Der große König (The Great King) (1942)

 

 

 

 

Director:     Veit Harlan. 

Starring:     Otto Gebühr (Friedrich II.),  Kristina Söderbaum (Luise Treskow),  Gustav Fröhlich (Treskow),  Hans Nielsen (Niehoff),  Paul Wegener (General Czernitscheff),  Paul Henckels (Grenadier Spiller),  Elisabeth Flickenschildt (Spiller's Wife),  Kurt Meisel (Alfons),  Hilde Körber (Elisabeth),  Claus Clausen (Prinz Heinrich der Ältere),  Klaus Detlef Sierck (Prinz Heinrich der Jüngere),  Herbert Hübner (Graf Finkenstein),  Franz Schafheitlin (Oberst Bernburg),  Otto F. Henning (General von Finken),  Reginald Pasch (General Manteufel).

Nazi film glorifying Prussian King Friedrich II during the battle of Kunersdorf (Russians and Germans versus Austria)

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"The work on this film began in the early summer of the year 1940. The essential scenes strictly abide by the historical facts and cover above all the trials of the Seven Years' War, where the outstanding personality of the king had to withstand a test. Precisely here he grew to a greatness unmatched in human history. The most important statements of the king originate from his own mouth."

Kunersdorf. August 12, 1759. Germany is in a terrible crisis. The king gives a speech to his commanders saying they face rough times, but in the end the sun will be shining and the skies will be clear. And now army has to go to the attack.

The enemy officers are up on the hill and the leaders shouts out that the Prussians are attacking. He gives an order to tell the Cossacks to get ready to attack. The Austrian artillery will join in when the cemetery is attacked. Long live Maria Theresa!

The two enemies hurl themselves at each other.

In the town a man shouts to his family: "The Austrians are coming!" He tells his grown daughter Luise to hurry it up! Austrian mortars are destroying the family's windmill. Luise has to run in to get her little brother Franz out of there. Luise tells her parents to go with Franz and she will join them later in Lebus.

Part of a burning building falls onto the parents' wagon and it catches fire. It's a general rout. It appears that the grandparents are dead.

A messenger comes riding up to say: "The Regiment of Bernburg is stuck! The Hussars can't move on!" The commander says they will bypass the field of Bernburg and attack from the right wing and connect with the left wing with Seydlitz!

The fighting begins. The regiment at Bernburg goes to the attack. They charge the Austrian defensive line. One Prussian soldier declares that this is suicide! Now the Austrian defenders come from behind their defensive walls and throw themselves at the Prussians. The Prussians start retreating.

A messenger it told to report to Gen. Schenkendorf. The messenger says Colonel Bernburg says his regiment has been fought off. The officers there are shocked at the news. Finken says the left wing is beaten, the right wing annihilated and the center took flight.

More bad news arrives. Seydlitz has been beaten. The whole left wing is annihilated.

The banner bearer is running away with the rest of the men. An Austrian on horseback shoot him, but the man keeps on running. He finds shelter with Luise who tries to stop his bleeding. She wants to tear up the flag, but the doctor and the banner carrier both say no! She doesn't understand what the banner means to the men fighting under it.

Luise's carriage is commandeered and now she is afraid she will never make it to Lebus. She is upset by the death around her and the thought of not being reunited with her family and starts crying.

The Austrian general Laudon tells a messenger to go tell Her Majesty that her archenemy, the King of Prussia, has been smashed at the Battle of Kunersdorf (aka Kunowice, at the western border of today's Poland near the Oder River).

The King of Prussia is naturally upset. Schenkendorf gives him his overcoat to wear. He says he saw his soldiers with wounds in their back received while they were running away.

The King of Prussia walks over to Luise's farm house. The house is in pretty bad shape.

Luise tries to get into the house to get her things, but she has to fight the guard outside. She pushes by him and the King tells the guard to let the woman be. Inside the room Luise starts packing up her stuff but makes so much noise that it disturbs the king.

