Kolberg is impossible to discuss apart from its intentions, less for artistic than political reasons. Dramatizing the resistance of the city of Kolberg to the advancing armies of Napoleon, and made in the final months of World War II, Kolberg was commissioned (really, ordered) by Joseph Goebbels as an epic propaganda vehicle to encourage the German population to an act of collective suicide.
The film’s message that death is preferable to surrender is all the more difficult to ignore when you realize that as the town in the film is being blown up, the rest of Germany was already in flames. Yet at a time when the Wehrmacht was in retreat on all fronts, thousands of soldiers were commandeered to serve as extras for the battle scenes—to little purpose, ultimately, since the film had barely any screenings. The grotesque ironies verge on the surreal.
It would nonetheless be dishonest to deny Kolberg’s effectiveness. The situation remains compelling, despite the abhorrent message. We may wince at the didactic speeches and inflated visual rhetoric, or snicker at the more sentimental touches, but the film still works. That is why art from the Third Reich is grimly fascinating: the message is hateful and regressive, your rational mind wants to fight it, and yet the images, sounds, music and melodrama enfold in an irresistibly voluptuous embrace.
Kolberg does suffer what feels like indirect consequences of the madness going on around its production, however. The story is disjointed, and often difficult to follow, as if scenes that were meant to be shot never were, or were perhaps lost in the rush to completion. The prospect of a French attack is introduced almost immediately but it takes forever to materialize. The battle scenes, staged on a vast scale, feel oddly disorganized. The Agfacolor process used in the cinematography was notoriously unstable, and while the DVD restoration provides a good reconstruction, light and color fluctuations and considerable graininess are never entirely absent.
Sequences like the flooding of the fields around the city nonetheless attest to the film making abilities of Veit Harlan, the regime’s premier director. The lead actress, Kristina Söderbaum, makes the stalwart farm girl Maria’s virtuous platitudes believable. Horst Caspar as General Gneisenau and Heinrich George as Joachim Nettelbeck, the mayor of Kolberg, are burdened with frequent, declamatory speeches, but manage the considerable feat of making their characters almost sympathetic. All involved get us to care for the outcome, almost in spite of ourselves.
Thus, as easy as it is to sneer at Goebbels’s mad intentions, and as satisfying as it may be to know that by the time Kolberg was finished, there was practically no place to show it (most theaters were either closed or destroyed), you can dismiss the results only by willfully ignoring their power. Such dismissal may feel good, but it plays into the hands of political extremists, who know just what they’re doing when they work us over emotionally.