a power bloc.
In the same year Helmut Käutner filmed the international success des teufels general (FRG 1954/55, The Devil’s General) based on Carl Zuckmayer’s play and with Curd Jürgens in the title role.[iii] Like canaris the film constructs a spy story around members of the Wehrmacht and SS who are clearly characterised as good or evil. The conventional hierarchy of loyal Wehrmacht officer, SS collaborator, and SS bully is spun out effectively. The film takes place in December 1941. Air Force General Harras (Curd Jürgens) is a bon vivant with a penchant for women and alcohol. Although he is known as a cynical opponent of the Nazi regime, the SS seeks to establish contacts with him for strategic reasons. SS-Gruppenführer Schmidt-Lausitz (Viktor de Kowa) tries to win over Harras at a party but the latter only has eyes for the young Dorothea. Against the warning of his friend Oderbruch (Charles John), Harras ignores the SS threats. He is immediately arrested. His two-week captivity makes him realise that in the Air Force he has made a pact with the devil. In order to take a counter-stance to the regime, he keeps secret a design fault in one of the new aircraft prototypes and in so doing Oderbruch hopes to weaken the its combat effectiveness. Despite further harassment from the SS, Harras protects his friend and at the end he climbs into one of the faulty machines to fly into the airport control centre.
Filmed in Hamburg and Berlin, des teufels general formulates in the same way as canaris the mythical image of the critic of the regime and saboteur in the leadership ranks of the Wehrmacht harassed by the fanatical SS. The protagonist’s end is presented as a soldier’s suicide against the backdrop of a fatefully sombre overcast sky. Helmut Käutner demonstrates in such directorial moments his desire to go far beyond the source play cinematically. Underscoring this ending is the allusion to Airforce General Udet, friend of the author Carl Zuckmayer, who was reported to have crashed in 1941 during a test flight, but who was actually shot. Käutner changed numerous details to make the criticism of the regime clearer and to raise Oderbuch and Harras to the status of clear identification figures. The commercial success of the film and several awards proved him right, even if he had once again affirmed the myth of the upright Wehrmacht and the devious malignant SS.
The simple soldier as victim of a system of injustice
While the aforementioned films thematised resistance among the decision makers of the Nazi regime, a whole series of productions was devoted to the individual hardships and the spirit of revolt among the common soldiers, the so-called Landser. Based on the novels of Hans Hellmut Kirst, Paul May filmed the trilogy 08/15 beginning in 1954 and ending the following year with the second part and 08/15 in der heimat.[iv] The first part takes place in the years before the war and has links with the barrack yard comedies of the Weimar period. In the film we experience the training and bullying in a Wehrmacht barracks from the perspective of Gunner Asch (Joachim Fuchsberger).
Asch adapts and takes sides with his sensitive comrade Vierbein who is almost tortured to death by the “slave-driver of the company” Platzek (Hans Christian Blech). In the second part we meet the protagonists again in the winter of 1942. The section led by Lieutenant Wedelmann (Rainer Penkert) is stationed on the Eastern Front. The non-commissioned officer Vierbein (Paul Bösiger) is meant to be obtaining radio sets in Germany whilst Asch is able to act strategically to relieve Wedelmann’s bullying. Just as they are about to withdraw, the Red Army soldiers strike. Asch loses his comrade Vierbein in battle. The third part takes place again in Germany during the last days of the war. Asch’s battalion is scattered and left to its own devices. The military leadership has disappeared. The fighting had stopped, but Lieutenant Asch pursues his plan of bringing several war criminals to justice.
All three films describe the war events as the everyday life of the soldiers. In military jargon “08/15” meant routine actions which were not to be questioned, even injustices, and to which the soldiers had become accustomed.
This was the experience that the bestselling novels of the veteran Kirst wished to convey and which was welcomed by former Landser as authentic, but which members of the General Staff accused of amounting to “nest-fouling”. The film trilogy creates a lively, entertaining picture of numbing routine with the experienced images of cinematographer Heinz Hölscher. Consequently, the films function somewhat as anecdotal military comedies and avoid overly drastic settlement with Prussian drill. Much more, a joyful vitality shines through in the face of terror and the film spreads a mischievous humour. Again, it is made clear that those responsible for war crimes were the men in the command post: the ordinary soldiers were not to blame.
Frank Wisbar, who had initially emigrated to America, was more consistent in what was later called his “war trilogy” which started with the navy adventure haie und kleine fische (FRG 1957). Based on the novel by Wolfgang Ott (1954), this absorbing U-boat film dramatises one of the most remorseless fronts of the Second World War. The titular metaphor (“sharks and little fish”) which distinguishes minesweepers and submarines refers once again to the rank and file (the “small fish”), who are prey to the generals and the “Führer” (“the sharks”). Wisbar’s film tells the narrative from the perspective of four friends and sailors, Teichmann (Hansjörg Felmy), Heyne (Horst Frank), Stollenberg (Thomas Bride), and Vögele (Ernst Reinhold) who are selected from a minesweeper in 1940 and allocated to a submarine crew. The very first engagement at sea results in one death and several casualties. Unrequited love leads Teichmann to volunteer for a risky submarine mission. When the submarine is hit by a British destroyer, only eight sailors are saved including Teichmann.
