Tuesday, May 16, 2017

MM Movie Review: Der große König

“Der große König” (‘The Great King’) is a German biopic of the famous Prussian warrior king Frederick the Great, released in 1942 and directed by Veit Harlan. That information alone necessitates addressing the ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to this film so, we may as well get that out of the way. Yes, the film was made in Nazi Germany and was a product of the film industry which was ultimately under the authority of the Minister of Propaganda Dr. Joseph Goebbels. Because of this, many will hate the film, sight unseen while others will and have inevitably seen it through a tinted lens, which is unfortunate but, I am sure, for some people it simply cannot be helped. Most broadly, it is usually interpreted as a film about Frederick the Great in which the King is meant to be a stand-in for Adolf Hitler. That may or may not be true but I certainly think it is possible to see it without such a parallel and I believe that if someone were to watch it and not be told when it was made, many would see nothing ‘national socialist’ about it at all.

Prussian advance at Kunersdorf
Production values are very high with this film, reflective of the fact that it was made in late 1940 and early 1941 when the Germans were pretty much winning the war. It is set during the Seven Years War (for Americans that is the French and Indian War) and stars Otto Gebuehr as King Frederick II, Gustav Froehlich (who sci-fi fans will know from “Metropolis”) as Sergeant Treskow and Kristina Soederbaum as his wife Luise Treskow. The sets are all quite convincing and the major battle sequences are truly epic in scope with large numbers of soldiers, cavalry and all the rest. Otto Gebuehr does a great job as Frederick the Great, was quite similar in appearance to the monarch and, as such, it is not surprising that he played the part on more than one occasion. The film opens with the Battle of Kunersdorf in which the Prussian army is crushed by the combined forces of Austria and Russia, the worst defeat of Frederick’s career. The Austrians held off the Prussian attack, then counter-attacked and drove the Prussians from the field, a route it was thought might well finish them. In the aftermath, the King is despondent and his generals and officials in Berlin begin to talk of peace negotiations and even doing away with the King if he stands in their way.

In one telling scene early on, Prince Heinrich criticizes his brother Frederick to his face, saying that under his rule, their enemies have increased every year to the point that Prussia was opposed by all of Europe. This, of course, was mostly true as historically, at this point, Prussia was opposed by almost everyone with the British as their only major ally. In a fury, the King also says that he had intended for the first regiment that fled to be sacrificed, basically that he ordered them to attack an Austrian position he knew they could not take but that as they would be shot down, others could shelter behind their corpses and prevent any counter-attack until the artillery arrived to open a breach in the Austrian lines. After soberly listening to a tirade against him by Luise Treskow, whose family mill was destroyed in the battle (she thinking the King was just an elderly major), we see in this scene that the King, while mindful of the suffering of ordinary people, was fully prepared to order men to certain death in order to win the larger victory. However, at Kunersdorf, it did not work because the regiment in question had fled.

Graf von Laudon, the Austrian commander
Despite the wishes of his generals, King Frederick is determined not to surrender but to carry on the fight and orders the regiment that fled, the Bernburg Regiment, to be officially disgraced, at which point the colonel shoots himself. The King is unmoved, seeing this as weakness. Later, he survives a Habsburg attempt to poison him by a sleazy envoy, dreams of his books and his music, the pursuits of peacetime while back in Vienna, Kaunitz and General von Laudon talk about him. Count Kaunitz is adamant that only a Habsburg has the right to rule Germany and that the Hohenzollern is no legitimate monarch at all but simply the puffed up Marquis of Brandenburg. Count von Laudon, on the other hand, has more respect for his recently defeated opponent and points out that when it was last in great peril, the Empire was saved, not by a legitimate monarch but by the victories of Prince Eugene of Savoy. Kaunitz thinks it unfair to the Prince to compare him to so despicable a character as the King of Prussia but the matter is ended when word arrives that Frederick has raised a new army and is on the move again.

Frederick is, however, ill and rages against his brother when he suggests making peace and an alliance with France. The King tells him that the French are not to be trusted and want to keep Germany as a collection of small, powerless states that can all be easily dominated, as it was, he says, after the Thirty Years War. That issue is put aside in favor of the next battle, the Battle of Torgau, which is a great victory over the Austrians of Daun. The Bernburg Regiment is restored to favor, however, the coordinated attack was carried out by bugle calls and when the adjutant who was supposed to order the attack on the front where the Bernburg Regiment was stationed was killed, Sergeant Treskow (recently married to Luise), sees the enemy approaching and blows the bugle himself. King Frederick is outraged when he learns that a lowly sergeant ordered the attack, though one might wonder why an attitude of “all’s well that ends well” was not in order. Well, believe it or not, this is. The King says that if the end result had not been a victory, he would have had the sergeant shot immediately. Instead, he orders him spread eagle to a wagon wheel for three days as punishment. Obviously, this does not endear him to Luise Treskow who had been fuming against the King since her family mill was destroyed.

