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Australia imagined – by the Third Reich

Zarah Leander as Gloria Vane. Cover photo from Swedish sheet music printed in Stockholm 1938. Still from the film Zu Neuen Ufern (1937). Via Wikimedia Commons.


For some time this writer has been intrigued by the handful of films made about Australia, but NOT made in Australia, before World War II. They all borrow some familiar Australian icons, yet not surprisingly, they were usually directed, scripted and acted by people who had no direct experience of Australia at all. Here are several German films produced in the late 1930s that feature Australia.

Thanks: William Gillespie at germanfilms.net notified the author of the existence of Frauen für Golden Hill (Women for Golden Hill) 1938. The film is available from rarefilmsandmore.com. A short clip of leading actress Kirsten Heiberg singing can also be found on Youtube.

Above: Kirsten Heiberg and the two male leads (Karl Martell and Viktor Staal) in Frauen für Golden Hill (1938) in a goldfields bar – its Australianness reinforced by not very accurate flags on the wall. Screen grab from a the author’s copy.

Zu Neuen Ufern (To New Shores) 1937

Directed by Detlef Sierck (Douglas Sirk). Script by Lovis Hans Loren (novel), Kurt Heuser. Starring Zarah Leander, Willy Birgel, Edwin Jürgensen, Viktor Staal. Produced by UFA and filmed at Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam.


Zu Neuen Ufern (To New Shores) was a musical-drama made by UFA in 1937 and directed by Detlef Sierck (Douglas Sirk). The film helped establish Swedish-born singer and actress Zarah Leander as a German star and was a popular success. It was made at Studio Babelsberg and spoken entirely in German, although it is set largely in colonial Australia. It was not completely dismissed by Australian reviewers at the time – writing for the Melbourne Argus, Zelda Reed thought it was technically magnificent as a film, although she concluded it was “not about Australia.” Today’s audiences will probably find its wildly unfamiliar landscapes, misspelling of names and the use of African-German extras to portray Indigenous Australians reasons enough to dismiss it. The film was not commercially released in the English-speaking world. Yet, it was probably the most sophisticated of the three Nazi films set in Australia.

Lovis Hans Loren, a German journalist and author had written the novel that forms the basis of the film in 1936, and Sirk and Kurt Heuser wrote the script. The film is not however, simply a crude propaganda vehicle for the Nazi regime. As Tom Ryan points out in his recent book on Douglas Sirk’s films, it is a romantic melodrama, “a love affair gone wrong in a world where the patriarchy rules and social division is rampant.” Albert Finsbury (Willy Birgel) is an English artistocrat, whose selfishness causes his lover, popular singer Gloria Vane (Leander) to be transported to Australia. The plot is a familiar one; a convict story featuring wrongful conviction in England, imprisonment in Australia, harsh treatment in a class-ridden society but eventual redemption. There are therefore some similarities to For the Term of His Natural Life, Marcus Clarke‘s popular 1874 novel that had been filmed on location in Australia in 1927.

This writer likes to think Sirk’s prison scenes (with its numbered female prisoners, constant threat of punishment and trappings of slave labour) are his comment on the authoritarian Germany he was about to flee for the safety of Hollywood. Interviewed by Jon Halliday in the 1960s, Sirk acknowledged that he had been hired by Warner Bros to re-make Zu Neuen Ufern and he even rewrote a script. However, the remake did not eventuate. Sirk went on to a long and successful career in Hollywood, but the later experiences of many of the performers was very mixed, and most struggled to re-establish themselves in Germany after the war.


Das Gewehr über (Shoulder Arms) 1939

Directed by Jürgen von Alten. Script by Wolfgang Marken and Kurt Walter. Starring F.W Schroder-Schrom, Rolf Moebius, Rudi Godden and Carsta Löck. Produced by Germania-Film.

This is another Australian outing by Nazi cinema, although it might be better understood simply as a straight forward propaganda exercise to encourage young men to undertake army training for the Third Reich. It was released in Germany in December 1939, after war with Britain (and Australia) had been declared. Directed by Jürgen von Alten, it concerns two young Australian-German men – Paul Hartwig (Rolf Moebius) and his friend Charlie (Rudi Godden), who return to Germany to do Army service. Paul’s crusty, upright German father, a successful farmer (one assumes?) in Australia is keen for the boys to learn to be good Germans again. German is spoken in his house, he explains to Lotte (Carsta Löck), Paul’s flighty Australian girl-friend. A very rapid sea journey follows, with the boys welcomed home to a joyful Germany. But there are lots of lessons to be learned before they can become serious young soldiers in the Wehrmacht.

