In a comment under my review of “Valkyrie”, a movie starring Tom Cruise as a Nazi officer who attempted to assassinate Hitler, MN Roy suggested I look at GW Pabst’s 1955 “Jackboot Mutiny”, another movie dramatizing the General’s revolt. I tracked down the DVD from International Historic Films several months ago (it is not available from Netflix, alas) and placed on a shelf where it gathered dust until I would find an occasion to write about it.
That occasion arrived a week or so ago when I finally got around to viewing “Inglourious Basterds”, a movie that I fully expected to hate. Surprise of surprises, it is the best movie I have seen all year and by far Tarantino’s best. This movie dovetails neatly with Pabst’s since it too involves a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. It also has several allusions to Pabst—and to Emil Jannings—who decided to work in Nazi Germany despite the universal revulsion felt toward Hitler. It was all the more remarkable for Pabst to work in Germany since he was acclaimed for his left-leaning earlier work in Weimar Germany, including a production of “Three Penny Opera”. What would make Pabst want to work in Nazi Germany?
Although Tarantino’s movie is mostly a saga about Jewish guerrillas tracking down and killing Nazi soldiers in occupied France, it has some very interesting observations about the Nazi film industry’s presence in that country. This is a subject that forms the backdrop for Alan Furst’s novel “Red Gold“ as well as Bernard Tavernier’s 2002 movie “Safe Conduct“.
As Tarantino was anxious to point out, the Nazis viewed film as a key propaganda weapon. As someone who has an insider’s perspective on the Dream Factory, he understands this fully. In a climactic scene, an audience of Nazi high officials—including Hitler—is cheering wildly at a new movie that was directed by Goebbels. It was a biopic about a legendary Nazi sniper who killed over 100 enemy soldiers in Sergeant York style. The movie stars the actual soldier who was romantically pursuing (stalking actually) the owner of the theater in occupied Paris where the film was debuting. She is the daughter of a Jewish farmer who was killed by Nazis, along with the rest of the family in the opening scene.
As the Nazis go wild over the cinematic representation of violence, one cannot help but think of movies like “Saving Private Ryan” or a hundred other Hollywood movies that celebrate victories over a despised and dehumanized enemy. For that matter, it evokes much of what draws people to a Tarantino movie, although he has the good sense to stay away from ideology.
I am now going to discuss the tie-in to Pabst’s movie, which involves revealing a surprise ending of sorts to “Inglourious Basterds”. To avoid finding out about the ending, go directly to the subheading “JACKBOOT MUTINY”.
Ironically, Tarantino’s movie is a fictional realization of the vain hopes of the German officers who tried in vain to murder Adolph Hitler on July 20, 1944. The Jewish guerrillas, led by a gentile commander played rather insouciantly by Brad Pitt (he is named Aldo Raine—an obvious homage to the actor Aldo Ray, who played this kind of character repeatedly), don tuxedos and gain entrance to the theater on the night of the debut in order to set off a bomb. It is all rather far-fetched but totally in character with the genre.
(I should add parenthetically at this point that attempts to interpret this movie as an anti-Zionist statement by jazz musician Gilad Atzmon on Counterpunch is far-fetched. Closer to the mark is Harry Browne’s interpretation on the same venue that “film history is also the explicit subject of the film, much of which is set in a movie-house, and involves Joseph Goebbels in David O. Selznick mode, preparing to premiere the latest masterpiece of Nazi cinema.”
Like the German officers of “Valkyrie” and “Jackboot Mutineers”, Raine’s crew is just as doomed to fail. The shrewd Nazi SS officer Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz, my nomination for sure as best actor of the year) discovers the plot and has Raine arrested. His henchmen are left in the theater, however, bombs intact.
It seems that Landa has more or less the same agenda as the German officers who launched a coup in 1944, but with guarantees in advance that he will succeed. Sensing that the Nazi regime was destined to go down in flames, Landa proposes to Raine that in exchange for safe passage to the USA, a guarantee against criminal prosecution, and a cushy job working for the allies, he will allow the Jewish bombers to move ahead with their operation. And that is how the movie ends, with the theater and all its audience members—including Hitler—being incinerated.
