World War II in Film: People in the Storm (1941)

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In 1941, a German film, Menschen im Sturm, People in the Storm, Ljudi u oluji, an anti-Yugoslavian and anti-Serbian film, was made in Germany to justify the invasion, destruction, and subsequent dismemberment of Yugoslavia. The film starred Olga Chekhova or Tschechowa and Gustav Diessl. The plot of the movie centered around the alleged persecution of the German minority, volksdeutsche, in Yugoslavia by the Yugoslav, particularly Serbian, leaders during the March Crisis in 1941. It was in German and Serbo-Croatian, made by the German production company Tobis Filmkunst. It was directed by Fritz Peter Buch. The screenplay was by Georg Zoch from an idea by Karl Anton and Felix von Eckardt.

The film is set in Yugoslavia in March, 1941. It is during the period of the crisis with Germany. The film opens with a scene of Yugoslav leaders meeting behind closed doors in Belgrade. The pro-German Regent Prince Paul government is overthrown in the March 27 coup. Peter II is proclaimed king. Yugoslav leaders wish Peter II (Petar drugi) a long life as they stream out of the room.

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The major scenes take place along the Slovenian border with Austria in the Upper Cariola region of Slovenia. Austria was annexed to the Third German Reich in 1938. Until now, the Slovenian landowner Alexander Oswatic, played by Gustav Diessl, and his ethnic German wife Vera, played by Olga Chekhova, have never experienced any conflict or been in danger in Yugoslavia. But when their region is plagued by clashes between Serbs and ethnic Germans, they feel threatened and are concerned for the German minority. Everything changes for the worse.

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Olga Chekhova plays the protagonist in the film. She was a major German film star in the Third Reich during the 1930s and 1940s. She was born in Russia. He father was an ethnic German. Her husband was the nephew of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.

Siegfried Breuer played Yugoslav Hauptmann or Army Captain Rakic. Franz Schafheitlin was the Yugoslavian Commissioner or Kommisar Subotic. Kurt Meisel plays Yugoslav Oberleutnant Dusan.

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Yugoslav troops are shown harassing an ethnic German farming family. The soldiers sieze livestock and intimidate the ethnic Germans. This is all in the wake of the new anti-German policies of the Yugoslav regime controlled by Serbs.

Vera and her family begin to experience the anti-German measures. In one scene, her daughter, Marieluise Kornberg, played by Hannelore Schroth, is listening to a radio program from Vienna but is pressured to turn it off.

Yugoslav royalist troops wearing French Adrian helmets are shown marching against the volksdeutsche community in one scene. The film depicts the charged atmosphere following the March 27 coup when an anti-German regime under Peter II replaced the pro-German regime under the Regent Prince Paul. There were news accounts at the time of ethnic Germans fleeing to Austria as refugees because of the anti-German government. There were expressions of anti-German sentiment in Yugoslavia. The film exaggerates and magnifies these cases.

Yugoslav troops are shown searching ethnic German houses in Yugoslavia. Ethnic Germans in Yugolavia are forced to flee towards the Austrian border.

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Vera decides to help Yugoslav citizens of ethnic German origin, the volksdeutsche, who are threatened with persecution. Her daughter accuses her of being a “cosmopolitan”, a euphemism for a Communist. Vera lacks any ethnic consciousness about her own people. She turns into a champion for the German cause after witnessing the persecution of the ethnic German population in royalist Yugoslavia. She manages to seduce a Serbian captain to such a degree that she is able to extract confidential plans and information from him. She is able to turn the information over to the ethnic German community.

Vera joins forces with the teacher of the local ethnic German school, Hans Neubert, played by Heinz Welzel, and together they help numerous ethnic German citizens escape from Yugoslav forces. In one scene, an elderly Croatian druggist, Paulic, played by Rudolf Blumner, is depicted as friendly and tolerant, wishing peace for everyone. He is subsequently brutally murdered by Serbian thugs because of his support of Germany.

The Serbian commanders grow suspicious and put out a spy to determine the source of the leaks in their own ranks. Only by a hair does Vera escape discovery. She is finally found out and flees in a horse-drawn coach with her daughter. They are pursued by Yugoslav military forces on a motorcycle. The Yugoslav pursuer is killed just before they reach the German border. Vera herself had been struck by gunfire and is seriously wounded. She dies as they reach the German border but she dies happy as a German patriot and savior of the persecuted German community in Yugoslavia. The film ends here on a note of triumph and national victory.

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The film is similar to the 1941 German film Heimkehr or Homecoming which focused on the alleged persecution of the German community in Poland. The film sought to rationalize and to justify the German destruction of Poland in 1939 by alleging that the Polish government sought to destroy the ethnic German minority in the country. This was the same paradigm used in Menschen im Sturm.

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Part of the film was shot in Croatia. The German film crew and cast arrived in Zagreb in July, 1941 to begin shooting the film. The NDH was allied to Germany and was part of the Axis. The NDH thus highly supported the production of the film. NDH Poglavnik Ante Pavelic reportedly met with the German film crew. Ustasha NDH Education Minister Mile Budak was photographed on the set of the film, which was entitled Ljudi u oluji in Croatian. Budak was photographed with Olga Chekhova and other cast and crew of the film.

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The film had its premiere in Zagreb in March, 1942. The film was a huge box office hit in the NDH. Ante Pavelic reportedly claimed that a character in the film was based on him. There is a Croatian character in the film named Paulic. Paulic is the Latin form of the name, the root being “Paul”, or “Pavle”. In Croatian and Slavic, the name is Pavelic. Paulic is the pro-German druggist in the film who is murdered by Serbian thugs. The NDH regime highly endorsed the movie.

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The film was released on December 19, 1941 in Germany. In Italy, it was entitled Uomini nella tempesta. It was a popular movie in Germany, Italy, and the NDH. It was banned after the war in Communist Yugoslavia.

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The film was not much different from the wartime movies made in the United States, Great Britain, or the Soviet Union. They were all Manichean, black and white, and one-sided, subjective movies that divided the world into Us and Them. “We” were always good. The “enemy” was always evil. It was always Good versus Evil. And those that made the movies were always on the side that represented good. In this respect, Menschen im Sturm is the same as the movies made in the Allied countries, only from a German perspective. The film presents a view of Yugoslavia from the perspective of Nazi Germany.