Masterpiece of National Socialist Cinema
I learned about Opfergang from an unlikely source: a documentary on the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. In one segment he is shown browsing in Kim’s Video in Manhattan (at its old location on St. Mark’s Place). As he does throughout the documentary, Žižek engages in a kind of frantic monologue, and at one point he names his three favorite films: King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (this really surprised me), Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, and Veit Harlan’s Opfergang.
Coincidentally, around this same time I was making a study of the films made under Hitler, acquiring quite a few DVDs from a company that specializes in Third Reich cinema: germanwarfilms.com. Most of what I saw disappointed me. The outright propaganda films, like Hitlerjunge Quex and SA-Mann Brand, had their merits, but weren’t that interesting. Other films, like Die Grosse Liebe and Amphitryon, were pretty fluffy, innocuous, and devoid of ideological content. So, I turned to Opfergang with some curiosity – especially given Žižek’s recommendation – but not very high expectations.
What I discovered was exactly the sort of “National Socialist film” I had been expecting from all the others that had disappointed me. There is no overt “propaganda” in Opfergang, but there are very clear, subtle, and profound philosophical messages. In fact, the philosophy of the film is consciously and deliberately Nietzschean. And Opfergang is also a remarkably beautiful film (one of only a few color films produced under Hitler) with impressive performances and a truly remarkable score. Opfergang is a “free adaptation” of a novella of the same name by Rudolf Georg Binding (1867–1938), first published as part of a collection in 1911.
Opfergang casts a strange spell. I can think of only one other film that had a similar effect on me: Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It is a film about death and sacrifice (its title literally means “Way of Sacrifice”) made in 1944, when it seemed clear to its creators that Germany was headed for defeat. But it would be wrong to say that a pall hangs over the film. Instead, the mood of Opfergang is a curious blend of the somber and the joyful. It is both “life affirming,” and “death affirming.” It teaches us to approach death and sacrifice with joy, and to affirm these in the name of life itself. It is easy to see how this film was created in order to bring strength to the German people in their darkest hour – but like all great cinema, this film transcends its time and place.
When I first saw Opfergang I was so impressed by its opening scenes that I cut it off after about a half hour and then re-watched it from the beginning. Then I watched it again the next night, and the next. And the next. Then I discovered, on reading a book on Third Reich cinema, that Joseph Goebbels had done the exact same thing. Goebbels held up the release of Opfergang for months. When Harlan pressed him to give reasons for the delay, Goebbels was evasive. Finally it emerged that Goebbels had become so attached to the film he had come to regard it as his personal possession, and had it screened for his private enjoyment over and over again. In a meeting with Harlan, he was able to quote one long dialogue scene verbatim. Goebbels knew that Germany’s defeat was imminent, and Opfergang had affected him deeply. (The film was eventually released, though on a limited basis since it was expensive to produce the color prints.)
My readers may know Veit Harlan as the director of the infamous Jud Süß (1940). Harlan had started off as an actor, but made the transition to director under the Third Reich. The lead actress in Opfergang, and many of Harlan’s films, was his wife, the beautiful Swedish-born Kristina Söderbaum. After the war, Harlan was tried for breaking some ex post facto law or other, and successfully defended himself by claiming that Goebbels had controlled every aspect of his work as a filmmaker. Harlan and Söderbaum both claimed that he had been forced to make Jud Süß and had hated every minute of it. But all the protestations of Mr. and Mrs. Harlan ring false. Harlan involved his wife in Jud Süß and co-wrote the screenplay. One has only to watch the film to see that it was written by a committed anti-Semite. Further, Opergang is clearly a product of deep reflection on the philosophical underpinnings of National Socialism.
2. The Story of Opfergang
The plot concerns Albrecht Froben, scion of a wealthy shipping family in Hamburg, who returns home after a journey of several years. On a mission for the German Colonial Association, he has traveled from the old German colonies in Africa to the Japanese islands. He returns a changed man, seeing his old life in a new light. Albrecht is soon reunited with his beautiful cousin Octavia, whom he now sees, in a real sense, for the very first time. The result is that he soon asks her to be his wife. Octavia’s family resides in a dark mansion on the Elbe. There they live out a somber existence, immersed in philosophy and literature, always with the shades drawn to keep out the sunlight. An old grandfather clock in the conservatory bears a morbid inscription: Eine dieser Stunden wird deine letzte sein (one of these hours will be your last).
