A somewhat leaden Nazi-era German epic, Hans Steinhoff’s Ohm Kruger is an example of a kind of propaganda less “pro-this” (Nazism) as “anti-that” (in this case, British imperialism). Describing it in such terms clarifies both how it works and why it is literally hateful, for it achieves its emotional appeal not through any positive message but by encouraging denial and violent self-pity.
Produced on a lavish scale, this biopic about Paul Kruger (Emil Jannings), President of the South African Republic is certainly a solid piece of film making. The battle scenes are outstanding, and Jannings has an effective, if ponderous, stolidity. His role consists almost entirely of saying “No,” to corrupt Afrikaners, to his pacifist son Jan (Werner Hinz) and most especially to the British, represented chiefly by an oily Cecil Rhodes (Ferdinand Marian) and an effete Joseph Chamberlain (Gustaf Gründgens). As a result, Kruger seems less like a human being or the benign paterfamilias that was probably intended than a rock against which his opponents crash and founder.
With Kruger such an unmovable object, dramatic development shifts to Jan’s transformation from pro-British intellectual to rabidly Afrikaner nationalist. While the British are made thoroughly disreputable, depicting them as perfidious cheats is nonetheless no more objectionable in itself than countless other renderings of “the Other” as irredeemably villainous. It is only when the purpose of the heated setup is clear that the caricature becomes reprehensible.
For Jan’s transformation culminates in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue his wife, who is imprisoned in a disease-ridden concentration camp staffed by unsympathetic brutes. Kruger virtually falls out of the story. With that shift in emphasis, it is clear that the film has not been meant as a paean to Afrikaner independence, which would at least be a positive purpose, but to prepare for the assertion that the British invented concentration camps. The propaganda message is clear: “See, we’re not doing anything the British haven’t done,” Goebbels and company can practically be heard to say. As if that bit of self-exculpation were not bad enough, the film concludes with an appalling flourish as Jan is hung by the British and the Boer women are mowed down by camp guards.
Hideous as that penultimate sequence is, it provokes questions beyond its manipulative intent. For if the camps were as evil as the film insists, why did the Nazis imitate them? Certainly not in retribution against the British, since Afrikaners, not Germans, were the victims. (It also bears pointing out that nothing shown in the camps approaches the brutalities of their Nazi equivalents and the fact that German violence was perpetrated against their own people.) Presumably the filmmakers hoped sheer horror would smother any objection, so that asserting “They did it first,” would be enough to evade the question of why such atrocities were emulated.