First things first: this is a Nazi propaganda film. Writer-Director Hans Zöberlein was unquestionably a Nazi: Party member #869, Beer Hall Putsch participant, and ultimately a Brigadier (Brigadeführer) in the SA storm troops, and leader of the short-lived Werwolf Nazi resistance. In that capacity he was responsible for the summary court-martial and execution of a number of anti-Nazi citizens who had, briefly, supplanted the Nazi mayor of the small town of Penzberg.
After the war he was a perfect illustration of courts’ everywhere (except perhaps, the USSR) willingness to “split the difference” with a convict:
- Convicted of War Crimes, he was sentenced to death;
- The Munich court of appeals revoked that sentence, and sentenced him to life imprisonment with permanent loss of civil rights;
- In 1952, a Denazification Court tagged him additionally with two years at hard labor, ten years’ loss of professional licenses, and forfeiture of assets.
- In 1958, the elderly (67-year-old) Nazi was released from prison on humanitarian grounds. He lived quietly in Munich until 1964.
So yeah, Zöberlein is about a certified a Nazi as a Nazi can get, war criminal and all. And of the movie had considerable Nazi backing; a special firm, “Arya-Film,” was created to sponsor it.
But the movie before us is also a rarity that’s unique inasmuch as we are aware: a World War I movie whose writer-director was actually a veteran of the front in the war in question. Hans Zöberlein was a mid-grade NCO, decorated with the German Empire’s Iron Cross of the 1st and 2nd Classes, and the Bavarian state’s Golden Medal for Bravery, the highest Bavarian decoration for the enlisted class. Indeed, the only other war movies made expressly by the participants we can think of are Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back (which was directed by a professional) and Oliver Stone’s Platoon.
Zöberlein’s book Der Glaube an Deutschland (Faith in Germany) was intended as a response to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front1 and its explicitly pacifistic message of war as bleak, inhuman, and dehumanizing. His Nazi ties paid off here, as Hitler wrote a rare forward to the novel. It was a huge success, selling some 800,000 copies.
Zöberlein publicly accused Remarque of overstating his combat record, and publicly asked him to name where, when and with whom he was at the front. The internationally-renowned author ignored his German rival, and never responded, but Zöberlein pointedly published his own war record for anyone to check. (Remarque’s biography suggests that he spent about a month at the front in an engineer unit before receiving shrapnel wounds requiring his evacuation)
Acting and Production
The acting is workmanlike and unobtrusive. The characters are a range of German “types” — the Bavarian country boy, the Prussian city kid, the wise old farmer (also Bavarian, played by co-director Ludwig Schmid-Wildy.
A great deal of money was spent on the movie, particularly on location shots. Zöberlein’s debut as a director was cushioned by teaming with Schmid-Wildy. Likewise, the movie was heavily promoted. Unlike Remarque’s works, which produced many translations and international versions (like the Oscar-winning 1931 US movie), Zöberlein’s oeuvre didn’t travel well outside the Fatherland.
Accuracy and Weapons
Zöberlein took great pains with the accuracy of the film. The weapons and uniforms appear right, the firing is realistic, the explosions are the most accurate you are likely to see. Artillery shells don’t just make a flash and a blast, but they heave up great quantities of earth.
Even such details as the shock troops having MG08/15 and Mauser 98AZ carbines while the regular line dogs have MG08s on sled mounts and 98A long rifles are mostly maintained. The French have French rifles (Lebel and Berthier), the British mostly British Lee-Enfields, but some British extras had 98AZ carbines too (perhaps the studio ran out of Enfields).
In the scenes of the Battle of Cambrai, the British use Mark IV tanks. These seem fairly accurate. (Hitler’s surviving watercolors include several of British and captured and reused tanks).
A scene of a fragmentary patrol order is concise and accurate enough to be used as a training film. It’s notable that grenade-throwers were designated in the order; they carried their carbines but their main function was to sling Stielhandgranate stick grenades or captured Mills bombs. The importance of ‘nades to trench CQB is made crystal clear here.
Some things are not right. The sights and sounds of close quarters combat — of spade- and bayonet-fighting — are, of necessity perhaps, sanitized.
There is a theme in here that is likely to be seen as accurate by some and inaccurate by others. The feeling of the comradeship of front-fighters that the movie celebrates — a comradeship that explicitly transcends nationality, in which a German Landser has more in common with the poilu facing him than either does with his own nation’s leaders or industrialists — is one truth of war, but so is Remarque’s toxic brew of fear, isolation, and alienation. Which of those is stronger in a combat veteran’s memories depended, then as now, on where you fought and who fought with you. Depended, then, on the luck of the draw.
The bottom line
Stosstrupp 1917 is, as it was intended, the anti-All Quiet. It does not shrink from the terrors of the frontline, but it denies the nihilism of the more famous book and film, and says that, damn it, the frontline soldiers fought for something, and they fought with all their heart. It was not their fault they were beaten.
It is chilling to remember where history took this feeling of having been defeated unfairly. Indeed, Zöberlein took it there explicitly in his follow-on work, which was called Das Befehl des Gewissens (The Dictate of Conscience) as a book and Um das Menschenrecht (Of Human Rights) as a movie2, and dealt with the defeat as back-stab and the postwar socialist revolution and Freikorps movement from an explicitly Nazi and anti-Semitic point of view.
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film.
- Amazon.com DVD page:
- IMDB page:
- IMFDB page:
- Rotten Tomatoes review page:
- Wikipedia page:
- There’s a great deal of noise made about the fact that the customary English title of Remarque’s work and its derivative movies and TV shows, All Quiet on the Western Front, is not the literal translation of the German title, Im Westen Nichts Neues (better rendered, literally, as “Nothing New in the West.”) In fact, Remarque’s title is in the sparse, formulaic wording of a German war diary, and original translator Arthur Wheen’s English title uses the exact same idiom from a period British document. It is, therefore, a perfect translation, and poor Wheen has been beaten up since 1929 for an error that is nothing such. An American log or diary would probably be further abbreviated: “In the West NSTR” — Nothing Significant To Report.
- While, from the synopses, these works appear to have the same theme and setting (post-war Germany and the Freikorps movement) and similar characters, the movie seems to have come out well before the 1937 novel.