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The downfall of Germanys "Iron Chancellor" Bismarck (Emil Jannings),
who had to resign from his position just two years after Wilhelm II.
(then just 29 years old) became Emperor of the Reich. The film depicts
the clash between the unexperienced and notoriously narcissistic
Wilhelm II. and Bismarck, who basically had ruled the country all by
himself since 1871, while Wilhelm's grandfather, Wilhelm I., had
basically been a merely symbolical figure in the background.
Despite of what has often been written about this film, there is just a few National-Socialist propaganda in it - at least in the DVD-version I was able to see, which may have been cut. In one scene Bismarck explains to Wilhelm that the social problems of the country can only be solved by a "socialism from above", a "socialism" which at the same time must be "national". Another scene shows Bismarck confronting the Social Democrats at the Reichstag, among them his arch-adversary August Bebel. Bebel was Jewish, and another Jewish social-democratic member of the Reichstag (Paul Singer) makes a brief and decidedly unappealing appearance. Otherwise the film does not stress the Jewishness of the Social Democrats, at least not in the possibly edited version available.
Apart from that the film is basically a patriotic epic in the vein of D.W. Griffith's ABRAHAM LINCOLN. As usual in historical biopics, actions are simplified, condensed and dramatized, but overall DIE ENTLASSUNG is historically pretty accurate - and surprisingly complex for a nationalistic film shot within the system of the Third Reich. Some liberties have been taken, but they don't change the historical connection of the events much. There are many little details that only those with a good knowledge of Bismarck's life and the feud between him and Wilhelm will recognize. It is not true what another commentator wrote, that Wilhelm is presented with both of his arms intact. Note how he always keeps his left arm hidden in the coat or behind the back.
To non-German commentators the main significance of the story may be lost: the tragedy is not only about the fall of Bismarck and the futility of his lifework but also of the Second Reich which was his creation. The arrogance and ignorance of the young Kaiser and the manipulations of the intriguers (great: Werner Krauss) at the court prevent the renewal of a friendship pact between Germany and Russia, a centerpiece of Bismarck's diplomacy. The film is absolutely historically correct here. This failure proved to be fatal, as Russia found new allies in England and France which lead to the constellation of 1914, exactly the two-front-war that Bismarck tried to avoid. Thus the ending of the film is not "bizarre" at all - but in order to make it less fatalistic as it could have been, the bad guy Krauss gets a deserved bashing by Bismarck, after which a dissolve switches the scenery to the famous Bismarck monument build in 1906 in Hamburg. Being a war-time film under a nationalist regime the film needed some appeal to heroism in the end, covering up the more darker and pessimistic implications of the story.
Typical for the quality films of the Third Reich, DIE ENTLASSUNG relies on set-pieces and excellent acting rather than on cutting and camera work. The screenplay is by the Austrian writer Alexander Lernet-Holenia, who in fact was a conservative opponent to the Nazis. Jannings and Krauss give great performances, which make THE ENTLASSUNG indeed a far better film than its prequel BISMARCK.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Die Entlassung' ('The Dismissal') was the Third Reich's sequel to
'BIsmarck', a blatant piece of Nazi agitprop which was nonetheless a
box-office success during Germany's wartime economy. Although 'Die
Entlassung' is just as much a piece of propaganda as 'Bismarck', from a
cinematic viewpoint it's also vastly superior to its predecessor. Wolfgang
Liebeneiner, who directed both films, does a moderately better job in the
sequel. More significantly, this film has a much better cast than its
predecessor. The key roles of Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm the
are played here (unlike in the first film) respectively by the great Emil
Jannings and the underrated Theodor Loos. There are also good performances
by Werner Krauss and Bernhard Goetzke.
Emil Jannings plays von Bismarck with a bald head and a walrush moustache, which could easily have given him a laughable appearance ... especially as his moustache is slightly askew in several scenes. But Jannings's dignity and his strong presence in this role easily overcome any problems with his appearance.
Although WIlhelm the First was a major character in 'Bismarck', in the sequel Theodor Loos appears only briefly in this role. 'Die Entlassung' opens with the deaths of the Kaiser and Friedrich Wilhelm the Third, leading to the accession of Kaiser Wilhelm the Second (who plunged Europe into the Great War). Wilhelm the Second famously had a withered arm, but the obscure actor who plays Kaiser Billy in this movie makes no attempt to duplicate this handicap. The filmmakers' decision to depict Kaiser Wilhelm with two normal arms is rather like depicting Long John Silver without a pegleg.
SPOILERS COMING. Oddly for a propaganda film, 'Die Entlassung' ends with the downfall of its central figure. Members of the Kaiser's court have cooked up a scheme similar to the Dreyfus Affair, charging Bismarck with concealing important documents from the Kaiser. Bismarck is forced to resign in disgrace. I don't know enough about the true history of Otto von Bismarck to say if this is accurate or not, but I suspect that it never happened. Emil Jannings tended to play masochistic roles: proud respected figures who experience degrading downfalls. The casting of Jannings in the lead role may have been a factor in deciding the bizarre ending of this movie.
The production values and the period detail in this film are excellent, and the brilliant cameraman Fritz Arno Wagner provides some enthralling camera set-ups. I very grudgingly give credit to the anonymous person in the Third Reich's film industry who decided to let this movie tell a good story rather than exclusively serving Nazi agitprop. I'll rate 'Die Entlassung' 6 points out of 10. If it hadn't been made by Nazis, I might have rated it one point higher.
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