“Kolberg” — Nazi Germany’s Cinematic Swan Song

Kolberg (1945) represented an attempt by the Nazi film industry to get ordinary Germans fired up to defend the Fatherland.

The propaganda epic Kolberg (1945) was a final attempt by the dying Nazi regime to inspire ordinary Germans to defend the Fatherland.

“The 104-minute feature film was a dramatization of the historic battle by Prussian patriots to defend Pomerania’s last un-conquered city from Napoleon.”

kolberg1THE LAST THING Germany’s dazed and weary masses wanted or needed in early 1945 was a movie — let a lone a war film.

But that’s just what Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels had in mind when on Jan. 30 of that year, the big-budget cinematic extravaganza Kolberg premiered in the bombed out ruins of Berlin.

One of the last major releases of the Third Reich’s prolific movie industry, the 104-minute feature film was a dramatization of the historic battle by Prussian patriots to defend Pomerania’s last un-conquered city from the armies of Napoleon in 1807. The aim was to link the nation’s historic resistance to Bonaparte with Nazi Germany’s own forlorn fight against the Allies.

Despite being billed by Goebbels as the “greatest film of all time”, few Germans ever had the chance to take in the eye-popping pageantry that was Kolberg; the war ended before the multi-million Reichsmark blockbuster could be widely released. Today, it stands as a fascinating cultural relic of the World War Two and one that’s still readily viewable. (SEE A CLIP OF THE MOVIE BELOW)

Check out this excerpt from Kolberg (1945)

Politically Ideologically Correct

Kolberg, which was filmed in Agfacolor, was produced late in the war to shore up the wilting spirits of ordinary Germans. Goebbels, with the help of director Veit Harlan, planned the movie as far back as 1943 to be a sort of National Socialists’ answer to Gone With the Wind.

Horst Caspar plays Field Marshal von Gneisenau.

Horst Caspar plays Field Marshal von Gneisenau.

The star-studded epic follows the trials and tribulations of Joachim Nettelbeck, the aging mayor of the eponymous city (played by played by veteran actor Heinrich George), and the dashing Prussian field marshal August Neidhardt von Gneisenau (Horst Caspar). With enemy armies closing in, the mismatched duo put their many differences aside to defend the town while overcoming defeatists and naysayers.

It quickly becomes evident that the fictionalized Kolberg stands as a cinematic microcosm for the Fatherland itself. As the story plays out, the filmmakers ham-handedly evoke the plight of Nazi Germany through a raft of scenes with which audiences could surely identify: civilian homes and shops burn, stoic townsfolk rally by the thousands to dig earthworks and fortifications and Nettelbeck raises a citizen army of sorts to shore up the Prussian regulars – a sort of Napoleonic-era equivalent of the Volkssturm. Predictably, the protagonists defy the odds and crush Napoleon’s troops in glorious battle.

Germans digging tank traps along the Oder? No, a scene from Kolberg.

Germans digging tank traps along the Oder? No, a scene from Kolberg. A case of art imitating life.

The Most Expensive Film Nobody Saw

The scope of Kolberg was staggering. Berlin poured the scandalous sum of 8.5 million RM (the modern equivalent of about $30 million) into this Heaven’s Gate of a movie. Seemingly no expense was spared in the production either. As many as 50,000 German soldiers were pulled from active duty to flesh out the film’s panoramic battle sequences, while a hundred railway cars of salt were laid down to simulate snow during the film’s winter scenes, much of which was shot in the summer months. Two extras were even killed during filming.

After its premiere, which coincided with the 12th anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power, the Nazis pushed Kolberg onto as many screens as possible. But with most Reich cities in ruins by that point in the war, there were precious few movie houses still standing in which to showcase the picture. Nevertheless, copies were screened in select locations throughout Germany. One print was even parachuted into the besieged fortress of La Rochelle, France to inspire the German troops that had been holding the port city since the fall of 1944. Yet, Kolberg was largely unseen by the masses for which it was intended.

The real city of Kolberg fell to the Soviets in March, 1945.

The real city of Kolberg fell to the Soviets in March, 1945.

Reality Bites

Ironically, following the film’s premiere, Kolberg itself was overrun by the Red Army. But unlike the movie, the real city held out for just three weeks before falling to the Soviets. Many of its buildings were flattened in the savage fighting. What was left of the town was stripped from Germany following the Potsdam Conference and handed over to Poland. Today, it’s known as Kołobrzeg.

Post Script

Kolberg vanished into obscurity with the downfall of National Socialism. It re-emegred in the decades following the war as a historical curiosity. A 50th anniversary reissue in 1995 was accompanied by a documentary. The film is now the property of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, a non profit heritage film preservation agency operated by the German government. To see Kolberg in its entirely (with French subtitles only… sorry) click below.


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