Der Grosse Koenig is Veit Harlan's 1942 bio-pic about episodes late in the life of the Prussian king, Frederick the Great. The film is single-minded, unnerving in its implications, and as cold as ice. Reportedly, the movie was popular in Nazi Germany, another fact about the picture that is surprising and a bit unsettling -- it's hard to imagine anyone warming to a picture that is, in effect, a carefully directed and spectacularly staged homage to military service as a death cult. The depth of pathology then prevalent in Germany can be measured, I suppose, by the audience reaction to this film.
Three elements comprise the movie. First, there is a historical context involving many conferences between men with white wigs and pony tails that seem to braided like horsewhips in leather. In these scenes, people suggest that the great king surrender or make disadvantageous alliances or otherwise relent from his purpose of expanding the borders of Prussia. The great king rages against these counselors and makes hair-raising threats including decapitation. He even tortures his best soldiers for lapses in discipline. Not surprisingly, Frederick ends up alone, seated in a chair against the backdrop of an immense cathedral, while the organ plays Deutschland Ueber Alles. The remarkable aspect of this component to the film is that the director doesn't try to make Frederick the Great loveable or, even, sympathetic in any way. The king remains a remote, inscrutable figure, prone to wild harangues, and, although he is cheered at one point, he seems eerily distant from the people that he rules. His cruelty is relentless and unforgiving. A viewer accustomed to Hollywood conventions expects that at some point the portrait of the King will soften and we will be asked to identify with his plight as a lonely ruler. But Harlan to his credit doesn't attempt this ploy. Frederick is strange, indifferent to normal human passions, and abstract except for his ferocity in war from the beginning of the film to the end. The second strand of the movie is the closest thing to a plot that The Grosse Koenig attempts. A Prussian regiment has fled from the battle at Kunersdorf, a disastrous defeat for the Great King. The regiment is disgraced, stripped of its regimental colors and regalia, and shamed in front of the entire army. A commander cries out that "(these men) preferred life to victory", a remark intended to humiliate the troops and their officers. During this discipline, the leader of the regiment accepts blame for the debacle, shouts "Long Live the King!" and, then, blows out his brains in front of the assembled soldiers. The Great King later says that the man was inconsequential and coward, implying that he has deserted his post by committing suicide. Later, the regiment regains its honor by fighting bravely at the battle of Torgau. For its courage, the disgraced soldiers are restored their banners and other honors. They respond by saluting "Der alte Fritz" ("Old Fritz") and cheering for him. The third component to the film is the most vestigial, indeed, scarcely developed. A miller's daughter flees her home during the battle of Kunersdorf. We see the mill enveloped in flames. The rest of the young woman's family is apparently killed in the retreat from the burning town. The miller's daughter, a robust specimen of Aryan German womanhood named Luise (and effectively played by Kristina Soderbaum, Harlan's wife), tends to the wounded and falls in love with soldier named Paul, one of the lieutenants in the regiment disgraced for cowardice at Kunersdorf. She marries Paul on the eve of the battle of Torgau. He is so anxious to reach the fighting at the front that he hastens away from the ceremony without kissing his new bride -- of course, she seizes him in her strong grip and plants a passionate kiss on his lips before he darts off to the battle. Paul helps to win the battle of Torgau, but only by disobeying orders. Although he has fought with great valor and been instrumental in the successful vernichtungs Schlachte ("battle of annihilation"), the Great King nonetheless has him tortured by being "tied to the wheel" of a cannon. Later, the war drags on and we learn that Paul has been tied to the cannon two more times for insubordination. He plans to desert but Luise reports this to his commanding officer and he is tied to the wheel again, this time in a blizzard. There is another big battle and Paul fights valiantly and is killed. Near the end of the film, the Great King visits Kunersdorf again and sees that the mill has been rebuilt and is turning majestically in the wind. Luise appears at the threshold of a cottage carrying her blonde, blue-eyed (no doubt -- the film is in black and white) baby. "So are you entirely alone?" the Great King asks her. "No," she says, apparently implying that the Reich supports her. She also kisses her baby, little Paul. The Great King sadly says that he is all alone. The film, then, ends with a startling and beautiful montage. We see the King in the cathedral alone with the national hymn played on organ thundering on the soundtrack. Then, there are shots of the mill, superimposed ultimately into one, two, and three mills, the Great King's eye hanging over the entire montage -- his face is superimposed over the landscapes. Under the King's eye, glistening like a celestial object, we see a plow drawn by women breaking the earth, men sowing wheat, great stormclouds that billow and tumble forward in fast-motion, an entire sky alive with frothing, foaming clouds and, then, a black eagle banner superimposed on the storm. It's an extraordinary, if sinister, conclusion to the film.