Taking the most negative position on the Valkyrie plotters, can one say that there is much difference between them and Landa? Indeed, one comment under my review of “Valkyrie” said just about that:
Von Stauffenberg was a reactionary nationalist and racist who welcomed Hitler’s rise to power and supported Hitler’s programme of occupying Germany’s neighbours. His plot against Hitler was motivated not by nice democratic ideals, but the belief that the war had more chance of being successful if someone else ran it. The idea that we are being asked to sympathise with such a Nazi “hero” is quite disturbing.
Turning now to Pabst’s movie, it can best be described as a no-frills account of the plot without any efforts made to “dramatize” the characters. It comes across like an episode on the old “You are There” television show from the mid-50s that recreated historical events.
That being said, it has the tautness and intensity that could only originate from a great director like Pabst. The movie opens without any fanfare and you are drawn immediately into the action. Bernhard Wicki, not a major film star at the time, plays Colonel Stauffenberg, who placed the bomb under the conference table where Hitler sat. Four year later Wicki directed “The Bridge”, a highly acclaimed antiwar film about German youths defending a local bridge at the end of WWII. And in 1962, he co-directed “The Longest Day”.
Based on my reading of the events of July 20, 1944 I would have to say that Pabst’s movie is a more accurate account of what took place that day. That being said, the Tom Cruise movie is also quite faithful to the events. When I sat down to watch “Valkyrie”, I fully expected something in the vein of “Mission Impossible”, which it really was in fact, but it turned out to be a much more serious and thoughtful version of historical events.
What comes through in Pabst’s movie is the lack of a political agenda by the conservative opposition to Hitler. It was carried out strictly as a military coup with little regard to political preparation, a lack attributable in part to the totalitarian nature of Nazi society but also the Prussian mindset of the officers who demanded obedience above all. When they take over the military communications network, they instruct lower rank officers to carry out orders in line with the death of the Fuhrer. You are reminded to some extent of Alexander Haig telling reporters that “I am in charge” after the attempt on Reagan’s life. There is no attempt to justify the new command center in terms of liberating the German people, achieving peace, etc. It is strictly one of imposing a new order.
This is unfortunate, however. Granted that some if not all of the plotters were interested partially in turning back the clock to the glory days of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm, there was a lot more going on politically than either “Valkyrie” or “Jackboot Mutiny” reveals.
In the September 1988 issue of “The Historical Journal”, there’s an article titled “Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in the German Resistance to Hitler: Between East and West” that contains some startling information on the mindset of the plotters. Peter Hoffman, who wrote the 800+ page “German Resistance To Hitler”, a standard in the field, is the author.
Hoffman, a careful scholar not prone to speculation, insists nonetheless that some of the anti-Nazi German officers, including the aristocrat von Stauffenberg, were not only ready to make an alliance with the USSR (the “east” in the title of the article) but willing to preside over what amounted to a Soviet Germany.
It would appear that they were determined to preserve German power and prestige even if it meant attacking private property! If the West were determined to reduce Germany to the margins of history, some rebel Generals would orient to the East while their comrades looked to the West out of fears of the following:
A bolshevization of Germany through the rise of national communism as the deadliest imminent danger to Germany and the European family of nations.
On this they clearly saw eye to eye with Churchill.
Hans Gisevius, a German diplomat and member of the pro-West group, had been in constant communication with OSS chief Allen Dulles “concerning the dangers of communism and bolshevism, and had pleaded for a separate arrangement between a post-Hitler Germany and the western powers”, according to Hoffman. He advised Dulles that there others who were more sympathetic to the USSR, including Adam von Trott, a powerful Prussian civil servant and member of the Kreisau circle. Gisevius kept the pressure on Dulles, warning him again in July, 1944—the month of the attempted coup—that “the German masses gravitated toward bolshevization.” He saw the possibility of a “transformation of Hitler’s revolution into Lenin’s world revolution”, drawing attention to a “strong tendency among Germans in general and German military men in particular to be impressed with Russian military achievements, and to favour German-Russian cooperation”.
In his first interviews with the OSS after the end of the war, Gisevius informed them that:
Colonel von Stauffenberg, who made the attempts on Hitler’s life, had planned to conclude a peace with the Soviets, if he putsch were successful and proposed to announce the establishment of a workers and peasants regime in Germany.
