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German Cinema Classics 
Der Herrscher (1937)

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Der Herrscher (The Sovereign) is a fascinating film for a variety of reasons. The popular idea of cinema in the Third Reich is that is that every film was rife with propaganda. In fact, most films of the period were purely escapist fare, with minimal propaganda content. When propaganda was present, it often took the form of allegory (as in Kolberg [2]), rather than speechifying or preaching. In fact, I would go so far as to maintain that American films from the same period (especially the war years) contained more outright, and unsubtle, propaganda. And, to explode a further myth, anti-Semitic claims or caricatures were extremely rare.

In the twelve years of Hitler’s government, only three films were made that were clearly devoted to criticizing the Jews, all of them released in the same year (1940): Der ewige Jude [3], Die Rothschilds [4], and, most notorious of all, Jud Süß [5]. (However, anti-Semitic statements are to be found with some regularity in German newsreels, especially following the September 1939 invasion of Poland.) Der Herrscher was helmed by the director of Jud Süß, Veit Harlan. In earlier installments of this series I have dealt with two other Harlan films: Die Reise nach Tilsit [6] (1939), and Opfergang [7] (1944). (See also my essays on German Mountain Films [8].)

In the eyes of most film historians, Der Herrscher would certainly be seen as a propaganda film – and indeed it is, but this is “propaganda” of a high order. It was based, rather loosely, on Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1932 play Vor Sonnenuntergang (Before Sunset). Hauptmann (1862–1946) was a prolific German dramatist and novelist, who was awarded the 1912 Nobel Prize in Literature, primarily for his plays. He was no National Socialist, but continued to live and work in Germany after Hitler came to power. Predictably, this has since tarnished Hauptmann’s once stellar reputation, even though he never publicly spoke in support of the regime.

Thea von Harbou [9]

Thea von Harbou

The propaganda element in Der Herrscher thus does not originate with Hauptmann, but instead with none other than Thea von Harbou, the former wife of Fritz Lang. Harbou is credited as the primary screenwriter, with Curt J. Braun listed second. However, the attribution to Hauptmann’s play is followed, on the same title card, by “und nach Motiven aus Harald Bratts “Der Herrscher” (and based on themes from Harald Bratt’s “The Sovereign”). This was a four act comedy play apparently inspired by Hauptmann’s Vor Sonnenuntergang. Bratt was the pseudonym of August Christian Riekel (1897–1967) an academic who became a prolific screenwriter, penning numerous films from the 1930s into the ’60s. So, this film is really based upon two plays. I cannot find much information on Bratt, but he did write the screenplay for the notorious 1941 anti-British propaganda film Ohm Krüger [10]. In what follows, I will consider Harbou as principally responsible for the final shooting script, including its political content.

It is well-known that Harbou was a National Socialist, and that this was one of the reasons why the half-Jewish Lang divorced her. (The other reason was her affair with the Indian Ayi Tendulkar, whom she would later secretly marry.) It is a rather remarkable fact that the films Harbou made with Lang have not been sufficiently understood through the lens of Harbou’s political sympathies. Part of the reason for this is that Harbou did not join the NSDAP until the 1930s – though this hardly matters. Further, she asserted after the war that she only joined the party to support Indians in Germany – a claim which simply does not deserve to be taken seriously. The truth is that Harbou’s film work is replete with messages and themes that can be quite plausibly described as nationalist and National Socialist. And this is a subject I intend to explore in other essays, when I deal with the collaborations of Harbou and Lang.

Just briefly, consider the conservative critique of Weimar culture to be found in Harbou-Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler [11] (1922), with its main character a thinly-veiled anti-Semitic collage (war profiteer, plus stock market manipulator, plus purveyor of vice, plus – I’m not kidding here – psychoanalyst). Or consider the obvious nationalism of Harbou-Lang’s Die Nibelungen [12] (1924), both parts of which open with the dedication “Dem deutschen Volk zu eigen” (“Dedicated to the German nation”). Finally, consider the undisguised socialism of Harbou-Lang’s most celebrated film, Metropolis [13] (1927). A socialism that is neither atheistic (note the Christian imagery and references) nor internationalist. A socialism based upon a reawakening of heartfelt feeling among Volksgenossen, and an overcoming of artificial class distinctions based on wealth (“The mediator between head and hands must be the heart”).

