Aug 1, 2013

Cross of Iron

A culturally mongrelized Anglo-Kraut co-production shot in what was then commie Yugoslavia with money put up by a West German porn producer, Cross of Iron (1977) directed by Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) is not only a rare anti-war film that has testicular fortitude, but also probably the only American directed World War II flick from the German perspective that is actually worth seeing and does not wallow endlessly in tiresome Teutonophobia. Of course, being a work created with American and British viewers in mind, Cross of Iron follows in the culturally disrespectful Hollywood tradition of featuring an international cast speaking in English for the German roles, but at least the film does feature some authentic Aryans, including Fassbinder superstars Klaus Löwitsch (Despair, The Marriage of Maria Braun), Dieter Schidor (Satan’s Brew, Querelle), and Roger Fritz (Berlin Alexanderplatz, Lili Marleen), as well as real-life German bank robber turned writer/actor Burkhard Driest (Son of Hitler, Stroszek), and Academy Award winning Austrian-born actor Maximilian Schell (Judgment at Nuremberg, The Man in the Glass Booth). Based on the 1956 novel The Willing Flesh by German soldier turned novelist Willi Heinrich, which may have been based on the true story of Johann Schwerdfeger—a German non-commissioned officer and super soldier who was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (the highest award possible in the Third Reich), Cross of Iron is the ultra-violent and philosophically unhinged story of a naughty kraut NCO who equally hates National Socialism and aristocrats yet also happens to be one of the greatest and most brave bastards killing Bolsheviks on the dreaded Eastern Front. Featuring quotes/references from Teutonic militarists like Friedrich von Bernhardi and Carl von Clausewitz (the man who wrote the popular aphorism “War is the continuation of Politik by other means”), as well as a crude and rather cynical quote from kraut commie playwright Bertolt Brecht, Cross of Iron is also a rare American directed World War II flick in the fact that it actually takes the time to study the ‘enemy’ and his history as opposed to merely hysterically harping on the holocaust and presenting Hitler as the devil incarnate and the German people as his decidedly demonic disciples. Oftentimes regarded as director Sam Peckinpah's last great film as a drastically declining filmmaker with a seemingly suicidal case of dipsomania and a softspot for cocaine, Cross of Iron is a brazenly bloody and brutal, ultra-violent tale of an angst-ridden anti-hero who tries to save his and his platoon's hides while dealing with the perniciousness and pretentiousness of a cowardly Prussian aristocrat officer and seemingly endless hordes of Soviet soldiers. 

 Opening with a collage of various glorious Nazi propaganda scenes juxtaposed against the horrific stock-footage of the brutal, bloody and body-ridden reality of the Eastern Front with the German children’s folk song “Hänschen klein” playing in the background, Cross of Iron lets the viewer know from the get go that Uncle Adolf and the rest of the Nazi bigwigs were living lives of luxury while the average German was just hoping to survive the next day without facing starvation, frostbite, and/or Bolshevik bullets. After the black-and-white collage, Cross of Iron seamlessly segues into a bloody neck-slicing battle introducing anti-hero Rolf Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) and his men, who have killed every single man in a Bolshevik brigade, except a blond preteen Russian soldier boy (Slavko Štimac) who they spare due to his young age. Things change for the worst when a prick of an aristocratic Prussian officer named Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), who applied for a transfer from occupied France to have an opportunity to win the coveted Iron Cross, is made new battalion commander in the Kuban bridgehead on the Eastern Front and ultimately becomes the commander of a man that will prove to be his arch nemesis, Steiner. An absurdly arrogant aristocrat with appalling airs of superiority, Captain Stransky, despite his aversion to the ‘socialism’ of National Socialism and a classless society in general, still believes in the German cause and final victory, which baffles his superiors Colonel Brandt (James Mason), and his adjutant, Captain Kiesel (David Warner). Upon meeting Steiner, Stransky demands that he shoot the Russian boy that his platoon his captured, which the antagonistic soldier refuses to do, thus ushering in their mutual hatred for one another. 

