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New book: Hitler's Last Chance: Kolberg

January 30, 1945 Hitler's last propaganda film went into premiere. The title of this film directed by German director Veit Harlan is ‘Kolberg’. The subject is the 1807 siege of the German city of the same name on the Baltic coast by Napoleon's troops. The Prussian army, supported by a civilian militia, had then held out for months against the besiegers. The film story was intended to inspire and encourage Germans in early 1945 to keep up the fight. The Allies had repulsed the German Ardennes offensive and were preparing to cross the Rhine. The Red Army was about to reach the Oder River and only needed to cover about 40 miles as the crow flies before reaching the outskirts of Berlin. The final battle for Nazi Germany had begun. The film and the rise and fall of the German town of Kolberg is the subject of a new book by Kevin Prenger, ‘Hitler's Last Chance Kolberg’. Below an excerpt about the 'making-of' of the film.

Filming of the movie started on 22 October 1943. Not only did Harlan have a top cast at his disposal, he wasn’t lacking in means of production either. While German society was entirely geared to war production, Harlan could have anything at his disposal he thought necessary for producing his movie. In a decree of 4 July 1943 Goebbels had promised him a production budget of RM 4 million. This would be exceeded considerably, according to some estimates up to RM 8.5 million, although in 2011 a historian published a detailed calculation showing the total cost as RM 7.6 million [1], at the time still a huge amount. In comparison, Jud Süß was produced on a budget of RM 2 million and Der Große König on RM 4.8 million. Assuming that 1 Reichsmark is equivalent to about US$ 4.5 in our time, the cost of Kolberg amounted to $ 34 million. In Hollywood terms perhaps this was not very spectacular, but for comparison the most expensive Dutch movie Black Book (2006) was produced on a budget of nearly $ 21 million.

Apart from this gigantic budget, Goebbels also authorised Harlan to ‘withdraw soldiers in any desired number from their service and training’. Moreover, Goebbels had assured him that ‘wherever necessary, all branches of the Wehrmacht, state and party’ would be at his disposal because the movie stands ‘in service of our mental waging of the war’. After the war Harlan would boast that he had been given control over generals: ‘If they said no, they said yes.’ [2] It is often claimed, for instance in a special edition about the movie of UFA magazine [3], that no fewer than 187,000 soldiers would be deployed to act as walk-on actors, for instance as soldiers of Napoleon. Some of them would even have been withdrawn from the Eastern Front, just for the movie. In addition, 4,000 navy personnel of the Torpedoschule in Kolberg would be deployed. All these numbers, however, are a gross exaggeration. In order to place them in perspective: on 6 June, D-Day, 156,000 Allied soldiers crossed the Channel to take part in the Normandy landings, a massive operation. Is it possible that an even larger number of German military would have been deployed by Harlan to act as extras? Hitler and the army leadership would never have permitted such huge numbers to be withdrawn from an already weakened front, just like the leadership of the Kriegsmarine had refused previously to cooperate in Narvik. Some mass scenes were included in the movie, such as for Napoleon’s attack on Kolberg, but far fewer extras were needed for that. The exorbitant number was nothing but propaganda and the number of 5,000, mentioned by a camera operator, is a lot more plausible. [4] In any event, the Torpedoschule only had a training capacity of 1,000 so the number mentioned of 4,000 isn’t credible either. [5]

The deployment of thousands of soldiers as extras is remarkable nonetheless in times in which really every healthy adult, male and female, was to be employed in the war effort, in other words the Total War. In order to make the movie, many carpenters were deployed to make set pieces and thirty pyrotechnicians were responsible for the special effects during the shooting of the battle scenes. [6] In addition, there were production chiefs, camera operators, production assistants, light and sound technicians and all those other crew members necessary to produce the movie. All these workers were exempt from service in the army or from working in the war industry. Participation in this production was a lot more pleasant and safer than being deployed as a soldier at a steadily collapsing front or as a worker in an arms factory that could be attacked any day by Allied bombers.

It wasn’t just manpower alone, because two to three thousand horses were used as well, although these figures seem to be somewhat exaggerated. The animals were used by the actors and extras who played members of Napoleon’s soldiers or commander Schill and his cavalrymen. Among the horse-riding actors there also were Cossacks from the army of Russian general Andrey Vlasov, who had defected to the Germans. During the shooting of scenes with horses, stuntmen let themselves fall from galloping horses and subsequently tried to avoid the beating hoofs. Whether or not the numbers of horses were truly in the thousands, these animals couldn’t be taken from the front either. The German army was much less mechanised than the Blitzkrieg tactics might suggest, and as far as logistics were concerned it still depended heavily on horse power. During the war the Wehrmacht had, on average, 1.1 million horses [7] at its disposal, which were used by the cavalry and to pull guns, field kitchens, supply wagons and other vehicles. Harlan, of course, used only a fraction of the total number, but for many a struggling farmer in Germany whose horses were confiscated by the army, it must have been galling to hear that the movie-maker could dispose of so many noble animals at his leisure.

