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Falk Harnack (2 March 1913 – 3 September 1991) was a German director and screenwriter. During Germany's Nazi era, he was also active with the German Resistance and toward the end of World War II, the partisans in Greece. Harnack was from a family of scholars, artists and scientists, several of whom were active in the anti-Nazi Resistance and paid with their lives.

Falk Harnack
Falk Harnack low resolution.tif
Born(1913-03-02)2 March 1913
Died3 September 1991(1991-09-03) (aged 78)
OccupationFilm director
Years active1940–1976


Early yearsEdit

Falk Erich Walter Harnack was the younger son of painter Clara Harnack, née Reichau, and literary historian Otto Harnack; a nephew of theologian Adolf von Harnack and Erich Harnack, professor of pharmacology and chemistry; the grandson of theologian Theodosius Harnack and the younger brother of jurist and German Resistance fighter Arvid Harnack. He was also a cousin of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Ernst von Harnack, who, like his brother and sister-in-law, Mildred Harnack, also became victims of the Third Reich.[1][note 1] He never got to know his father, who committed suicide in 1914.

Through his older brother, Harnack early learned about humanism, through which he came into contact with people who later became members of the Red Orchestra. These acquaintances made a big impression on him, so that he recoiled from Nazi propaganda. After going to school in Weimar, he continued his education near Jena, where he received his abitur in 1932. In 1933, he began attending university, first in Berlin and after 1934, in Munich,[2] where in May, he took part in disseminating fliers against the National Socialist German Students' League. He received his doctorate with a dissertation on Karl Bleibtreu[3] in 1936 and the following year, began working at the Nationaltheater Weimar and the state theater in Altenburg. He worked there as a director until 1940, when he was drafted into the Wehrmacht.

War yearsEdit

In 1942, Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell and other members of the Munich Resistance group the White Rose got in touch with Harnack through Lilo Ramdohr, a mutual friend who had gone to school with Harnack. Through him, they hoped to build a relationship with the Berlin Resistance members involved with Harnack's brother, Arvid,[4] Harro Schulze-Boysen, Hans von Dohnanyi and others. Harnack put them in touch with his cousins, Klaus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That same year, the Gestapo intercepted communications revealing the existence of the Red Orchestra and leading to numerous arrests. Many of those arrested were later executed, including Harnack's brother on 22 December 1942, and on 16 February 1943 his sister-in-law, Mildred Harnack, an American citizen. During this period, Ramdohr was engaged to Falk Harnack, which Arvid mentioned in his farewell letter to his family, written hours before his execution.[5]

Though Harnack's brother had just been executed, he went to Munich to meet with Sophie and Hans Scholl on 3 February 1943.[4] He and Hans Scholl agreed to meet again on 25 February but Harnack waited in vain; Scholl had already been arrested and executed,[4] along with his sister. Thirteen other members of the White Rose were taken into custody,[4] including Kurt Huber, Willi Graf and Harnack. Of the lot, Harnack was the only one acquitted;[4] the others were found guilty and condemned to death, some executed the same day they were tried at the Volksgerichtshof, the civilian "People's Court". On 19 April 1943, Harnack was acquitted because of a lack of evidence and "unique special circumstances".[6]

In August 1943 he was removed from service to the Wehrmacht and transferred to a penal battalion, the 999th Light Afrika Division[2] and sent to Greece.[4] In December 1943, he was to be arrested and sent to a Nazi concentration camp,[7] but his superior, Lieutenant Gerhard Fauth, tipped him off and helped him escape.[8] He then joined the Greek partisans fighting the Nazis, working with the Greek People's Liberation Army (ELAS) and co-founded the Anti-Fascist Committee for a Free Germany[9] with Gerhard Reinhardt, becoming leader of the organization.