The king sees his portrait hanging on the wall in the house. She takes two picture below the king's portrait but is leaving the portrait behind. Luise is complaining: "That's what he turned our country into! What a great sovereign!"

The king asks her if she hates the king? She complains that the whole country is littered with corpses. Luise finishes get ready and starts to leave, but she stops to ask if the old soldier needs any help. Yes, he says, he wants to be left alone. So she leaves the house.

But here she comes back with a burning stick to light a candle for the king. An aide brings him some writing instruments and the king starts writing. He writes a message to Count Finkenstein in Berlin.

To Her Majesty, Finkenstein reads the letter that says that of an army or 48,000 men he has left less than 3,000. He says this is a terrible defeat and "I will not survive it . . . . I will not survive the downfall of my fatherland." His Majesty wants Her Majesty to leave for Magdeburg at once.

The Prussian prince wants to go to his uncle, His Majesty. Major Rochow refuses to take the prince with him. So the prince sneaks on the back of the carriage.

Powerful men, the Prussian generals, talk now of the inevitability of forced peace negotiations. If the King won't agree to this, then they says they will have to force the king.

The king's brother Heinrich blames him for rushing Prussia into war and now all of Europe is against the Prussian nation. He adds that the king underestimated the number of the Russians and the aggressiveness of the Austrians!

The King really get infuriated and he says that his men let him down and he could never have anticipated that. He tells his brother that there has to appear a German Empire led by Prussia.

The King is a bit upset that he and his brother cannot get along better. But now he burns up the paper that would make his brother King of Prussia if he dies in battle.

Now the King goes in to speak to his generals. The Supreme Commander that Prussia has an army of 28,000 men. The commander urges the king to make pace with the Russians, Austrians, French, Saxons and Swedes.

The King asks if all the others general agree with the Supreme Commander? They all do. The King gets mad again and takes command back from Supreme Commander General von Finken. He says to his generals: "We will thwart the enemy, save Berlin, or let ourselves be slaughtered. Whoever is afraid to follow me may go home."

Luise is being taken to Lebus, still complaining about the King. The driver of the wagon says she would change her mind if she could actually meet with the King.

The King punishes the Regiment of Bernburg. "The flag will be retracted, the officers lose their stripes, and the soldiers their bands and brocades!" The Bernburg commander feels so upset and guilty that he shoots himself in the head.

The King learns of the suicide but is not sorry for what he did as he says the commander ran from the battlefield. He now asks Colonel von Retzow to take over the Regiment of Bernburg.

His nephew has arrived and the King tells him he has to go back to Berlin. He says he does not want to endanger the boy's life.

A fellow named Alfons wants the cook to poison the King's food or else.

The King talks of arranging for Heinrich to become the next King of Prussia. He tells Heinrich to prepare himself for that day.

Luise arrives at the regiment and learns that the King has stripped the men of their stripes. A messenger runs in to say that the King is inspecting the camp! Get rid of the jiggers!

Luise rushes outside to see the King. She is shocked when she discovers that the old man from her house is the King.

The King says that they will take off tomorrow at 3 a.m. towards Torgau. He starts eating his dinner. The server gives the poisoned hot chocolate to the King, but he refuses to drink anything special. He tells the server to finish the meal himself and walks off.

The King goes in to check on the sleeping Prussian Prince. He remembers back to when he would play the flute along with the court musicians. His memories are broken by someone moaning and groaning. He gets up to check on the moaner and finds that it is his server who is moaning and groaning from what he drank of the hot chocolate. The man dies. The King concludes that it was a poisoning from the House of Habsburg.

Vienna. An Austrian count named Kaunitz tells General Laudon the story would just not be right if the King of Prussia had won the victory at Kunersdorf. "Only Habsburg has the legitimate leadership of Germany." The General says that the count is underestimating the abilities of the Prussian King. He is scolded for this statement.