As the title suggests, Wisbar is entirely on the side of ordinary servicemen who fight to the best of their knowledge and belief for survival and repeatedly experience their own powerlessness. The example of Heyne, who commits suicide when he learns about the death of his Jewish father in a concentration camp, serves as an indication of the inhumanity of the Nazi system. The famous theme song Verloren, vergessen (“Lost, Forgotten”) by Lotar Olias and Peter Moesser prosecutes a claim for recognition for the selfless military sacrifices of the fallen. Time and again, Wisbar integrates real newsreel excerpts – including in his later works – so that the film has a contemporary feel: haie und kleine fische creates a dense simulation of the submarine war, but remains ideologically indifferent. This is legitimate as long as the film is an attempt to shed light on individual fates in borderline situations, not a reflection of the society of that time. haie und kleine fische is an intensive reflection of the mood of those years in which the war is still a very vivid memory.
The equally successful combat film hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben based on the literary work by Fritz Wöss refers in its title to a quotation of Frederick the Great in the battle against the Austrians: “You damned rascals, do you want to live forever?” We witness the downfall of Paulus’ army at Stalingrad, widely reproduced in historical newsreel images, from the perspective of the idealistic, National Socialist-educated Lieutenant Wisse (Joachim Hansen). The ending is dominated by the lingering prophetic chorus of the Russian propaganda: “Stalingrad – mass grave” Based on detailed research, Wisbar recounts here the attrition of the individual as a consequence of a fatal military logic. In order to manage with relatively simple means of production, Wisbar creates a montage of documentary material from the historical battle with studio-created street scenes. His idea of the authenticity of representation also led to the recruitment of genuine war veterans as extras. In order to leave the audience alone with the ending, Wisbar dispensed with closing credits.
Stauffenberg – the conservative dissident
For many decades Claus von Stauffenberg was considered an aristocratic hero figure in the fight against the Nazis. Current discourse, however, emphasises the assassination attempt as an act of “right-wing resistance” against Hitler since the circle from which Stauffenberg came was in no way interested in overcoming militarism[v]: he was a conservative dissident representative of a group of military personnel disappointed by the Nazis but who had nonetheless come to power through Hitler. Georg Wilhelm Pabst was a filmmaker interested in early psychoanalysis and, based on this idea, developed inter alia an exemplary portrait of the political events through which the Nazi Reich came to collapse.
der letzte akt (The Last Ten Days) was made by Pabst in 1954/55 in Austria and is a long-forgotten chamber drama about the last days in the Führer bunker. Based on a book by Michael A. Musmannoi,[vi] the situation is described from the perspective of Richard Wüst (Oskar Werner), a holder of the Knight’s Cross but critical of the regime. Wüst is sent to request reinforcements from Hitler (Albin Skoda) but fails in his attempt to gain admittance. We experience the collapse of the system with him. Wüst is only received when Hitler decides to blow up the tunnels of the Berlin U-Bahn, a source of shelter for the population.
Pabst’s film was the first German postwar film to depict Hitler. The film only attracted small audiences in Germany but interest was greater abroad. The author of the original text later became a judge at the Nuremberg Trials. Although he and Pabst consulted Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge during their research, they respected her request not to appear in the film herself.
After he had told his version of the end, Pabst set about making es geschah am 20. Juli (FRG 1955, It Happened on July 20th) in which he reconstructed Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt of 20 July 1944 in a quasi-documentary form using Erich Maria Remarque’s novella as a basis. Some actors of the previous film kept their roles (for example Willy Krause as Goebbels). As if following the agenda of the day, the film begins like on the morning of 20 July with Stauffenberg (Bernhard Wicki) flying to the Wolf’s Lair in Prussia where he is to place the briefcase he has already prepared under Hitler’s desk. Unexpectedly Hitler survives the attack but the conspirators have already launched their coup, “Operation Valkyrie”. When Stauffenberg arrives in Berlin, the “Führer”, who has been spared from death, has already ordered the suppression of the conspiracy. Stauffenberg is executed in the Bendler Block.
In this film Pabst also avoided the presence of too many Nazi symbols and flags – a picture that newer productions correct. In addition, the director established a spiritual level by having Stauffenberg attend church before the assassination. There, the shocked sacristan comments on his appearance with the line, “I will never forget the face. He had something to arrange with God!”[vii]
Like his co-writer Günther Weisenborn, Falk Harnack was a member of the left-wing resistance and made a parallel film der 20. Juli, also in a semi-documentary style and which to some extent addresses the preparations for the assassination attempt in greater detail.[viii] Apart from their style, the Stauffenberg films strongly resemble earlier resistance films where the positive utopia of effective damage to the dictatorship was linked to the dictatorship’s own protagonists rather than having the theme of resistance “from below”. This also distinguishes the West German point of entry from DEFA films which placed the dissident common soldier or prisoner at the centre.