Albrecht is played by Carl Raddatz, a prolific German actor who made several films with Harlan. Raddatz is not conventionally handsome, but he is very effective in the role of Albrecht, whom he plays as a man hungry for life, and impatient with what he sees as the morbid introversion of his relatives.
In one remarkable scene early in the film, he attends a Sunday afternoon “salon” in his cousins’ home on the Elbe, presided over by Octavia’s elderly father, Senator Froben. The scene opens with a close up of some orchids, while Octavia plays a Chopin nocturne at the piano. When she finishes, the others prevail upon Senator Froben to read something aloud to them. He selects one of Nietzsche’s Dionysian Dithyrambs, “Die Sonnie sinkt” (The Sun Sinks). The Senator (played by Otto Treßler) proceeds to read what is, in fact, a shortened version of the poem:
You shall not thirst much longer,
A promise is in the air,
From mouths unknown it wafts to me
— great coolness comes . . .
The air grows strange and clean.
Does night not look at me
Seductive eyes? . . .
Stay strong, brave heart!
Do not ask why. –
Gilded cheerfulness, come!
Sweetest, most secret
Foretaste of death!
— Did I run my course too quickly?
Only now, when my foot has grown weary,
does your glance overtake me,
does your happiness overtake me.
Never have I felt
nearer me such sweet security,
never such sunlight warmth.
— Does the ice of my summit still glow?
Silver, light, a fish
my little boat now swims out . . .
Treßler does a magnificent job of reading the poem, accompanied by ominous, ethereal music by Hans Otto Borgmann (more about the score later). At this point, however, Albrecht has had enough and declares the poem “frightful” (furchtbar).
“Why do you think it’s frightful, Albrecht?” Octavia asks him, horrified.
His answer to her is to throw open the door to the veranda, letting in the bright afternoon sunshine: “Darum!” (that’s why). “Can someone tell me why you’re sitting here every Sunday feeling gloomy?” he asks. “You lower the blinds and say ‘the sun is sinking.’ And outside the sun is shining. We’ve been sitting here for three hours talking of things philosophical, playing nocturnes – night pieces – by Chopin, reading the thoughts of a genius written shortly before he went mad. . . . It hadn’t just been [Nietzsche’s] death premonition. It had been the approaching madness he felt before his sun sank. Night, night, night. Nothing but night. And death. And outside the sun is shining.” The Frobens are all rather scandalized by this outburst, none more so than cousin Matthias (Franz Schafheitlin), a middle-aged, stuffy Orientalist who is secretly in love with Octavia.
Albrecht and Octavia step outside and he apologizes to her for offending the others. Irene von Meyendorff (the stage name of Baroness Irene Isabella Margarete Pauline Caecila von Meyendorff) plays Octavia. She is such a perfect exemplar of Nordic beauty she doesn’t seem real. Octavia is no ice queen, however. She is extraordinarily reserved, introverted, and intellectual (like her father, and her immediate relatives) but it is obvious that she is deeply in love with Albrecht, whom she treats like a mischievous child. She encourages him to go off and spend the day however he likes, while she returns to the gloomy drawing room. In truth they are mismatched. Albrecht immediately scampers down the hill to the banks of the river, while Octavia is perfectly content to return to her family for another go-round of philosophical debate. (As we shall see, Octavia is an extraordinarily self-aware portrait, on Harlan’s part, of the German soul itself.)
Albrecht’s decision to go rowing on the Elbe instead of listening to Dionysian Dithyrambs leads to his fateful meeting with the extraordinary Äls, the nickname by which everyone addresses the Froben’s next-door neighbor, Swedish expat Älskling Flodéen (Kristina Söderbaum). Äls appears in the backwash of Albrecht’s boat, apparently nude (and it does indeed look like Söderbaum actually is nude). She addresses Albrecht in her native Swedish, then switches to German, claiming to be a mermaid.
Albrecht is enchanted by this brief encounter. When he returns home, he asks Octavia about this mysterious woman. It seems Äls inherited the mansion next door from her stepfather. Octavia describes her as a “migrating bird,” who leads a very unconventional lifestyle. “Are you on friendly terms with her?” Albrecht asks. “Good heavens!” Octavia cries. “First she lives there all alone, and then you know how we are around here. Even if someone lives next door we don’t know each other. Here every house is a world in itself. It’s always been that way, and will always stay that way.”
