Nov 27, 2012


I hate to admit it, but despite wanting and expecting to discover a rapturous experience with German auteur Veit Harlan’s National Socialist arthouse melodrama Opfergang (1944) aka The Great Sacrifice aka Rite of Sacrifice, I merely witnessed what I found to be semi-surreal high-schlock of the superficially sorrowful and surprisingly sybaritic sort and certainly not the neglected Nazi-era cinematic masterpiece I was led to believe it would be by both nazis and anti-nazis alike. Admittedly, I tend to procrastinate when it comes to first seeing films that are regarded as masterpieces, seemingly personal, and/or otherwise significant in some way, in part due to my deep cinephile dread that I will be consumed with chagrin by what was supposed to be 'life-altering' cinematic work and I can honestly say that Opfergang fulfilled all of my fears about the potential of being greatly disappointed by a major motion-picture. With quasi-Nietzschean themes, beauteous blonde beastesses, Nazi ‘camp’ aesthetics, mystical völkisch imagery, a bizarre Nordic love triangle, and being directed by Veit "the baroque fascist" Harlan – the infamous director of the melodramatic Jew-baiting flick Jud Süß (1940) aka Jew Süss and the homoerotic-themed pro-gay post-war work Different from You and Me (1957) aka Anders als du und ich aka Bewildered Youth – it came as quite a shock to me that not only would I list not Opfergang on a list of my top 100 favorite films, but I would not even regard it as one of the greatest films of German cinema history and apparently I am not alone in that sentiment. In fact, Veit Harlan’s own son Thomas Harlan (Torre Bela, Wundkanal) – a filmmaker and author, as well as a rabid anti-nazi who publicly denounced and denigrated his father throughout his terribly troubled life – described Opfergang as a “kitsch melodrama” that merely succeeded in “creating artificial sentiment and lending it..credibility” in the documentary Harlan – In the Shadow of Jew Süss (2008) directed by Felix Moeller. 

 Of course, not everyone was disenchanted with the film as Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels – who essentially had total control over what films were made and screened in Germany – regarded Opfergang as a highly personal possession thereupon causing the delay of the film's release, although it did have a limited run in a small selection of movie theaters, in part due to the scarcity and expensiveness of color film stock. In the documentary Christoph Schlingensief und seine Filme (2005) aka Christoph Schlingensief and His Films, prematurely deceased modern German filmmaker and absurdist Renaissance man Christoph Schlingensief (Menu total, The 120 Days of Bottrop) – who created a freeform scatological remake of Harlan’s film entitled Mutters Maske (1988) that sardonically satirizes a number of scenes from Harlan's film – also believed that German New Wave master Rainer Werner Fassbinder was more influenced by Opfergang than he was by Danish-German Douglas Sirk’s popular 1950s Hollywood melodramas (e.g. All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind). Indeed, although an anti-climatic experience for me in general, I would be lying if I did not admit that Opfergang's keen kaleidoscope of calming and chilling colors did not have a nice trance-inducing effect on me, but these moments of ecstasy – not unlike the sort featured in The Red Shoes (1948) directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and the Crowleyite shorts of cine-magickian Kenneth Anger (Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Invocation of My Demon Brother) – were abruptly broken by sand bar characters, redundant dialogue, and the sort of abhorrent aristocratic degeneracy and excess that debauched Italian blueblood auteur Luchino Visconti (The Leopard, The Damned) would do much better and more honestly.

Opfergang centers around a positively posh and prissy protagonist Albrecht Froben (played by Harlan regular Carl Raddatz), the less than homely heir of a wealthy shipping company based in Hamburg, Germany. Honestly, I already knew the film was inherently tainted when introduced to the character of Herr Froben, a man who – despite his wealth and prestige – is certainly no charming gentlemen, hero, nor scholar, let alone a dashing Aryan Übermensch of the racially pure sort but the radically repellant Mr. Raddatz; a rat-faced fellow with a thick little Richard mustache, hence why grisly Goebbels probably could identify with the character.  After all, if it were not for their power and prestige, neither of these men would have been able choose from the frisky and foxy Freyja of their wildest, Teutonic dreams.  Also, like the little Döktor, fab Froben has a keen weakness for the ladies, especially when it comes to Nordic buxom blondes that look like they could have given him quite the beating, so naturally both men became Aryan adulterers; indubitably a mortal sin in the Fatherland. Despite his rather frail frame, Albrecht is an anti-intellectual and worldly adventurer of sorts who has traveled to the former German Afrikan colonies and Japan, which has given him a new lease on life of ceasing the moment and whatnot. Although Froben is married to a seemingly introverted, intelligent, stoic beauty named Octavia (played by Irene von Meyendorff aka Baroness Irene Isabella Margarete Pauline Caecila von Meyendorff) who his oddball orientalist cousin Matthias is semi-secretly madly in love with (he has an out-of-place portrait of the dame in his room of oriental knickknacks) and whose Latin name he finds to be quite annoying, to his dismay but also delight, he discovers that he is really in love with an extroverted Swiss miss of the extraordinarily and similarly extroverted and adventurous sort.  Unfortunately for Albrecht, the love of his life is terminally ill, on top of the fact that he has a faithful wife.

