One can tell a lot about the psyche of a culture from its entertainment. The cinema of Nazi Germany, most synonymous with Reifenstahl’s beautifully shot propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will, affords us a unique insight into what such a tightly restrictive regime wanted to impress upon a populace, and many of their cinematic outings utterly drip with ideology. No different is the 1941 epic, Ohm Kruger, A shall we say “creative” re-telling of the Anglo-Boer War, meant to stir up hatred for the Nazi Reich’s pesky adversary. Allowed a much larger budget than most cinema produced in Germany due to Goebbels recognition of its potential to stir up hatred of the ‘eternal Anglo’, It aims to give the viewer a highly biased account of a conflict now largely forgotten, through the eyes of the man at the helm of the Boer Republic at the time, President Paul Kruger, an apt choice for the subject of a Nazi biopic, being an ethnic supremacist who embodied National Socialist ideals of Blood and Soil and Rural stubbornness.
The film opens in a Hotel in Switzerland, where the world’s press has gathered to capture the last words of the man who defied the British Empire. The elderly, nearly-blind Kruger is first presented to us as a tragic figure, attended to by his nurse and slumped in an armchair in a dark room, sporting John Lennon style glasses. As a Jubilant reporter blags his way inside the room and snaps a picture, Kruger deigns to tell us his side of the story, with all the bias that obviously implies. While we are meant to assume that Kruger is telling it like it is, obviously, the leader of the Boer Republic is hardly the most unbiased source in this matter, and the film certainly reflects that.
The villain of the piece, the scheming Cecil Rhodes, is introduced lounging in a palatial estate discussing with contemporaries the best way to manufacture a war between the peaceful, rural Boers and the gold obsessed, materialistic British. Rhodes hatches a plan to stir up tension between the Boers and the African peoples that surely never existed before the Anglo scheming and was in no way related to the Boer treatment of the black inhabitants of their state. The symbol of the British state and people, the Anglican Church, is the tool the moustache twirling Rhodes uses to rile up these poor misled people, and we are treated to a scene of Anglican missionaries singing a heartfelt rendition of God save the Queen whilst handing out bundles of Lee-Metfords to the bloodthirsty savages of the dark continent.
It is after this we are re-introduced to the venerable “Uncle Paul” in his prime, in his state office. The movie portrays President Kruger as something akin to an Ozarks patriarch. His method for discerning whether an octogenarian Boer is still fit to lead a Kommando (The basic unit of the locally raised Boer army) is to challenge the man to an arm wrestling contest. Thus, the main conflict of the film is firmly established, A battle of wills between Jed Clampett and Mr. Burns, illustrated further in the rather long scene in which Kruger admonishes Rhodes’s men for entering his territory with undeclared weapons while sloppily helping himself to coffee and donuts.
The secondary conflict Kruger faces in the film is an internal one and one that would be ever-present in the psyche of the national socialist society, the threat of traitors and defeatists. One of Krugers many offspring has returned from London with high minded ideas about “Civilisation” and is soundly disowned. Half the parliament is in rebellion due to Cecil Rhodes’s bribery. To top it all off, the Natives are hanging pictures of Queen Victoria up in their mud-huts, something that Uncle Paul decides to deal with personally; dressing down the poor, simple African chieftain by simply treating him like a naughty child (if you didn’t expect racism in a film made by the nazi’s well..). Apart from reinforcing the Character of Kruger as a sort of Grandfather of all the South African people’s, this scene raised to me the burning question as to where the Nazi’s managed to find so many black actors and extra’s in 1941.
So the film chooses to introduce Kruger, interestingly enough, as a sort of sitcom patriarch, dealing with annoying relatives and unwelcome visitors. The attempt to turn a surprisingly shrewd and ruthless statesman into a cuddly father figure is an interesting one, and one that contemporary Boer propaganda also attempted to do. The connection between the Boer Republic and the National Socialist idealised self-image is clear, that of a charismatic leader protecting his children from foreign interlopers and the cancers within. I have a sneaking suspicion that, were the Axis to have won the war, Boer Epics would have replaced Westerns as the primary pop-cultural outlet for manly adventure in a foreign land.
Of course as we all know from history arm wrestling and cajoling could not prevent the war. Rhodes and his people, fresh from several contracts that left them red-faced and outsmarted, directly petition an ageing Queen Victoria and her Scottish Lover for military assistance, gaining her support through promises of endless gold. In reality, the causes of the war were far more complex, with the Boers discrimination against “Uitlanders” of all colours being the primary reason cited by the British whilst the Boers themselves were fairly open about their desire to maintain a supremacist state free of outside influence. But from Disney’s Pocahontas, to Aquirre: The Wrath of God, the lust for Gold has always been deemed the least sympathetic motivation for an antagonist. It is here that we enter the blood and guts of the movie, the proud resistance of the Boer Volk, and the political double dealing that is assumed to have brought them down. The Volksraad (Boer Parliament) is portrayed as the biggest threat to the security of the state, payed of and corrupted by the Colossus of Rhodes, and clearly an allusion to National Socialist views on Democracy, particularly Germany’s crippling experience under the Weimar Regime and the financial and political interests which held that leash. It’s another clear indicator of what this film is really about.
To their credit, the film contains some suitably epic scenes, chiefly a large set-piece battle between the Boers and Imperial soldiers (although in reality a large part of the war was made up of gruelling sieges and tit for tat brutality). We get to see Imperial officers menacing harmless Boer wives and burning their farmhouse, the large cities evacuated, and the general destruction of war while Kruger must deal with the political ramifications back home, Attempting to form alliances with mostly uninterested European Powers (Including, interestingly enough, Germany. We must remember the NSDAP was no fan of the Kaissereich).
It is at this point where the film goes for its prime propaganda point, one that in hindsight is so darkly ironic it could have come from a Chris Morris sketch. Now, it was a large point of contention at the time that during the war the British interned Boer Women and children in concentration camps. While the death rate was ghastly, as in any such tragedy, it was not an attempt at outright extermination, and the film portrays a ghoulish British Colonel chowing down on steak (sharing some with their pet bulldog of course) before shooting a Boer woman who dared to ask for better rations (now what does this remind us of?). It is in these scenes that Goebbels advice that propaganda should not be laid on too thick would have been duly needed, doubly baffling as Goebbels himself was a consultant on the film. I will say, however, in the Films defence, the extras playing the Concentration Camp guards are impeccable, almost as if they have some real life experience.
Indeed, watching this film with modern eyes, the last third of the Film becomes overwhelmed with historical pathos, with the British unstoppable and the farms burned reminiscent of the relentless advance of the communist horde that was to occur in Germany a scant 4 years after its release (The Government also saw the similarities, banning the film towards the end of the war for promoting defeatism). One scene that features Kruger and his Officers huddled around a campfire whilst shouting blame at each other so closely resembles an oft-parodied sequence from 2004’s Downfall I almost did a double take while viewing it. The film is therefore an excellent examination of the Nazi subconscious, not only demonstrating their ideal in the rugged Boer Volk, but their insecurities and even their eventual downfall.
The real life Paul Kruger, unlike Adolf Hitler, managed to escape to a lavish life as a dethroned King long before the last shot of the war was fired. But like Nazi Germany, his world is now consigned to moribundity, and this biopic will primarily be remembered as an ironic reminder of historical cycles.