Albrecht contrives to meet Äls again, this time on horseback, as she is an avid equestrienne. (Incidentally, she wears a top hat and tails to go riding.) When Albrecht accompanies Äls to the gate of her estate, her vast brood of Danish mastiffs rushes out to greet her. Äls is a great animal lover and a great lover of life. We realize that a strong bond is forming between Albrecht and Äls well before he ever does.
In the role of Äls, Söderbaum is pleasingly plump, and simply exudes joie de vivre. We soon discover, however, that all is not as it seems. In a meeting with her physician, Dr. Terboven (referred to throughout the film by the now antiquated title Sanitätsrat) we discover that Äls is slowly dying from some unnamed, tropical blood disease.
Terboven advises her against any sort of strenuous physical activity at all, including riding. She responds with a remarkable speech, delivered by Söderbaum with great emotion. “I want to live,” Äls says. “I don’t want to linger. I don’t want to think all the time whether I may do this or that. I’d rather live a shorter time. What does it matter if one dies at 25 or 26? I want to get something out of those 25 years! I’ve seen it for years in my mother. Taking one medicine after another, always sparing herself. Leaving one sanatorium for the next, artificially prolonging her life. And all she got out of it was prolonged suffering.” She tells Terboven how she herself shot her favorite dog when he became too old and infirm to enjoy his life, because the gardener couldn’t summon the nerve to do the deed himself.
It appears that aside from her dogs, Äls is all alone in the world. But that is only because she has contrived things so as to give that impression. In fact, Äls has a baby daughter named Susanne, who lives in another part of Hamburg with Äls’s elderly nurse, Gitta. (The nurse, incidentally, is played by Frida Richard, who portrayed “the maid of the runes” in Lang’s Siegfried, and the Friend’s mother in Fanck’s Holy Mountain.) It is implied that the child is illegitimate. No one in Äls’s neighborhood is aware of her existence, certainly not the Froben’s.
In a series of sequences, we see Albrecht and Äls riding together, as the bond between them grows stronger. In one especially effective scene (and one which, reportedly, particularly moved Goebbels), Albrecht and Äls rest for a time near a lighthouse, waiting out a spring shower. A rainbow appears in the sky.
“Do you see the rainbow?” Äls asks him. “The bridge which swings over [the sky]. Who knows who’ll have to cross it soon?” She tells him how the birds fly into the lighthouse thinking it’s the sun. Sometimes whole flocks are killed. “One is always close to death, and it’s a good thing if you smile at him from time to time,” she says. “And if you tell him, please, my friend, you’ll come when I can’t go on any further.” The entire scene (the entire film, in fact) simply reeks of death – but approached with a kind of wise and bittersweet quality.
In what is probably the most extraordinary sequence in the film, we see Äls transformed into an Amazon. First we see her in her back garden, wearing a long gown and expertly firing arrows at a target. Albrecht and Octavia applaud her from the house next door. But that’s nothing, she tells them: archery is much more difficult when practiced from horseback. And then we see her in a skimpier costume, riding her horse down the beach and firing arrows into the bull’s eye of a target planted in the sand. This time only Albrecht watches her. “Bravo!” he cries.
But when Äls leads her house out into the rough water Albrecht grows concerned. “It gets very deep all of a sudden!” he calls out. “Do you believe that my horse cannot swim?” Äls cries over the sound of the waves. And then, remarkably, the horse does begin to swim, carrying the plump Söderbaum on its back. It swims around and then back to the shore, trotting up onto the beach.
Composer Borgmann’s musical accompaniment for this scene is as strange and moving as the scene itself. A chorus wails a variation on the film’s dignified and funereal main theme. Hans Otto Borgmann composed a number of scores for Third Reich films, perhaps the most notorious being the 1934 propaganda film Hitlerjunge Quex. Borgmann wrote the music for the famous Hitler Youth song that begins “Uns’re Fahne flattert uns voran . . .” (Actually, Borgmann had composed the melody several years earlier, for another project. The lyrics to the song were provided by Baldur von Schirach himself.)
It is difficult for me to know where to begin to describe Borgmann’s music for Opfergang. It is an extremely effective score, which creates a very unusual and rather disturbing mood. It perfectly expresses, in musical terms, the film’s heroic celebration of death and sacrifice. The best comment on the score I have encountered comes from an anonymous reviewer of the film on the Internet Movie Database. Unlike the other reviewers who (remarkably) rhapsodize about the film, this one was deeply disturbed by it, and he comments “The music wants to pull you over to the other side.” This is a very accurate description.
