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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Die Männer der Emden (Odyssey of Heroes)


Germany 2012
Starts 31 January 2013

Directed by: Beringar Pfahl
Writing credits: Beringer Pfahl, Axel Ricke, Martin Hennig
Cast: Sebastian Blomberg, Ken Duken, Jan Henrik Stahlberg, Oliver Korittke, Sibel Kekilli, Felicitas Woll
Length: 110 minutes


die mnner der emdenThe adventurous story of 52 German soldiers of the Imperial German Navy started during World War I in 1914.  Whilst this small group is on a land mission on the Cocos Islands, they see their ship, the MS Emden, being attacked and going up in flames by the HMAS Sydney. This leaves them captured on the small island. Instead of surrender, lieutenant commander Hellmuth von Mücke (Sebastian Blomberg) has a daring plan of escape. Under cover of night his men successfully seize an old sailing boat which takes them on a wild cruise through stormy weather and enemy controlled waters of the Indian Ocean. Without a single chart they navigate shallow waters and reefs arriving in Sumatra.

An unbelievable odyssey of survival begins. Their aim is getting back to Berlin 13.000 km away. Water and provisions are low but they make it to the coast of Saudi Arabia. From here the journey has to continue on camels, across the scorching hot dessert, trying to find the railway tracks leading to Constantinople; 4.500 km by train would bring them home. But the men are getting weaker, their moral is deteriorating and commander von Mücke has a hard time to keep his men together. What awaits them? It is still war time and they will have to continue fighting for the fatherland, for the glory of Kaiser William II. 

What an adventure, what a story written by the German director. Indeed, this sounds like the material for a blockbuster epos. But this is not what the filmmaker Beringar Phal had in mind. He based the story on well researched material from commander von Mücke and the tone is dry and unemotional. The film opens with von Mücke travelling back per train, telling the story in an off-voice, musing whether he made the right decision, whether it was worth it. This introduction lets us already understand that this is an anti-war movie, but in contrast for the next 110 minutes we are watching the men of the Emden as heroic, crafty and enduring soldiers. All actors – also for minor roles – are well chosen even if some of the characters are a bit sketchy, like the mysterious Turkish women played by Sibell Kekilli. Oliver Korittke adds a lively touch to his resourceful soldier Ullrich Kluthe. Ken Duken and Jan Henrik Stahlberg, as the two officer friends, are competing for the love of the same woman, played by Felicitas Woll. Filming took place in Greece, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Malta and Germany. I enjoyed the impressive photography, the atmospheric setting as well as the meticulously detailed outfit. Unfortunately the dialog is often too stilted, distracting from the action.

The role of Germany in World War I is not often shown in film and I would have liked a bit more depth. The focus of the film is not clear. Where do the men stand? Are they truly patriotic? It was interesting to read in the credits that one of them deserted to Sweden, one became a Nazi supporter, another one lost his life in a concentration camp, and officer Hellmuth von Mücke later did a turn-around by rallying against Germany’s rearmament.

After watching the film I was intrigued by the “true” story and wanted to know more about the background to understand why the men of the Emden were so feared but honoured by the enemy. I learned that the German light cruiser MS Emden was part of the East-Asia squadron stationed at Tsingtao, China (then a German colony), and had seized or destroyed more than15 merchant vessels, as well as sinking a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer. Therefore, they successfully disrupted the British supply route and were at times chased by a dozen ships in the area, but were cunningly slipping away from under their nose.  Apparently all this happened within two months. On top of it, they were hailed as “Gentlemen of War”. Their prisoners were always treated fairly and with respect. Thirty-six French survivors from Mousquet were rescued by the Emden and when three of them died of their injuries, they were buried at sea with full honours (Wikipedia). No wonder the Emden became legend.

Captain Müller and all serving officers of the Emden were bestowed the Iron Cross First Class by Kaiser Wilhelm II (the Emperor) and 50 crewmen were given the Iron Cross Second Class. As a signal mark of honour, the Government of Germany allowed all of the surviving officers and men to suffix the word “Emden” to their names. The honour is remembered still today. Kaiser Wilhelm II also awarded the Iron Cross to the ship itself. Since the destruction of the Emden in 1914, four other warships of the German navy have received the same name and have all carried large symbols of this medal on their bows.

Two German films were made of the warship, Our Emden in 1926 as a silent film and Cruiser Emden in 1932. Both were directed by Louis Ralph. ()

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