Postwar yearsEdit

After the war, Harnack returned to his career as a director and dramaturge, first working at the Bavarian state theater in Munich. In 1947, he began working at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. From 1949 to 1952, he was the artistic director at DEFA, where he made the film The Axe of Wandsbek, adapted from a book by Arnold Zweig. According to Zweig's son, the movie is based on a true story and may also relate to the events of Altona Bloody Sunday in Hamburg.[10] The main character carries out a Nazi execution, though he ruins his business, marriage and life over it. Opening to positive reactions from the public, the film met with disapproval from the Socialist Unity Party and its Soviet advisors, who felt the movie's political position was not clear enough. One such adviser said, "[the film had] an undesired and deleterious effect on people in the GDR, as it does not depict hatred of fascism, but rather pity for the murderers.”[10] The government banned the movie within weeks. Poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht remarked after the banning, “It is important to emphasize that there can be no sympathy for a Nazi executioner."[10] After all that Harnack had lost to the Nazis, this dispute hit him hard and in 1952, he left East Germany for West Berlin.[10]

For the first few years, Harnack worked for the film production company CCC Film and, along with Helmut Käutner and Wolfgang Staudte, was one of the most important directors of German postwar films.[11] From the end of the 1950s, however, he worked almost exclusively in television. He also wrote the screenplays for many of his films. From 1962 to 1965, he was the leading director of the newly founded German television station, ZDF. Subsequently, he worked primarily as a free lance. In addition to entertainment, he also made challenging films, which sometimes dealt with Germany's Nazi era and the Resistance, such as his 1955 release The Plot to Assassinate Hitler (Der 20. Juli) about the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler,[12] which won the 1956 German Film Award in the category "Films Contributing to the Encouragement of Democratic Thought". In 1962, he directed for television, Jeder stirbt für sich allein, an adaptation of Hans Fallada's novel, Every Man Dies Alone,[13] based on the story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a working class couple who became involved in the anti-Nazi Resistance, failed in their efforts and were executed.

Recognition and personalEdit

About Harnack's work, German author Gerhard Schoenberner remarked, “At a time when West German postwar film had sunk to its artistic and political low, his work set new standards for the dictates of commerce and the false glorification of the past that had become fashionable during the Adenauer period as a result of the Cold War.”[10]

Harnack was married to German actress Käthe Braun,[1] who was often in his films. He died on 3 September 1991 after a long illness.

Awards (selected)Edit


Audio playsEdit


  1. ^ Others close to Harnack who were executed by the SS were his cousin Klaus Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, who was Klaus' and Dietrich Bonhoeffer's brother-in-law.


  1. ^ a b Mildred Harnack: Cast of characters Archived 2014-01-28 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved February 19, 2012
  2. ^ a b Gottfried Hamacher, Andre Lohmar, Herbert Mayer and Günter Wehner, Gegen Hitler: Deutsche in der Resistance, in den Streitkräften der Antihitlerkoalition und der Bewegung "Freies Deutschland" Dietz, Berlin (March 2005), p. 76. ISBN 3-320-02941-X (in German)
  3. ^ Falk Harnack biography Retrieved February 19, 2012 (in German)
  4. ^ a b c d e f »Keine Träne, aufrecht« Die Zeit (November 24, 2009). Retrieved March 2, 2012 (in German)
  5. ^ "Read Arvid Harnack's Farewell Letter To His Family"[permanent dead link] Channel 3000. Retrieved February 16, 2012
  6. ^ Brief biography of Falk Harnack (click to open) German Resistance Memorial Center. Retrieved February 16, 2012
  7. ^ Heap, Denise. "FALK HARNACK AND THE SS". wrh3. Center for White Rose Studies. Retrieved 3 October 2016.
  8. ^ Michael Verhoeven, Mario Krebs, Die weiße Rose Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main (1982), p. 180. Retrieved February 19, 2012 (in German)
  9. ^ Johannes Tuchel (Ed.), Der vergessene Widerstand: Zu Realgeschichte und Wahrnehmung des Kampfes gegen die NS-Diktatur Wallstein Verlag (2005), p. 26. ISBN 3-89244-943-0. Retrieved March 2, 2012 (in German)
  10. ^ a b c d e Das Beil von Wandsbek (The Axe of Wandsbek) DEFA Film Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Retrieved February 19, 2012
  11. ^ Der 20. Juli (1955) Berliner Zeitung (July 16, 1996). Retrieved February 16, 2012
  12. ^ "20. Juli – Fakten statt Fiktion" Film Reporter. Retrieved February 19, 2012 (in German)
  13. ^ "Programm vom Donnerstag, dem 19. Juli 1962" TV Programme. Retrieved March 4, 2012 (in German)
  14. ^ List of German Film Award winners by name Deutsche Filmakademie. Retrieved February 19, 2012 (in German)
Other sources

External linksEdit