To return to our story, Äls eventually confesses her love for Albrecht – to her horse (while again wearing top hat and tails). Meanwhile, cousin Matthias confronts Albrecht with his suspicions. Matthias’s love for Octavia is rather obvious, and, predictably, he objects to Albrecht’s friendship with Äls on the grounds that Octavia might be hurt. Earlier in the film, Albrecht had presented Matthias with a present from his travels: an eleven-faced Kwannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, “a princess who knew how to defend her virtue against all attacks.” Albrecht had packed the Kwannon in a suitcase along with a kimono, which he intended to present to some future conquest. The Kwannon represents the virtuous Octavia, and the kimono represents the rather-more-earthy Äls. Matthias now tells Albrecht, sensibly: “One can pack both a Kwannon and a kimono in a suitcase, but not into a life.”
Albrecht is somewhat disingenuous about his feelings for Äls, though he honestly protests that their relationship is not a physical one (at this point they have not even kissed). It is apparent that while Albrecht loves Octavia, he does not desire her like he does Äls. Octavia leaves him cold, something which Matthias finds completely inexplicable. Exasperated, Albrecht exclaims wearily “Octavia is heavenly, and Äls . . .”
“. . . is earthly,” Matthias volunteers.
“Yes. But you don’t have to give up heaven just because you love the earth,” Albrecht pleads.
But Matthias is not convinced by this, and having failed to make any headway with Albrecht, he calls on Äls to warn her about the relationship. It seems an awfully inappropriate thing to do, and at this point the audience’s feelings about Matthias begin to shift. In the scene in which he confronts Äls he is stiff and moralistic. When Äls declines to give Albrecht up, Matthias jumps to his feet (almost clicking his heels on the way) and says, “So it’s war.”
It is apparent that he is motivated by more than just concern for Octavia. He has suffered for a long time from unrequited love, and is now alone at middle age. His indignation at Albrecht’s love affair is clearly born of envy, and resentment. In understanding Matthias we would do well to return to Nietzsche, who, as we have seen, figures in a significant way in one of the film’s early, pivotal scenes. Matthias has come to represent slave morality. (Indeed, we will see that Nietzsche continues to figure as the inspiration for much in this film.)
Albrecht has gotten himself into an awful bind. He loves both women, though clearly he is more drawn to Äls. But he could not even conceive of giving up the gorgeous and thoroughly admirable Octavia. Albrecht has no idea what to do, so he does exactly what many other men would: he runs. He quickly marries Octavia and moves with her to Düsseldorf. There follows a splendid sequence in a Fasching ball, the German Mardi Gras. Everyone is masked, and they take turns carooming down a slide that emerges from the mouth of a giant, ghastly clown. Octavia’s mask is gold, simple, and featureless. Wearing it, she looks like a goddess. Octavia and Albrecht seem like quite the happy couple now. But then two masked women appear, wearing riding costumes similar to Äls’s. Albrecht is immediately drawn to them, thinking that one of them might be her, but it soon becomes obvious that he is mistaken. As this sequence plays out, Harlan simultaneously shows us Äls writing to Albrecht, giving him up to Octavia.
It is at this point in the film, in fact, that Octavia becomes a much more interesting character. Octavia is deeply serious young woman; introspective, dignified, and reserved. It is apparent that she is well aware of Albrecht’s feelings for Äls, but that this does not diminish her love for him. Indeed, she shows no sign of jealousy at all. At one point, she learns to her horror that she has won a prize for the “best mask” of the ball. Octavia is carried off by the jubilant crowd, but she is deeply embarrassed by this unwanted attention. Her only reaction is to scream and protest. Later, back at home with Albrecht, she regrets her inability to relax and enjoy the moment. In fact, she seems puzzled by her inability to do so, and worries that she has somehow failed him.
After this event, Albrecht and Octavia decide to move back to the house in Hamburg, which Octavia’s father has offered them for the spring. When they arrive, Albrecht discovers that Äls is still living next door. He tells Octavia he had thought she had moved away (recall that she was described earlier as a “migrating bird”). We are not sure, of course, whether he is being sincere. Indeed, it seems fairly certain that he had at least hoped that he would find Äls again. Thoughtful as ever, Octavia sends her some orchids.
