Translated by Andreas Faust
“Vorbehaltsfilme” (conditional films) are National Socialist propaganda films (or films merely perceived as such) which, in Germany, can only be shown in an academic context — a regulation which is quite loosely handled, though. They may not be distributed on video or DVD.
Outside of such screenings, one is dependant on secondary literature or on dodgy pirated copies like those floating around on the internet, a practice fed by an exaggerated, near-superstitious fear of infection and a closely connected hysteria about “proper” historical education. In this way the films are not only unnecessarily demonized, but so too are the critical reflections of the secondary literature severely impeded.
One of the most notorious films of that era is Heimkehr (Homecoming, 1941), a more explicit propaganda film personally commissioned by Joseph Goebbels. Filmed under the direction of Gustav Ucicky, it portrayed the oppression of the “Volksdeutsche” (ethnic Germans) in Volhynia (today in the Western Ukraine, at that time a part of Poland) shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.
The action begins in the voivodeship (province) of Lutsk in March 1939, during the first Polish mobilization. The streets are being increasingly controlled by the military, German schools are closed and vandalized, Germans get attacked in the open streets and are later even dispossessed, deprived of their rights, and murdered. Finally, as they are caught listening in secret to Hitler speeches after the outbreak of war, they get interned, together with their women and children, to await execution. Then, at the last minute, the Wehrmacht marches in and saves the day.
The film’s transfigurative conclusion shows the Heimkehr (homecoming) to the Reich, and the resettlement of the Volhynia-Germans in the region of West Prussia, which was reconquered in 1939. The actual resettlement, from an area controlled in fact not by the Wehrmacht but by the then-allied Red Army, took place at the end of 1939. The point of Heimkehr was to belatedly justify not only the resettlement of the ethnic Germans, but also the war against Poland.
For a contemporary audience, Heimkehr presents a topsy-turvy world: a Nazi film that denounces state despotism and the nationalistic suppression of minorities. In one scene, Paula Wessely stands before the Polish mayor of the city, to protest the confiscation of a German school: “To remove the property of others, that is something the State should never allow.” In another scene, an ethnic German who wears a swastika on a chain around his neck is stoned to death by an enraged mob: not just Germans, but also explicit Nazis appear as persecuted victims.
The film’s climax has a nightmarish intensity: cooped up in the most confined, stifling space imaginable, the Germans await their execution. The only light in the prison cells comes from a glaring spotlight, whose beams rove across exhausted, miserable faces, an intentional form of psycho-terror on the part of the Poles.
With this scene especially, there will be scarcely a viewer who will not be reminded of the iconography of the “Holocaust.” The end of Heimkehr ironically follows virtually the same pattern as the Polish 1947 on-location Auschwitz film Ostatni etap (The Last Stage): the female protagonist is to be executed by her oppressors, yet succeeds in giving a burning accusatory speech, making the “message” of the film quite clear, then at the last moment the rescuing army marches in — in this case the Red Army. Both films even have identical shots of the approaching airplanes of the liberators.
This aspect of the topsy-turvy (for contemporary viewers) world was taken up by German film historian Johannes von Moltke in his book No Place Like Home: Locations of Heimat in German Cinema. He points out that there is no atrocity denounced in the film which the National Socialists themselves weren’t guilty of. The difficulty of judging this “poisoned casket” film objectively is revealed by the way in which Moltke not only fails to mention historical events prior to September 1st, 1939, but also declares the attacks on Germans shown in the film to be pure fiction, the invention of propagandists. This is all quite usual in the literature on Heimkehr. If these matters are referred to at all, as they are in an extensive study by Gerald Trimmel, they are relativized, consigned to the margins, or watered down through historic “montage” (by detailed descriptions of NS crimes, for instance).
In actual fact, the repressive policies of Poland towards its minorities between the wars are very well attested to. They were directed not only at Germans but also at Jews, Byelorussians, and Ukrainians (the film conceals this, however — Jews, for instance, are characterised as the stingy and mendacious accomplices of the Poles). Despite all the primitive black-and-white stylization, the attacks shown in Heimkehr are based on historical facts — the aggressive “Polonization” policy and pogrom-like riots which led to deportations, internments, and executions. The film is also accurate insofar as it shows the way in which many ethnic Germans turned to National Socialism as a consequence of the Polish policies towards minorities — and makes an explicit connection between the radicalization of the Poles and the occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.
In what is probably the film’s strongest sequence, the rising tensions between Poles and ethnic Germans are portrayed with complete credibility. During the Polish mobilization, the protagonists, played by Paula Wessely and Carl Raddatz, visit a cinema, accompanied by an ethnic German friend who has been drafted to the army and wears a Polish uniform. As he speaks German with Wessely he is insulted by another soldier. After a harmless newsreel feature on American beauty contests, scenes of Polish military parades and demonstrations are shown. The audience, stirred by patriotism, rises as one and sings the Polish national anthem. Only the three Germans fail to sing along. They are attacked by the mob, and Carl Raddatz (one of the most popular actors of his day) is fatally wounded. No one comes to his aid.
At the opposite extreme are scenes which count among the worst that propaganda has ever produced. Paula Wessely declaims a histrionic “völkish” creed, with a fervor that would cause apopleptic strokes in today’s Germany, but which can scarcely conceal the emptiness of its phraseology. The character turns into a mere ideological mouthpiece. Here, Heimkehr becomes a National Socialist counterpart to “Socialist Realism,” with its kitsch heroes, cosmetic fabrications, and cardboard promises.
In the final analysis, then, the film is a mixed affair: on the one hand it is evidence of the cynical hypocrisy of totalitarian states, but on the other a reflection of a forgotten historical reality, knowledge of which is necessary for understanding and evaluating the German-Polish War and the huge post-WWII ethnic cleansings of Germans from Eastern Europe.
This second aspect of the film is today suppressed or played down — whether from ignorance, deliberate lies, or opportunism is an open question.