Out of all of the films about the Second World War, Cross of Iron, directed by Sam Peckinpah, stands out as among the most unique due it showing that great war from the perspective of the Wehrmacht.
By the time he directed this film, Peckinpah had already built up a reputation of showing violence in a brutally honest way, as well having more-complex-than-usual characterizations even when it came to typically vilified characters. His breakthrough film, The Wild Bunch, showed a group of aging Western outlaws as also having some sympathetic qualities, while the many law-men in the film aren’t quite saints. There is mix of traits all around and Peckinpah was interested in showing the very real volatility of men on opposite sides clashing instead of some fluffed up white hat/black hat, fairy tale style western. Thus, it seems that Peckinpah was the right man to show the oft vilified Wehrmacht in a more realistic light.
To a large degree, he succeeded in looking past the all the “evil Stahlhelm” stereotypes and showed a diverse and down to earth Wehrmacht. However, the film is not without its (perhaps inevitable) shortcomings.
The year is 1943 and the German army is retreating from the Soviet. On one small part of the Eastern Front, on the Taman Peninsula, Corporal Steiner and his men return to base after a successful mission and learn that a new commanding officer has been assigned to their platoon. This is Captain Stransky who is a proud Prussian aristocrat and who quickly makes it known that he specifically volunteered himself for this new post so that he can have a good chance to be awarded the Iron Cross, a top Wehrmacht decoration for a soldier’s valor. In contrast, Steiner is an experienced veteran from a humble background and he’s had about enough of the war. Practically right away, a conflict between Steiner and Stransky begins to boil when Stransky orders Steiner to shoot a young Russian prisoner on the grounds that no prisoners are to be taken. Steiner then suggests that Stransky do the dirty work, but the new officer hesitates. One of Steiner’s men then says he will do the job, but he takes the boy back to their trench safely.
Stransky has obviously never been in combat and flinches at the sound of every exploding shell whether distant or close in contrast to Steiner who hardly flinches at anything. These two very different outlooks on the war also mean that each man defines his duty as different. Steiner is a soldier, who carries out orders and oversees his squad with care. Stransky is a lone wolf who seeks to exploit his position in order to win an award, which then will enable him to show off.
Though Stransky may lack a true soldier’s attitudes and valour, he certainly possesses a sharp cunning that enables him to make himself seem eligible for the coveted Iron Cross. First, he spies on the fact that one of lieutenants, Triebig, is a homosexual and threatens to expose him. Second, after a Soviet attack, he claims to have led the successful counter-attack and names two witnesses to this feat: Triebig, who has been blackmailed with his homosexuality, and thus glumly goes on with the fraud. Steiner, the second named witness, is not so easily swayed. Stransky had from the start tried to suck up to the soldiers to earn their respect as commander; for one he spontaneously promoted Steiner from Corporal to Sergeant when he first arrived at his new assignment. Now, Stransky proceeds to further bribe Steiner by promising to take care of him financially after the war. Steiner refuses to take part in the scheme.
This causes Stransky’s plotting to turn ugly and he doesn’t relay an urgent retreat order from Colonel Brandt, the company commander. Steiner and his men are left in their position, which is now behind enemy lines.
Their way back features some top-notch battle scenes that are notable for their use of exclusively real, and not computer generated, effects. The torn up landscape, the tanks (actual T34s, albeit the Yugoslav variant) and grim tone makes for an uncompromising image of war. With the German shown in the middle of this, it makes for a unique, English language film about the Second World War. Due to all the characters being German, there is also a very welcomed language uniformity, namely no corny accents. In English language films, but especially the American ones, with both Allied and Axis soldiers, the Germans almost always speak with accents in order for them to be differentiated. European productions tend to avoid this awkwardness by hiring German speaking actors and having them speak their native tongue fluently and the film is then subtitled. Hollywood was, all too often, too lazy for this kind of authenticity. “Cross of Iron” circumvents the issue all together, but whether intentional or not, it is one of the film’s strengths.