Albrecht’s platonic “affair” with Äls soon starts anew. Watching from her bedroom window, Äls sees Albrecht on horseback, trotting up to her gate and saluting with his riding crop. Later, he almost kisses her in the stable – but Äls stops him. Finally, she chooses to give voice to what had hitherto been entirely unspoken. “We love each other, my friend,” she says, “and it will be terrible.” In a later scene, they finally do kiss and Äls says “To die like this. That would be the happiest death. When I’m dead, I want my ashes scattered in the sea.” This film manages to make death beautiful and romantic.
Realizing that he cannot confide in Matthias, Albrecht turns, surprisingly, to Octavia. His love for Äls is now openly acknowledged between them, as is his guilt over loving another woman. But Octavia will have none of this. Smiling benevolently, she embraces him and says “It cannot be all bad. Because it gives you a strength [Kraft] and a joy [Freude] which I have never seen in you before. Am I supposed to love you less because of that?”
Albrecht is overcome by emotion on hearing her say this. He kisses her hands, and utters the film’s most remarkable line: “Octavia, das ist so . . . so übermenschlich” (“Octavia that’s so . . . so superhuman”).
So here we have Albrecht, ironically, using the language of Nietzsche – whom he had angrily rejected at the beginning of the film. He has found a perfect word to describe Octavia. But the trouble is that he does not really want an übermenschlich woman, at least not yet. No sooner has he said this than Äls appears next door, in the yard with her dogs. Albrecht stares at her, transfixed. And now Octavia becomes indignant. For all her extraordinary nobility she is still, in fact, human, all too human.
Äls exits through her front gate and onto the street, walking someplace with a determined stride. Unknown to Äls, Octavia follows her, always remaining at a discrete distance. Block after block, she follows Äls – becoming, it seems, more and more distraught. It is a strange, atmospheric sequence. Matthias suddenly appears in his convertible and immediately realizes that something is wrong. “I had a feeling you might need me. That’s why I came,” he says, evidently hoping to swoop in and claim Octavia from the faithless Albrecht.
Together they follow Äls. At a certain point, she passes some men who turn around to gaze at her admiringly. “Look at this,” Octavia says, “the way men look after her. Nobody ever looks after me on the street. Even though everyone tells me I’m beautiful. . . . What’s the secret? She’s like a magnet.”
“Octavia, you should be glad that nobody looks after you on the street,” says the bloodless Matthias. “You’re such a pure person.”
“No, that’s not it,” Octavia replies without looking at him. “She’s one too. She’s just more powerful than I am.”
They follow Äls to the Dovenfleet area of Hamburg. As she approaches a house, Susanne, the child seen earlier, rushes out to meet Äls, and they embrace. Octavia and Matthias are stunned.
It turns out, however, that Susanne is not as safe as she seems. Äls learns some days later that an epidemic of typhus has broken out in the harbor area of town. The newspaper mentions Dovenfleet. Äls, however, has grown much worse and is now too weak to get out of bed. She writes to Albrecht and asks him to go and rescue the child. “I’ll wait for you by the window at 6 o’clock, till you come. And when you ride by I’ll know she has been saved.”
Albrecht dutifully rescues little Susanne. He cuddles and kisses her in the cab as if she were his own daughter (while she screams and cries). There follows a scene in which the child undergoes a medical exam, which is unusual by American standards in that the child is completely naked. (Films from the Hitler period feature a surprising amount of nudity. In Harlan’s very effective 1938 mystery Verwehte Spuren, some bare breasts are prominently on display in one parade scene.) The determination is that the child is perfectly healthy and that there is no danger of typhus. Albrecht dons his raincoat and hat and ventures out into the pouring rain, riding by Äls’s gate and saluting her with his riding crop, as promised. This time, however, Octavia witnesses the entire ritual from the window next door.
When Albrecht returns to the stable a servant notices that he seems weary. He soon collapses and is rushed to the hospital. The verdict: typhus! Albrecht is placed in isolation and Octavia is not allowed near him. They are forced to communicate through a small glass observation window. “In this rain I have greeted Äls for the last time,” he tells her. “And now she’ll be waiting, and . . . die.” He tells Octavia that when they were in Düsseldorf Äls said that without him riding up to her gate every day there was “no one to call me back to life.” Octavia is greatly moved by this.
