Criticism mythologisation and intertextuality

It should hardly come as a surprise that the critical appreciation of these films varied. This was not only due to the fact that the films were rather different, but also because of contextual aspects. Unsere Emden received reasonably positive reviews. This was mainly due to the objective approach to the past, or because it was, as the Film-Kurier put it, 'ein sachlich verfilmter Admiralstabs-bericht' produced by 'Fanatiker der Sachlichkeit'.27 The Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung also judged the film to be historically objective.28 It said the film partly deserved this epithet because of the presence of former navy men in the film. The Reichsfilmblatt even opined that these people acted better than the professional actors taking part in the film.29 The objective approach would also earn war movies that were shot later positive reviews.

Some critics did not share this positive view of the films, however. One of them, Siegfried Kracauer, criticized the choice of subject for the film:

Als die verdammenswerte Wirklichkeit dieses Krieges fällt die Episode der Emden heraus. Gerade darum hat man sie vermutlich verfilmt. Das Publikum, die Jugend zumal, soll den Eindruck erhalten, als ob es um den Krieg eine frisch-fröhliche Sache sei.30

From this perspective, he found the film a 'Schrittmacher glorreicher Kriegs-stimmung'.31 On the other hand, Kracauer also wrote that the events themselves had been portrayed correctly and that the activities of the crew and the officers had been conveyed in a convincing manner.32 The social-democrat publication, Vorwärts, undoubtedly concurred with the negative reviews, for its own verdict did not mince words: 'Unsere Emden is nichts weiter als eine langweilige Chronik für ein deutschnationales Heim.'33 The moderate Germania opined that, while the film could indeed in no way be called pacifist, neither did it glorify the war.34

The sheer number of reactions made it clear that the first Emden film fulfilled a need to give the war a place among national myths, which, of course, included the heroic deeds of soldiers. Naturally, the story of the Emden, a small but swift vessel roaming the seas like a David, as some said, was excellently suited to become the stuff of myth.35 The Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, which later proved a powerful advocate of national myths (see also the discussion of Tannenberg) considered Unsere Emden the first historical war film and found that its production marked an 'entscheidender Schritt zur bildlichen Geschichtsschreibung des Krieges'.36 And besides, the newspaper wrote,

Deutschland kennt keine Denkmäler des Krieges. Das Denkmal unserer Leistungen war unsichtbar bisher, stand nirgendwo und überall in den sachlichen Berichten des General- und Admiralstabes. Langsam wird es sichtbar: dieser Film legt den ersten Grundstein, um aus den unsichtbaren Denkmal unserer Mannestat im Krieg ein sichtbares zu machen. Es wird weiter gebaut werden müssen...37

This tied in with the motto of the film, which, like so many later war films, wanted to be a 'Denkmal'. The fact that this also meant the continuation of a myth was shown in much the same way by two reviews from different ideological positions, in the right-wing publication Der Montag and in the FilmKurier, which had social democratic leanings. Both reviews compared the film to Fritz Lang's 1924 Nibelungen film. Der Montag said the Emden film was a 'neuzeitliche Gestaltung' in expressing the 'Nibelungentreue' of Lang's film as well as the 'nordische Liebe zum Meer'.38 The Film-Kurier wrote: 'Seit den "Nibelungen" wurde kein Stoff aufgegriffen, der das deutsche Volk (...) anginge.'39 The author was clearly aware that the subject was very suitable for visual mythologizing: 'Der "Emden"-Krieg bewies: auf dem Meere, da ist der Mann noch was wert (dagegen unser Schützengraben- und Materialkrieg...).'40 Indeed, the high degree of organisation in the navy was absent in the chaos of the western front. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the war at sea should have been more appealing for the visual representation of heroism than the war at the western front, where death had become almost anonymous because of the huge numbers of casualties.

The Emden film was compared not just to the mythological Die Nibelungen. For many people it also carried associations with Eisenstein's Potemkin,41 which had gone into circulation six months earlier, in the summer of 1926. This Russian film was vilified because of its ideology but also praised for its cinematographic qualities. Potemkin was banned for some time because of its outright communist propaganda. Bearing in mind the commotion Potemkin had caused, it need hardly surprise us that critics compared German navy films from the same time, Unsere Emden and the U-boat film Die versunkene

Flotte, to Eisenstein's film. Some saw Unsere Emden and Die versunkene Flotte as ideological counterparts of Potemkin, while others pointed out the many similarities. Critical opinion was divided: 'Sie will ein deutsches Gegenstück zum "Potemkin" sein'42; the director has succeeded in filmtechnisch die ganz gleichen Höhepunkte zu erreichen43; Ein Vergleich dieser Bildreportage mit 'Potemkin' ist freilich weder künstlerisch noch stofflich am Platze44; Der Vergleich mit 'Potemkin' liegt bei der Gleichartigkeit des Schiffsmilieus nahe. Aber was dort eine Idee war, ist hier nur 'Erinnerungsblatt'45; (...) im Hintergrund steht der Potemkinfilm. Keine Einzelfiguren, die Masse, die Besatzung ist Träger der Handlung. Maschinen spielen massgebend mit.46

Comparisons between Unsere Emden and Potemkin were made mainly in terms of content, because the German film had nothing to do with the aesthetic modernism of its Russian precursor, with its revolutionary editing technique. This is borne out by the reviews, and it also seems a logical presumption looking at Kreuzer Emden, in which conventional continuity editing is the dominant technique. After all, both Emden films were made by one and the same director. The only aspect that apparently corresponded to Potemkin is the careful attention to nautical technology, which also fascinated the makers of many other navy films. It is not unlikely that Eisenstein showed them how to bring life to what is essentially the utter lifelessness of modern technology - by creating images that are fascinating in cinematographic terms: moving wheels, pumping rods, steam.

