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1927–1954  from

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Pour le Mérite


An ESSAY on the Karl Ritter film POUR LE MÈRITE:


Karl Ritter and  ‘the purest of all Nazi films’ – Pour le Mérite(1938)

In Nazi Germany’s leading film magazine in 1938, commenting on his forthcoming film Pour le Mérite, director Karl Ritter stated that a film about flying could only be made by a flyer – that one’s own experiences were ‘absolutely necessary’ to honestly portray the ‘glorious heroes of the skies’ accurately.   Having been granted pilot license #121 in the world in September, 1911 after self–constructing his own single–decker airplane the year before, Ritter had a life–long love and commitment to flying.  


As a young married Lieutenant he was not allowed to fly during WWI, but ironically as a batallion commander Ritter fought bravely at the Battle of the Somme and other desparate trench warfare slaughterhouses, and was awarded both the Iron Cross Second Class (1916) and First Class (1918). He recalled later that at the end of that war to he and his fellow soldiers,  “Germany had changed so much I swore then that these feelings in us, and which were cursing us and choking us with indifference, would one day have to be communicated....(that) I could for posterity tell about the bitterness, the tormenting feelings and the dreadful memories of friends and comrades who fell in battle and who were thrown like pieces of wood in mass graves, the hopelessness, the sudden hate for one another, the frenzy of a life which was not worth living. I have tackled all of this in a film. I have as much as was possible shaped it from my own life’s greatest experiences. The deep value of Pour le Mérite lies behind the images.”


Ritter’s earlier propaganda films for Joseph Goebbels dealt with World War I itself: Patrioten (Patriots), Unternehmen Michael (Operation Michael) and Urlaub auf Ehrenwort (Leave on Word of Honor), or with the Nazi struggle to power (Kampfzeit) in Hitlerjunge Quex (Hitler Youth Quex),  and then with the threat of foreign spies and sabotage in Verräter (Traitors). With Pour le Mérite Ritter followed three WWI pilots from the last bitter days of WWI in Autumn 1918, through their disillusionment and sense of betrayal by the hapless Weimar government, to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor and the rebirth of the Luftwaffe. In making this film, Riter had the full cooperation of his longtime friend and fellow pilot Ernst Udet and the Reich Air Ministry and Reichsmarshall Göring.


Ritter and his co–author Fred Hildenbrandt wrote the film script in early ’38, with a huge cast of 102 named characters, and filming commenced at Ufa’s Babelsberg studios, and exterior scenes took place in Mecklenburg, Schmützelsee, Rhön, Cuxhaven, and Rangsdorf bei Berlin. Herbert Windt, one of Germany’s finest film composers, who ultimately worked on no fewer than nine Ritter feature films, wrote the music.


Historian Jay Baird summarized the film thus:  Ritter delighted in employing every negative stereotype about the hated Weimar Republic. He presented it as a world where business and money were king, where criminals and prostitutes, stock market racketeers and manipulators, parasitical Jews and wirepullers have all joined hands with corrupt politicians. The knights of the air are totally alienated in this world of souless corruption, materialism, and hedonism. (To Die for Germany, p.190, Indiana Univ. Press, 1990.)


On 6 June 1938 Dr Goebbels wrote in his diary: I lay on my terrace and read the script for the new Ritter film Pour le Mérite of which the first part is superb. Only some dialogue needs to be altered.


The film premiered on 22 December 1938 at the prestigious Ufa Palace am Zoo,Berlin. Adolf Hitler, Dr Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, and the German Luftwaffe, Army, and Navy leaders, attended the gala opening, with the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler forming an honor guard; and Karl Ritter seated next to Hitler in the Führer’s box. 


Film historian John Altmann called the film “Hitlerism in essence” and “the purest of all Nazi films.”   Goebbels awarded the film the distinction ‘Jugendwert’ (Valuable for Youth) – the first NS film to receive this honor.  By May 1939 the NSDAP internal publication Partei und Film reported that the film had been seen by ‘many hundreds of thousands of boys and girls’ in national Hitler Youth Film Hours sessions.  After WWII, the Soviets demanded that Ritter stand trial for war crimes because his ‘systematic poisoning of German youth’ with films such as Pour le Mérite.


In the 22 December ’38 issue of the SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korpsit was stated that Ritter had created ‘a film which brings back our memory the Germany of shame which existed before we came to power.....We, the SS, never doubted that the best German film could only be created by a National Socialist.’  The following day the official Party newspaper Der Völkische Beobachter wrote that the film was ‘a tremendous success...the best contemporary film to date.’   Mass circulation magazine Filmweltmagazine enthused that the film was ‘a ballad, a song of the storm, an epic, a heroic song.’


The New York Times  correspondent reported on April 8, 1939:


In a sort of “now it can be told“ spirit, the Nazi film makers have turned out a remarkably well–made propaganda picture called “Pour le Mérite,” the name of the highest German military decoration. [The film] is being lauded to the skies in the Third Reich’s press.


Pour le Mérite cost RM 1.07 million to produce, and made a net profit of RM 3.32 million within six months–more profit for Ufa  than any other Ritter film, and even more than Terra Film's box–office hit Jud Süß nationally. The film was subsequently shown during 1939 across Europe in Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and also in Switzerland.


Pour le Mérite was banned by the Allies at the end of WWII, and remains one of ten feature films by Karl Ritter forbidden to be  screened in Germany, Austria and France to this day.


–  William Gillespie, author of Karl Ritter: His Life and ‘Zeitfilms’ under National Socialism, 2nd edition© 2014, and The Making of The Crew of the Dora, ©2016.