The Devil’s General is set in Berlin in December 1941 on the eve of America’s declaration of war on Germany. Although no Nazi, General Harris (Curd Jürgens) is nevertheless a cog in Hitler’s Armed Forces. His position is made even more precarious when Luftwaffe planes keep crashing, and sabotage is suspected. As Head of the Luftwaffe’s Technical Office he is only too aware that he will be ultimately held responsible.
At the start of the film Germany is already entrenched fighting on a second front with Russia for ideological reasons rather than sound military ones. This is not lost on “The Devil’s General”, General Harras . He also knows that the Luftwaffe’s equipment requirements are already outstripping Germany’s ability to produce the requisite equipment.
General Harras is first and foremost an airman, having survived the precarious existence of being a WW1 fighter pilot. The film goes out of its way to emphasise the fact the General is no Nazi. He’s not a party member and doesn’t hide his evident distaste for the current regime. This is probably in part due to his arrogance that the Luftwaffe need him no matter what. The film goes to great lengths to show Harras’s aversion to the regime. When he meets a former comrade from WW1, his warm welcome soon dissipates as soon as the comrade in question mentions taking part in the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. He also doesn’t hesitate to agree to help two Jews to escape over the border from Nazi persecution. From the offset Harras seems to have had no illusions as to what a Nazi regime would mean for Germany. Early on in the film, he and his colleague, Sigbert von Mohrungen, discuss the Nazi’s rise to power. The latter blames the economic woes, political mess and spineless liberalism of the Weimar Republic for the need for a strong hand at the helm. Harras chastises him that no one could have had any illusions that a Nazi regime would lead to war.
Despite the privileged position he enjoys within the regime from the outset of the movie Harras is under suspicion from the Gestapo. A new series of bombers keeps crashing and the Gestapo are beginning to suspect sabotage. As Head of the Technical Office, Harris is ultimately responsible. His case is not helped by his obvious dislike of the regime and his inherent and unNazi-like enjoyment of life. Harras enjoy the good life. He has a great appetite for life believing that – despite mankind’s best efforts to do otherwise – life’s essential goodness always wins through. He believes you can overcome anything life throws at you, as long as you have something in life to look forward to. According to his Nazi eavesdroppers, Harras just “boozes, moans and chases skirt.” As played by Curd Jürgens though he also has a great deal of charm and his romance with the 21 year old Diddo Geiss doesn’t raise eyebrows – as it should – given the evident age gap.
The privileged position of the regime’s cronies is seen in the lavish banquet given in their honour at the start of the film. At the heart of all this elegance and opulence though is suspicion and distrust. While the festivities are in full swing, their conversations at this private get together are being taped by the Gestapo. It would seem that in 1940s Berlin you can’t speak your mind anywhere, even if you are top-flight military men and bureaucrats. After all, if Generals are being spied on, what hope does the ordinary man have? Meanwhile Harras’s loyal driver, Korrianke, is warned to be careful what he says in front of Göring’s driver, who is suspected of being SD (intelligence agency of the SS) and that even Göring is scared of him! It seems that in Nazi Germany it’s the SS that is in the background pulling the strings. This faceless power is symbolised by the fact that whenever we see Himmler in the film, all we see of him is his hand, bejewelled with a SS ring.
References to Germany’s police state are weaved throughout the film. From the very start where the Gestapo listen in to the conversations of those at the private party to later on when Leutnant Hartmann and Diddo Geiss are warned by the Gestapo to say nothing to anybody about Harras’s arrest; or Harras’s throw away comment that the difference between Switzerland and Germany is that in Switzerland when the doorbell rings first thing in the morning it will be the milkman not the Gestapo. It is also a state where disinformation rules. Harras’s imprisonment is explained away by spreading the rumour that he’s gone to inspect the situation at the front. And when at the end of the film he has been cornered into committing suicide, Himmler covers it up by ordering his state funeral as was the case with Rommel and that of Udet, who the character of Harras is presumably based on.
