A biopic of the famous German soldier-poet who wrote blood and thunder verses and died in battle before his twenty-second birthday. This is one of the earliest surviving German features available.
He is a poet and doesn’t know it but his feet show it, they’re Longfellows!
German cinema is one of the crown jewels of the silent era but chances are, most of the films people talk about are from the post-WWI industry. Today, we’re heading a little further back in time, to the days of Kaiser Wilhelm and the German Empire.
I was particularly interested to see this film because most of the pre-1915 features available are American or Italian. In fact, this is the earliest German feature that I have ever seen and it reflects the time in which it was made: the patriotic days leading up to the First World War.
Just as American film companies were churning out Civil War films to mark the fiftieth anniversaries of various milestones, German and Austro-Hungarian filmmakers were caught up in the one hundredth anniversary of the Napoleonic Wars. In this case, the film was timed to be released just ahead of the centenary of poet Theodor Körner’s death.
Körner died in 1813, just days before his twenty-second birthday. He was a volunteer in Lützow Free Corps, a force made up of soldiers from every corner of the German states. The band included a fair number of intellectuals and two women disguised as men (Eleonore Prochaska and Anna Lühring) and became a symbol of Pan-German unity in the years leading up to the unification of the German state.
Körner’s poetry was blood and thunder stuff and his most famous poem, Lützow’s Wild Hunt (Lützows wilde verwegene Jagd), was adapted into a popular song by Carl Maria von Weber. (Schubert’s adaptation was published later.) Making a film about his life was a natural choice for filmmakers of 1912, especially since co-director Franz Porten’s career as an opera singer and pioneer in sound pictures would likely have made him familiar with the famous soldier’s song. (You might have heard of Porten’s daughter, Henny.)
I have to confess that I am not a huge fan of most biopics. They all seem to follow the same choppy pattern: the main character’s birth or scenes from childhood, fade, significant event of youth, fade, big events, fade, older age or death, the end. Theodor Körner is subtitled From the Cradle to His Heroic Death, so we really know that we’re in for it.
This film is rendered even more choppy due to the fact that a third of it is missing. The only surviving copies are derived from an educational re-release aimed at children so the epic battle scenes were cut (!) in order to avoid traumatizing the poor lambs. However, I should note that Körner’s youthful carousing is left intact.
We start with the poet’s birth in 1791 (but aren’t we a little early for full Directoire fashion?) and then an angel appears and blesses the kid with talent or something (why, yes, this is a hagiography) and then we flash forward to Körner’s brief career working in a mine. (Friedrich Feher plays him as an adult.) The action is a little difficult to follow but it seems that Körner dreams of a trapped peasant woman and then she is rescued… I dunno. I’m not even sure how the scene is supposed to be received because just before the cut, we get this:
Is that intentional or just some jokey mugging combined with bad editing? It’s just a few frames, a flash on the screen, so it doesn’t seem to be intentional.
The rest of the film is easier to follow. Körner leaves university (apparently German universities of this period kept their own jails for unruly students), becomes a playwright and then falls in love with actress Toni Adamberger (Thea Sandten). Alas, there’s a war going on and French troops are looting German villages and farms. Körner enlists, fights Napoleon’s troops in some admittedly impressive battle scenes and then dies mid-poem.
(I don’t consider this to be a spoiler seeing as how Körner is a historical figure and, you know, THE ENDING IS GIVEN AWAY IN THE TITLE. We spoiler-phobic moderns might do well to emulate silent era viewers, who were less concerned with twists than with acting, spectacle, etc.)
To say this thing is stiff and fawning would be an understatement. However, it’s probably no more so than any other film made about a patriotic figure during this period. Further, you can tell that some money was splashed around for this production; there are elaborate costumes, loads of extras (over 400) and plenty of horses.
Further, the original cut of the film included fairly elaborate battle scenes, which are now presumed lost. The one scene that remains is indeed impressive with a melee between German and French cavalry and a few camera pans for good measure. Generally speaking, the style of this film compares favorably to the material coming out of France and the United States during this period. Everything is pretty much kept at a steady medium or long shot with relatively few cuts and plenty of title cards to keep the viewer up to speed on the proceedings.
I must also praise the acting, which is subtle and natural for the period. The love scenes are particularly fine with Friedrich Feher and Thea Sandten coming off as flirty, funny and charming. In a film filled with embroidery and overdone symbolism, the romance is conveyed through romantic walks, giggling on the front porch and playing around with knitting. It’s remarkably effective.
The farewell scene and the injury scene (the death scene was cut) are both played in a more stagey style but it’s what audiences of 1912 would have expected and so the film delivers. Still, as I said before, pretty naturalistic for the time and place. (For a study in terrible acting of 1912, I direct you to The Copper Beeches and don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
Feher is interesting to see in this role as most viewers will likely be familiar with his more stylized and intense acting in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Feher played Francis, the ostensible hero of the story, and his gestures and movements can be safely described as emphatic. (On a more tragic note, Sandten was killed at Auschwitz in 1943.)
Directors Franz Porten and Gerhard Dammann are to be praised. Sure, the screenplay (which they wrote) is as stiff as a board but their actors are skillful and game and the action (what survives, anyway) is exciting.
Theodor Körner is no masterpiece, in fact, it’s really just a series of people looking noble as the sainted hero walks his poetic path. The picture is saved by its spectacle and its excellent leading players, who throw themselves into their parts but are reasonably modern in their acting style and aware that motion pictures require a certain amount of restraint. This is especially impressive considering the overblown nature of Körner’s poetry. (“What moves quickly there through the dark forest and streaks from mountains to mountains? It settles down for a night ambush, the Hurrah rejoices and the gun bangs, the French bloodhounds fall.” Yeah…)
Fans of German silent cinema will want to track this picture down, as will any Napoleonic War nerds (I know you’re out there). The film is very much a product of a distinct time and place, one that would disappear in just a few short years, and it deserves study for that reason alone. However, I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a jim-dandy corker.
Where can I see it?
Included in the Kafka Goes to the Movies box set with a suitably rousing piano and percussion score by Günter A. Buchwald.
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