Dulles would go on to write a book (“Germany’s Underground”) about the anti-Nazi conspirators. About Stauffenberg he had this to say:
Gisevius told me that Stauffenberg toyed with the idea of trying for a revolution of workers, peasants and soldiers. He hoped the Red Army would support a Communist Germany organized along Russian lines. His views were shared by certain of the younger men of the Kreisau circle, including the Haeften brothers and Trott.
Now, that would have made for an interesting movie if Tom Cruise’s director and screenwriter had the slightest interest in the politics of the plotters.
OSS official Charles S. Cheston wrote a memo to FDR sharing Dulles’s assessment:
The younger, active leaders [of the July plot] like Colonel von Stauffenberg favoured a pro-Soviet policy. The older and more conservative figures wanted to turn to the Western allies. The younger men were encouraged to a Soviet orientation by a feeling that Allied policy gave no hope for Germany’s future and as a result of alleged assurances from the Free Germany Committee in Moscow that Germany would receive a just peace from the Soviets and the Wehrmacht would not be totally disarmed.
As it turned out, Moscow had little genuine interest in Germany’s future other than retaining a chunk of real estate in the east as a buffer zone and hauling off every piece of machinery it could get its hands on. And they surely must have been aware of the thirst for revenge that the Kremlin harbored, as indicated by these utterances from Ilya Ehrenburg in 1944:
The Germans are not human beings. Henceforth the word German means to us the most terrible curse. From now on the word German will trigger your rifle. We shall not speak any more. We shall not get excited. We shall kill. If you have not killed at least one German a day, you have wasted that day.
How odd that these German officers would have much better class instincts than a high Kremlin official.
Up until this point, directors and screenwriters have shown more interest in the General’s revolt (“Valkyrie”) and the students of the White Rose circle (“The White Rose”, “Sophie Scholl”) than any other figures.
Perhaps as interest in this period increases, someone will take up the cause of a more plebian opponent of the Nazi regime. I speak now of George Elser, who was one of 25 anti-Nazi resisters profiled by Michael Balfour in “Withstanding Hitler”:
Elser was a small, taciturn, innately sceptical man who was born in 1903, the son of an indigent small-holder in a Wiirttemberg village. He was a non-practising Protestant. Thanks to Germany’s system of technical education, he became a skilled cabinet-maker. He had however his own ideas of how things should be done and as a result wandered from one employer to another. For some time he worked at a clock-factory in Konstanz. He regularly voted Communist and belonged to the Red Association of Front Fighters but, except for playing in its brass band, did not engage in party activities. About 1938 he came to the conclusion that things had got worse for the average worker since the Nazis came to power and that war was inevitable. He therefore decided to kill Hitler, as an essential step towards bringing more moderate men to office.
He decided that one of the great Party occasions would provide him with the best opportunity of doing what he wanted and settled on the meeting held every year on 8 November at the Biirgerbraukeller in Munich to celebrate the 1923 attempt at revolution, a ceremony which Hitler always attended and at which he stood still for some time. In 1938 Elser came to Munich for the occasion and had a good look at the site. He decided to insert explosives into a pillar close to the platform and detonate them at a suitable time through a previously set mechanism. He went back home and got a job in a quarry, here he found it a simple matter to steal the necessary explosive and fuses. He made a number of sketches to settle how to instal the machinery and how to set it off; as regards the latter, his experience in clock-making proved valuable.
He came back to Munich at the beginning of August 1939 and set about his preparations, living on his savings. In the day-time he worked on the clock and the bomb in his lodgings; in the evening he went to the Keller for over thirty nights and had a modest meal, after which he hid himself in an obscure corner of the balcony until the restaurant was shut and empty. He first cut the cladding of the pillar and turned it into a door which, when shut, was unnoticeable. He hollowed out the space behind it, removing the bricks and mortar so as to leave no trace. Security was lax; he was mostly left undisturbed and on the one occasion when he was challenged managed to pass it off. A waitress who may have given him some help had no idea what he was up to, any more than did the four craftsmen who made separate bits of equipment to his specifications.