Likewise the film highlights the perniciousness of Nazi racial theory. First there is the Jewish couple, the Rosenfelds. They are clearly suffering as a result of the regime. We first hear of Professor Rosenfeld being laid low in hospital having just come out from Buchenwald concentration camp barely in one piece. Conversely at one point Leutnant Hartmann explains to Harras that he can’t prove full Arian lineage as one of his great grandmothers is from abroad, something not that uncommon among Rhinelanders. As such Hartmann can have no career in the party and therefore no real future in Nazi Germany. Harras makes an impassioned speech on the stupidity of such racial beliefs and points out that great Germans have come from precisely that part of Germany such as Beethoven, Gutenberg and Mathias Grünewald, and that he should be proud of that fact.
Harras may live a seemingly debauched life but he clearly has a good heart. This is seen not only in his readiness to help the Rosenfelds but also in his attempt to bolster Leutnant Hartmann about his Rhineland heritage. In fact, he takes such pity on the Leutnant that he gets his driver to bring him back to his own flat to stay.
In the film the Gestapo is personified by Dr. Schmidt-Lausitz. It is he who informs Harras that such is the general disorder in plane production, that sabotage is suspected and that as Head of the Technical Office the buck stops with him. However Dr. Schmidt-Lausitz assures Harras that he believes he’s not to blame and that despite Harras’s widely known attitudes to the party and unconventional nature, they want him to come over to them promising him that as a result the air force will be how it was once if not better, as they represent “order, power, future”. There is also an implicit threat as to what will happen to Harras if he does not join them. Harras replies by unceremoniously burping (it’s questionable though how drunk he really is) and quotes Max Liebermann, a former president of the Prussian Academy of Arts and a Jew. Liebermann had resigned in 1933 when the Academy decided to no longer exhibit works by Jewish artists. He is quoted as saying while watching the Nazis march through the Brandenburg Gate in celebration of Hitler coming to power: “Ich kann gar nicht so viel fressen, wie ich kotzen möchte” (“I cannot eat as much as I would like to vomit up”). Though Harras points out that in his case it would be from drink rather than food. But his quote of a Jewish artist to the Gestapo man is a clear slap in the face. Whereupon Dr. Schmidt-Lausitz rings Himmler to authorise Harras’s arrest using the suspected sabotage as an excuse. Himmler agrees and assures Dr. Schmidt-Lausitz he’ll make sure that Harras’s most powerful friend, Göring, plays ball.
When later warned by his friend, Oberbruch, that he is to be arrested, Harras refuses to believe it despite his friend getting the information straight from Gestapo headquarters in the Prinz Albrecht Straße. Oberbruch is of course proved right and as a result Harras undergoes two weeks of mental torture and mind games at the hands of the Gestapo. Finally Dr. Schmidt-Lausitz stages his apparent rescue of him but Harras cottons on to what is happening and realises he has been set up by Dr. Schmidt-Lausitz from the start. He now knows that he wasn’t arrested because of suspected sabotage nor for his bad jokes against the regime but that the Gestapo just wanted to soften him up.
On his return to military life and attendance at a high-level air force meeting, Harras learns that since his arrest there have been yet more problems with the new bombers. As a result the supply of the new series of planes was stopped on the 11th December. This is the very same day America had declared war on Germany. Imprisoned as he was at the time, this is the first that Harras has heard of America’s entry into the war and he is stunned by the news. At the meeting Sigbert von Mohrungen claims that the problem with the planes is clearly due to sabotage thereby implicating Harras. Later on Sigbert von Mohrungen admits to Harras that their conversation at the party had been overheard and as a result, he’d been visited at home by the Gestapo and put under pressure to accuse him. He confides in Harris that in actual fact he believes as little as he does in the sabotage theory.
Though now freed from prison, Harras is left in no doubt by Dr. Schmidt-Lausitz that in order to stay free he has to join forces with the Gestapo. Cornered, he turns to his old friend Oberbruch for advice. Oberbruch doesn’t have much sympathy for him. “You always think no but you do it anyway. You shake your head but say yes.” (Du denkst immer nicht aber du tust es. Du schüttelst mit dem Kopf und sagst ja”.) He points out that Harras made similar objections when first offered a post in the air force by Göring and Hitler, and then a couple of weeks later took the post anyway. When Harras argues that that was different, Oberbruch replies it wasn’t. It was just the first step.