Dissident war films: Childhood as the last victim
The highly emotionally charged, often melodramatic war film that aimed at identification was soon joined by the dissident war film, a typical example being kinder, mütter und ein general (FRG 1954/55, Children, Mother, and the General) based on the novel by Herbert Reinecker. The film is set towards the end of the Second World War when the regime has lost its power of seduction and most Germans are fearing for their own survival. Nevertheless, young male volunteers are still being won over for the war effort. When a group of fanatical high school students leaves for the front, their mothers determine to bring their sons back. In the Dornberg detachment they encounter army straggler who is stationed there in a unit with disillusioned veterans and stubborn Nazi zealots. In the face of the boys’ idealistic delusions, a disillusioned soldier helps the mothers to hide their sons in a barn before they depart. The film functions over long stretches as a dialogue-driven chamber drama in which different political positions are played out. Fittingly, many of the male and female actors come from a theatre background, amongst them Hans Mahler who later became director of the Hamburg Ohnsorg Theatre. Strikingly, in contrast to the German version the international versions of the film finished on a more pessimistic note: the boys are transported to the front. This film could be seen as a melodrama that distinctly feeds off the emotionality of the mothers towards their sons rather than relying entirely on the criticism of the war policy of the Nazis.
Bernhard Wicki’s now incomparably more famous war film die brücke based on the novel by Gregor Dorfmeister (published in 1958 under the pseudonym of Manfred Gregor) received numerous awards including an Oscar nomination. It depicts the final days of the war in 1945 in a small Bavarian town in which seven still underage boys receive the militarily senseless command to defend a bridge before the advancing American troops. The only adult involved in the mission, Sergeant Heilmann, does not survive long. Left alone to complete their mission, the schoolboys lose their life one after another. At the end when the Allied tanks advance, only one of them is still alive.
False pride, a martial male image, the loss of the father, and the ideological demonisation of the enemy: Wicki makes it clear that these will lead the children to certain death. In the current discourse on child soldiers in the Arab and African context, this model could be re-discussed since die brücke shows emphatically how the Nazi regime was able to hold out for such a long time at the expense of the most vulnerable.
Wicki increases the height of the tragic fall by having the teacher, Stern – who is to blame for their political indoctrination – plead for the boys, not realising that they are to be sent to the home front after one day’s training. The film conveys the image of an innocent but deluded and abused youth[ix] and in doing so has similarities to the redemptive Wehrmacht films, the difference here being that it is indeed about naïve schoolboys.[x] The Florian Geyer Bridge in the Cham district of the Upper Palatinate which can be seen in the film no longer exists, but a plaque refers to this iconic film which more than others before it has created a concentrated image of seduction and destruction in the context of the Second World War. Therefore, it is this work which formulates the clearest appeal against war of the West German war films of the 1950s and offers an effective antidote to the previous revisionist works. The bridge and the children who defend it – that is Germany at the end of the Nazi regime. With the final sentence Wicki recalls another anti-war classic, all quiet on the western front (US 1930): “This occurred on 27 April 1945. It was so insignificant that it was not mentioned in any military report.”
[i] See also Thomas Klein, Marcus Stiglegger, Bodo Traber (eds.): Filmgenres: Kriegsfilm. Stuttgart: Reclam 2006.
[ii] Marcus Stiglegger: Kriegsfilm. In: Thomas Koebner (ed.): Reclams Sachlexikon des Films. Stuttgart: Reclam 2002, pp. 375–378.
[iii] Ulrike Weckel: Geheimnisse eines Kinoerfolgs: Die Verfilmung von des teufels general 1955. In: Gerhard Paul (ed.): Das Jahrhundert der Bilder, Vol. 2: 1949 bis heute. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2009, pp. 130–137.
[iv] Knut Hickethier: 08/15, 08/15 – 2. teil, 08/15 in der heimat. In: Klein, Stiglegger, Traber, et al, pp. 101–106.
[v] Cf. Wolfgang Venohr: Stauffenberg: Symbol des Widerstands. Munich: Herbig 2000.
[vi] Michael A. Musmanno: In zehn Tagen kommt der Tod. Augenzeugen berichten über das Ende Hitlers. Authentische Darstellung der dramatischen Ereignisse der letzten Wochen im Führerbunker der Reichskanzlei. Munich: Droemer 1950.
[vii] Robnik Drehli: Geschichtsästhetik und Affektpolitik. Stauffenberg und der 20. Juli im Film 1948–2008. Vienna: Turia-Kant 2009.
[viii] Claudia Dillmann, Ronny Loewy (ed.): 2x 20. Juli. Die Doppelverfilmung von 1955. Frankfurt: Deutsches Filminstitut 2004.
[ix] Klaus Kanzog: “Warten auf das entscheidende Wort”. Pubertät und Heldenwahn in Bernhard Wickis die brücke (1959). In: Klaus Kanzog (ed.): Der erotische Diskurs: filmische Zeichen und Argumente. Munich: Schaudig, Bauer, Ledig 1989.
[x] Elisabeth Wicki-Endriss: Die Filmlegende Bernhard Wicki: Verstörung – und eine Art von Poesie. Berlin: Henschel 2007.