War on Film – Blood & Gold

TAYLOR DOWNING reviews the latest film releases.

The last weeks of the war inside Germany were a desperate time for all its citizens. Hitler held the view that it was the weakness of the German people that had brought defeat upon the nation. This is what he said in his final will and testament, dictated to his secretary, Traudl Junge, inside the bunker in Berlin the day before he shot himself. He ordered that every street and every building in the city should be defended ‘to the last man and the last bullet’. The SS, who regarded themselves as the ideological and racial warriors of the Third Reich, generally took the same view. Any sign of weakness or defeatism was to be sought out and destroyed.

Most sane Germans knew the game was up and defeat was certain. Millions of Soviet soldiers in the Red Army were advancing relentlessly from the east, killing Wehrmacht troops, laying waste to towns and villages, and raping upwards of two million German women as they moved across the east of the country. ‘The boys deserve their fun’, said Stalin, excusing the stories of mass abuse by his troops.

Having crossed the Rhine in March and early April 1945, the British and American armies were rapidly advancing across Germany from the west. Supreme Commander Dwight D Eisenhower was in command of seven Allied armies, a total of four million men. In the Ruhr pocket, 400,000 Wehrmacht troops were surrounded by 15 US divisions. Hitler called for a fanatical, Stalingrad-type last-ditch defence. But after just two weeks, Field Marshal Model ordered his youngest and oldest soldiers to return home. The rest surrendered, and Model walked into a wood and shot himself.

Many German civilians had white sheets ready by the windows to display when Allied soldiers drove into their town or village. But if they were found with signs of surrender ready, they would have been murdered or strung up by the SS or other Nazi fanatics who went hunting for signs of defeatism. Across Germany, people witnessed bodies hanging from lamp posts or trees with a crude caption hung around their neck: Ich bin ein Reichsverrater (‘I’m a national traitor’). Fanatical diehards and small squads of Hitlerjugend were determined to fight to the finish. One British soldier wrote home complaining that the ‘damned papers’ said the war was as good as won. ‘By golly it’s not,’ he wrote. ‘Lots of 16-year-olds are keen to die for Hitler.’

Consequently, many German families kept their portraits of the Führer hanging on the living room wall, and would still give the Heil Hitler salute to any stranger of whose political attitude they were not certain. They just wanted to keep their heads down and survive the next few weeks. Meanwhile, thousands of Nazi officials and SS men were issued with cyanide capsules to use rather than face humiliation and capture.

‘Desertion is treason’

Images: ReinerBajo/Netflix

It is in this anarchic but highly threatening setting that the German writer-director Peter Thorwarth locates his film Blood & Gold. Thorwarth is known for his action-adventures like The Wave (2008) and Blood Red Sky (2021). This latest release was first shown in Germany in April, and has been available on Netflix since the end of May.

The basic storyline echoes many of the issues facing Germans in the last weeks of war. It begins with a Waffen SS squad pursuing a private named Heinrich (ruggedly played by Robert Maaser). He is accused of desertion. The officer in charge is a horribly scarred SS Lieutenant Colonel (played with a strong mix of cruelty, cool, and real terror by Alexander Scheer). As Heinrich has fought bravely for six years, and won the Iron Cross and many other commendations for bravery and hand-to-hand combat, the SS officer fears that his desertion might disturb the rest of the SS troop.

Images: ReinerBajo/Netflix

Addressing both Heinrich and his own platoon, he gives them the standard Nazi line of April 1945 that ‘Desertion is treason. Treason against the Führer; treason against the Fatherland.’ While casually puffing on a cigarette, he continues: ‘We’ll get off our knees and strike back. We are a nation of victors… It is a case of victory or death. There is no other option.’ This statement perfectly sums up the SS attitude at the time.

The deserter, Heinrich, is strung up on a makeshift gallows and dangles from a tree. The SS Sergeant (played with great menace by Roy McCrerey) says he has loosely laced up the noose so he will die slowly. But, instead of staying to see the man die a painful death, the platoon of SS men drives away.

Images: ReinerBajo/Netflix

After they have gone, a local farmer’s daughter, Elsa (superbly played by Marie Hacke), miraculously appears and cuts him down. She takes him to her remote farm homestead, where she lives alone with her brother Paule (Simon Rupp) who has Down’s Syndrome and in a different age would have been called a simpleton. She nurses Heinrich back to health.

Meanwhile, the Lieutenant-Colonel and his platoon arrive in a rundown village called Sonnenburg. When the Bürgermeister (the mayor, played with suitable pomposity by Stephan Grossmann) hears that soldiers have arrived, his immediate reaction is that it must be the Americans and it’s time to get out the white flags and welcome the conquering heroes. When he is told it’s the SS, he rushes to put Hitler’s portrait back up on the wall of the bar he runs. In full Nazi regalia, he obsequiously goes to offer his services to the SS Lieutenant Colonel and offers him and his men drinks in his bar.

Images: ReinerBajo/Netflix

It soon becomes clear that the villagers are sheltering many secrets. Until Kristallnacht in November 1938, a popular Jewish family, the Lowensteins, had lived in the village. However, during that pogrom they were beaten up and their house burnt down by furious villagers, who had been whipped into an anti-Semitic frenzy by the mayor himself. He proudly tells the SS officer that the village has been Juden frei (‘free of Jews’) since then.

Images: ReinerBajo/Netflix

It slowly comes out that the Lowensteins had amassed a substantial fortune of gold with which they intended to buy themselves freedom. But, on the fateful night when they were evicted from the village and their house burned down, the gold went missing. Where is it now? Which of the many villagers who were present that night stole it? And where did they hide it?