Meanwhile, Äls has deteriorated considerably. Her servants have moved her bed closer to the window so that she can watch for Albrecht. “If he doesn’t come,” she says, “I’ll not survive the day.” She is completely unaware of what has befallen him.
Albrecht lies in his hospital bed, tormented by the thought that Äls will almost certainly die alone. He confides in Dr. Terboven: “For Octavia, our marriage has been a way of sacrifice [Opfergang].”
“Yes, there are natures such as hers, Herr Froben,” says the old doctor. “And that’s why Äls doesn’t have to wait in vain for you and your greeting. There stands a rider at the gate. At Äls’s garden gate. Offering her the lover’s salute she waits for daily.” On hearing this, Albrecht breaks down. And now, in the film’s climactic scene, we see Octavia dressed in Albrecht’s hat and coat riding up to Äls’s gate in the pouring rain, saluting her repeatedly. Very weakly, Äls waves at her. After awhile, Octavia rides away.
A very strange and moving sequence follows, in which Albrecht and Äls, in their respective beds, seem to achieve a kind of telepathic connection. The image becomes blurry, rippling as if the shapes and colors on screen have been reduced to a liquid state. Äls is slipping away and hears Albrecht calling to her: “I am not at the gate, Äls. It is Octavia who greets you.”
“It isn’t you?”
“Before Octavia’s love, everything else must be extinguished and pass away. Do you see this?”
“Forgive me, Äls, that I am so cruel. But I must tell you. I love Octavia.”
“I know it. I know it,” Äls says. “Farewell and be happy. Don’t call me any longer.” Äls is now dying. The images on screen become even murkier. “So far away am I. Far away. The sea is far away. Are you gone or is it I? Who is going away? We cannot know.”
We now see the sea magically appear beyond Äls’s garden gate. The gate opens . . . and the sea takes the soul of Älskling Flodéen.
Time passes. It is a beautiful day, and Albrecht and Octavia are riding their horses along the beach. “It had been her last wish to have her ashes scattered in the sea,” Albrecht says.
“She has returned,” Octavia responds. “The wind and the waves had been her elements. Now she is wind and waves.” With this, Octavia takes the rose from her lapel and tosses it into the surf. Albrecht and Octavia clasp hands and ride away. The music swells and the camera pans across the water. The final shot of the film is of Octavia’s rose lying in the sand, gently touched by the waves.
3. The Meaning of Opfergang
Apparently, Goebbels and I are not the only ones who have been greatly moved by this film. I alluded earlier to the extraordinary reviews it has received on the Internet Movie Database. But it is not a film for all tastes. I have also heard it described as a “soap opera” and as “Nazi kitsch.” What is certain is that it is not a film for cynics. Like most of Harlan’s other films (and eventually I hope to write an article devoted to his entire oeuvre) it is unapologetically concerned with beauty, with love, and with heartfelt emotion.
Of course, Opfergang is also concerned – obsessed, even – with death. Although, as I said earlier, this is a film that transcends its time, we should begin to understand it by considering the circumstances under which it was made. As many others have noted, the film seems designed to prepare the German people for their coming defeat. How does it do so? By teaching them to face death bravely, even to welcome it as a friend. Again, in the beautiful and disturbing rainbow sequence, Äls tells us “One is always close to death, and it’s a good thing if you smile at him from time to time. And if you tell him, please, my friend, you’ll come when I can’t go on any further.” In a later scene (not described above) she refers again to death as “the friend.”
But the film teaches more than just the necessity of accepting death and facing it bravely. It also teaches us about the nobility of sacrifice. The scene in which Octavia dons Albrecht’s clothes and goes to greet Äls is brief but profoundly moving. Here we see that Albrecht’s description of her as übermenschlich is vindicated. If you will recall, in the scene in which he pronounces this judgment we see Octavia finally react with jealousy when Äls appears – then she follows Äls out onto the street and suffers a kind of personal crisis, feeling herself inferior to the other woman. This sequence is necessary in order to make Octavia’s final sacrifice truly meaningful. In reality, Octavia is not übermenschlich when Albrecht pronounces her so – but she becomes übermenschlich by the film’s end (though not exactly in the sense in which Nietzsche himself would use the term!).