In recounting the narrative in the movie, it seems that the subplot involving Paul and Luise is the mainstream of the film. But this is not the way the movie is edited. The subplot involving the lovers is purely tangential to the main action involving diplomacy and battlefield maneuvers. Indeed, when the movie was first delivered to Dr. Goebbels for approval in late 1940, he felt that the story of Paul and Luise was too prominent and it survives in the picture only as bits and pieces, fragments that scarcely cohere into a story. In a startling early scene, Luise expresses hatred for the Great King and says that she despises the war that is borne on the shoulders of the poor farmers. The Great King is sitting in the corner of the smashed cottage where the colloquy takes place, but she doesn't know who he is. Later, we see her in the camp, striding through the darkness when Frederick appears mounted on horseback, flashing fire from his eyes and looking every inch a king. Her eyes flash at him in the torchlight and there's a flicker of recognition on the part of both of them -- but the scene is over in a second, lacking the sort of pay-off that a Hollywood picture would require from this sort of encounter. Goebbels apparently thought that the war-weariness displayed in the story of Paul and Luise, and Paul's attempt to desert, cut too close to the bone for 1942 and so he had most of that narrative excised.
Paul Wegener, the great actor from the silent era (known best for his work as the monster in The Golem) appears as a treacherous Russian general. Originally, the film showed the Prussians in alliance with Russia but the vicissitudes of Hitler's foreign policy rendered these scene inadmissible. Accordingly, Wegener grins like a jack-o-lantern and smirks, his broad Slavic face showing contempt for the Great King -- we know that he is both a fool and a traitor, one who is contriving to delude the Great King into thinking that Russia is a loyal ally. But the Great King is not fooled and the Russians are, apparently, defeated or, at least, the plot involving them peters out without consequence. There are fine shots of Frederick the Great at Sans Souci, including a reprise of the famous painting by Menzel of the "Flute Concert", but these are presented as shadowy flashbacks. At times, the Great King morosely reads Sophocles. The book reminds him of his nephew, Henri, who has died of small pox. Rather than attend to his beloved nephew at his bedside, the Great King has done his duty by remaining on the battlefield, but this seems to have saddened him, if only slightly. Later, when the troops parade through Berlin in triumph in 1763, the Great King does not march at their head -- he eschews riding through Berlin in a triumphal gilded coach and, instead, makes his solitary way to the Cathedral where the film ends. Absenting himself from the parade, his Queen, who is herself scheming and glacially cold, glares down from the reviewing stand -- there is clearly no love lost between them, a situation that I interpreted as due to Frederick's apparent homosexuality: the only person who seems to inspire any interest in him is poor, pale, and doomed nephew Henri.
The film is spectacularly mounted -- it features realistic battle scenes with tens of thousands of soldiers. The sheer magnitude of these scenes far outstrips anything in American movies -- indeed, the only sequences before computer imaging that I know as comparable are the immense battle scenes in Sergei Bondarachuk's adaptation of War and Peace. (In many ways, the battle sequences in The Great King look similar to Bondarchuk's work -- there are lots of fire, huge numbers of horses, tremendous cannonades (one of them is said by Frederick to be "like Judgement Day, the trombones of death" -- a nice if peculiar-sounding line in English), enormous marching column that stretch to horizons where villages have been picturesquely set to the torch.) At one point, the action shifts to Vienna. The Austrians are plotting against Frederick. One of the courtiers make a derogatory remark about Frederick. A General who knows Frederick's heroic fiber says: "Wir tanzen und er marschiert." -- that is, "we're dancing and he is marching." Veit, then, cuts to a landscape in which Old Fritz is riding in a kind of buckboard wagon at the head of a hundred-thousand troops. Phalanxes of horses and columns of marching men extend for miles to the stormy horizon.
The Great King is not a successful movie. It is edited in a strange, sometimes random way -- presumably this reflects Dr. Goebbels influence and, except for the pictorial splendor, an aspect sufficient to keep an audience involved in the film, the picture's extreme coldness, it's cruelty and relentless inhumanity, is repellant. But the movie is successful with respect to its objective: it is fearsome evidence of a total commitment to war by people who fully understand what war means -- it is evidence of a Death Cult in control of Germany.