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Karl Ritter (director)

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Karl Ritter (director)

Karl Ritter

Karl Ritter (7 November 1888 – 7 April 1977) was a German film producer and director responsible for many Nazi propaganda films. He had previously been one of the first German military pilots. He spent most of his later life in Argentina.

Life and career

Early life and World War I

Ritter was born in Würzburg. His father was a professor at the conservatoire; his mother was an opera singer.[1][2] He was a career officer in the German military, built his own aeroplane and earned a pilot's licence in 1911, and in World War I became one of the country's first military pilots.[1][3] After the war he studied architecture, worked as a graphic artist and then entered the film industry in 1926 as a public relations manager at Südfilm, where he edited a book of Disney cartoons. In 1932, he directed a short film featuring Karl Valentin, a comedian.[2]

Third Reich

Ritter was a committed National Socialist. His wife's father was distantly related to Richard Wagner; he came into contact with Hitler through this connection and joined the party in the mid-1920s.[1][2][4] After the Nazis came to power, he moved from head of production at Reichsliga-Film in Munich to become a company director and chief of production at Universum Film AG (UFA).[3][5] He was the producer of Hitlerjunge Quex, among other important Nazi propaganda films. His directorial work for the régime includes entertainment films imitating Hollywood productions, such as Hochszeitsreise (1939) and Bal paré (1940),[3] but he is best known for his propaganda films: anti-Communist films such as GPU (1942) and above all his military films: peacetime films with a World War I context—the 1937–38 trilogy of Patrioten, Unternehmen Michael and Urlaub auf Ehrenwort[6] and Pour le Mérite (1938)—and Zeitfilme (contemporary films) made after the start of World War II such as Stukas (1942). The latter type he largely invented,[7] as a Nazi counter to the Russian revolutionary film, and can be seen as beginning with Verräter (1936),[8] which for the first time brought the German spy film home to Germany.[9]

Ritter himself clearly outlined his purpose as a film maker in terms of Nazi ideology: "The path of German films will lead without any compromise to the conclusion that every movie must stay in the service of our community, of nation and our Führer."[10] "My movies deal with the unimportance of the individual—all that is personal must be given up for our cause."[11][12] He called his propaganda films "pictorial armo[u]red car[s]" which formed a "first line of the propaganda front" while "the rest" (i.e., entertainment films) he relegated to behind the lines.[13] When officers in the military queried the wisdom of the strategy depicted in Unternehmen Michael—an entire infantry column chooses a heroic death in order to take the enemy with them in a hail of artillery fire—he responded, "I want to show the German youth that senseless, sacrificial death has its moral value."[14] The Propaganda Ministry dismissed the radio play with which the military attempted to rebut Ritter's film.[15] His work includes some of the most important Nazi propaganda films.[16] Verräter had its première at the 1936 Party Rally; in 1938 Das Schwarze Korps hailed Pour le Mérite as "the best thing we [have] ever seen"; and his series of World War II films constitute the "apogee" of the Nazi war film.[16] However, when events overtook them, one of his films, Kadetten (completed 1939, released 1941) had to be shelved for two years[6][17] and three either had to be abandoned or could not be released: Legion Condor when the war began, Besatzung Dora when the promise of land in the East for German settlers became hollow (and when the German forces had to withdraw from North Africa, a major setting of the film[4]), and Narvik when the project was opposed by the military and then transferred to Veit Harlan.[18] In 1943, he was ordered to cease directing films.[4][19]

Ritter became one of the most important directors of propaganda films.[20][21][22] He was rewarded by Joseph Goebbels with membership in the governing body of the Reichsfilmkammer, the chamber governing the film industry, a position as a cultural senator and, in honour of Hitler's 50th birthday in 1939, a professorship.[2][3][4][5] He was on Goering's list of party members exempt from the military call-up, but returned to the Luftwaffe and was taken prisoner by the Russians. He escaped to Bavaria.[2][5]

Ritter with Hanna Reitsch in a Scheibe Falke, 1968


After the end of World War II, Ritter was declared a Mitläufer (fellow traveller) at his de-Nazification trial.[2][5][n 1] In 1947, he emigrated to Argentina via Portugal;[23][n 2] there, thanks to Winifred Wagner, he was able to make El Paraiso.[5] In the 1950s he returned to West Germany and ran his own production company there, declaring a wish "to restore the strength of the German cinema",[2] but his project of remaking Pandora's Box fell through, and he went back to Argentina and died in 1977 in Buenos Aires.[2][3][5]