The SS officer orders that the ruins of the Lowensteins’ house be dug up in a frantic but futile search for the gold. Much of the rest of the film is dominated by the search for the missing gold, which will bring a fortune when the war is over, as it soon will be, to whoever is in possession of it. This element of the film is well told, with many twists and turns that keep the viewer guessing.

Parallel story

In the parallel story, the SS go looking for Heinrich, whom they realise has escaped death at the tree gallows. They turn up at the simple homestead where Heinrich is by now hiding in the rafters. They mock Paule, whom they call a ‘moron’. ‘How are you still alive?’ they ask. ‘We thought all you morons had been eradicated,’ they shout, referring to the Nazi programme of exterminating the physically weak and the mentally disturbed.

When the SS begin to seize their animals, Elsa puts up spirited resistance but is soon overpowered. The SS Sergeant prepares to rape her – and the others line up to go next. One of the soldiers protests and says that Germans are not like the Russians, who were known to be raping millions of German women in their advance.

General Eisenhower speaking to soldiers of the US 101st Airborne Division on the eve of D-Day, 5 June 1944. The following  11 months saw the relentless advance of Allied forces into Germany from both west and east. Image: Wikimedia Commons

At this point Heinrich jumps from the rafters and a fight breaks out. It is the first of many utterly ridiculous fight scenes depicted in the film. Heinrich and Elsa take on a squad of soldiers, the SS being known for their cunning and ruthless efficiency. But in Blood & Gold, the SS soldiers fight like nincompoops. One by one the incompetent soldiers are killed off, except for the sergeant, who staggers off badly wounded in the crotch, to fight another day.

If Thorwarth has intended to make his fight scenes reminiscent of those in Quentin Tarantino’s films, with sudden and horrific explosions of violence and rivers of fake blood, he certainly does not succeed. Instead, he makes them so unrealistic that they undermine the storyline of the film. Otherwise, the movie would be impressive in exploring the moral choices that Germans had to make at the end of the war. But the idea that a single man and woman could take on an entire platoon of experienced SS soldiers over the course of the film is absurd.

Heinrich and Elsa go on the run, trying to take Paule with them, but he struggles to grasp what is going on. All he wants to do is to be with his beloved animals, especially his cow Rita, whom he milks twice a day. Much of the rest of the film portrays the hunt for Heinrich and Elsa by the maddened SS platoon. In this, Blood & Gold generates a powerful sense of jeopardy. But, again, its credibility is undermined by the frankly unbelievable story of the pursuit.

As the sexual chemistry between them grows, Heinrich explains to Elsa that his wife and son have been killed in the bombing of the town they lived in, Hagen. He has only seen his daughter, who survived, once. His quest to return to Hagen to reunite with his young daughter now becomes another thread in the narrative.

The two strands of the film finally come together. The SS Lieutenant Colonel orders the mayor to assemble the entire village in the town square. It is clear that until someone owns up to possessing the gold, the SS will murder the villagers one after another. He says he will start with the mayor’s son.

Civilians gather around a British tank at Hamburg Station in the weeks after the war ended. The advancing Allies were greeted as liberators by war-weary Germans. Image: Wikimedia Commons

A group of villagers that includes the mayor, two elders, and a woman called Sonja discuss what they should do. It becomes clear that they smuggled the gold from the Lowensteins’ house and have hidden it. At least, they think they have. ‘We’ve only got to hold out for a few weeks until the end of the war and we’ll be rich,’ says one of them. The mayor protests that his son will be killed unless they own up.

The church with its vicar (played with considerable gravitas by Simson Bubbel) now becomes the centre of the action. Paule is to be murdered in front of the church by the SS. A fight breaks out. Heinrich and Elsa arrive. Heinrich is wounded and is tended to by a woman, Irmgard, who appears to be having an affair with the vicar. The gold is not where everyone thought it was. The Lieutenant Colonel is duped into biting on his cyanide capsule.

Heinrich tries a trade-off: he will hand over the gold if the SS return Elsa, who, after all, saved his life by cutting him down from the tree. Clearly there is now a love interest between the two. Irmgard and Elsa lead a female assault on the SS. There is a final shootout in the church, which ends up pretty well destroyed in the fighting. The pace of action speeds up, and there are several twists before the final payoff.

Much to commend

Blood & Gold has much to commend it. The villagers represent in a powerful way the moral choices that faced many Germans in the final stages of the war, exaggerated in this case by the pursuit of the gold. Greed seems to overcome all normal human qualities of compassion and fairness. It is filmed in a visually powerful, gritty way that emphasises the harshness of life in Germany in 1945. Along with this film, the recent adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front (see MHM December 2022/January 2023) shows the strength of visual storytelling in German cinema today. So far, so good.

But, in the end, the films slips into becoming a silly yarn with a hero and heroine performing superhuman tasks and overcoming impossible obstacles. There are, of course, several science fiction and fantasy films today that play on these tropes. Also, the film moves into the territory of traditional westerns, with a clear line between goodies and baddies – and impossible shootouts all structured around a clear and simple morality. At times even the music makes the movie seem like a western.

Such films might capture the imagination of viewers who are looking for breathless action and mindless adventure conveying a clear-cut message. But it does not make it into a war film of real credibility and endurance. That’s a shame, because its depiction of Germany at the end of the war is thoughtful and deserves attention.

BLOOD & GOLD (2023) 
Directed by Peter Thorwarth. 
Written by Stefan Barth and Peter Thorwarth. 
Cinematography by Marc Achenbach. 
Editing by Knut Hake. 
Starring Robert Maaser, Marie Hacke, and Roy McCrerey. 
Available on Netflix.