Steiner and his men eventually make it back to their own lines. They used a radio to secure their passage across no man’s land and head towards their trenches. Stransky, having hoped that Steiner was killed after not having received the retreat order, suggests that Triebig shoot at Steiner and his men and then it can be written off that they were mistaken for Soviet troops. A Soviet attack does, in fact, start right then and in a dramatic scene almost all of Steiner’s men are wiped out by a machine gun from a Wehrmacht position, but the ever resilient Steiner makes to the trenches. Triebig confesses as to what happened and is gunned down by a vengeful Steiner who then goes after Stransky. As the Soviet attack grows in intensity, Steiner finds Stransky cowering in a building and says he’ll show him “where the Iron Crosses grow.” They head out to meet the Soviet assault, but then, in a odd twist, the film ends on an abrupt note: Stransky fires of all of his ammunition and is unable to reload, while Steiner erupts in laughter. The end is sort of ambiguous, but plenty of artillery shells rain down, thus we can presume what happens to Steiner and Stransky in those moments.
The film’s view of the World and war is largely based off of the opening and closing credits sequences. I have omitted those from the overview in order to focus on them here.
First, there is the German folk song about coming of age called, Hänschen klein, which can be heard over the opening and closing of the film. It is a recording sung by children, whose mild voices starkly contrast much of the film’s harsh sound effects. This opening also has grim imagery of battle inter-cut with images of Hitler and NSDAP rallies. The message here that Hitler is “Hänschen klein” – Little Johnny – whose adventure is the war, but he doesn’t suffer any of its effects. These are instead thrust on the shoulders of ordinary men like Steiner. This then reflects Steiner’s low view of all officers; he tells Col. Brandt with full open frankness that he despises all officers even the “enlightened” ones, meaning those who know what the ordinary soldier goes through. Brandt is one of these “enlightened” ones and can be seen to rally troops in the last closing battle scene, unlike Stransky who cowers.
Second, the film’s closing sequence, right after Steiner erupts in laughter, once again has the folk song and now it portrays Stransky’s naive view of war. It is rather ambiguous, but presumably as this song plays and Steiner laughs, an artillery shell takes both of them out. This is further suggested in the appearance of the young Russian prisoner who had died earlier when Steiner had tried to release him during en ebb in front line action, but this proved fatal as an attack started without warning and the boy was caught in a crossfire. Thus, his appearance now suggests that Steiner and Stransky are also dead. This ending reflects the Eastern Front for many of the men of the Wehrmacht. In an interesting move, the stock sad ending is avoided, which again proves to be a strength of the film. Steiner goes out like a warrior, unafraid; Stransky goes out like the coward he is. In the moments before death, the men’s true characters are shown and Stransky’s boasting and conniving have finally been proven to be totally worthless.
While it is not the worst kind of ending, as it realistically rounds of character arcs, there is also a very established convention at work in that last scene. And that is defeat or death for the German soldier. If Wehrmacht soldiers are shown as the typically faceless enemies of a war movie, then many die but many may also be spared to wind up in defeat. In contrast, if Wehrmacht soldiers are shown as much more drawn out characters with whom an audience can identify and sympathize, then they must die. For there can be no lasting sympathy to their struggle according to Hollywood.
In this end sequence, the folk song soon transitions into a sad instrumental and we see images of war atrocity from many wars throughout the 20th centruty, including a photo of what appears to be a Wehrmacht officer in the process of hanging some young people. This photo appears several times in different framings throughout this last sequence. However, that the thing that seals the deal with the film comes along right after the last photo is shown. It is the following quote:
“Don’t rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”
Those pessimistic words that suggest an eternal loop of pointless struggle are the product of Bertold Brecht. More specifically, they are from his 1941 play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which is Brecht’s fictionalized version of Adolf Hitler’s story and his attitude toward Hitler can be readily seen even in the title of the play. Not surprisingly, Bertold Brecht was a life-long Marxist who emigrated from Germany to Denmark in 1933, and then, by 1941 he left Europe all together for the United States. In the late 1940s, he was suspected of being a member of the Communist Party due to his commitment to Marxism. He then left the US after giving one testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activitie and returned Germany, Marxist East Germany to be more precise. There lived out the rest of his days in East Berlin where he became one of the GDR’s “intellectual heroes.” Unfortunately for Cross of Iron, it is with this mention of Marxism that the film’s anti-elitism takes on a whole new meaning.
When Stransky is attempting to persuade Steiner to sign a witness statement as part of his scheme to get the Iron Cross, the two have a brief discussion about class in society. Steiner’s background is unspecified, but we can assume he is a regular working man. Stransky, on the other hand, is very class conscious is sure that there are differences of blood quality between the upper and lower classes. He even writes off Immanuel Kant and Franz Schubert (both did not have upper-class origins) as “exceptions” while he is interested in “general concepts.” He is even initially angered when Steiner brings up the notion of Hitler’s attitudes about the equality of all Germans, but this is only a brief rise in tension and he immediately backs down, “…but he is our Fuhrer.”