Indeed, what is truly fascinating about Harbou’s Der Herrscher is that it is one of the most explicitly National Socialist Third Reich films I have yet seen. The racialist and anti-Semitic aspects of Nazism get emphasized so much today that its socialism is lost sight of entirely. And avowed “Neo-Nazis” tend to buy into this, and think that socialists are the opposition! (The Left, of course, asserts that the socialism of the Nazis was disingenuous.) When Albert Speer was released from Spandau prison in 1966 and got a taste of how the Nazis were depicted in the media he remarked privately that “Hitler didn’t spend all his time talking about the Jews, he talked about things like ending unemployment,” or words to that effect. So striking and explicit is the socialism of Der Herrscher, it is an ideal document for understanding the Hitler regime and its philosophy. And it is essential for understanding the work of Thea von Harbou – whose collaborations with Lang (especially Metropolis) must be interpreted, I would maintain, in the light of this later film.

The star of Der Herrscher is Emil Jannings, whose performance is really quite extraordinary. Jannings was a stage actor who began appearing in films as early as 1914, later working twice for F. W. Murnau (in The Last Laugh, 1924, and in Faust, 1926, in which he played the role of Mephistopheles). Jannings eventually wound up in Hollywood, where his career really flourished. In fact, he was the first actor ever to receive a Best Actor Oscar (in 1928 for his performance in Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command). (Though the story goes that actually Rin Tin Tin won the vote, but the Academy feared it would not be taken seriously if it awarded the Oscar to a dog.) In 1930 Jannings appeared opposite Marlene Dietrich in perhaps his most famous film, The Blue Angel, also directed by Sternberg.

Joseph Goebbels with Emil Jannings [14]

Joseph Goebbels with Emil Jannings

With the advent of sound, however, Janning’s thick German accent severely limited his possibilities in American cinema, so he returned to his native country. And when Hitler took power in 1933, Jannings gave every appearance of being an enthusiastic supporter of the new regime. For example, he was later one of the producers of Ohm Krüger. (For his work on the film, allegedly Joseph Goebbels presented him the “Ring of Honor of German Cinema” – I say “allegedly” because one never knows whether or not to believe such stories.)

So, let the foregoing suffice by way of an introduction. I now turn to the story of Der Herrscher.

The main character of our tale is Matthias Clausen (Jannings), the wealthy owner of a steelworks who is now entering old age. He has four grown children: Wolfgang (married to Clothild), Bettina (an old maid), Ottilie (married to Erich Klamroth, a director at the firm), and Egert (his youngest son). At the very beginning of the film, we are witness to the funeral of Clausen’s wife, who has died after a long illness. Clausen has been absent from the factory for some time, caring for his wife, and has left things in the hands of his son-in-law Klamroth. The funeral is an interminable affair, and everyone is forced to stand in the rain while the unctuous Pastor delivers a long, tastelessly excessive eulogy. Bettina is distraught, almost hurling herself onto the casket. The others are unmoved. And, curiously, this includes Herr Clausen himself, who seems strangely detached.

Though the picture seems grim, one quickly realizes that these scenes are actually quite droll. Der Herrscher is a delicately-balanced comedy-drama. Wry portraits of human imperfection alternate with scenes of genuine pathos. After watching it for the first time I told a friend, “This is the sort of film Frank Capra would have made, had he been German and a Nazi.” It’s a good summation, actually, though Capra would not have had Harlan’s restraint (a telling commentary on American cinema, given that Harlan was actually one of the most unrestrained directors of the Third Reich).