Lotte complains to her father (wearing a bush hat) that Paul will be away for 6 months. This dialogue is in English with German subtitles.

There are no establishing shots in the film, and the “Australian scenes” are mostly interiors. Thus the Australian setting of the film is largely immaterial to the story. One bizarre sequence will stand out to modern audiences – the mock Kangaroo fight in the German night club, which the spectators find hilarious. Some of Paul and Lotte’s dialogue is spoken in English, presumably to emphasize the non-German experience of living in Australia. In the best propaganda tradition, the film ends with lengthy scenes of German military might.

After wartime service, Rolf Moebius enjoyed a long post-war career. Not so his co-star Rudi Godden, who died in early 1941. Carsta Löck’s career continued until the 1970s.


Frauen für Golden Hill (Women for Golden Hill) 1938

Produced and directed by Erich Waschneck, script by Hans Bertram, Georg Huralek and Wolf Neumeister. Starring Kirsten Heiberg, Viktor Staal and Karl Martell. Fanal Film Production, Gmbh Berlin.

The most extraordinary of the three films is Frauen für Golden Hill. Intended as an adventure film, the plot revolves around the recruitment of mail-order brides for the lonely miners of a gold mining settlement in the desert. Only the two heroes, Douglas (Viktor Staal – his second film set in Australia) and Stan (Karl Martell) decline to be part of the scheme, but they end up both attracted to the one unattached woman – the exotic Sydney singer Violet (Kirsten Heiberg). Disconcerting for the modern viewer is the historical context of the film, it is not at all clear what era it is set in. Horses and carts are used, the mining camp is definitely rustic in the traditional frontier Western-film genre, and yet modern aircraft appear at the end of the film to drop water and save everyone in the camp from thirst.

The script was written – in part – by Hans Bertram, a former German pilot who really had crash-landed in north-western Australia in 1932, and later wrote a best-seller of his trek to safety. Clearly, Bertram’s experience had influenced the film, which includes a plane crash and desert trek, and probably this connection to a real German adventurer was seen as a selling point. It was filmed in the sand dunes of the Curonian Spit on the Baltic Sea and at the Ufa studios at Babelsberg.

In a very comprehensive chapter on this film for her 2006 book on Nazi cinema, Mary-Elizabeth O’Brien suggests this German-Western actually extols many of the tropes of the Nazi state – the “rewards of conquering foreign soil… exploitation of foreign resources, acquisition of Lebensraum, and the sacrifice of one’s life for the survival of the folk” (O’Brien, 2006, P94)

Screen grabs from Frauen für Golden Hill. At left – the town, centre – Violet (Kirsten Heiberg) looking vampish, and at right – Violet with the boys (Karl Martell and Viktor Staal) in the bar.

Most of the cast of this film were rehabilitated after the war. However, Norwegian-born Kirsten Heiberg suffered more than most because of her marriage to Nazi party member (and composer) Franz Grothe. I have been unable to discover the fate of the African-German actors in the film, who may be meant to represent Indigenous Australians.

Bertram ended up spending much longer in Australia than he ever intended. A Luftwaffe pilot, he was shot down in 1941 and ended up being interned as a POW in Australia for the remainder of World War 2.


Under Joseph Goebbels, German cinema went on to other films with increasingly strident propaganda, sometimes borrowing real events such as the Titanic sinking as the basis of the narrative. Goebbels was determined to create his own Hollywood in Germany, and thus in the hundreds of films Nazi Germany produced, a few minor films set in Australia perhaps isn’t all that surprising.



Films

Das Gewehr über is now in the public domain, and a copy without subtitles can be viewed on the Internet Archive here.
Zu Neuen Ufern is often mounted on free social media platforms, and Leander’s songs, such as “Yes Sir” are also widely available.

Frauen für Golden Hill is available from rarefilmsandmore.com

Further Reading

Nick Murphy
Updated January 2022

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