The discussion doesn’t go much beyond that. It’s a shame, since when it finally seems that a film is ready to actually discuss NS policies by having a realistic pairing of characters from the era in dialog about them, it cuts off. The sharp contrast between the humble Steiner and the slimey Stransky also screams Marxist class warfare. While it is true that Hitler did not like the old aristocratic system, he did not despise the people in it, just the system of favorites that the upper class had going on, that is what Hitler got rid off. As far as the former elite class was concerned, Hitler had nothing against them and even permitted that they serve in the Wehrmacht; for one, General Erich von Manstein had upper-class origins. It was the Marxists who demonized the upper class and, in Soviet Russia, had practically all of them executed. Thus, we can see why the film cut off the discussion: if it continued there might have been some great NS myth busting, but as we well know, Zionist Correctness will strive to never let that happen.
There is even one NSDAP member in the film, but he turns out to be a rapist who has his genitals bitten off by the woman whom he is abusing. This is then mirrored, in a way, when Stransky is symbolically castrated by not being able to reload his submachine gun. This is Marxist propaganda making its enemies into impotent fools.
There are also some subtle appearances by Hitler in the film beyond the images from the opening. These are in the form of a picture of him that rests on a shelf in Col. Brandt’s field office. First, the officers in the bunker are discussing their glum situation and Captain Kiesel, Brandt’s adjutant, who is clearly shown to be disillusioned and worn out from the war, gets up and whips out a salute just as shells start to rock the whole place. He tries to stand up straight at attention with the salute, but is being shaken all about. In a quick cutaway shot, we can see the small picture of Hitler fall from one shelf to the one below it. The theme of instability in this brief sequence is thus linked to Hitler: the men following him are just going to their deaths, or that Hitler made his followers delusional – basicially it is a reheated serving of all the usual ZC propaganda. The second appearance of Hitler is when Steiner is giving his opinion (a very negative one) on officers: the picture is back on the shelf in the background just over Steiner’s shoulder. Thus, once again, a Hitler-myth, the one in which all decent Germans during the war actually hated Hitler. Steiner even adds that he not only hates all officers, but also “everything that this uniform stands for.”
In the end, the film’s Weltanschauung remains humanist, at best. As far as portraying the Wehrmacht soldier, this is a good step from the typical vilification and/or faceless helmets, but there are still plenty of steps to be taken. And this not only requires for a story arc to go further, but also for it to have a different starting block than this film.
The film’s background can also be seen as an indicator of its content. First off, the money put up for production came from, Wolf C. Hartwig, a West German producer, albeit one who made a career from pornography and exploitation films. Thus, that was one of the early steps to indicate that showing anything authentically National Socialist was pretty much out of the question. The film doesn’t venture into exploitative territory, but it doesn’t go too far past the standard themes of the war genre. It just shows the Wehrmacht campaign as “men on the front lines of Hell” – a very common war film theme – a.k.a. the old anti-war/pacifist theme. This effectively reduces the struggle of the Wehrmacht to that of soldiers in any other war when, in fact, theirs was so much more.
Director Sam Peckinpah had been in steady decline throughout the 1970s and this film is often seen as his last bit of greatness as a filmmaker. Again, the film is good in parts, but it could have been so much better. It could have been groundbreaking on more than just one level. On set, Peckinpah was reported to have been drinking up to 4 bottles of vodka a day during shooting and only sleeping a few hours each night. Thus, the fact that he managed to deliver a finished work at all is rather astounding. By the end of filming, the production had run out of money, so the ending scene in the film was actually improvised on the last day of shooting. However, imagine if Peckinpah was of totally sound mind and fully committed to his story. What could have he shown us then? Would he have seen past the base themes and written them out of the story? Would he then have expanded and shown us a truly honest portrayal of the Wehrmacht soldier? In all likelihood, this would have then gone on to be edited accordingly by the studios, so whatever the result may have been, we’ll never know. It just remains interesting to ponder or as act a springboard for a future film project.
The material in the film remains a mixed-bag, however, there is one last thing, and this is something superb. This is the original release poster. It very aptly shows the tragedy of the German soldier on the Eastern Front and how his honor was stolen.