A message arrives for Gen. Laudon. The Prussians are marching towards Torgau (northeast of Leipzig) with a new army totaling 46,000 men. This makes the men in the room worried.

The towns of Prussia are really starting to complain about this long war dragging on and costing the citizens so much money. The King will not hear their representatives' complaint.

The King's brother says that Prussia should align itself with France. The King hates the idea. He says the intention of the Pact of Versailles is to fragment Prussia! The King insists that the French will always be enemies of Prussia.

The King flatly tells his brother that he is conspiring against the King. "All of you. My own family. And I know so are many of my generals. But I have no room for traitors in my state. " He suggests that brother should be decapitated.

The King prepares his generals for the attack. Zeiten will take the lead. He wants an attack from all sides precisely at the same time. He says: "In three days, we'll either be victorious at Torgau, or we shall die."

The word is that the Prussians will be facing a force of 65,000 men. General Zeiten believes that Gen. Daun has a position that no one can penetrate. The place lies behind the Siptitz Heights. The King believes that there is not sufficient room in the are for 65,000 enemy troops. When they get there the Prussian must not let them out. His plan will be an archetype of a battle of encirclement.

Luise marries the soldier Paul that was so badly wounded in battle and who Luise helped take care of her. He also helped bring her to Lebus. The bride and groom kiss. Then Paul has to get on the road and march to Targau. For awhile his wife marches with him.

The King orders that Adjutant von Weber go see General Zeiten at once. Zeiten is to be told that the attack will begin a 6:15 sharp.

Zeiten paces back and forth. He senses that something is wrong since he has been given no specific instructions as of yet.

The two messengers head for General Zeiten but one of the men is shot off his horse by the enemy. He tells the other messenger to get to Zeiten with the message.

Zeiten impatiently waits for his orders.

Waiting for the adjutant, Paul sees the Austrian troops moving over the horizon. He tells the bugler to blow the horn immediately to warn Zeiten. The bugler refuses, so Paul blows the trumpet. General Zeiten now goes to the attack.

The news for Gen. Daun is that the Prussians are attacking from all sides. The general orders that all 400 cannons fire on the enemy. The King of Prussia is hit by shrapnel, but he absolutely denies that he was hit (and that in spite of the blood under his coat.

Word arrives in Berlin that the Prussians have won the day! The Queen is so blessed to her the news of the victory at Torgau. Paul survives the battle and his wife rushes out to greet him.

Frederick learns that Zeiten was given the order to attack by Sgt. Paul Treskow. Paul and Luise have a big celebration in honor of their marriage. He is called into headquarters and the King gives him three days of punishment for blowing the bugle without order. But the King also says that after the punishment Paul will be promoted to lieutenant.

In the meantime Paul is extremely bitter at the King for interfering with his honeymoon.

The Russian headquarters in Torun. The Russians are delighted that the war is over for them. They don't realize as of yet that soon they will be the allies of the Prussians. The Russian troops were cheering the death of the Tsarina and welcoming the new Tsar Peter III. The new monarch is half Russiand and half from Holstein. The former Duke of Holstein will try to rurn the Russians into Prussians.

Generals Chernyshev and Saltykov make plans to act on their own before the Tsar gets involved. Chernyshev will join Fredrick with his 20,000 troops and the count will remain in Prussia in Torun with his 60,000 men. Saltykov will say his forces are a stronghold against the Swedes.

If the two men play their cards right they could return to Russia with East Prussia and Pomerania as their loot. Gen. Chernyshev goes to negotiate with Frederick. Frederick says he was expecting a message from his friend, Tsar Peter III. The general says that he brings good news after the demise of Tsarina Elisabeth, that Russians wants to establish a military alliance with Prussia. He says he is bringing Frederick 30,000 soldiers (an exaggeration of 10,000 extra soldiers).

The King doesn't know exactly how to act. Meanwhile, a messenger reports that the Queen is asking that the King come to Berlin at once because Prince Heinrich is very ill with smallpox. This bereaves the King, but he says he cannot go back to Berlin now.