In Opfergang, the ill-fated and tediously tangled love triangle is sparked one Sunday afternoon by happenstance while the character Albrecht is visiting his cousin Matthias (Franz Schafheitlin) at his home on the Elbe. Supervised by Octavia’s elderly and somewhat nihilistic intellectual father, Senator Froben (Otto Treßler ) in what is described by one of the guests as “our spiritual hors d’oeuvre before the Sunday roast,” Albrecht seems quite blasé by the supremely sedentary even which is given a Chopin score by way of Octavia cultivated chops and personal obsession; pianoforte. Albrecht eventually loses it and almost commits the lace curtain sin of 'verbal assault' when Senator Froben reads what he describes as “Dionysian dithyramb by Nietzsche” and “Nietzsche’s death premonition, one of the deepest poems ever written,” which – in fact – is an abridged version of the tragic Anti-Christ’s poem The Sun Sinks aka Die Sonnie sinkt. Albrecht agrees with his fellow guests that the poem is “very beautiful,” but also feels that “it’s terrible” as he finds it rather passive, pessimistic, and dreary for his tastes and opens a curtain to a serene and scenic lake outside that almost has a celestial and ethereal essence to it, thereupon asking the rhetorical question of his cultured compatriots, “Can someone tell me why you’re sitting here every Sunday feeling gloomy?” Finally fed up with talking about philosophical matters for three hours on a sunny Sunday and listening to the written words of a tragic German genius who conceived the poem shortly before he went mad, Albrecht – a man of action and few words (and, in turn a spiritual 'National Socialist') – decides to practice Carpe diem and subsequently goes rowing in the seemingly sublime lake, henceforth discovering an au naturel Swedish ‘mermaid’ symbolically clinging on to the end of his tiny dinghy, Älskling Flodéen (played by Harlan’s real-life wife Kristina Söderbaum); the woman that will – for better or worse – irrevocably change his life forever.

Although described as a film with various subtle National Socialist themes, most specifically the virtues of selfless death and sacrifice – which is symbolized by Albrecht’s acceptance of Äls’ illness and subsequent death, as well  as his commitment to staying with the mismatched wife he does not love – Opfergang is more a cinematic work of curiously creamy and cosmopolitan crème de la crème society than a cinematic work innately equipped with a nasty and nefarious expression of Nazi ideology. In fact, with its prominence of an unfaithful philandering posh protagonist, wealthy yet hedonistic families and bastard children (Äls has a fatherless daughter), colonialist cosmopolitan characters (Albrecht is an active member of German Colonial Association and his cousin Matthias a bookish orientalist), and glaring glorification of the anachronistic German aristocracy (NS was supposedly a vehemently völkisch ‘people’s movement’ glorifying personal merit over inborn and unearned class distinctions), Opfergang hardly seems like the sort of film that would have been enjoyed by the everyday brownshirt Wehrmacht soldier or worker after arriving home from the drudgery of civil service and cracking open a bottle of Krombacher Brauerei, but the sort of cinematic vision that would have been designed for the delight of high-ranking National Socialist party leaders and officials, thus making it no surprise that Joseph Goebbels – who knew the tide of war had changed and his end was very likely near – wanted to keep the film for himself so that no other people aside from the Führer himself could so thoroughly and perceptively identify with the film.

 As explained by his elderly children in Harlan – In the Shadow of Jew Süss, Veit Harlan idolized and worshiped his wife Kristina Söderbaum’s beauty, even if she was ‘sacrificed’ in a number of his films, including Opfergang; a work that most certainly seems like a tribute to the lead actress’ penetrating pulchritude, if not annoying and seemingly adolescent-like acting. Incidentally, Harlan’s first wife, Dora Gerson, a Jewish actress and cabaret singer, perished in Auschwitz with her family, not to mention the fact that two of the filmmaker’s daughters would marry Jewish men, one of which converted to the Hebraic faith and inevitably committed suicide in 1989.  Harlan's niece Christiane Susanne Harlan would also ironically marry Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut); arguably the greatest Jewish filmmaker who ever lived. Thus, it goes without saying that Veit Harlan has a number of Jewish grandchildren and great-grandchildren, among various other non-Aryan ethnicities as depicted in Felix Moeller’s documentary.   Of course, with the sort of familial degeneracy featured in Opfergang, it seems only fitting that Veit Harlan's family's future turned out the way it did. Needless to say, Harlan ultimately sacrificed his own progeny's ability to lead a normal life with his legacy as a blacklisted filmmaker, most specifically because of Jew Süss, which is a shame because if Opfergang was as half as decent as I expected it would be, it might have been worth it.  Of course, not all sacrifices are sanctified.

-Ty E

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