Neid Leid Trnen das ist der Krieg

Gender and war films

Although male characters such as soldiers or marines dominated war films in numbers, female characters also played a substantial role. One need only think of the respective spouses of czar Nicholas II, in 1914. Die letzten Tage vor dem Weltbrand, of Karl in Westfront 1918 and of troop captain Von Arndt in Tannenberg. Captain Liers's mother in Morgenrot, and the many lovers featured in nearly all war films either in the foreground or the background should not be forgotten. These characters often played a decisive role in the story. They represented not only the home front but also the female stereotype, that is, the pacifying, cherishing and romantic elements. These aspects were expected to make war films attractive to a female audience as well, for all these love stories and other matters of the heart were believed to appeal to them especially.

A sociological study carried out in 1914 proved that the percentage of women in an average film audience was remarkably high.1 As the American film historian Patrice Petro remarked, there is little reason to assume that this had decreased in the course of ten years.2 In view of the growing popularity of the cinema in the twenties and the more emancipated status of women after gaining the right to vote in 1919, it is not improbable that the number of women in the audience had actually increased. It was therefore commercially viable to create space for women in a film genre mostly associated with men. However, besides the possible role played by financial factors, directors could not hide the fact that women had actually been part of the realities of war. Besides representing the home front, in some films they also played a role at the war front as a Red Cross nurse or a soldier's lover. This meant the space that women could occupy was not limited to hearth and home. Nevertheless, only a small percentage of the films gave any attention to these 'front women'.

War films in which women played striking parts explored the limits of the 'genre'. Under the influence of the female aspect, the genre-specific characteristics change. When the female aspect is given a narrative position, such films become more 'melodramatic', the emotional and sentimental are brought into prominence. At the same time, it builds up tensions between the traditional, stereotypical poles of men/aggression/war and women/gentleness/peace. The question is not only how such tensions were given form in different war films, but also which solutions the narrative offered for reconciling these poles in order to present the audience with a satisfying, psychologically motivated and coherent story. In short, how was femininity represented in some German war films? What functions did women have in the story? Also, what was the effect of war on men and women within the diegesis of the film?

Films with prominent roles for women included Das deutsche Mutterherz (1926), Deutsche Frauen - Deutsche Treue (i928)3, Volk in Not (1925), Ich hatt'einen Kameraden (1926) and Heimkehr (1928). The titles of the first two films already indicate that they are 'women films', in which the mother role is central. This is also true for Volk in Not. Only in Deutsche Frauen - Deutsche Treue do women also have the function of front nurses. In the latter two films, the home front, i.e. lovers and/or spouses, plays an important role. This is also true for a male-dominated film such as Westfront 1918, which contrasts the front experience with life at the home front.4

Of the four above mentioned 'women films', only the last two have been preserved. The descriptions of the contents of the other films have been based on the programme brochures.5 In this chapter, the emphasis will be on the content of the films. Critical reviews will be considered only indirectly because they hardly contain any comments on the gender aspect, as they focus primarily on dramaturgical aspects.

Das deutsche Mutterherz and Deutsche Frauen - Deutsche Treue

Only two out of the more than thirty First World War films have a title that explicitly refers to roles played by women in the war: Das Deutsche Mutterherz and Deutsche Frauen - Deutsche Treue (hereafter referred to as DFDT). An advertisement introducing Das Deutsche Mutterherz as a 'typischer Frauenfilm' already indicated the audience targeted by the film.6 In the case of DFDT, this was mainly pointed out in the reviews. Besides the mother role, these films had several other elements in common, such as widowhood and the national connotations in the titles of the films.

Das Deutsche Mutterherz belonged to the first group of Weimar films about the war, and premiered on 27 July 1926 in Munich. Perhaps the date was not coincidental, because it marked the beginning of the war twelve years earlier, within a day or so. The film premiered in Berlin one day later, at the Alhambra on the Kurfurstendamm as well as at a smaller venue, Schauburg. The film was produced by Emelka and directed by Geza von Bolvary.7 This Hungarian-born director began his film career in Berlin in the first half of the twenties, achieving success mostly as a director of comedies. For Das

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Das deutsche Mutterherz deutsche Mutterherz, which marked a new departure for the director, he used his experience as an officer in the First World War.8 Incidentally, the film also marked the debut of Heinz Rühmann, who was later to become one of Germany's most successful actors. In this film, he played the role of Oskar, a criminal.9 The role of the mother was played by Margarethe Kupfer, who had, until then, only been known for her roles in comedies. The story of the film begins before the war and ends in 1917.10

