Kolberg (1945) vs. 300 (2006): Contemplating Fascist Propaganda

kolberg

A screenshot from the Nazi propaganda film Kolberg, which is largely free from crude appeals to antisemitism or any demonized racial “other.” But who in the world is the black actor who plays one of the French soldiers? Was he a French North African POW forced to play a role as an “extra?”

Napoleon did not lose his throne at the Battle of Waterloo. He lost it two years before at the Battle of Leipzig, by far the largest and bloodiest battle fought on European soil before the First World War. “Napoleon met his Leipzig” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “Napoleon met his Waterloo.” It certainly should. It was the growth of German nationalism, not the British Army or the Duke of Wellington that finally brought down the mighty French Empire, but Germans simply don’t have the same skill as the British at propaganda.

It’s not that they don’t try.

Six years before the titanic Battle of Leipzig, where an alliance of 380,000 Germans and Russians defeated 225,000 Frenchmen and their Polish and Italian allies, there was another battle along the shores of the Baltic. From March to July of 1807, the Grande Armée besieged the small Pomeranian City of Kolberg, repeatedly trying, and failing to dislodge the “Freikorps” of Lieutenant Ferdinand von Schill and a small garrison led by the legendary German commander August Neidhardt von Gneisenau. While militarily insignificant, the Siege of Kolberg was also was the first time the revived Prussian Army, or any army, managed to inflict a defeat on the Napoleonic juggernaut, predating the Peninsular War in Spain by a year, and the disastrous invasion of Russia by five.

That by 1943 the Siege of Kolberg had become a potent a symbol of the German resistance, patriotism, and self-sacrifice was not lost on Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. A year after the Battle of Stalingrad, he commissioned the legendary director Veit Harlan to make a film based on the autobiography Joachim Nettelbeck, Kolberg’s Mayor, and a hero of the German “Wars of Liberation.” While little known or viewed today, Kolberg still ranks as one of the most expensive and elaborate films ever made. From October of 1943 to August of 1944, and with a cast of 185,000 extras, many of whom were soldiers pulled off the Russian front, Harlan recreated a full scale Napoleonic battle, shooting on location in the city of Kolberg, now the Polish resort town of Kołobrzeg, and in the ancient Prussian capital of Königsberg, which is now a grim Russian naval base called Kaliningrad. Whatever else it is, Harlan’s film is a visual and historic record of two German cities that are no more.

So what else is Kolberg?

Kolberg is fascist propaganda to be sure, but unlike the grotesque, antisemitic newspaper Der Sturmer or Harlan’s earlier film Jud Süss, Kolberg is also what for lack of a better term might be called “high-class fascist propaganda.” There’s no demonized racial “other.” The enemy are just the French, none of whom are portrayed as particularly horrible, but simply as soldiers fighting for their country. The film’s Napoleon seems to understand German history better than its Germans. “If he were alive,” the French emperor says over the grave of Frederick the Great, “we never would have conquered Prussia.” There’s no appeal to antisemitism. Astonishingly, the only Jew to be seen in the whole film is Horst Caspar, the actor who plays Harlan’s idealized German hero Gneisenau. Caspar, who was one quarter Jewish, and a “Mischling,” or “mixed race person” under the Nuremberg Laws, received an exemption from Joseph Goebbels, and was allowed to continue acting. Why he agreed to appear in a Nazi propaganda film is anybody’s guess, but some hint might be provided by a 1992 interview with Kurt Meisel, the actor who plays Claus Werner, the pacifistic brother of the patriotic heroine Maria.