At the reception after the funeral, prior to Clausen’s arrival, we are introduced at length to his family – and they are indeed a motley crew. Wolfgang’s wife Clothild is hungering after her mother-in-law’s jewels. Wolfgang and Klamroth are thinking only of the future of the factory. And the latter reveals himself to be a real blackguard, who now believes the old man is finished, and the factory his to command. Bettina is the only one who shows any real grief, but her grief is so exaggerated and neurotic it is hard to sympathize with her. (Later in the film, with frankness typical of German cinema but unthinkable in an American production of the same period, her nervous nature is blamed on her virginity.) Egert, a handsome and happy-go-lucky young chap, emerges as the most likeable of the group.

Also on hand is the elderly Dr. Geiger, referred to by the now-antiquated title Sanitätsrat. He appears to be one of Clausen’s only close friends, and they address each other by the familiar du. Something seems to have changed in Clausen, and Dr. Geiger is the only one to really notice it. Clausen shows no signs of grief at all, though he appears to be quite exhausted. But it is as if he has awakened from a long sleep. Seeking to lose himself in work, he takes a long walk through the grounds of the factory. These scenes were shot on location at an actual steelworks, and it is fascinating to watch the giant machines pouring and pounding steel.

Clausen winds up in the research and development department, where he learns that in his absence Klamroth, the son-in-law, has cut off its funding. Indignant, Clausen convenes a meeting of his board of directors the following day. Also present is a pretty but very shy stenographer who introduces herself as Inken Peters. Ideologically, this scene is one of the most significant in the entire film, and I will quote its dialogue extensively. Clausen demands an explanation for why funding for R&D has been cut. “You launch an attack against the technology that will make us independent from abroad. Do you imagine that you are fulfilling your duties as industrialists in this way?”

The board members all try to justify themselves. The most obsequious is played by none other than Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the first husband of Thea von Harbou. He played major roles in three Harbou-Lang films: Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler (the title character), Die Nibelungen (King Etzel), and Metropolis (Dr. Rotwang). Here he only has a small part, but is quite amusing. One of the other directors, however, defends the decision, saying that the Clausen Works should not be a guinea pig for technological experiments. “Let the state carry the risk,” he says.

“Why the state?” Clausen responds. “Is the state a charitable organization for shareholders in distress?” His loyal private secretary Dr. Wuttke announces that last year the Clausen Works increased its profits by 28%. One of the directors promptly asks, “Where did the money go?”

“Where it belongs, back into the factory,” Clausen responds. Through this scene and, indeed, through most of the film, Jannings is sharp but extraordinarily dignified and self-controlled.

Immediately, the despicable Klamroth pipes up: “What about us? Why don’t we earn more?”

Clausen: “Have you worked more? No. The worker has achieved more. The factory has achieved more. That is why the profit belongs to the worker and to the factory.”

Klamroth begins to unctuously assure his father-in-law of his deep concern for the welfare of the workers. He wants them to earn more, he says, “but within limits. After all, we want to live too. If we don’t get any profit-sharing bonuses my feelings of charity end.” (I must comment here that this is exactly the sort of dialogue Ayn Rand would have written, had she been the diametrical opposite of Randian. And, in fact, this is not the only “Randian” thing about this film, actually.)

Clausen has now had enough. He says that he convened the meeting to find out whether it might be possible for him to take a longer holiday. But now he realizes that this is impossible, for not a single one of them is capable of replacing him. (At this point in the dialogue, Inken Peters looks up from her stenography pad and begins to take an active interest in the meeting – though saying nothing, of course.) Clausen continues:

It has to do with your inner attitude – the bottomless egoism behind each of your words. . . . In times like these you complain about not getting any profit shares, while drawing generous directors’ salaries. We are here to provide work and bread for millions. We are here to work for the folk community [Volksgemeinschaft[1]]. To serve the folk community. This must be the aim of any industrialist conscious of his responsibility. This is my will and my factory’s supreme law. Everyone has to submit to it, without objection. . . . And he who doesn’t submit himself to that supreme law has no place in the Clausen Works.

Clausen rises to indicate that the meeting is at an end, and his directors file out meekly. The strain has been a little much for him, however, and moments later Clausen collapses. Inken hears him and rushes to his aid. Clausen is touched by her kindness, and then, in a significant moment, he truly notices her for the first time. Pointedly, he asks her name again. “Inken Peters,” she says. He repeats her name quietly, his crisis having passed, and says “Good.”