Frau Erdmann (Margarethe Kupfer), the key figure in the story of Das deutsche Mutterherz, is a widow and mother of five sons. The boys grow up to be model sons, except for one of them, and when the war breaks out, they all go to the front. The two older sons answer to an official call for duty, and two other sons report as volunteers. However, Oskar (Heinz Rühmann) is on the run because of a theft he has committed and, much to his mother's disappointment, shirks the war as a conscientious objector. After some time, he returns home but leaves again after a conflict with his mother. Eager for money, he accepts an assignment from a saboteur to blow up an ammunition depot. His mother, however, discovers the plans and attempts to foil them on the spot, at the dump site. Her attempt ends in a scuffle between mother and son. They are spotted by guards, who open fire. Oskar is injured and his mother dies. Meanwhile, two of her sons have been killed at the front. Despite all this, Frau Erdmann dies with a smile on her lips while, outside, marching soldiers are singing 'Deutsche Frauen - Deutsche Treue', so the last lines of the text in the Illustrierte Film-Kurier read.

There is nothing on the front page of the illustrated programme brochure that suggests the tragic content of the film or the dramatic end that is in store for the protagonist. Margarethe Kupfer is shown as a buxom mother figure with a look of endearment in her eyes and a roguish face. This probably has to do with the kind of women characters that Kupfer was associated with because of her earlier roles in comedies. However, reviews of the film also suggested that the film was very sentimental, and that the audiences reacted accordingly: 'Tränenbäche im Parkett, gedämpfte Erregung während der Vorführung, Schluchzen und Weinen.'11

DFDT was not without sentiment either. According to the reviewer of the Reichsfilmblatt, 'das Manuskript' oozed 'von Gemüt', while a reviewer of the Film-Kurier wrote about the women in the audience after a screening: 'Sie werden zu Tränen gerührt; kein Taschentuch, das nicht in Bewegung käme.'12 Not surprisingly, the fate suffered by Regine Vollrath, the mother character in DFDT, is just as sad as that of Frau Erdmann.13 Although she does not die, she has lost both her best friend and her only son at the end of the film. The sheer complexity of the story requires a slightly more extensive summary.

Regine Vollrath (Hermine Sterler) is a widow and mother of a son, Günther (C.W. Meyer), a young officer engaged to Gisela (Helga Thomas). Regine Vollrath has dedicated her life to the memory of her husband and the well-being of her only son. During an officers' ball, she meets colonel Wolfram (Eugen Neufeld), who develops a great liking for her and also becomes friends with her son. When Günther runs into financial difficulties through no fault of his own and almost kills himself in desperation, the colonel comes to the rescue.

Regine does not know anything about this, and Günther has asked her son not to tell her anything. Then the war breaks out. Wolfram and Günther join the army, and Regine and Gisela, who have both trained as nurses, report for duty with the Red Cross. About one year goes by. Günther sees action at the frontlines while his mother works in a front hospital on French territory, where she and Gisela take care of the displaced French women and children, defying looks of intense hatred. Here, they meet madame Viard (Adele Sandrock) and her granddaughter Marcelle (Solveig Hedengran). Since Marcelle's mother was killed by the Germans, madame Viard has turned bitter. Meanwhile, at the front, the situation is getting worse. At one point, Günther saves Wolfram's life during a French attack. Günther himself, however, is seriously wounded, loosing both legs. Regine and Gisela hide their emotions, even when the colonel is brought in a little later. Regine then already knows, through a letter she found in Günther's uniform, what he did for her son. She expresses her gratitude and Wolfram dies thinking Regine will never forget him. A little while later, the French, led by madame Viard's son-in-law, enter the village. Upon hearing that his wife has died, Madame Viard's son-in-law is filled with hatred and prepares to remove the Germans from the hospital. At that moment, however, he learns what Regine has done for his family and sees the state that she is in now - fearing for the life of her only son. He allows her and Gisela to stay at Günther's bed. Outside the Marseillaise rings out, while, inside, Günther summons all his strength in a last attempt to sing 'Lieb Vaterland...'. The next morning, he is dead. As Madame Viard prepares to bring flowers, she learns of Günther's death. Both mothers have now gone through the same experience. Madame Viard brings the story to an end by saying that one has to learn to love the German women. This remark gives Regine the strength to carry on.

DFDT premiered on 2 February 1928. Like Das deutsche Mutterherz, the film was shown in Berlin's Schauburg. It was directed by Wolfgang Neff, the favourite director of Liddy Hegewald of (Hegewald-Film Gmbh), who produced and distributed the film.14 The screenplay had been written by Marie Luise Droop.15 These three people had teamed up earlier to create the Tannenberg film Volk in Not, which also starred Hermine Sterler. However, it was the actress playing the supporting role of madame Viard, Adele Sandrock, who received lavish praise from the press. In view of the contribution of women to the film, one might indeed call it a 'woman's film'. However, for a reviewer like Ernst Jäger of the Film-Kurier, this predicate did not have so much to do with the involvement of women, rather than the 'Appel ans Herz' characterising the film.16

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