He says that the Russian general is playing cat and mouse with him and the King refuses to be the mouse. He summarizes by saying to the messenger: "I am on duty."

Luise goes to the Colonel who married her to Paul and asks him not to punish any deserters. The Colonel figures that Treskow is the one who is thinking about deserting. He says her husband has been in a downward spiral since his original punished. He has been punished again and again and he threw away the promotion the King wanted him to have.

Colonel Rochow gets very angry and tells one of his aides to have Treskow arrested. Luise runs away to try to warn her husband.

A fellow soldier cuts away the ropes that bind Treskow to the large wheel. Luise runs up to him and tells him that the Prussians are attacking tonight and he must go with his comrades.

At a state dinner with the King, a messenger brings in a note for General Chernyshev from General Saltykov. The Tsar has been assassinated. And now Catherine II is the Tsarina. Chernyshev decides to hold his troops a ways away from the Prussian and if there is any sign that the Prussians are faltering, he will join the Austrians and attack the Prussians.

The King has the Russian messenger held under guard. Now the King speaks Gen. Chernyshev. He says the Russian courier tried to escape house arrest and was shot dead by the guards. He takes the general's sword from him.

Frederick says he will not have the Russians fighting for the Prussians under the new circumstances. But he still wants the Russians to pretend they are headed into battle with the Austrians, so that the Austrians will only direct half of their force against the Prussians. When the battle is over the general is free to go as he pleases.

The King paces back and forth across the floor. He wanders about the fate of Heinrich. In Berlin the flags are lowered to half mast. Of course, the king is upset about the death. He is also upset that his future successor will now be his jealous brother.

The King looks out the window and sees Luise waiting outside in the cold hoping to see His Majesty to ask for mercy for her husband. The King asks about her and Colonel Rochow says she is the wife of Sgt. Paul Treskow. Now Rochow pleads with the King on behalf of his sergeant. The King says he wants to talk to the sergeant, but it will have to be after the oncoming battle.

Schweidnitz, 1762. The battle begins. Paul goes down, hit by shrapnel from a cannon ball.

Frederick gives the order for Tauentzien to point all his cannons at the gun powder depot of Schweidnitz. The cannonade begins and it doesn't take long before the tower explodes apart.

After the battle the King comes upon the wounded Sgt. Treskow, who tells him: "Sergeant Treskow to the cemetery." He dies.

Berlin, March 30, 1763. The soldiers parade before adoring citizens of Berlin. The King, however, goes to Kunersdorf. He wants to see Luise and her child before returning to Berlin. Luise comes outside to greet the King.

The King offers the village a great deal of supplies to help them recover their loses from the battle. Frederick sees that Luise's windmill has been restored. The whole village worked on it. He then talks a little with Luise.

Frederick now returns to Berlin. He is warmly received by the people of Berlin, or rather his royal coach is. He sneaks into the palace alone. Frederick sits alone and looks a little forlorn. Tears start coming down his face and he uses his handkerchief to dry them.

He sees images of his people rebuilding the parts of Prussia destroyed or harmed during the war.

 

The film was made at the height of Hitler's popularity.  At that time the film would not have had much resonance with the public and the fascists  because while Frederick the Great was down in spirits, Hitler was soaring.   But the release did not come out until 1942 when Hitler's support was weakening somewhat and there were a lot of complaints about his conduct of the war.  So the fascists were especially happy because the story of Frederick the Great is one of the famous King of Prussia being defeated at the Battle of Kunersdorf only to resurrect himself and win the war for Prussia.  The very expensive movie was still able to earn a profit. 

Regardless that the movie is Nazi-inspired, I was happy to view it because I had virtually no film at all about Frederick the Great.  The story was not that "fascist" as far as I could see, but I do understand it was used as Nazi propaganda.  And I'm still happy to have been able to see it. 

Otto Gebühr gives a good performance in the lead role as Friedrick.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 

 

 

 

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