The Eleven Schill Officers

Original Title: Die elf Schill’schen Offiziere. (Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden…) Historical drama 1932; 96 min.; Director: Rudolf Meinert; Cast: Friedrich Kayßler, Hertha Thiele, Heinz Klingenberg, Hans Brausewetter, Veit Harlan, Camilla Spira, Eugen Rex, Carl de Vogt, Ferdinand Hart, Theodor Loos; Märkische Filmges.-Tobis-Klangfilm.

After the Peace of Tilsit, French occupation, spies, and a spirit of rebellion prevail. The son of a landowner joins Major von Schill’s Freikorps and, along with the other ten officers, is executed by a military court following the betrayed street battle in Stralsund. His cousin and secret husband of his sister manages to escape.

This film is dedicated to the memory of the freedom fighter Schill and his comrades. Ferdinand von Schill, a Prussian major, fearlessly confronted Napoleon’s armies with a small group of freedom lovers. Even in the house of Baron von Trachenberg, the strict regime imposed by Napoleon after the Peace of Tilsit in Prussia is felt. Acts of violence, reminiscent of the state of war, spies, mistrust, and insecurity, create an atmosphere that weighs on everyone and fuels dissatisfaction and the spirit of rebellion.

Schill’s troop gathers all those who refuse to stand idly by as the country languishes under foreign oppression. Among Schill’s followers are Klaus, the nephew of old Trachenberg, Fritz, Trachenberg’s son, and Karl von Keffenbrink, a second nephew of Trachenberg who shares a deep affection with his cousin Maria von Trachenberg. Trachenberg himself would also like to join, but he is paralyzed, “a cripple,” as he says, and besides, the Prussian king has forbidden any rebellion against the French occupation army.

The decision is to be made in Stralsund, where the enthusiasm of Schill’s troops is meant to replace the superior enemy forces. In the Trachenberg household, they await this decision with hope and anxiety. Above all, Maria, who secretly married Karl Keffenbrink before he joined Schill’s troop without her father’s knowledge, trembles for Schill’s victory. And there is someone else worried about the fate of Schill’s troops: Anna, a maid in the Trachenberg household, whose loved one is also a soldier under Schill.

The French have infiltrated the country with spies, and unfortunately, there are also Prussians who betray their homeland to the French. Hans Küffer, who reveals Schill’s plans to the French, infiltrates Schill’s officer corps. The result is a tenfold enemy force, reinforced by Danish and Dutch troops. In a street battle in Stralsund, Schill’s troops are defeated and scattered. Schill himself is fatally wounded on his horse. A large part of Schill’s troops, including eleven officers, is captured, taken to the Wesel Citadel, and placed before a French military court. The sentence is death by firing squad, a verdict that the eleven officers, who did not expect such a cruel sentence, accept courageously.

In the street battle of Stralsund, Karl Keffenbrink falls unconscious from his horse. Mistaken for dead, he escapes captivity. His desire drives him home, to his Maria. But the French are on his trail. It is almost a miracle that he manages to reach his wife unseen. Unnoticed by anyone in the house, he surprises Maria in her room. However, the joy of their reunion is short-lived. The sound of horse hooves echoes from below as a group of French soldiers enters the estate. Karl is hidden away.

Just as the French are about to leave after a fruitless search of the house, the sentry left with the horses rushes into the room. A Schill officer has descended from the hayloft onto the waiting horses and galloped away. The old Trachenberg is arrested because a Schill supporter was hidden in his house, and he is suspected of rebellion against the French. He would face severe punishment if not for his daughter Maria, who summons the courage to go to the French commander herself and reveal the truth. She confesses to having hidden the Schill officer, her husband. The commander sets Baron von Trachenberg free. Karl von Keffenbrink has already crossed the border of the occupied territory, eluding the French. The French commander shares this information with a glance at Maria.

Meanwhile, the eleven Schill’s officers, including Fritz von Trachenberg and Klaus, wait in the casemate of the Wesel Citadel for the next morning, which will bring them death. The next day would have been Captain Jöken’s birthday – he would have turned 35 – and he would have liked to celebrate it with his elderly mother, who only has him. And how he would have loved to meet his little son, who was born after his entry into Schill’s troops. But that can no longer happen! The eleven comrades pass the gloomy hours with chess and letter writing. Although they are preparing to face death that night, they do not show their inner turmoil. Only young Lieutenant Peter is conscious of the tragedy of having to lose his life at such a young age. Full of fear, he leans against the stone walls of the dungeon. Captain Jöken, who observes this, encourages him, and his comrades’ reassurance restores Peter’s steadfastness. Resolutely, the young warrior awaits the morning. With a soldier’s song on their lips, the eleven Schill’s officers walk the path of death. Paired together, they are lined up in front of the citadel and shot.