After the war Harlan declared that, using the authorisation by Goebbels, he could dispose of as much wood as he could need to construct ‘gigantic’ buildings, by which he meant the set pieces. At that time wood was an indispensable commodity for the armament industry and was used to produce ammunition containers, for instance. But, in his own words, the director ‘could lay his hands on any material’. He whistled up ‘numerous freight cars loaded with salt’ in order to convert Kolberg harbour into a snow-covered landscape. Money was never an issue, he said. Open air filming didn’t only take place in the resort itself but also in Treptow, 19 miles to the west and a little further inland. In addition, Harlan had a large part of the old city rebuilt in Groß-Glienicke near Berlin in order to ‘subsequently fire at [the buildings] with Napoleon’s guns and burn them down’. [8]

During the filming in and around Kolberg, actor Hanz Lausch also found out that neither cost nor efforts were too much. One moment he thought he heard God’s voice speaking to him from above. On closer inspection, it turned out to be Harlan giving instructions by megaphone from a balloon. Scenes were also shot from this balloon, as well from a vessel offshore. Some of the images were shot using six cameras located in different positions. Pyrotechnicians created clouds of ‘black and white smoke’ over the town. ‘They fired blanks into the air, the flashes being effectively reflected by the black and white clouds.’ Furthermore, in the low-lying areas around Kolberg, Harlan had ditches dug, flooding the historical inundation area with water from the Persante, making it look like Kolberg was surrounded by water. ‘That way, Kolberg became an impregnable fortress for the time being,’ so the movie-maker said. [9] In one scene Harlan claimed to have used the original Emperor’s crown of Charlemagne with the corresponding sceptre and royal apple as props for the scenes that were shot in the Babelsberg studios. The interior of the Imperial Palace had been recreated here. The crown, adorned with diamonds, was transferred from Nuremberg escorted by twenty police officers. According to Harlan’s biographer Franz Noack, a replica could have been used on the set or the original could have been filmed in its depository. [10] In any case, the original specimen survived the war in a bunker in Nuremberg and is now safely deposited in Vienna. [11] The costumes, including uniforms of French and Prussian soldiers, were taken from wardrobes in theatres all over occupied Europe. [12]

Those who were involved in the movie might have been spared the misery of the front line or dangerous work in the war industry, but the days of shooting weren’t a holiday either. For camera operator Gerhard Huttula, participation in the movie was ‘the most embarrassing experience of my entire professional career’. According to him, it was ‘sheer torture’ and ‘this man Harlan was a fanatic, really. He didn’t care about any of his co-workers at all.’ [13] Reportedly, five extras died during the filming. Actor Jaspar von Oertzen, who played Prince Louis Ferdinand von Preußen (but whose scenes were deleted from the movie), recalled after the war that two men had died when charges exploded in the water. He declared: ‘What was so horrible and disgusting for me was after the two had died, filming continued nonetheless. Ambulances had been alerted but immediately afterwards, a major scene was recorded. It was terrible but there was a war on.’ [14]

Apparently there had been cut-backs in medical support, because star actress Kristina Söderbaum is said to have rendered first aid to extras off camera. [15] Safety precautions were taken, though, during the open air shooting at Groß-Glienicke, which would have been interrupted several times by air raid alerts. Trenches had been dug to provide shelter during enemy bombardments. Although involvement in the movie wasn’t riskfree, in war time this was relative. Actor Hanz Lausch, who had served in 6. Armee previously and had been injured, enjoyed it as if it were a holiday. [16] Regarding his relative youth – he was born in 1920 – without the movie he would have had to return to the front without a doubt. According to Kurt Meisel, who played Claus Werner, they were ‘all eager to dodge military service. When you were involved in the movie, you were exempted.’ [17]

Despite the fact that on 6 June 1944 the Allies had landed in Normandy and were advancing westwards, and the Red Army was pushing the Wehrmacht back eastwards to within the borders of the Third Reich, recording of the movie proceeded undisturbed. Söderbaum told British historian Laurence Rees that she had learned from Wilfred von Oven, Goebbels’ personal press adjutant, that the minister had told him ‘that it was more important that the soldiers act in his film rather than fight at the front – which was no longer worth doing since we were in the middle of total collapse’. Personally she thought it ‘ridiculous to be filming when the enemy was coming nearer and nearer. One knew about the war and everything that was happening. Then to stand in front of the camera, I felt like a monkey.’ [18]

1. Noack, F., Veit Harlan: The Life & Work of a Nazi Filmmaker, p. 222.
2. Eitner, H-J., Kolberg – Ein pruissischer Mythos 1807/1945, p. 158; Kutz, J.P., ‘Veit Harlans Kolberg: Der letzte "Großfilm" der Ufa’, 2008, p. 2.
3. Rother, R., ‘Kolberg’, UFA Magazin, nr. 20, p. 3.
4. Grob, N. & Beyer, F. (red.), Stilepochen des Films: Der NS-Film, p. 387.
5. Noack, F., Veit Harlan: The Life & Work of a Nazi Filmmaker, p. 222.
6. Maack, B., ‘Propagandawaffe Agfacolor - Goebbels' Farbenlehre’, Spiegel Online, 17-02-2011.
7. ‘German Horse Cavalry and Transport’, Intelligence Bulletin, maart 1946, on: www.lonesentry.com.
8. Kutz, J.P., ‘Veit Harlans Kolberg: Der letzte "Großfilm" der Ufa’, 2008, p. 3.
9. Ibid.
10. Noack, F., Veit Harlan: The Life & Work of a Nazi Filmmaker, p. 222.
11. Schäfer, H., Deutsche Geschichte in 100 Objekten, p. 77.
12. ‘Vorschau für Kolberg’ (documentary), Arte, 1998.
13. Giesen, R., Nazi Propaganda Films: A History and Filmography, pp. 171-172.
14. Knopp, G., De Oorlog van de eeuw (documentary), part 9, 2005.
15. Noack, F., Veit Harlan: The Life & Work of a Nazi Filmmaker, p. 222.
16. Ibid., p. 223.
17. ‘Vorschau für Kolberg’ (documentary), Arte, 1998.
18. Rees, L., Their Darkest Hour, p. 243-244.

Hitler's Last Chance: Kolberg
The Propaganda Movie and the Rise and Fall of a German City
ISBN: 9781399072977
More information about this book
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Hitler's Last Chance: Kolberg

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  • Source: Kevin Prenger
  • Published on: 29-03-2023 11:46:31