On 1 November he began to instal his machine, found various adjustments necessary but got everything finished by the night of 5-6 November. He took his belongings, such as they were, to his sister in Stuttgart, intending to go on across the Swiss frontier. But on the night of 7-8 November he came back again to make sure that the clock of the machine was working. On November he travelled to Konstanz and set out to cross the Swiss frontier by a little-used path. But for once he did not take sufficient care to make sure that the coast was clear and was caught by two German customs officials who by an ironical accident were listening to Hitler’s broadcast from the Keller. It is tempting to suppose that he may have stopped to listen himself so as to hear the bomb go off. They found on him a postcard of the Keller, a pair of pliers (to cut any wire on the frontier), a badge of the Red Front Fighters Association, various bolts, springs and screws and a list of German factories making armaments, which he said was intended to dissuade the Swiss authorities from extraditing him. This miscellaneous and superfluous collection aroused suspicion, especially when news of the explosion came through. He was transferred to Munich and then Berlin where he gave a detailed account of his activities which still exists. For a number of reasons it can be accepted as true.
Now that would make a hell of a movie, wouldn’t it? And who would play George Elser, you ask? How about William Macy? Or maybe Bill Murray, if you include some dark comedy elements. Hmmm.
To conclude, a word or two about G.W. Pabst is in order. I doubt if the average Tarantino fan will come away from “Inglourious Basterds” with an ax to grind against the famous director who comes across as Nazi collaborator. The truth is more complicated.
In an article titled “G.W. Pabst in Hollywood or Every Modern Hero Deserves a Mother” that appeared in Film History (1987, Vol 1., No. 1), Jan-Christopher Horak begins by posing the obvious questions:
Before his return to Nazi Germany in the Autumn of 1939, G.W. Pabst was considered the most important antifascist filmmaker in the German émigré community. Despite his professional successes in the Weimar period and his certified “aryan” background, Pabst had turned his back in 1933 on Berlin’s brownshirts, choosing instead the uncertainty of emigration. Yet after a brief sojourn in Hollywood and a number of years in Paris, Pabst had made his peace with Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry. What happened in Hollywood? Why had he returned to a Europe threatened by war?
The answer to these questions has much less to do with ideology than it does with bread and butter. In a nutshell, Pabst simply could not find work in Hollywood. Like the Okies of the “Grapes of Wrath”, he discovered that the streets of California were not paved with gold, even though he had that impression at first.
In 1933, while he was living in Paris, Pabst signed a contract with Warner Brothers making $1200 per week, but discovered soon that the studio was not that free with its money. It refused to pay his travel expenses to Hollywood and for his rooms at the Wiltshire Hotel once he arrived.
His first project with Warner’s would be his last. He was asked to direct “A Modern Hero”, a movie based on Louis Bromfield’s novel. The ironically titled story had a lot of appeal for a leftist like Pabst since the protagonist is a real scumbag who sexually exploits women and backstabs partners in his relentless pursuit of success in the automobile industry.
From day one, he ran into problems with studio executives who insisted on artistic control of the project. The worst offender was Hal Wallis, who wrote a memo to his assistant James Seymour ordering him to keep Pabst on a short leash:
I don’t want Pabst to start re-writing the story now, or anything of the kind, so check with me and let me know if everything is all set to put this through.
Wallis also wrote Pabst directly warning him against “changing any dialogue or action or sequences.” Wallis was not a bad director, who would eventually have “Casablanca” and other Bogart classics to his credit but he really had no business bossing a great artist like Pabst around. All in all, his imperiousness reflected the prevailing attitude at all Hollywood production companies, namely that studio executives had the right to dictate to writers, directors and actors.
Eventually Wallis and Pabst went to war over camera angles, with Pabst insisting on the need for medium and long shots,–his preferred style–and Wallis demanding close-ups, which he thought would help the audience better identify with the characters.
Growing tired of Wallis’s interference, Pabst refused to renew his contract with Warner’s. Unfortunately, he was not able to line up new work despite his reputation. Finally, he returned to France in 1936 where many German émigrés could be found in the movie business. But poor economic circumstances finally forced him to return to Germany where he directed two movies. One of them is titled “Paracelsus” and has generated conflicting interpretations as to its relationship to Nazism. Some scholars view it as serving “Volkisch” ideology while others (Sheila Johnson, “Monatshefte”, Summer, 1991) view it as a subtle critique of the totalitarian system. Not having seen it (and likely never will), I cannot offer an opinion. I am much more qualified, however, to state that in Hollywood and Nazi Germany alike the artist is servant to those who have economic, political and social power.