 When Captain Stransky gives Steiner the news that he has been made a ‘Senior Sergeant,’ the Prussian aristocrat seems baffled by the fact that the seemingly nihilistic NCO seems rather apathetic about his seemingly prestigious promotion. If Steiner cares about anything, it is the lives of the soldiers in his platoon. The only thing Stransky cares about his pride and reputation, especially when it comes to obtaining the Iron Cross, which he needs to win or face irreparable shame from his family. When Stransky discovers his leather-fag-mustache-sporting adjutant, Lieutenant Triebig (Roger Fritz), is a crypto-cocksucker after catching him sensually stroking the neck of an Aryan twink named Josef Keppler, it gives him an ace up his sleeve. Of course, Stransky plans to blackmail Triebig for his own ends, which he will ultimately. An ominous and foreboding message is delivered to Steiner when he releases the captive Russian boy and the little lad is gunned down in friendly fire by own his Bolshevik buddies, who ultimately kill a number of Germans as well. While blueblood bitch Stransky cowers in his bunker, his adjunct Lieutenant Meyer (Igor Galo), who just celebrated his birthday, leads a successful counterattack which gets him killed that stops the Slavs from totally slaughtering their platoon, but Steiner is severely injured after attempting to save a wounded comrade, which lands him in the hospital. After awakening from a horrific coma involving phantasmagorical nightmares of Teutonic wraiths, he awakes to a beauteous nurse named Sister Eva (Senta Berger) who cannot resist his boorish charm, thus the two begin a brief romantic fling. While Steiner initially suffers from hallucinations of friends and comrades, as well as enjoying the sexual company of the nurse, he turns down home leave and his new girlfriend Eva and decides to get back to work and war with his platoon. Upon arriving back to the Eastern Front, Stransky offers to let bygones be bygones and begin a new start with Steiner, but with a catch. Under the false pretense of claiming to have lead that counterattack that was really led by martyr Meyer, Stransky has been nominated for the Iron Cross and needs Steiner as one of two signatures (blackmailed homo Triebig has naturally already agreed to sign) to corroborate the fictional story to get the award. Although Stransky offers to essentially make Steiner a rich man after the war, the noble yet nihilistic NCO turns him down. As revenge, Stransky intentionally neglects to notify Steiner’s platoon of an incoming Soviet invasion of the German battalion that will mean very immediate death for anyone that stays. Although Steiner and his men survive the Soviet bombardment, they must take special precautions to make their way back to their battalion. On their way, Steiner’s platoon happens on an all-female Red Army platoon whose uniforms they steal so they can disguise themselves as Soviet soldiers, but also results in the castration of a hated SS man via cock-chomping and the death of a teenage youth named Dietz, who is bludgeoned to death by a falsely flirting Soviet babe. When Steiner and his men eventually near their battalion, they have the foresight to radio ahead so as to avoid friendly fire due to the fact they are incognito and wearing Russian uniforms, but when Stransky catches wind of this, he orders Triebig to machine gun them down and act like it was an accident, which ultimately kills everyone in the entire Platoon except the subversive Sergeant and his two comrades Corporal Krüger (Klaus Löwitsch) and Private Anselm (Dieter Schidor), both of whom are incidentally played by Fassbinder actors. Naturally, Steiner blows away Triebig with a storm of bullets and Corporal Krüger finishes him off with a knife in the gut. When Steiner eventually confronts Stransky about his dirty and devilish deeds, he cowers like a scared puppy awaiting punishment. While initially intending to kill Stransky, Steiner arms the cowardly aristocrat for battle, but not after calling him an “aristocratic pile of Prussian pig shit!” To prove his dubious honor and show him “how a Prussian officer can fight,” Stransky takes up Steiner’s challenge to fight like a man for the first time in his rather posh life. While Steiner shows Stransky, “where the Iron Crosses grow,” the aristocrat shows he is unable to even reload his MP40 submachine gun weapon with ammunition. Of course, Steiner has the ‘last laugh’ when he watches Stransky begging for help while being shot at by a preteen Russian boy. 

