Morgenrot (film)

Morgenrot is a 1933 German submarine film set during World War I.

Directed by
Produced byGunther Stapenhorst
Written byGerhard Menzel (Idea: Edgar von Spiegel von und zu Peckelsheim[1])
Music byHerbert Windt
Distributed byUniversum Film AG (UFa)
Release date
  • 2 February 1933 (1933-02-02)
Running time
75 minutes

Released three days after Adolf Hitler became Reichskanzler, it was the first film to have its screening in Nazi Germany. It became a symbol of the new times touted by the Nazi regime.[2] The title (literally "morning-red") is the German term for the reddish coloring of the east sky about a half-hour before the sunrise. Dawn was the U.S. title. It was filmed in Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein, the first German submarine movie made after World War I.


In March 1927, the UFA studio, the largest film production company in Europe, was purchased by the media magnate Alfred Hugenberg, who wanted to own UFA to produce "national" films that glorified his right-wing politics.[3] Morgenrot was one of the several "national" films that were released by UFA during Hugenberg's time as its owner.[4] Despite Hugenberg's hopes, the UFA studio was heavily in debt at the time he purchased it and the transition from silent films to talkies imposed significant new costs on UFA, and as a result, UFA tended to release films with the widest possible appeal instead of the "national" films that Hugenberg had wanted to see produced.[5] For Hugenberg, profits trumped his politics with UFA, and contrary to expectations, there was no purge of UFA's Jewish employees after he brought the studio as he did not want to lose talent to rival studios.[6] Only a minority of UFA films released between 1927-1933 were the sort of films that Hugenberg had wanted to see produced.[7]

The script was for Morgenrot was written by Gerhard Menzel, a successful writer from Silesia who had won the Kleist prize for the best new German play in 1927, who was also a Nazi party member.[8] In turn, Menzel was inspired by an idea submitted by the writer Edgar von Spiegel von und zu Peckelsheim.[9] However, Hugenberg intended for Morgenrot to aid his party, the DNVP (Deutsche Nationale Volkspartei-German National People's Party), which he became the leader of in 1928, not the NSDAP.[10] Hugenberg had a difficult relationship with Adolf Hitler, who was sometimes his ally and sometimes his enemy, which depended largely on Hitler's calculations about how much he needed the help of Hugenberg. At the time that Morgenrot went into production, the NSDAP and the DNVP were enemies, but Hugenberg knew a strong showing by his party might change Hitler's attitude. It appears that Morgenort was a sort of peace offering by Hugenberg to the Nazis, who might become the DNVP's allies once again.[11]

The film was also part of an effort to rehabilitate the reputation of the Imperial Germany Navy and of navalism in general.[12] The November Revolution of 1918, the alleged "stab-in-the-back" that defeated Germany just as the Reich was alleged to be on the verge of victory, had started with the great High Seas Fleet mutiny. In October 1918, the mistreated sailors of the High Seas Fleet turned against their officers after being ordered to set sail on a "death ride" into the North Sea to take on the combined Anglo-American Grand Fleet in a battle expected to end in the destruction of the High Seas Fleet at a time when it was already clear that the war was lost. Besides for being mistreated by their officers, who delighted in humiliating them in various petty ways, the sailors of the High Seas Fleet justified the mutiny under the grounds that the war was already lost, making the planned "death ride" utterly pointless and that it was better to live another day than to die now for a lost cause. For the German right, the High Seas Fleet mutiny had given the Navy a vile reputation as a place of mutiny and treason, where the November revolution that had toppled the House of Hohenzollern had begun. Releasing a film featuring a heroic U-boat ace, who is honored to fight and if necessary die for the Fatherland, was intended by the navalist Hugenberg to dissipate the popular image of mutinous sailors waving about red flags, and provide a more positive image of the Imperial Navy.[13] Much of what can be described as Morgenrot's pro-death message with its portrayal of death in war as noble, honorable and even erotic was intended as a sort of rebuttal to the mutinous sailors of the High Seas Fleet.[14] One of the slogans used by the High Seas Fleet sailors when they mutinied in 1918 was "We want to live as free men, not die as slaves!"

The title of the film comes from a 19th century poem by the Romantic writer Wilhelm Hauff whose first lines read: "Morgenrot, morgenrot/Lauchtest mir zum frühen Tod?/Bald wird die Trompete blasen/Dann muss ich Leben lassen/Ich und mancher Kamerad" ("Morning dawn, morning dawn/Do you long for an early death?/Soon the trumpet will sound/Then I will to give up my life/Me and some comrades").[15] The film was directed by Gustav Ucicky, an Austrian director resident in Berlin who was one of UFA's best directors who went on to become one of the most prominent film directors of Nazi cinema.[16] Morgenrot was shot in October-November 1932 at Kiel and in Helenski with the Baltic sea "playing" the North Sea.


