Yes - they're still out there, and still singing
Well, I watched it – twice, in fact. Interesting. The film is obviously very dated, but it is well made and the story is underpinned by a good number of events and people which are recorded historical fact. I had not realised, for example, that celebrities of the calibre of Gneisenau and Von Schill were present at the defence of Kolberg.
The conflict between the old mayor and the old (and incompetent) fortress commander is well handled – there’s a lot of humour in their arguments. I had a slight personal difficulty empathising completely with the plucky mayor, since he looks like the fat groundsman at our local bowling club, a man with whom I have had a deadly feud for some months, but that is not entirely relevant to this post.
Gneisenau is scary – spends much of his time staring wide-eyed into space and shouting. Apart from the shouting, in general, the propaganda elements of the film were no more extreme than you find in its contemporary US and British equivalents. Since I have caused offence in this area before, I emphasise with some haste that I am not at all a fan of Nazi Germany, but many of the film’s comments on war and expressions of patriotism are humanist rather than nationalist, and would translate well to other countries, other wars, other times. The townspeople of Kolberg appear to have had an instinct for standing in geometrical formations, and a tendency to hang around in the town square and sing Wagnerian songs, or else chant complicated unison messages to the commandant (in the style of “A Life of Brian”), any of which would have frightened away a would-be assailant.
General Loison, who is something of a hero of mine from his (later) service with VI Corps in the Peninsula, is the commander of the besieging force, and he is a very bad man indeed. He continues the bombardment after a ceasefire has been decreed, for one thing.
At a trivial, nerdy level, I am a little disappointed that the uniforms were not better researched, and that the batteries of very small cannon come into action with the barrels at high elevation, like WW1 howitzers – still, there was a war on. I was also delighted to learn that Kolberg was in old Prussian Pommerania, and that Von Schill (who has a disappointingly squeaky voice for a hero) sets sail in the end for Stralsund (along the coast in Swedish Pommerania), where, sadly, he was killed in 1809 (out of scope for the film, but hinted at), after which point he and his head had separate and extremely gruesome histories.
Overall, I recommend the film. The introduction contains a lot of interesting stuff, and is very heavily anti-Nazi, but political cant in the main feature is otherwise pretty sparse. The appeal to the German nation to fight for their homeland is mostly fundamental stuff about pride in their history and heritage, protection of their honour and their families. The Party does not feature – apart from picking up the tab for the movie, of course. The treatment of brave little Maria, the farmer’s daughter, who sails away to Konigsberg to take a letter to the King (requesting replacement of the old goat of a commander) is very dated and very patronising, and potentially will cause more offence than any subliminal plugs for the National Socialists.
At one point, Gneisenau declares to the king that “the storm bursts”, which is, I guess, a German play on words referring to the Volksturm – the German home guard. The introductory feature shows Goebbels screaming this exact phrase in 1943 or so. I had assumed that Goebbels was quoting Gneisenau, though there is also the more intriguing possibility that in some way Gneisenau was quoting Goebbels. I wonder how that could have happened?