Some time passes and we find ourselves at a massive outdoor celebration. Clausen’s workers have gathered to commemorate his 40 years in charge of the firm. The scene can’t help but remind today’s audiences (whether sympathetic or unsympathetic) of a Nazi rally, especially when the workers (who appear to number in the thousands) begin greeting Clausen with rather familiar salutes. With obvious emotion, one of Clausen’s employees makes a speech honoring him. It is at this point that we learn than Clausen began as a simple blacksmith, and worked his way up to be the owner of his own steelworks. We then realize that all the snobbish, aristocratic pretensions of his children and in-laws are just that. This too is part of the National Socialist message of the film: class distinctions based upon wealth are artificial and divisive.

Those snobbish pretensions are on full display at the party that follows. Inken and her elderly mother have been invited, much to the family’s shock. The mother, you see, is a simple market gardener, who sells flowers and vegetables. Worse yet, the rumor is that Inken’s father committed suicide in jail, after being falsely accused of a crime. Why has Clausen invited her? The gossip flies fast and furious, and in short order Clausen’s dysfunctional little family has realized the truth: he is in love with Inken. This conclusion, of course, disturbs them greatly. Bettina is horrified that her mother’s memory is being defiled (and she is also curiously fixated on the prospect that Clausen may bestow some of her mother’s jewelry on Inken). The rest are clearly worried that Clausen may change his will to favor this new interloper.

The oily Klamroth dances with Inken and, predictably, makes clumsy advances. But as soon as she has extricated herself from his embrace, she is set upon by the family’s females and not-so-subtly reminded that she’s socializing above her station. Inken handles them quite well, however. Having suffered enough indignities for one day, she abruptly leaves with mother in tow. Meanwhile, in Clausen’s vast and elegant library, he is confessing his love for Inken to the kindly Dr. Geiger while Bettina plays a Chopin nocturne on the grand piano (the same nocturne, incidentally, that figures in an important scene in Harlan’s Opfergang). Inken has restored his love of life, he says. Dr. Geiger is delighted, and urges Clausen to tell the girl of his feelings as soon as possible.

One wonders at this point how Inken will take this news, and whether she can return the love of the elderly Clausen. (Jannings was actually only 51 or 52 when he made this film, but he is clearly playing Clausen as a much older man.) This question is answered in a scene between Inken and her mother, in her mother’s vegetable garden. They have received an anonymous threatening letter warning them to leave town. Clausen, it seems, has been visiting Inken and her mother quite a lot. The visits have been very innocent, but the mother sees where it is all going, and she is worried for Inken. The girl herself, however, clearly loves Clausen, and is willing to stay with him, even if she is never anything more than his mistress. A very unconventional, non-bourgeois attitude.

Clausen proposes to Inken [15]

Clausen proposes to Inken

Soon after, we find Clausen in his office dictating a letter to Inken. He is clearly preoccupied, however. She leaves the room for a moment and when she returns, Clausen has produced a small jewel case. Quietly, very shyly, he asks her to be his wife. Inken is overcome with emotion, and accepts. The ring, which Clausen now places on Inken’s right hand (as is the German way), had belonged to his late wife, and to his mother before that. (Yet the children, of course, know it only as their mother’s ring.) It is a simple and touching scene – but we sense trouble ahead.

While Inken is absent, Klamroth and his attorney Herr Hanefeld visit Inken’s mother, inquiring whether Clausen might lately have bestowed any his late wife’s jewels on the young stenographer. And they then offer Mrs. Peters a very considerable sum to relocate to another part of the Reich. She sends them packing. There follows one of the longest scenes in the film – one that very clearly betrays its origins as a stage play. It is that time of the month when all the adult members of the family gather for brunch. There are eight in total. When the others arrive, Clausen is absent. But one of the family quickly learns that a female voice has been heard in his room (again, another detail unthinkable in an American film of the period). It is Inken, of course. But Clausen’s contemptible children and in-laws are still more shocked to discover that a ninth place has been set at the table.

