Among the major motion pictures of the Third Reich was Sieg im Westen, a documentary of 1940’s French Campaign. It is now available is a restored cut much improved in visual and audio quality over previous releases.
This current edition is additionally superior for its inclusion of a short film, Panzer greifen an (“Panzers attack”), introduced by the famous tank commander, General Heinz Guderian. Although Allied prosecutors at Nuremberg’s postwar trials could not connect him with criminal behavior of any kind, the vindictive Allies nonetheless imprisoned him for more than three years without trial. Panzer greifen an follows the progress of the 19th Panzer Corps through France from 10 to 29 May, with scenes unlike those featured in Sieg im Westen, including a strafing attack by French fighters and remarkable footage of the Luftwaffe’s reconnaissance aircraft, the doughty Henschel-126. But tanks are the real stars of this short film, which should prove invaluable to model makers for its close up details of German armor and tankers’ uniforms.
Of wider interest is a deeply researched “slide-show” commenting on the production of Sieg im Westen. It points out that even the Allies admitted that German photo-journalists were the most advanced and skilful reporters of World War Two, although their frontline coverage was achieved at a high price, with higher casualty rates than regular troops. The film shows Henri Giraud, Commander of the IXth French Army and one of his country’s top military leaders, captured by the Germans. With deference to his high rank, they set him free on his word of honor to wait out the rest of the war in France. At his earliest opportunity, he fled to North Africa, where he demanded a high position in the Free French Army, but was snubbed, his career terminated. Giraud was too disgusting even for the likes of Charles De Gaulle.
German tanks, we learn, were substantially lighter and inferior to their French counterparts, but were more effective, because they were grouped in massed, concentrated attacks. The better CHAR B-1 heavy tanks operated only in much smaller units.
We are also told that Hitler demanded respect for the French from all German authorities, who were forbidden to ridicule the defeated in any way, especially in any propaganda. His concern went so far as to cancel all ostentatious victory celebrations. Accordingly, Sieg im Westen consistently praises the courage of French troops, who were let down by their conventional generals, sold out by politicians who fled to England, and betrayed by the British, who likewise ran off to Dunkirk without notice.
In this connection, the English-speaking narrator quotes German sociologist, Dr. Friedrich Ranse, who stated after the Campaign that “the European peoples hope France will recover her senses; that her rebirth will succeed, and stop her Jew- and niggerization.” Ranse was referring to the occupation of German territory --- the Ruhr and Rhineland --- by France with black troops after Germany had been defeated in World War One. The French were at that time obsessed with Revanche for their humiliation during the previous century in the Franco-Prussian War.
Viewers will be interested to learn the identity of the high-ranking officer often seen in newsreels and other wartime documentaries, seated upon his horse, as he very merrily waves to and salutes his soldiers parading through the Arc de Triomphe. He was Kurt von Briesen, General of the 30th Infantry Division he had personally organized before the war, when it was considered the finest peacetime formation in Germany. In the Polish Campaign, the 30th Infantry Division had single-handedly stopped the Poles’ most powerful offensive at the Battle of Bzura, where von Briesen himself participated in the fighting, and was wounded in the left arm, but refused to report to first-aid for more than four hours, until his forces were victorious. In France, he and the 30th Infantry Division played a decisive role in the German victory. Unlike most generals anywhere, Von Briesen always insisted upon leading his men in the forefront of combat, a daring that won him further successes in the Balkan Campaign and on the Eastern Front, where he died in action on 20 December 1941.
By all accounts, Sieg im Westen is a monumental film, one of the most outstanding documentaries in cinematic history, primarily for its sense of stark realism. It has less glory than guts, and does not avoid scenes of suffering and death on both sides. The film shows just how the Allied defeat was decided early in the Campaign, when the Maginot Line could not stand up to monstrously huge artillery shells fired in a non-stop barrage. The deafening boom of immense explosions reverberating day and night throughout the entire subterranean network was enough to demoralize its operators. At the same time, a round-the-clock barrage of 15-inch rounds tore gaping wounds in the defences, through which the Panzer armies flooded into France.
The action is knitted together into a great, flowing current of human drama by a truly magnificent soundtrack composed by Herbert Windt, considered by many film scholars as the finest cinematic composer. The score he provides here is certainly among his best, and on the same, incomparable level of excellence he achieved in Triumph of the Will or Olympia.
After the Berlin premiere of Sieg im Westen on 31 January 1941, it went on to become a box-office hit not only across Germany, but throughout continental Europe. Despite this popular success, however, National Socialists were uneasy about the film for cogent reasons, foremostly because it concluded for viewers that “Victory in the West” was entirely due to the Army.
The only Luftwaffe aircraft shown are some dive-bombers occasionally allowed to participate as flying artillery or the lone spotter-plane, all at the Army’s behest. There is no mention of the fighter arm that cleared the skies of enemy opposition, thereby making operations on the ground possible, nor the pivotal role played by Stukas and Messerschmit-110s in smashing superior French armor. The worst omission was leaving out all reference to the paratroops who took Belgium Fort Eben Emael, perhaps the single most decisive attack of the entire Campaign. This key success was entirely the brainchild of Adolf Hitler and Luftwaffe General Kurt Student, neither of whom receive recognition in the film. Naturally, Reichsmarshal Goering was particularly put out.
Also upset with the production’s myopic viewpoint was Dr. Goebbels, who tried to steal Sieg im Westen’s thunder by premiering another film about the French Campaign, Auf dem Strassen des Sieges, “On the Road to Victory”, which paid equal homage to all the armed forces, before the Army version’s premiere.
Heinrich Himmler, too, was miffed by the movie, because it mentioned his Waffen-SS only once and briefly in passing, while ignoring the Leibstandarte’s vital capture of the Dutch canals before they could halt the entire German offensive into Holland, or the Totenkopf Division’s no less crucial capture of the Somme.
Although Hitler himself is given short shrift, and is portrayed as hardly more than a somewhat distant overseer, while the generals do all the real planning, he liked the film, especially those scenes depicting the soldiers’ camp life.
As great as Sieg im Westen may be, it is best understood today as the French Campaign as it was seen from the perspective of the German Army, some of whose generals were lethally opposed to the Nazi regime, and planned to someday use their prestige to replace it with themselves. Hopefully, International Historic Films (or someone else) will eventually release Dr. Goebbels’ Auf dem Strassen des Sieges to provide viewers with a more well-rounded picture of the historic battles that continue to fascinate us.
- Marc Roland