'Fleuchtlinge' translates into English as 'flightlings' or 'refugees'. From a modern viewpoint, it's easy to dismiss this movie as German propaganda, 1933 vintage. Actually, it's a fitfully suspenseful action drama which depicts its German protagonists (and Germans in general) more sympathetically than denizens of China and the Soviet Union. (As much as I despise Nazis, the communists were worse ... so I have no problem with that equation.) The action takes place in 1928, so technically none of the characters here are citizens of the Third Reich ... but the tone of German nationalism and chauvinism throughout this film is heavy indeed.
Hans Albers plays a German who served in the Kaiser's army during the Great War. Now, in 1928, seriously disillusioned, he lives in China: still serving the German government as an attache in Nanking. Albers has been dutifully serving the Manchurian empire ... but now the Kuomingtang uprising has begun (actually, it started in 1925) and things are getting hot and spicy. There's a settlement of German citizens in Nanking (or at least, there's one in this movie), and its residents ask Albers's help to get to Manchuria, where the emperor's forces are still in power. Albers declines, until he gets into a dispute with a local commissar. This causes him to realise his true loyalties.
From this point, 'Flightlings' becomes similar to 'Von Ryan's Express', with the escapees being Germans. Albers and the other Germans hijack a railway train, and they highball for the border. SPOILERS COMING. There is some action and some tension - movies set on moving trains are pretty much boredom-proof - but it never quite gels. Kathe von Nagy is dull as the female lead, although her character shows some ingenuity instead of being a mere helpless damsel. Karl Rainer gives a good performance as a Tintin-like young German who gets killed during the escape. Another refugee (Franziska Kinz) gives birth in the freight van, and her newborn son is hailed as a fine new German citizen.
The whole film appears to have been filmed in Germany, even though much of it takes place in provincial regions of China and Russia. As there were not many Chinese actors on offer in UFA's casting pool, all the troublemakers in Nanking are depicted as Russians (played by German actors). I admit that I don't know much of the history of this case, but I suspect that the filmmakers are overstating the Soviet Union's role in China's revolution for reasons of racial convenience.
The photography by Fritz Arno Wagner is absolutely impeccable throughout. The direction varies widely from taut suspense to slack longueurs. It's distressing to see a German film that's so blatantly propagandistic, made slightly *before* Hitler really got going. Hans Albers gives a good performance in a badly-written role: he seems to be imitating some of those strong silent Gary Cooper he-men who were just a little too iconic to be plausible. I'll rate this movie 4 points out of 10.
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