This is the dilemma that faced many Germans with the Nazis in power – bit by bit being sucked into the vortex of an evil regime. Christabel Bielenberg explains this most eloquently in the seminal TV series World at War. Christabel was a British woman who lived in Germany during the war. She relates how one day a Jewish couple arrived looking for somewhere to hide. Christabel talked the matter over with a family friend, who pointed out she would be endangering her own family’s safety if she did so. In the end she refused to take the couple in for more than a day or two for fear of her own family landing up in a concentration camp. The Jewish couple were later caught trying to buy tickets at a train station and arrested. She concludes that one of the worst things the Nazis did to her was inadvertently making her implicit in murder.
And as we see in the film, bit by bit the Nazi regime is tightening its stranglehold even around those who have privileged positions. Even Diddo Geiss’s aunt, the celebrated actress, Olivia Geiss, is beginning to worry and tells Harras to leave for abroad with the Rosenfelds for a new, decent life. She warns him that though he might think he can play with them, the Nazis are in fact playing with him.
The situation is exacerbated when Waltraut von Mohrungen (or Pützchen as she’s called throughout the film) phones to let them know that she knows they are hiding the Rosenfelds. Hiding Jews had serious repercussions under the Nazis and at the very least you could end up in a concentration camp as a result. The Rosenfelds commit suicide, and Harras urges Diddo Geiss to leave Germany and go to Vienna, where she has been offered a job at the Josefstadt Theatre. He clearly hopes he too can still get out of the corner he’s been squeezed into by the Nazis and follow her there.
Besides the humourless Dr. Schmidt-Lausitz, Pützchen is one of the few rabid Nazis in the film. Both characters are depicted in unflattering terms and no more so when Pützchen tries to seduce Harras who is clearly repelled by her. She can’t understand why he won’t work with the regime. You’re no Jew, no communist, she tells him. You could be the first behind the Führer and liquidate anyone you don’t like. She is totally repellent in this scene. Just imagine having to undergo two weeks of mind-games by the Gestapo and then coming home to find this harridan in your bedroom. Harras can barely stop himself from hitting her. Rejected, she threatens to denounce him for helping Jews. The scene is interrupted by news that Harras’s friend and fellow pilot Friedrich Eilers has been killed in one of the faulty planes authorised to the front despite orders to the contrary.
Harras leaves immediately to visit Eilers wife, Anne Eilers, the sister of Pützchen. The difference between the two women couldn’t be any clearer. Anne Eilers is dignified in her heartfelt grief. Harras tries to reassure her that the best in life is to have a belief and an idea big enough to be worth dying for. Eilers after all was a committed Nazi. It’s now that Anne admits that, unlike her husband, she never believed like he did that he was fighting for a better world but instead he was fighting for madmen. She had said nothing at the time because, as his wife, she thought that was the best thing to do. Now she realises: “Man darf nicht schweigen, nicht lügen, nicht mitmachen“. (We must not remain silent, we must not lie, mustn’t play along. “) It’s at this point that Harras admits that he had come to help her but she, in fact, has helped him. He misses his planned meeting with the Gestapo and instead sets off for the airport to finally find out why the planes keep crashing.
He tells Oberbruch that he feels like Eilers’ murderer. Whether the planes are crashing by chance or intention, Harras is determined to get to the root of the problem. While test flying one of the faulty planes with Oberbruch, he realises that the saboteur is in fact his good friend Oberbruch. Oberbruch has known from the beginning that there was a construction fault in the new series of planes and never reported it.
Then the Gestapo arrive and tell Harras he has 2 hours to find the person responsible for the sabotage or otherwise sign a declaration incriminating himself. When Harras asks Dr. Schmidt-Lausitz why he doesn’t just shoot him, Dr. Schmidt-Lausitz sneers that it is because he is no longer a threat. As far as Dr. Schmidt-Lausitz is concerned Harras is now done for. When Dr. Schmidt-Lausitz implies that Harras is not patriotic, Harras, furious, turns on him: What do you understand by fatherland? Harras snarls and spells out what fatherland means under Nazi rule using each letter of the word fatherland in German to represent a specific horror of the regime.