Set in 1916, the film offered up a highly fictionised version of the death of the British War Secretary, Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener on abroad the cruiser HMS Hampshire, on his way to Russia. A successful U-boat ace, Helmut Liers, lives in the fictional north German town of Meerskirchen with his mother, who has already lost two sons in the war.[17] Liers is the local hero of Meerskirchen due to his command of U-21 and the first part of the film concerns the high-spirted adventures of Liers and his crew of while on leave.[18] Everyone thinks that Helga, the daughter of the burgermeister of Meerskirchen is in love with Lieutenant Phipps "Fips" Fredericks, but in fact she is in love with the older man Liers.[19] The Majorin (Lier's mother), tries to get him a shore assignment, which he blocks, saying that he will fight on until Germany either wins the war or he dies, and then goes out to sea on his latest mission.[20]

In the second part of the film, the German Navy learns that a very important British military leader-who is not named in the film, but is clearly meant to be Kitchener-has boarded a cruiser taking him to Arkhangelsk, leading Liers and his U-boat being sent out to essentially assassinate him by sinking the cruiser, a task which is performed successfully (in reality, the Hampshire was sunk by a mine, not an U-boat).[21] Afterwards, a Q ship (a disguised British merchant cruiser), which illegally flies the flag of neutral Denmark, ambushes Liers's submarine, which is badly damaged.[22] A squadron of British destroyers pursue U-21 across the North Sea, which is finally sunk and comes to rest on the seabed. Two of the U-21 crew members including Fips sacrifice themselves to save the others including Liers who make their way back to the Fatherland.[23] The film ends with Liers boarding a new submarine to once again go out to continue the war at sea with the last shot being a close-up of the Imperial German Navy Ensign, which flutters proudly in the wind.[24]


The film offered a heroization of death, with the captain Liers explicitly stating that Germans may not know how to live, but they know how to die.[25] In a central scene, the captain of the submarine offers to his men that he and the first officer will go down with the ship in order that they may escape; they refuse on the grounds it will be all or none of them, and the captain glorifies the chance to die with such men, a theme that commonly appeared in Nazi-era films.[26] The first officer Fredericks, having learned that the woman he loves is in love with captain, not himself, and another sailor commit suicide to save the others – a common way to resolve love triangles in Nazi films, where the heroic death saves the man from failure.[27] On the other hand, the Majorin refuses to rejoice over her son's success in sinking the cruiser and with it Lord Kitchener because of the suffering of war, saying that the men abroad the Hampshire also had families-a theme that would not appear in Nazi film.[28]

The film is notable for its misogyny with its message that femininity equals weakness and masculinity equals strength.[29] A key plot in the film are the efforts of Liers's wealthy mother to get him a shore assignment as she has already lost two sons to the war, an effort which her son successfully blocks, saying he would rather die for the Fatherland than shirk his patriotic duty.[30] The female dominated home front in Germany is portrayed as a place of sexual temptation and weakness, in contrast to the harsh and all-male world of the U-boat at sea, which for its all discomforts and dangers, is portrayed in a more favorable light than the home front.[31] The conflict between Liers vs. his mother over what she calls his todessehnsucht (literally "longing for death", through "contempt for life" is a more accurate translation) is in fact the film's major conflict.[32] Lier's mother calls his todessehnsucht "a new kind of religion", a charge that he does not deny, merely saying in response that "We Germans may not how to live, but we know how to die".[33] Lier's mother represents the pre-1914 Germany, which for its all its decency and civility does not the necessary toughness to survive in a world that is portrayed as merciless and cruel.[34] By contrast, Liers with his love of action and violence together with a general contempt for human life represents the hard, ruthless "New Man" spawned by the war, who for his all rough edges and todessehnsucht paradoxically does the necessary toughness to survive.[35]


The film's gala premiere in Berlin on 2 February 1933 was attended by the newly appointed Chancellor Hitler as the guest of honor.[36] Josef Goebbels wrote in his diary that Morgenrot was "a good film within its limits".[37] Critical reception towards Morgenrot was generally favorable with the critics praising the acting and the direction with the film being praised as exciting and brisk.[38] The Frankfurter Zeitung, the most prestigious newspaper in Germany, unusually put its review of Morgenrot on its front page, where the film critic of the Frankfurter Zeitung praised the Morgenrot as one of the best German films ever made.[39] However, critics noted that the scenes on the home front were idealtypischer Bilder ("ideal typical picture").[40] The character of the Majorin played by Adele Sandrock, was described as the film's most memorable character, which was certainly not the intention of the film's producers.[41] The film critic of Vorwärts, the newspaper of the SDP, in one of his last film reviews (Vorwärts was banned later in February 1933) wrote with the character of the Majorin "any nationalist tendency was taken from the film", judging that the arguments made by the Majorin were stronger than those made by Liers.[42] The film critic of Völkischer Beobachter, the newspaper of the NSDAP, in his positive review wrote: "Morgenrot-may it be a symbol for the beginning of a new era".[43] The Berlin correspondent of The New York Times who attended the premiere reported that "It is a film of exceptional qualities, aside from its propagandistic tendencies".[44] Together with the 1931 film Yorck, Morgenrot was one of the most financially successful of UFA's "national" films released under Hugenberg.[45]