Style, reception, modern assessment

Beginning with Pour le Mérite, Ritter's films are characteristically fast-moving and episodic.[24][25] He prepared them in detail using storyboards.[4][19] He also tends to rowdy humour; in his diary, Goebbels wrote that Ritter "makes nationalistic points with a lack of inhibition that would make others blush"[26] but also noted his heavy touch, writing of Bal paré (1940): "Ritter is not suited to subtle psychological portrayal. He is more for hearty things."[27] As a result he is not highly regarded today. David Stewart Hull, in his 1969 overview of Nazi films, characterised Ritter's work as "heavy-handed and extremely talky", described Pour le Mérite as "a crushing bore" and Stukas as "ha[ving] all his worst vices: blatant propaganda, slapdash production values, crude editing, and a terrible script", while paying GPU the compliment that: "The technical work is less slap-dash than usual and the acting considerably above Ritter's usual low level."[28] (In contrast David Welch, in his 1983 study of German film propaganda, states that in GPU "Ritter portrayed the enemy in such a transparent and unreal way that even German cinema audiences failed to be convinced. ... [T]he actors' wildly exaggerated gestures are totally unconvincing" and regards the portrayal of the torturers as so ridden with "simplistic [clichés] that the propaganda loses all credibility."[29]) Karsten Witte summed him up in his overview, first published in 1993, as someone who "directed bad action films on a conveyor belt".[30] Rainer Rother wrote in his 2003 study of Stukas of "pure inability" and "lack of artistic sensibility".[27] At the time, however, most of Ritter's films were successful. He was "one of the best known and best paid directors in the Third Reich".[6] The Polish film historian Jerzy Toeplitz wrote: "If Karl Ritter had had better screenplays ... and if he had been more aware of the dangers of declamatory dialogue, his works would have gained immensely. They are lively and usually interesting but lack artistic profundity. They never go beyond rather loud, importunate propaganda."[31] John Altmann estimated that 6 million young boys had seen and been influenced by his films between 1936 and 1939.[32] His Zeitfilme such as Stukas have been provocatively seen as forerunners of modern military thrillers such as Roland Emmerich's 1996 Independence Day.[33]


  • 1928: Das Spreewaldmädel (scriptwriter)
  • 1929: Kehre zurück! Alles vergeben! (scriptwriter)
  • 1930: Fräulein Lausbub (scriptwriter)
  • 1931: Der Zinker (producer)
  • 1932: Muß man sich gleich scheiden lassen? (producer)
  • 1932: Melodie der Liebe (producer)
  • 1932: Im Photoatelier (director)
  • 1932: Die verkaufte Braut (producer)
  • 1933: Rivalen der Luft. Ein Segelfliegerfilm (line producer)
  • 1933: Liebe muß verstanden sein (producer, line producer)
  • 1933: Hitlerjunge Quex (line producer)
  • 1934: Lockvogel (line producer)
  • 1934: Liebe, Tod und Teufel (producer, line producer)
  • 1934: Freut euch des Lebens (line producer)
  • 1935: Die törichte Jungfrau (line producer)
  • 1935: Die Insel (line producer)
  • 1935: Königswalzer (line producer)
  • 1935: Ehestreik (line producer)
  • 1936: Die letzten Vier von Santa Cruz (line producer)
  • 1936: Weiberregiment (director, line producer)
  • 1936: Verräter (director, producer, line producer)
  • 1937: Urlaub auf Ehrenwort (director, producer, line producer)
  • 1937: Unternehmen Michael (scriptwriter, director, line producer)
  • 1937: Patrioten (concept, co-scripter, director, producer, line producer)
  • 1938: Pour le Mérite (scriptwriter, director, line producer))
  • 1938: Capriccio (director, line producer)
  • 1939: Die Hochzeitsreise (scriptwriter, director, line producer)
  • 1939: Im Kampf gegen den Weltfeind (director, line producer)
  • 1939: Legion Condor (scriptwriter, director, line producer)
  • 1939: Cadets (scriptwriter, director, line producer)
  • 1940: Bal paré (scriptwriter, director, line producer)
  • 1941: Stukas (scriptwriter, director, line producer)
  • 1941: ...Über alles in der Welt (scriptwriter, director, producer, line producer)
  • 1942: GPU (scriptwriter, director, line producer)
  • 1943: Besatzung Dora (scriptwriter, director, line producer)
  • 1943: Liebesbriefe (line producer)
  • 1944: Sommernächte (director, line producer)
  • 1945: Kamerad Hedwig (line producer)
  • 1945: Erzieherin gesucht (line producer)
  • 1945: Das Leben geht weiter (line producer)
  • 1948: El Paraiso (producer, director)
  • 1950: Wer fuhr den grauen Ford? (producer)
  • 1954: Staatsanwältin Corda (scriptwriter, director)
  • 1954: Ball der Nationen (scriptwriter, director)


  1. ^ Hull wrote that he managed to avoid trial: p. 174.
  2. ^ According to Giesen, p. 257, and The Concise Cinegraph, 1949.