Volksgerichtshof – (People’s Court set up by the Nazis. In practice it was a kangaroo court where the defendants were invariably found guilty and usually sentenced to death)
Aufhängen – to hang
Totschlagen – to beat to death
Erschießen – to shoot dead
Rassenverfolgung – racial persecution
Lager – camp
That’s Vaterland (fatherland) now Harras concludes.
Harras refuses to denounce his friend though he’s at a loss as to why he did it. “For Britain? For Russia?” he asks. “For Germany,” Oberbruch replies. That’s also the Gestapo’s excuse, Harras wryly comments. Harras is at a loss as to Oberbruch’s possible motive considering Oberbruch’s life is going better than it had been before. Oberbruch has no Jewish wife, no one in a concentration camp, and he didn’t lose anyone during The Night of the Long Knives (a nationwide, co-ordinated campaign of political murders of SA and other political figures that the Nazis wanted to liquidate). Oberbruch admits he has no personal reason but that one day he began to feel ashamed of being German; ashamed that so much injustice was being carried out to Germans and other nations in the name of the German people, moreover in his name. He points out that whereas Harras helped oil the regime’s wheels, he tried, in his small way, to put the brakes on them. As he points out, evil survives not only because of those people who perpetrate it but because others tolerate it and he concludes that they’ve tolerated far too much. Echoing the famous saying attributed to Irish statesman Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
When Harras accuses Oberbruch of Eilers death, Oberbruch replies that he did everything in his power to ensure the planes didn’t go to the front. He then points out that thanks to Harras working with the regime, thousands of young men are dying.
Harras feels he is now no one’s friend, no one’s enemy, he feels he’s falling between two stools, he’s just in the way. He’s at the end. No, Oberbruch retorts. He’s at the end of weakness, doubts and cowardice but now it’s the beginning. With the Gestapo breathing down his neck, Harras realises he now has to finally pay his debts. He acknowledges that he’s the devils general. He signs the statement incriminating himself thereby absolving his friend from any suspicion, manages to evade the Gestapo surrounding the airbase, gets into one of the faulty planes and dives bombs it into the base. After which Harras’s loyal driver, Korrianke, is killed by Dr. Schmidt-Lausitz in the ruins of the airfield. Himmler is informed and a state funeral is ordered for Harras.
Harras represents the type of German that probably many Germans liked to identify with in the post-war period. Harras is at heart a good German, patriotic but no Nazi who by the end of the film manages to redeem himself for his former collaboration. Curd Jürgens is such a good actor, has so much charm and is so openly anti-Nazi from the off that at the start of the film you kind of never really see him for the collaborator that he is though. You warm to him immediately. But you do wonder if even Generals could have afforded to be so openly anti-Nazi at the time. After all you could be executed then just for making a perceived anti-Nazi off-the-cuff remark. In 1943 the sister of the famous writer Erich Maria Remarque was found guilty of “undermining morale” simply for allegedly being overheard to say she thought the war was lost, and was guillotined by the authorities as a result.
The film does highlight the naivety and arrogance of the upper classes who originally underestimated Hitler and the Nazis. After all the Nazis managed to get into power in the first place precisely thanks to upper class Germans such as Kurt von Schleicher and von Papen, who mistakenly believed, that by allowing the Nazis to take power, they could be their puppet masters. Harras still seems to be deluded on this point. It’s the final realisation that he can’t play the Nazis at their own game after all, that leads him to do the only thing he can do – save his friend – by implicating himself and committing suicide, presumably so his friend can carry on “braking the wheels”.
The film also deals with the theme of collaboration. Harras is originally sucked in by the offer of a top position in an air force he loves. Anne Eilers collaborates out of love for her husband. It seems the easiest option but both pay a high price for their collaboration – Harras with his life, Anne Eilers with the loss of her beloved husband. The Nazis in the film, with the exception of Anne Eilers’s husband, are depicted rather unflatteringly to say the least. The Germans, and the film goes to great lengths to emphasise the difference between your average German and the Nazis, come out of it a lot better. The film seems to be saying, yes, there were repellent Nazis like Pützchen and Dr. Schmidt-Lausitz but there were also good, run-off-the-mill Germans from Harras’s loyal driver Korrianke to Olivia Geiss doing all in her power to help the Rosenfelds escape. In a post-war Germany burdened down with war guilt, this was presumably a message most Germans were only too happy to hear.