Wolfgang orders faithful family servant Winter to remove the place setting. And when Clausen arrives with his fiancé, poor Inken gets a chilly reception to say the least. When Clausen notices that Inken’s place setting has been removed, he finally loses his composure and roars in anger, causing poor Inken to flee. His family pleads with him to see reason. Again and again, the late Frau Clausen is invoked, as if any happiness Clausen might now achieve is a desecration of her memory. (Of course, this concern masks far more selfish motives – on the part of everyone save, perhaps, Bettina.) In a towering rage, Clausen orders his family out – and when Klamroth dares to argue with him, Clausen fires the rotten so-and-so.

Clausen is deeply hurt by his family’s reaction. But, imbued with a new-found joie de vivre, he proceeds to buy a yacht and a castle in Bavaria. Then he and Inken leave on a long cruise, intending to be married on their return. (Scenes of their journey were shot on location in Sicily.) Clausen has seriously underestimated the gravity of the situation with his relatives, however. While he is away, they meet with Hanefeld and institute proceedings to have Clausen declared mentally incompetent. If this measure is successful, Hanefeld will be appointed custodian of Clausen and his property – but it is Klamroth who will be running the steel mill. All of Clausen’s children and in-laws sign the petition – save Egert, who refuses at the last moment.

When Clausen returns, Hanefeld meets with him and – obviously suffering from a very guilty conscience –slowly and haltingly informs him of the terrible step his family have taken. There follows the most dramatic scene in the entire film. Earlier we had seen Clausen enraged, now we see him positively unhinged. He snatches a letter opener and, shockingly, slashes the portrait of his dead wife which hangs over the great mantelpiece, dominating the room (and, it seems, his life). Then he picks up a chair and begins smashing the glass cabinets containing priceless heirlooms (or antiquities; it’s really not clear).

His children and in-laws rush in, and there is pandemonium. Suddenly, they now realize the gravity of what they have done. The women become hysterical, and everyone except Klamroth seems to want to take it all back. But Clausen is inconsolable. He retreats from them in horror, backing up the library’s grand staircase: “Don’t snivel!” he cries. “Don’t shed those crocodile tears! My wife has given birth to dogs, cats, foxes, and wolves. For decades they have run around in my house in human shape, and have licked my hands and feet. And now suddenly they tear me to pieces with their teeth. I want to get away!”

Of course, Clausen’s reaction will do little to refute his children’s self-serving claims about his mental state. Later, Hanefeld confronts Inken and, despicably, informs her that everything that has happened is her fault. Soon, he tells her, Clausen will be confined to a madhouse. Inken, who is very much in love with the old man, is distraught. But what happens next is only too predictable. Hanefeld suggests that perhaps the family’s petition could be withdrawn, if only Inken will remove herself from the situation. “I know how difficult this is for you,” he says. “No, you cannot possibly know that,” Inken responds gravely. Then she sits down and quietly begins writing a letter.

Clausen has taken refuge with Dr. Geiger. In a state of profound nervous exhaustion, he lies on Geiger’s examination table, resting. Geiger is furious with Clausen’s family, and urges him not to give up – to fight them with all he’s got. But then comes the worst blow of all. Wuttke arrives with Inken’s letter. Without rising from the table, Clausen opens it, and out falls the ring. All now seems to be lost. All have abandoned him. (In Hauptmann’s original play, Clausen commits suicide. Thankfully, Harbou and Harlan spare us such a dissatisfying dénouement.)

There follows a long sequence in which Clausen meanders his way slowly through the steelworks. This takes place, apparently, on the evening of the following day. He arrives in his simple, Spartan office and is greeted by a very concerned Wuttke. Clausen now reveals to him that that very morning a judge rejected his family’s petition and declared him mentally competent. Clausen has won, but – betrayed by his family and abandoned by Inken – he seems like a broken man. He says to Wuttke:

Have you ever heard the iron’s roar when it’s made into steel? I heard it today. A hell is sounding out of that iron’s roar when it’s purified. A chemical process, right? The experts say: silicium, manganese, carbon, phosphorus. It must be melted out of the iron. Terribly simple, right? No, Wuttke. It’s not easy, such a purifying process. The question is frightful: how much will you bear, steel? How much will you bear, man?