Octavia is an unusual woman in that she lives in her head — but she is a woman nonetheless. She cannot help that she feels stirrings of resentment and even hatred toward Äls. But she is nevertheless able to see past these feelings and perceive that Äls is no monster. Recall the scene in which Matthias contrasts Octavia to Äls by telling Octavia that she is “a pure person.” Octavia rejects this, saying “she’s one too.” At the film’s climax, Octavia has completely triumphed over her emotions and, recognizing Äls’s virtues and the purity of the love between her husband and this other woman, she gives comfort to Äls in the last moments of her life.
In truth, Octavia’s Übermenschlichkeit is more Kantian than Nietzschean. (Like much else in the National Socialist canon, Opfergang draws upon Nietzsche without fully understanding him.) Octavia’s sacrifice is extraordinary, and through it she proves herself, in fact, to be the better woman. As Albrecht says, “Before Octavia’s love, everything else must be extinguished and pass away.” And, as he tells Äls in her dying reverie, “I love Octavia.” In the end, Albrecht chooses Octavia. In fact, what he is choosing is Germany.
Both women, Äls and Octavia, are Germanic – or, perhaps it would be better to say Nordic. But Äls represents a very un-German free spirit: unintellectual, spurning convention (she lives alone, she has an illegitimate child, she swims naked in the Elbe), never wanting to be tied down, abandoning her home country for a strange land, dallying with a married man, disregarding the advice of her doctor, etc.
By contrast, Octavia is almost distressingly German: somber, cerebral, uncritically pious before “high culture,” unspontaneous, dutiful, and hamstrung by social customs and boundaries (“Are you on friendly terms with her?” Albrecht asks. “Good heavens! First she lives there all alone, and then you know how we are around here. Even if someone lives next door we don’t know each other. Here every house is a world in itself. It’s always been that way, and will always stay that way.”). When Octavia says “Nobody ever looks after me on the street, even though everyone tells me I’m beautiful,” she is speaking for practically all German women.
The contrast between the two women (and the point I believe Harlan is making) would have been made much more strongly and clearly if “the other woman” had been conceived as Italian or Spanish, or even French. But Söderbaum would not have been convincing as any of these, and Harlan would not have even considered casting another actress. So the contrast to the very-German Octavia becomes an earthy, skinny-dipping, free-loving Swede. (Cousins, to be sure, but actually rather distant ones.)
Äls is “a pure person” in her own way, as Octavia recognizes. She represents love of life, love of love itself, and, most of all, love of the moment. Octavia is not nearly as exciting. She represents soberness, duty, loyalty, and sacrifice. But in the end it is Octavia’s virtues that prove the most worthy of being loved and admired. It is Octavia’s virtues – not those of Äls – that are necessary to sustain and preserve a culture and a people. Despite Äls’s charm, allure, and tender heart, Octavia ultimately eclipses her through a sublime act of self-sacrifice.
Opfergang shows the Germans a “way,” a path of sacrifice. It shows them what will be necessary in the coming endtime – in the time the Germans actually came to refer to as the Nullpunkt (zero point). It shows them what sort of strength of character will be necessary to fight to the end, and emerge again from the rubble. But it also shows them how to be morally worthy of victory, even if defeat is certain. Opfergang is an extraordinarily nationalistic film – but not in any crude and obvious way. It is a remarkably beautiful, poetic assertion of Germanic moral and cultural superiority.
At the conclusion of this unforgettable film, Germany wins after all.
(An inexpensive DVD of Opfergang is available from a seller on ioffer.com: http://www.ioffer.com/i/the-great-sacrifice-opfergang-1944-dvd-veit-harlan-191499184 . The DVD is a transfer from a VHS. The quality is so-so, but watchable. Someone has added subtitles to the DVD, and I cannot praise them highly enough. They are some of the most accurate and literal subtitles I have ever seen produced for a German film. A DVD is also available from www.germanwarfilms.com. I think this company performs a wonderful service, and I encourage everyone interested in the films of the Third Reich to visit their website and peruse their vast collection. However, Germanwarfilms’ DVD of Opfergang has a number of flaws, including distracting typos in their — otherwise very accurate — subtitles. I am told that a much better print – without subtitles, however – is available from www.reichskino.com, but I have not seen it.)
1. The film omits four stanzas. Only the stanzas read by Otto Treßler are translated here. The translation is by R. J. Hollingdale: Friedrich Nietzsche, Dithyrambs of Dionysus (London: Anvil Press, 1984), 52–57. I have altered the translation to make it more literal.