 Concluding with real historical photos of Germany’s victims as well as victims of subsequent wars and finally the Bertold Brecht quote, “Don't rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again,” Cross of Iron is not so much anti-Nazi as it is generically anti-war. Of course, while being ‘anti-war,’ Cross of Iron is no pussy pacifist piece as it the film’s ‘anti-hero’—a man that admittedly hates “all officers” (even those ‘enlightened ones’) and the “entire German army” and believes “God is a sadist but probably doesn’t even know it”—is also the greatest and most proficient killer in the entire film, thus making Peckinpah’s film not so much anti-war as it is anti-authority, anti-ruling class, and anti-aristocracy. In Cross of Iron, the ‘unknown soldiers,’ the German Wehrmacht, were finally given their due, so it should be no surprise that the film was very popular in Germany, being the biggest box-office hit since The Sound of Music (1965). Not unsurprisingly, Cross of Iron was a box-office failure in the U.S., which was in part due to the coinciding release of the feel-good blockbuster Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, which ironically utilized Riefenstahl-esque aesthetics. Described by no one less than Orson Welles as “the best war film he had seen about the ordinary enlisted man since All Quiet on the Western Front,” Cross of Iron is the aesthetic and sociopolitical antidote to the anti-kraut bloodfest and philistinic sentimentalist propaganda of S. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). Of course, as demonstrated by the character Colonel Brandt’s remark, “The German soldier no longer has any ideals. He’s not fighting for the culture of the West, not for one form of government that he wants, and not for the stinking party. He’s fighting for his life. God bless him,” Cross of Iron makes the noble, if not somewhat naïve, attempt to disassociate the German soldier from National Socialism, which is something that Hollywood has rarely ever done (how many Americans can describe the difference between a German and a Nazi?). 

 What I found most unintentionally hilarious about Cross of Iron is the utilization of James Coburn—a man whose appearance and character scream grizzled American Scot-Irish—in the lead role as a sort of archetypical Western anti-hero and even the German Fassbinder actors featured in the film have a sort of redneck air about them. Undoubtedly, Cross of Iron is the closest an American directed World War II flick has come to somehow reconciling Germanness with Americanness, thus making it consumable for the most culturally retarded of American viewers, which was no small task on alcohol-addled director Sam Peckinpah’s part, who sunk $90,000 of his own money into the film. Of course, Steiner’s anti-aristocratic remark, “If I remember correctly, Kant was the son of a saddle maker and Schubert’s father was a poor schoolmaster. Perhaps talent, sensitivity and character are no longer privileges of the so-called upper class,” will speak to the typical Yank filmgoer. American viewers, who have always displayed a sentimental softspot for the ‘underdog’ as perennial peasants themselves, also probably loved the fact that Peckinpah portrays the Prussian aristocracy as a bunch of pernicious pansies and cowering girly men, even if it goes against historical reality as demonstrated by “The Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen—the top ace flying pilot of the Great War and arguably the greatest and most well known fighter pilot in human history—as well as German field marshal Erich von Manstein, a Prussian aristocrat, who is also regarded as one of Germany's greatest military strategists. 

 As demonstrated by the ever so wise Colonel Brandt’s remark, “Steiner is a myth. But men like him are our last hope. And in that sense, he’s truly a very dangerous man,” Cross of Iron anti-hero Rolf Steiner is a ‘man’s man’ and the sort of stoic and innately individualistic ‘fuck you’ kind of renegade ruffian that every (American) man wishes he was and thus acting as a ‘stand in’ for the American viewer to be able to sympathize with men in the German military, which no other Yank directed film has been able to do. Indeed, Cross of Iron is a celluloid cultural mongrel for sure, but that is also one of the things that gives the film its idiosyncratic nihilistic-nazi-cowboy character as a work that could have never been created within the kraut-contempting confines of the Hebraic Hollywood studio system. More than just a film, Cross of Iron is a coincidental celebration of Europeans of all stripes in its utilization of German, European-American, English, Slavic, etc. actors, which is all the more important considering the historical context of the film. Undoubtedly, World War II was a fratricidal war that led the world to turn into the worldwide multicultural sewer it is today, where even the victors of the war, Great Britain and the United States, suffer the infiltration of hostile rabble from the Third World. Of course, as the Occidental world grows ever darker, both literally and figuratively, with a soaring non-white birth rate and and accompanying increase in crime levels and staggering decrease in collective intellect and ingenuity, I think more and more people are going to look to the once reviled German soldiers as heroes and the Americans, English, and French as shabbos goyim duped into murdering their own brothers for the benefit of a perennial enemy. For all the morons that like to gloat, “we’d be speakin’ German if da Natzis had won da war!,” what is so bad about that? After all, how many Nietzsches, Heideggers, Kants, Goethes, and/or Spenglers has the Anglo-American world produced?! 

-Ty E

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