It is a very emotionally powerful speech. Here as in the rest of the film, Harbou’s dialogue is moving and intelligent. (I have not read the original Hauptmann play, so I have no idea how much of his dialogue she retained.)

Wuttke is delighted with the prospect of firing Klamroth, but before he leaves Clausen asks him to send in a secretary so that he can dictate a new will. He faces the window as the secretary enters and does not look at her. But even in the semi-darkness we can tell that it is Inken. When she turns on the desk lamp, we see that the ring is back on her finger. Clausen begins dictating, not realizing that it is Inken who takes down his words. Clausen states that he is cutting his children and his in-laws out of his will, as they are unworthy to inherit the steelworks. (One can’t help but think, however, of poor, loyal Egert – as well as of Clausen’s several grandchildren.)

The final scene of Der Herrscher [16]

The final scene of Der Herrscher

It is at this point in the dictation that Clausen looks down and sees Inken – once more wearing the ring on her hand. There are tears in her eyes. He pauses. “Weiter (continue),” she says, tenderly. With emphasis he responds, “Ja, weiter,” as if to say “yes, let’s you and I continue on as before.” He goes on to say that he is leaving his steelworks to the state and “thus to the folk community.” (Note the identification of Staat and Volk.) And the film ends with these significant words, as Clausen finishes his dictation:

I am certain that from among my workers and employees . . . the man will rise who is called upon to continue my work. Whether he comes from the furnace or the drafting table, from the laboratory or the workbench, I want to teach him the few things a man who is about to depart may teach another. Because he who is born to be a leader [Führer] does not need any other teacher than his own genius [als sein eigenes Genie].

Here, of course, we have an enunciation of the Führerprizip. And we realize at the film’s conclusion that what Harbou has really done is to turn Hauptmann’s play into an allegory about Adolf Hitler. (This is reflected, of course, in the film’s title itself, with der Herrscher standing in for der Führer.)

This is the story of a man who rises from humble origins, possessing great personal Genie, who finds himself in love with the German Volk, personified by the simple and genuine Fräulein Peters. In order to use his great powers in the service of the Volk – in order to be united with his beloved – he must overcome the avarice and snobbery exhibited by his own folk/kin. But this proves to be quite a battle. Moved by egoism, members of his family fiercely oppose him – some even call him insane. He prevails, however. He will build a new family with Inken, based entirely upon love (of one’s own: i.e., the feeling of Volksgemeinschaft). He will expunge the egoism of his old, dysfunctional family, and he will do so with an iron first. But in truth it is not one man who rules: the Volk rules through him.

Der Herrscher is a fascinating historical and cultural document. But, more than this, it is also a truly fine film – one of Harlan’s best. The screenplay by Thea von Harbou is exceptionally intelligent and well crafted. I plan to eventually write an entire essay on Harbou, who had a very interesting career. Among other things, she directed two films under Hitler. That’s right: Leni Riefenstahl [17] was not the Führer’s only female director! (Can you name any female film directors in the Hollywood of the 1930s? If you guessed Ida Lupino, sorry: she directed her first film in 1949.) Harbou continued to write films after the war, and died in 1954. Emil Jannings is sensational in this film. He made quite a few pictures in the Third Reich – but he never made another film after 1945, having been a victim of “Denazification.” He died in 1950 at the age of 65.

Der Herrscher is available from germanwarfilms.com [18], with optional English subtitles. Unfortunately the picture quality is not great: it looks like a VHS copy of a copy. It’s still pretty watchable, however – and well worth watching.

In subsequent entries in this series I will cover other Third Reich films, as well as German silent cinema.


1. Volksgemeinschaft was a term frequently used by the National Socialists, in countless contexts during the period of the Third Reich. It is usually translated “people’s community,” but I think this wording smacks of leftwing socialism. The Volksgemeinschaft was not a community of any and all people within Germany, but of the German nation or folk. (“National community” is also to be avoided, as the term “national,” particularly in the United States, has been mostly denuded of any ethnic connotation.)