Meisel, who detested the Nazis, admitted he was grateful that making the film kept him off the Russian front. That Werner’s character is also in favor of surrendering to the French – his father disowns him when he agrees to drink a toast to Napoleon — probably also reflected the opinion of many Germans in 1944, who surely, by that late date, knew they would lose the war and must have preferred the idea of being occupied by the western powers to being occupied by the Soviets. But it perhaps the manner of Werner’s death that best explains why talented actors like Meisel and Caspar decided to continue working under the Nazis. After the Mayor of Kolberg has parts of the town flooded in an attempt to make it inaccessible to the French, Werner drowns trying to save his violin from the rising waters. Meisel, who went on to a long and successful career after the war, and Caspar, who became famous on the German stage acting in plays by Shakespeare and Friedrich Schiller, probably agreed to appear in the movie out of some misguided idea that they were helping to preserve a remnant of German culture, not only from the Nazis, but from the destruction brought on by the allied bombing.

If Kolberg is “high class” fascist propaganda, however, that only makes it all the more insidious. It’s one thing when fascists identify themselves as fascists. Pick up a copy of Der Sturmer and you have no illusion about being in the presence of genocidal antisemites. It’s quite another thing when fascists hide themselves behind a facade of a respectable patriotism and love of country. It takes a trained eye to see exactly what Kolberg is doing, but once you notice it, you realize exactly what an evil film you’ve just watched.

Kolberg opens with a parade of German civilians in 1813, marching on the Prussian King’s palace at Potsdam. They want permission to form themselves into militias and be sent to the front against Napoleon at Leipzig. The King, who initially believes that war should be fought only by professional soldiers, eventually gives way to Gneisenau, who argues that it was only by a general mobilization of the entire civilian population that Kolberg had been saved from the French in 1807. Indeed, the closest thing Kolberg has to a villain is the cowardly General Loucadou, who stands firm against the idea that civilians resist the enemy, and who tries to have the heroic patriot Mayor Joachim Nettelbeck hanged for mutiny. Indeed, while Gneisenau and Ferdinand von Schill figure prominently in the movie, the real heroes are old men like Nettelbeck and young women like his niece Maria, who saves the day by sneaking past enemy lines to deliver a message to Queen Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – who Napoleon once called “the only real man in all of Prussia – begging her to send them a new commander. Kolberg may look like a tribute to the patriotism of the common people, who win a victory against a foreign occupier that the regular Prussian Army could not. In 1944 and 1945, it was a rationalization to send old men and Hitler youth to the front to die in a useless and suicidal last push against the mighty Soviet and Anglo American armies.

300

A screenshot from 300. Not only is the Persian black. Zach Snyder progressively darkens his skin as he progressively sounds more and more evil.

There’s nothing “high class” about 300, Zack Snyder’s grotesque, racist and sexually prurient realization of Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae. 300 is a remarkably ugly, stupid, and perverse film. Superficially, like Kolberg, the plot concerns the heroic stand of a small city against an arrogant emperor, but unlike Kolberg, where the French speak French and actually look French, the “Persians” in 300 resemble no Persian I’ve ever seen, nor, for that matter, anybody in Central Asia. They are black, like the messenger King Leonidas murders at the opening of the film or the Persian official who bribes the Spartan Ephors not to mobilize the Spartan Army, or simply a generalized demonic “other.” The Persian Empire is repeatedly described by the narrator as “many nations” and indeed, the hordes of deformed half-men, half-beasts, and actual beasts Xerxes throws at Leonidas and his 300 muscle bound Aryan superman resemble nothing so much as a fever dream of a multicultural civilization in the mind of a Trump supporter. 300 was propaganda aimed at the “alt-right” before the “alt-right” had a name.

My guess is that, had he not let any pretension towards high culture get in the way, Hitler would have loved 300. In many ways it’s an almost perfect cinematic reflection of the ideals in Mein Kampf.  300 opens with a justification for killing the handicapped. Spartan babies, we are told, are examined shortly after birth and killed if they’re found to be puny or deformed. That Miller approves of Spartan infanticide is more than attested to by the way it’s one of these deformed babies – whose parents saved him from being euthanized – who later betrays Leonidas and the 300 to their deaths. Hitler’s enemy in Mein Kampf is not only the Jews, but multiculturalism. Much is made of Hitler being Austrian and not German, but we forget exactly why he jumped the border in 1914 from the Habsburg to the Hohenzollern empires. At the start of the First World War, Hitler’s great fear was the idea that he would be drafted into the multicultural, part Slavic, Austrian Army. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, like the Persian Empire of Xerxes, was made up of “many nations.” Hitler did not, however, consider the Hohenzollern German Reich free from impurity. He considered the “Aryan race,” not the “German nation,” to be the “master race.” For Hitler, Germany was a superior nation but only because it was traditionally dominated by an elite minority of superior men. The mass of Germans were weak, lazy, easily duped. The fall of the monarchy had been a disaster, and the Weimar Republic, German democracy, was an abomination.Germans, like all other Europeans, needed a strong man to save them from themselves.

