The War Movie That Had A Cast Far Larger Than Its Audience

“Hitler and Goebbels must have been possessed by the thought that such a film might do them more good than, for instance, a victory in Russia.” —Veit Harlan, director of “Kolberg”

In A Nutshell

In the spring of 1943, Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (pictured) green-lit a film of epic proportions. Called Kolberg after the East Prussian city that defended itself against Napoleon’s forces in 1807, Goebbels used it to introduce the concept of total war to German audiences, where even civilians would be needed to defend the Third Reich. The movie became an obsession for Goebbels, who funneled millions of reichsmarks and much-needed war materiel to the project and diverted thousands of soldiers from the front to appear as extras. When it was finally released in January 1945, there were barely a handful of theaters in all of Germany still standing and able to screen it. The few Germans who went to see it, had to do so between air raids.

The Whole Bushel

Under Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry, the Third Reich made more than 1,000 films. When war erupted, Goebbels’s productions became more elaborate, partially because Hitler demanded a German movie industry that rivaled Hollywood.

In the midst of the 1940 Battle for Britain, Goebbels spent millions of reichsmarks to make a movie about the sinking of the Titanic. The British shipbuilders were depicted as monstrous capitalists completely unmoved by passenger safety. Wealthy Jewish passengers—such as Isidor Straus and Benjamin Guggenheim—were profit-hungry caricatures.

And, of course, there was a fictional German first officer who repeatedly warned his superiors of icebergs.

But when Goebbels screened the first cut of the film two years later, Allied bombers were raining death on the heads of German citizens. The movie’s scenes of carnage were all too reminiscent of what his intended audience was experiencing daily.

Worse, he realized the story of egomaniacal leaders visiting a disaster on the innocent was uncomfortably symbolic of the Third Reich itself. Goebbels banned his own movie.

A year later, things were far worse for the Reich. The Wehrmacht had been captured en masse at Stalingrad, been driven from North Africa and were reeling both from Sicily, Italy, and Russia. Hitler’s Fortress Europe was steadily shrinking.

Goebbels tapped Veit Harlan, infamous for making one of the most anti-Semitic films of all time (Jew Suss, in 1940) to direct a new movie in full color with a budget to rival 1939’s Gone With the Wind. Goebbels wanted it to show “how a people united in Homeland and Front can overcome any opponent.”

The script was based on the siege of Kolberg, a small town on the Baltic in the far eastern corner of Prussia. Napoleon had invaded Prussia in 1806, defeated its armies, then marched eastward. The small garrison of 5,700 men in Kolberg banded with the townspeople and together defended the town from Napoleon’s 13,000 soldiers. That is, until Prussia sued for peace.

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The real siege of Kolberg was mostly small skirmishes or ambushes in the trenches and fortified positions around the town. But Harlan had his French troops march on Kolberg in massive units while cannonballs bowled them over.

In another scene, he had a hellishly long line of French cannons pelt the town into kindling, something that never happened.

To do this, Harlan requisitioned thousands of uniforms and horses from the army and 100 boxcars of salt to simulate snow. It has been variously reported that Harlan (with approval from Goebbels) pulled nearly 190,000 troops from the front to play extras. While that number seems unlikely, we do know that at least 4,000 German marines participated in the movie, along with dozens of Wehrmacht units.

Such diversion of precious resources and men from the war was, frankly, insane. Harlan would later write: “Hitler and Goebbels must have been possessed by the thought that such a film might do them more good than, for instance, a victory in Russia.”

Harlan filmed in East Prussia, by then not far from the Eastern Front. Cities such as Breslau, Konigsberg, and Kolberg are seen in the film just months before they were razed to the ground by the Soviets.

The film had to be smuggled across enemy lines for its premiere in La Rochelle, France, on January 30, 1945. In the next three months, it appeared in a tiny number of theaters in Berlin, Danzig, Breslau, and Konigsberg. In Berlin, one showing in February was interrupted by an air raid.

In mid-April, just weeks before the end of the war, Goebbels held a private screening of Kolberg for his staff. Afterward, he said, “Gentlemen, 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.”

His admonishment is ironic in that Kolberg is reviled and panned by posterity and can only be shown in Germany by special permission.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-17049 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0
From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film, by Anton Kaes
International Historic Films: Kolberg
The Times of Israel: Goebbels’ “Titanic” cinematic disaster turns 70
Spectacular Optical: Whose War Is It Anyway?
Counter-Currents Publishing: Kolberg Revisited

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