Two interesting reports should be mentioned in connection with the relationship between Emden and Potemkin. According to the Lichtbildbühne and the Film-Kurier, rioting broke out between leftists and right-wing sympathisers during and after an evening screening of the film on 27 December.47 The FilmKurier said the disturbances were directly related to a Bavarian ban on Potemkin. Leftists were said to have taken their revenge on Emelka, the Bavarian production company of Unsere Emden, thought to be behind the ban. The Film-Kurier said the rioting had not only been sparked by the obvious irritation caused in left-wing circles by the 'schwarz-weiss-rote Fahne', the 'Kaiserhoch', the 'Flaggenlied' and the 'Kadavergehorsamgesinnung'48, but also by a taste for revenge. However, the reporter who wrote the article said it was ridiculous to hold Emelka responsible. Still, he did not fail to appreciate why the 'Kaiserhoch' in the film should be rejected, regardless of its obvious authenticity: 'Selbst in Münchener Rechtskreisen (oder gerade da) wird man eine Ehrung Wilhelm II als deplaciert empfinden.'49

Curiously enough, the Lichtbildbühne report refers only very indirectly to the Potemkin ban.5° Nevertheless, it extensively discusses the nature of the rioting surrounding Unsere Emden. Right-wing sympathisers are said to have expressed their support for the film in a loud voice which, in turn, sparked angry reactions from the leftists. Police then arrested ten persons, who were transferred to the station accompanied by huge crowds. There are no reports in the film periodicals indicating that such rioting ever occurred again. It does, however, prove the sensitive nature of representations of war in images with ideological connotations. Especially at this time, when many war films were made, discussions about the relationship between politics and film gained in importance. The rioting must be seen in this context. The mention of in some of the above quotations the black-white-red flag also appears to refer to the conflict about the new flag regulation pushed through by Von Hindenburg in May of that same year. This regulation required German agencies abroad to fly the imperial colours of black, white and red next to the official black-gold-red flag of the republic, much to the dismay of the social democrats. The issue would soon lead to the fall of the second Lutheran government.

Kreuzer Emden was premiered in two Berlin theatres on 20 May 1932.51 In this last stage of the republic, the film industry, like many other sectors of the German economy, suffered from the world-wide economic crisis. While the industry still produced two hundred films in 1931, production went down to 156 in 1932 and, in 1933, it decreased even further to 135.52 For this reason, the industry was happy with any film that was thought to be a box-office hit. According to Lichtbildbühne, Kreuzer Emden was such a crowd puller:

Die Bayerische bringt hier den Theaterbesitzern in schwerster, beklemmendster

Zeit eine Gabe, für die sie ihr Dank wissen werden. (...) Mit der 'Emden' werden die

Filmtheater siegreich durch des Sommers Untiefen kreuzen.53

Emelka's hope for a box-office hit is illustrated by the way it took the promotion of the premiere in Munich in hand. The edifice of the Emelka theatre, the Phoebus-Palast, was lit by powerful floodlights, the interior was decorated with memorabilia, flags and photographs, and a navy band played appropriate music ahead of the screening.54 Kreuzer Emden failed, however, to emulate or even equal the success of Unsere Emden. After about six years, audiences had become very familiar with war films. They had seen objective 'documentaries', romantic war movies and realistic anti-war films. The year 1931 had been a prolific year for German war-film producers, as had 1926.55 The question is whether reviews of Kreuzer Emden were really very different from those of Unsere Emden.

War films were generally reviewed with some measure of subtlety, but the inclusion of archival footage nearly always earned a film much praise. This was also the case with Kreuzer Emden, where the archival footage mostly came from Unsere Emden. The scenes of dramatic fiction that were added to the historical images, whether constructed or not, failed to impress the critics. They were thought too much of a 'Hurrah-Geschichte' with 'Hurrahgebrüll'.56 Especially the love scenes were considered intrusive, sentimental and superfluous.57 In general, reactions in the leftist press were negative. The communist Welt am Abend wrote: 'Es hält schwer, sich über diesen Film nicht lustig zu machen. Das grausige, das Furchtbare des Seekrieges, das Absacken und Versaufen wird als Atelierkitsch serviert'58, while the left-liberal Vossische Zeitung found the film a 'trockenen, eintönigen Bilderbericht'59.

All the more surprising was the review in Vorwärts, whose critic wrote that the film was 'nicht immer genau aber eine wirksame Antikriegspropaganda'.6" No other critic had managed to find grounds for such a statement in the film, and even the right-wing press did not use this argument in its sometimes negative verdict. The Völkischer Beobachter said that Louis Ralph should at least have consulted an advisor on military and technological matters. The author had noticed 'falsche Kommando-Reihenfolge, falsche Uniforme, falsche Aussprache usw.'61 Tempo concurred, writing in a manner betraying irritation that war films should really only be shown to former participants in the war!62

Denn nur der Kriegsteilnehmer kann erkennen, was gut und schlecht, was falsch und echt, was nützlich und überflüssig, was klug und dumm ist. Die anderen bekommen falsche Zu- und Abneigungen.63

Whatever the different nuances in the various reviews, the general consensus was less positive than had been the case with Unsere Emden. The addition of scenes of dramatic fiction was considered a serious intrusion. Reviews of Kreuzer Emden also lacked the enthusiasm that had been there six years earlier, when making a film about the navy had almost been a novelty idea. The only difference was that, in contrast to the reviews of Unsere Emden, criticism of Kreuzer Emden showed an increase in political polarisation, barring a few remarkable exceptions.

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