The film generated much controversy in Britain in 1933 where reviewers were quick to notice that the unnamed British military leader who goes down on a cruiser on his way to Russia was meant to be Kitchener.[46][47] Additionally, the film's general picture of "English perfidy" as the British only managed to damage Liers's U-boat by illegally flying the Danish flag on a British ship, which suggested that the British could only defeat the Germans via underhanded methods also generated controversy in Britain.[48] Right from the film's premiere in Berlin, British newspapers gave Morgenrot extensive coverage, which the film being criticised for its unflattening picture of the Royal Navy.[49] The film was debated in the House of Commons after a Tory backbencher, Sir Charles Cayzer, demanded that the Foreign Office have the ambassador in Berlin, Sir Horace Rumbold, made an official protest against Morgenrot, saying the film was very disrespectful and insulting towards Britain.[50] The prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was unwilling to have such a protest being and the Foreign Secretary, Sir John Simon, found himself during the debates in the House of Commons " the rather odd position of having to defend a Nazi film".[51] To placate Cayzer, Simon agreed to the House of Commons form a committee to investigate Morgenrot, which discovered that the UFA had borrowed the submarine used in the film from the Finnish Navy without informing the Finns what the film was all about.[52]



The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures awarded it with Best Foreign Film for 1933.[53]


  1. ^ E. Baron v. Spiegel at IMDb; Joerg Friedrich Vollmer: Imaginaere Schlachtfelder. Kriegsliteratur in der Weimarer Republik – eine literatursoziologische Untersuchung. PhD Thesis, Freie Universitaet Berlin 2003 (Chapter 5, p 413) Online Edition
  2. ^ "". Archived from the original on 2012-02-04. Retrieved 2005-09-26.
  3. ^ Leopold p.94
  4. ^ Leopold p.94
  5. ^ Leopold p.94
  6. ^ Leopold p.94
  7. ^ Leopold p.94
  8. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.184
  9. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.184
  10. ^ Leopold p.94
  11. ^ Hull p.21
  12. ^ Waldman p.27
  13. ^ Waldman p.27
  14. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.183-184
  15. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.184
  16. ^ Hull p.244
  17. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.184
  18. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.184
  19. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.184
  20. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.186
  21. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.185
  22. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.185
  23. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.185
  24. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.185-186
  25. ^ Baird, p. 8
  26. ^ Leiser, pp. 20
  27. ^ Leiser, pp. 20–21
  28. ^ Leiser, pp. 21
  29. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.186
  30. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.186
  31. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.186
  32. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.187
  33. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.187
  34. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.187
  35. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.187
  36. ^ Waldman p.27
  37. ^ Waldman p.27
  38. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.190-191
  39. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.191
  40. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.191
  41. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.191
  42. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.191
  43. ^ Kester & Veenkamp p.191
  44. ^ Hull p.17
  45. ^ Leopold p.94
  46. ^ Fox p.165
  47. ^ Hull p.17
  48. ^ Fox p.165
  49. ^ Hull p.17
  50. ^ Hull p.17
  51. ^ Hull p.17
  52. ^ Hull p.17
  53. ^ "New York Times: Morgenrot (1933)". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Baseline & All Movie Guide. Archived from the original on 2012-07-17. Retrieved 2010-10-31.


  • Baird, Jay W. (1974). The Mythical World of Nazi War Propaganda. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-0741-9.
  • Fox, Jo (2007). Film Propaganda in Britain and Nazi Germany World War II Cinema. Oxford: Berg Publishers. ISBN 9781859738962.
  • Stewart Hull, David (1969). Film in the Third Reich Art and Propaganda in Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-21486-1.
  • Leiser, Erwin (1975). Nazi Cinema. Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-02-570230-1.
  • Leopold, John (1977). Alfred Hugenberg The Radical Nationalist Campaign against the Weimar Republic. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-02068-6.
  • Kester, Bernadette; Veenkamp, Hans (2003). Film Front Weimar Representations of the First World War in German Films of the Weimar Period (1919-1933). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. ISBN 9789053565971.
  • Waldman, Harry (2008). Nazi Films in America, 1933- 1942. Jefferson: McFarland. ISBN 978-0786438617.

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