Opfergang (1944)

Rating: B

Dir: Veit Harlan
Star: Carl Raddatz, Kristina Söderbaum, Irene von Meyendorff, Franz Schafheitlin

Harlan was the director of Jud Sûß, one of the most infamous of Nazi propaganda films. This is nowhere near as anti-Semitic; in fact, there are no Jewish characters in it at all, and in many ways, it is more like a Jean Cocteau film than obvious fascist doctrine. However, it could perhaps be read as philosophical propaganda, dealing with themes like altruism – the title translates as ‘The Great Sacrifice’ – and coming to terms with mortality and loss. A poem by Nietzsche on the latter topic is read at some length, and it’s almost prescient in tone with regard to the collapse of the Reich, which was still some way off when this was filmed in 1942 [it took two years to be released, due to the shortage of colour stock]

It centres on Albrect (Raddatz), who returns to Hamburg after a long spell abroad, and meets up with long-term sweetheart Octavia (Meyendorff). However, he is fascinated by their next-door neighbour Åls (Söderbaum, Harlan’s wife), who lives life as if there is no tomorrow. Little does he know that’s actually the case, for she is gravely, possibly terminally ill. The contrast to the serious-minded Octavia, whose family likes to hang around in darkened rooms reading the previously-mentioned Nietzchean poems about death, is obvious. Even when they get married and move away, Albrecht can’t forget Åls; however, when they are reunited, it is only the start of tragedy, in which all three corners of the triangle end up making the titular sacrifice.

It’s impossible to separate the film from its background, and you find yourself pouring over the dialogue for hidden meaning. That said, it is undeniably beautiful, though the colours now seem so faded as to only hint at their former glory – a restoration would be wonderful, though seems unlikely, for obvious reasons. Hans-Otto Borgmann’s score is phenomenal, emphasizing the emotional carnage being unleashed, and by the time the sacrifices start to happen, they pack a wallop – you may be surprised by which one has the most impact on you (I know I was). If this is propaganda, it’s pretty damn subtle and well-made – not exactly words you normally associate with that genre.