  1. ^ a b c Rolf Giesen, Nazi Propaganda Films: A History and Filmography, Jefferson, North Carolina/London: McFarland, 2003, ISBN 9780786415564, p. 256.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "Karl Ritter", The Concise Cinegraph: Encyclopaedia of German Cinema, ed. Hans-Michael Bock and Tim Bergfelder, Film Europa 1, New York: Berghahn, 2009, ISBN 9781571816559, p. 399.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Ritter, Karl", Das Grosse Lexikon des Dritten Reiches, ed. Christian Zentner and Friedemann Bedürftig, Munich: Südwest, 1985, ISBN 9783517008349, p. 496 (German)
  4. ^ a b c d e Hans-Christoph Blumenberg, - Der letzte Durchhaltefilm der Ufa 1944/45 (I)"Das Leben geht weiter"Hier spricht der deutsche Mensch: , Der Spiegel, 23 November 1992 (German)
  5. ^ a b c d e f Giesen, p. 257.
  6. ^ a b c Reiner Rother, "'Stukas'. Zeitnaher Film unter Kriegsbedingungen", in Krieg und Militär im Film des 20. Jahrhunderts, ed. Berhard Chiari, Matthias Rogg and Wolfgang Schmidt, Beiträge zur Militärgeschichte 59, Munich: Oldenbourg, 2003, ISBN 9783486567168, pp. 349–70, p. 350 (German)
  7. ^ David Welch, Propaganda and the German Cinema: 1933–1945, Oxford: Clarendon-Oxford University, 1983, ISBN 9780198225980, p. 256.
  8. ^ Rother, pp. 351, 352.
  9. ^ John Altmann, "The Technique and Content of Hitler's War Propaganda Films: Part I: Karl Ritter and His Early Films", Hollywood Quarterly 4.4, Summer 1950, pp. 385–91, pp. 387–88.
  10. ^ Cited in Giesen, p. 77.
  11. ^ Cited in John Altmann, "Movies' Role in Hitler's Conquest of German Youth", Hollywood Quarterly 3.4, Summer 1948, pp. 379–86, p. 383, in David Stewart Hull, Film in the Third Reich: A Study of the German Cinema 1933–1945, Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California, 1969, OCLC 46409, p. 120 and in Harry Waldman, Nazi Films in America, 1933–1942, Jefferson, North Carolina/London: McFarland, 2008, ISBN 9780786438617, p. 166.
  12. ^ Also see Welch, p. 215, for a statement by Ritter printed in Der deutsche Film in April 1941: "The ultimate purpose of all National Socialist films is to show the test of an individual within the community—for the individual's fate only has meaning when it can be placed at the service of the community".
  13. ^ Der deutsche Film 1938, cited in translation in John Altmann, "The Technique and Content of Hitler's War Propaganda Films: Part II: Karl Ritter's 'Soldier' Films", Hollywood Quarterly, 5.1, Autumn 1950, pp. 61–72, p. 62.
  14. ^ Cited in Altman, "Movies' Role", p. 383, Hull, p. 119 and Waldman, p. 166.
  15. ^ Altmann, "'Soldier' Films", p. 64.
  16. ^ a b Jay W. Baird, Review, Daniel Gethmann, Das Narvik-Projekt: Film und Krieg, German Studies Review 23 (2000) 164–65, p. 164.
  17. ^ Hull, p. 189.
  18. ^ Baird, p. 165.
  19. ^ a b Rother, p. 349.
  20. ^ Hilmar Hoffmann, The Triumph of Propaganda: Film and National Socialism, 1933–1945, tr. John A. Broadwin and V. R. Berghahn, Volume 1 Providence, Rhode Island: Berghahn, 1996, ISBN 9781571810663, p. 155: "the most consistent among the compliant [purveyors] of the sophisticated documentary."
  21. ^ Altmann, "Karl Ritter and His Early Films", p. 386: "[Hitler and Goebbels'] No. 1 film propagandist".
  22. ^ Altmann, "'Soldier' films", p. 61: "No. 1 film propagandist of the Third Reich".
  23. ^ Hull, p. 269.
  24. ^ Rother, p. 359: "Er pflegte eine episodische Bauweise".
  25. ^ Hull, p. 140: "The subject matter ... follows a new pattern which Ritter was to employ in later works, the use of numerous episodes and scenes ... to paint a vast mural of his subject."
  26. ^ Waldman, p. 166.
  27. ^ a b Cited in Rother, p. 356: "Ritter eignet sich nicht für feinpsychologische Zeichnung. Er ist mehr für die deftigen Dinge."
  28. ^ Hull, pp. 118, 140, 188, 219.
  29. ^ Welch, p. 255.
  30. ^ Karsten Witte, "Film im Nationalsozialismus", in Geschichte des deutschen Films, ed. Wolfgang Jacobsen, Anton Kaes and Hans Helmut Prinzler, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1993, ISBN 9783476008831: "[drehte] am laufenden Band schlechte Actionfilme", cited in Rother, p. 359.
  31. ^ Jerzy Toeplitz, tr. Lilli Kaufmann, Geschichte des Films Volume 1 1895-1933, Munich: Rogner & Bernhard bei Zweitausendeins, 1987, ISBN 9783807702230 (German), p. 1201, cited in translation in Giesen, p. 257, and in Klaus Kreimeier, tr. Robert and Rita Kimber, The Ufa Story: A History of Germany's Greatest Film Company, 1918–1945, Berkeley: University of California, 1996, ISBN 9780520220690, p. 280.
  32. ^ Altmann, "Movies' Role", p. 382, cited in Giesen, p. 257, and Hull, p. 118.
  33. ^ By the Die Welt, 26 September 2000 (German)

Further reading

  • Daniel Gethmann. Das Narvik-Projekt: Film und Krieg. Literatur und Wirklichkeit 29. Bonn: Bouvier, 1998. ISBN 9783416027786 (German)

External links

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