Discussions on Nazi cinema usually begin and sometimes end with "Triumph of the Will," but film in the Third Reich was hardly limited to outright propaganda. UFA and the other studios, with Goebbels enthusiastic encouragement, provided plenty of slick entertainment to take people's minds off such matters as rationing, arrests, deportations, and mounting casualty lists.
"Die Grosse Liebe" ("The Great Love") was the most popular movie of the period and ranks as the key film in Nazi popular culture. Quite simply, it has everything that a German audience could have asked for in the summer of 1942.
First and foremost, it stars Zarah Leander, an actress who combined many of the talents of Garbo and Dietrich. Unknown in America then or now, the Swedish Leander was the greatest star of the German cinema from the late 30s to well into the war years. Here she plays a popular singer named Hanna Holberg who, for all intents and purposes, is Zarah Leander.
Second, "Die Grosse Liebe"offers a stalwart German hero in Viktor Staal, whose characterization of a Luftwaffe officer comes off as strong, but nowhere near as steely (or should I say "Nazi?") as Carl Raddatz's efforts in "Stukas" or "Wunschkonzert." Staal has a soft side that Raddatz never projected, and he's certainly the better physical match for as imposing a figure as Leander.
Third, its tone manages to be earnest and serious without being melancholy. By the time the film was in production the invasion of Russia was underway and there could no longer be any illusions that the war would be short or easy. The essential spirit of the film is sacrifices yes, but no regrets. Not coincidentally, this is the lesson Leander's character must learn in the course of the story and that the audience must take to heart as well.
Finally, Leander sings two of her biggest hits which together present conflicting emotional responses to Germany's increasingly desperate situation - "Davon geht die Welt nicht Unter" and "Ich weiss, es wird einmal ein Wunder Gescheh'n." The first, freely translated as "It Isn't the End of the World," is cheery and upbeat. As Leander sings, her soldier audience literally swings and sways to the music and momentarily forgets the war. The second, a prayer as much as an anthem, could be translated as "I Know One Day a Miracle Will Happen." Here the clear message is one of hope that the war will soon be over, but the mere expression of this urge serves to acknowledge that things aren't going all that well.
As we know, the miracle never happened for Nazi Germany and after only 12 years it came to the end of its own twisted world. But to German audiences in 1942 there was still hope and "Die Grosse Liebe" was the cinematic expression of that heartfelt emotion. No wonder the film was the greatest box office success of the Third Reich.
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