"Old Fritz" and his generals
What she doesn’t know is that the King is simply trying to maintain discipline and has ordered that Treskow be promoted to lieutenant when he has finished taking his three days of punishment. But Sgt. Treskow is indignant about the injustice of this and decides to desert. In the meantime, Czarina Elizabeth of Russia has died and while other Russian officers break out in cheers for Czar Peter III and start smashing everything in sight to show their happiness, their commander, General Zakhar Grigoryevich Chernyshov, is not so sure. He knows Czar Peter will soon make peace with Prussia and then an alliance with him. However, Chernyshov plans to deceive Frederick by offering more troops than he has, withholding any real help and waiting for the Czar to be bumped off. However, to his surprise, as well as those who know their history, this all happens before he can do anything. Czar Peter is assassinated, Catherine II is Empress of Russia and he then intends to isolate his army as much as possible until Frederick is heavily engaged against the Austrians at which time he will intervene on the Austrian side.

However, Frederick figured out what the Russians were up to, takes General Chernyshov prisoner and orders that, while he doesn’t expect the Russians to fight alongside him, they will still march to their assigned position so that the Austrians under Daun will have to divide to meet them. This culminates in the Battle of “Schweidnitz 1762” (if you can find that one) where we see Prussians advance, artillery bow up a tower and Sergeant Treskow is killed as he did not desert after all. A victory parade is held in Berlin but the King does not attend. The non-religious man checks on the widow Treskow and then goes to a large cathedral, not to pray, but to cry some manly tears before a brief song of tribute sings us out and the film ends.

Overall, the film is an entertaining one though not without flaws. It is broadly accurate as far as the history goes, Frederick the Great did meet with a stunning defeat, he did soldier on and he was ultimately victorious, however, it does take a number of liberties with the historical record, one major one being that the “Hohenzollern Miracle” does not amount to much in this film as it never shows the Russians playing any part in the ultimate success of Frederick. It says, at the outset, that the words spoken by Frederick in the film are historically accurate. Although I cannot claim to know everything Frederick ever said, this seems dubious to me, particularly the scene in which he justifies his war against Austria to his brother. He condemns the Habsburgs as being unfit to lead a united Germany, makes clear that a united Germany under Prussian leadership is his goal, on the grounds that the Habsburgs share power with non-Germans. This little speech, and I may well be proven wrong, sounds to me more like something Hitler would have said than something Frederick the Great would have said.

Frederick the Great, while a Prussian nationalist of a sort, was not as xenophobic as this films seems to me to imply that he was. This was a monarch who usually spoke French rather than German, had an army made up of men from many different countries and who took in a number of foreign exiles, a notable example being the Jesuits who he said he would sell back to the Catholic countries when they regained their senses. It is all the more strange considering that, while this film is set during the reign of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, her successor, Emperor Joseph II, would seem to have been more of a German nationalist than Frederick was, going so far as to try to impose German as the primary language of all Habsburg lands (which did not go over well as one can imagine). However, while it seems to show an anti-Habsburg bias that was more in line with Hitler than Frederick (who often expressed his admiration for his Habsburg opponents, particularly Joseph II) it is, overall, a well made, well acted and entertaining film. Perhaps knowing when it was made distorts my view as it does others, it simply seems at such times to be casting the views of Hitler on to the person of Frederick. And Hitler, after all, while admiring Frederick the Great immensely, was certainly no traditionalist, no monarchist and no friend of the ‘old order’ but was, in fact, quite an egalitarian other than in the area of race. It may also be noteworthy, given Hitler's opinion of the Jews, that neither King Frederick nor Empress Maria Theresa were particularly fond of them and not a few would likely say Frederick was more tolerant of them than the Habsburg Empress was. However, Hitler's opposition to the Habsburgs was clearly irrational and no facts would have changed it.

Aside from this issue, the film has what I would consider only rather minor flaws. It runs longer than it needs to and there are a number of scenes which are rather superfluous. The drama surrounding the King’s favorite nephew, who he hopes will succeed him but dies toward the end, is not needed to drive the story forward and seems to exist simply to show that the King has a great many burdens and heartaches and must stand alone, shouldering the weight of the German destiny. The conspiracy involving the Russians could have been cut out as it ultimately came to nothing and did not matter to the overall narrative. Many have commented on the fact that filming was in progress when war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union but not too much should be made of this as it is extremely doubtful that the filmmakers would have been aware of this impending attack. On the whole, I think it is a good film for its time and one that people should do their best to view on its own merits and not get bogged down in trying to find Nazi propaganda messages throughout. I would even say it is a good film to take a lesson from in how royal leadership is supposed to be, not swayed by popular opinion and putting the good of the nation above the personal happiness of the monarch.

1 comment:

  1. A movie about Bismarck was also done, it could be also interesting to read a review of yours about it, if you could write it.


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