Hans Küffer, the traitor, must witness the havoc he has caused and the countless lives he has destroyed. Shortly after the shots have faded, a single pistol shot resounds across the field: Hans Küffer has taken his own life. But the death of these loyal soldiers was not in vain. The spirit of Schill’s troop lives on and leads to victory and the liberation of the fatherland in 1813!

-g.’s review in Film Kurier No. 197 (August 22, 1932)
Rudolf Meinert has already had a great success with this material. There were many reasons for the remake. The lack of good, new film ideas, the impact of the title, the political atmosphere in which we live today. The years that have passed since the days of Schill may have changed superficialities, but fundamentally, many things remain the same. Once again, the fatherland is in need, once again, we have lost a war, once again, the government stands by the treaties, and once again, there are men with passionate hearts who are tired of compromise, who want to take action and speak out against the lukewarm. This is the situation. Taking a stance on one or the other view is not the task of this newspaper.

The material could be approached in various ways. The film could have been solely developed from the idea of rebellion, using the characters as mere means to a grand end. However, Meinert chose a different path. He softened the severity that undoubtedly would have been attached to a film solely about rebels. He dedicated a significant amount of the film to depicting personal relationships, portraying the love of a noble young lady for a Schill officer, the heartache of a maid in love. He also incorporates singing, playing instruments, and humor. These contrasting elements sometimes exist closely together. Some personal aspects serve to outline the main idea, such as a father’s perspective on the Schills or the presence of many well-regarded supporting characters.

The most powerful scenes are the closing scenes, the final hours before the execution. Director Rudolf Meinert employs his keen sense of visual impact here. The camera gliding over the lifeless bodies, their hands clenched in death throes, is truly moving. Accompanied by a few notes of the “Lied vom guten Kameraden,” it creates a poignant film ending. The cinematography by Eduard Hoesch and Hugo von Kaweczynski is beautiful. The village church in the greenery is atmospheric, and the soldiers’ heads are strikingly carved out. The large ensemble of actors is carefully assembled. The program lists about 50 names, and even the smallest supporting roles have been meticulously cast. The reservoir of actors in German cinema seems almost inexhaustible.

Friedrich Kayßler, who plays the father, stands out the most. He had one son fall at Saatfeld and fights for the life of the second. He remains loyal to his king’s word but also wants to rebel again. Kayßler effectively portrays the conflict that many still face today. Ferdinand Hart embodies the imposing figure of a Schill officer who knows how to inspire his young comrades—a leader as he should be but rarely is. Veit Harlan portrays the impetuous youth who easily speaks condescendingly of the hesitant elders. Willy Schröder-Schrom handles the challenging role of a French general well. The enemy is given justice. Meinert includes a few episodes featuring the Prussian royal couple. Erna Morena plays the queen without cheap heroism, and it is incomprehensible why this exceptionally talented actress is rarely employed linguistically. Paul Günther sketches the king in the style of the Yorck film. Unfortunately, Hertha Thiele is not properly utilized. Her strength, which has been her sternness thus far, is undermined in an inadequately staged and edited church scene, where an excess of sweetness diminishes her impact. A worried woman should be pleading for her husband and brother, but what is shown is a declamatory film star, exquisitely made up with artfully illuminated blond hair. Eugen Rex effectively employs his skills in playing the lute and engaging in mischief, with Camilla Spira being a good partner for him. Also notable are Hans Brausewetter, Heinz Klingenberg, Theodor Loos, Carl de Vogt, Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur, and Vera Liessem.

Heinrich Richter skillfully constructed the sets with an eye for spatial impact, while Emil Specht worked on achieving incredibly clear sound. Hans May is responsible for the tastefully compiled music. It is worth mentioning that Rudolf Meinert once again makes the brave attempt to eliminate the dreaded opening credits. His film begins with an introductory music piece, without the usual enumeration of names and companies. The film received strong applause at its premiere. It is a clean and impressive work by Märkische, deserving success for their efforts. From what we have heard, theater owners seem to view the film’s prospects favorably.