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The Great King

Posted on the 14 July 2015 by Christopher Saunders

The Great King

"I stand alone."

Nazi cinema naturally plumbed German history for Adolf Hitler's forbearers. Hence Herbert Selpin's Carl Peters (1941), idolizing German East Africa's founder, and a two-part biopic of Otto Von Bismarck. Hitler's favorite analog was Frederick the Great, the Prussian monarch who reformed German society while defeating Europe in the Seven Years War. Several films featured Frederick as proto-Fuhrer, including Veit Harlan's impressive The Great King (1942).
In 1759, Frederick the Great (Otto Gebuhr) suffers a catastrophic defeat at Kunersdorf to an Austro-Russian army. Slowly regrouping, Frederick finds the Prussian people, from soldiers to aristocrats, questioning his military leadership. Frederick rebuilds his army, defeating the Austrians at Torgau and redeeming their honor. Frederick weighs an alliance with Russia, the loyalty of his soldiers and Prussia's future.
Filmed in 1940 but not released for two years, The Great King is surprisingly nuanced for a propaganda movie. Harlan boldly starts with Frederick's worst defeat, blamed on a cowardly regiment rather than the sainted monarch. Harlan's battle scenes contain graphic details (violent horsefalls and bloody close-ups recalling Battleship Potemkin) and scenes of sick and wounded men suffering hardly befitting a flag-waver. This seemingly antiwar content becomes a message of sacrifice; real Germans stop whining and follow orders.
The Great King
Here, King's the opposite of Harlan's later Kolberg. That film, produced in the Reich's waning days, extols ordinary Germans over the cowardly military. Conversely, King celebrates Frederick's devoted soldiers while excoriating malingering civilians and aristocrats. They're represented by Luise (Kristina Soderbaum), who complains to Frederick about her burnt farmhouse, and Sergeant Treskow (Gustav Frohlich), whose insubordination saves Frederick's army - yet he's punished anyway, because orders overrule everything. Harlan considers this just; this warped Prussian honor won't impress non-fascist viewers.
Though Harlan presses the Hitler analogy, his Frederick is remarkably layered. Courageous and brilliant, he's an ideal leader, yet he's beset by doubts, brooding about Prussia's fate while pondering his unpopularity. An extraordinary dream sequence depicts Frederick's musical talents and literary knowledge; his battlefield heroics need little explication ("Let's go look for death, since it can't seem to find us"). Equally adept at court intrigue, he checks his spiteful brother (Claus Clausen) and the duplicitous Russians who switch sides after Tsarina Elizabeth's death. Yet he's painfully aware of his loneliness, sacrificing happiness for his nation's health.
Otto Gebuhr played Frederick a staggering 16 times onscreen. He's excellent here, investing Frederick with depth and sympathy. Aside from shows of emotion he's remarkably subdued, delivering Harlan's pointed dialog with wry amusement and weary resignation. Admittedly, this rarely matches the bloody-minded leader other characters complain about: he's more patriarchal than ruthless. Nonetheless, Gebuhr's subtlety helps King succeed as a biopic.
The Great King
Kristina Soderbaum inevitably appears, evolving from whiny ditz to devoted soldier's wife. Gustav Frolich (Metropolis) handles his impossible character well as expected; he's so sympathetic, indeed, that Frederick's persecution seems more unjust. Claus Clausen is Frederick's whiny brother, Hilde Korber his devoted Queen. Otto Wernicke plays a steadfast Colonel, Paul Wegener a slimy Russian general; both reappeared in Kolberg.
Yet The Great King's trump card is the amazing battle scenes. Harlan opens with a fifteen minute battle sequence, with thousands of extras slugging it out. Astonishing in its scope, it's also tactically detailed, engrossing viewers in its ebb-and-flow, unlike Kolberg's impressive but choppy battles. Later battles are briefer but no less impressive, especially a massed cavalry charge halfway through the film and a winter battle near the climax. Harlan matches this with other neat effects: Frederick brooding in a freezing farmhouse (shades of Valley Forge?) and marching soldiers superimposed on Sergeant Treskow's dying face.
The Great King
The Great King isn't a masterpiece. The plot sags in the second half; the film's too obviously agitprop, from the Hitler analogies and caricatured villains to its absurd finale, with Frederick's eyes watching over German farmland, an obnoxious choir seguing into Deutschland uber Alles. But its strengths - the spectacle, the characterizations and Otto Gebuhr's excellent acting - outweigh them, resulting in one of Nazi cinema's greatest achievements.

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