Similarly, in Zack Snyder’s film, it’s not Sparta embodies the ideal of the Spartan warrior culture, but the elite 300-man squad of “red shirts” (they all wear the same color cape) that Leonidas calls his “personal guard.” Sparta as a whole seems to be made up largely of women, children, old men, dupes of the deformed, sub human “Ephors” (who like the Jews of Nazi propaganda lust after young Aryan women), or oily and corrupt civilian politicians in the pay of Xerxes. When King Leonidas murders the Persian messenger and marches his personal guard to the “hot gates” to resist the Persian Army it is in effect a fascist coup against Spartan law and the legitimate Spartan authorities similar to Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch or Mussolini’s march on Rome. It’s a fait accompli designed to effect a military takeover of the civilian government. 300 is, in effect, the mirror image of Kolberg. Where in Kolberg, it’s Nettelbeck, the civilian mayor, who’s the patriot, and General Loucadou, the professional soldier, who’s the traitor. In 300, it’s just the opposite. It’s the civilian politician Theron – played by The Wire’s Dominic West – who conspires to open the gates of the city and Leonidas the warrior King, a man born and bred to be a soldier, determined to resist the foreign occupier. That Frank Miller is even more militaristic than Adolf Hitler – Hitler was an outsider in Prussian military culture and largely jaded about professional soldiers – does not mean that 300 and Kolberg have different ideals, only that they’ve identified different “vanguards.” What’s important is not precisely who carries the “spirit of the volk” but that whoever does – be it Kolberg’s civilians or Sparta’s professional warrior caste – take over the machinery of the state. 300’s King Leonidas and Kolberg’s August Neidhardt von Gneisenau would have instantly recognized each other as superior men with not only the the right, but the obligation to rule.

As he made clear in his attack on Occupy Wall Street in 2011, Frank Miller believes that the United States is a country ruled by Therons, and endangered by weaklings who don’t understand the existential threat posed by “radical Islam.”

Wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy. In the name of decency, go home to your parents, you losers. Go back to your mommas’ basements and play with your Lords Of Warcraft. Or better yet, enlist for the real thing. Maybe our military could whip some of you into shape.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/blog/2011/nov/14/frank-miller-occupy-movement-rant

Perhaps that’s why, in the end, the American comic book movie is more Nazi than the actual Nazi propaganda film. Frank Miller needs his demonized racial other to wake us all up to a threat that doesn’t really exist. Everybody in Germany in 1945 knew their country was about to be occupied by the Russians, British, French and Americans. There was no need to blow Napoleon or his generals up into grotesque villains. The RAF’s bombs were already falling on German cities. Had Kolberg been more widely viewed in 1945 when it was released — the British and Americans had already bombed most of the movie theaters — the French artillery barrage that destroys Kolberg would have elicited gasps. An ambitious Napoleonic Marshall who trains his artillery on Kolberg’s civilians in the hope that his emperor will make him “Duke of Kolberg” was all the monster Harlan really needed. Frank Miller, on the other hand, who lives safely in a country under no threat of being invaded, is afraid nothing so much as his own shadow. So he imagines in that shadow a 9-foot-tall,  fabulous and gay Persian emperor at the head of an army of subhuman monsters and wild CGI beasts, Xerxes the living God, determined, if not to conquer the world, then at least to give the buff King of the Spartans a neck rub.

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