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The Exploits of the Emden (1928)


In the German colony of Tsingtao (Qingdao), on the Chinese coast, the warship Emden puts to sea as war breaks out in Europe, in August 1914. Reservist Officer Fritz Ackermann must join the ship even though his wife Meta and her younger sister are en route from Germany by ship. The Emden, commanded by Captain Karl von Müller (Louis Ralph), raids Allied shipping in the East Indies and Indian Ocean, but von Müller is careful to offload passengers and crew before he sinks enemy ships. One of these is the Diplomat, where Fritz and his wife are briefly reunited.

Meanwhile, the first convoy of Australian and New Zealand troops leaves Australia, escorted by HMAS Sydney, HMAS Melbourne and a Japanese cruiser Ibuki. Captain JCT Glossop, on the Sydney, thinks the convoy will be safer after passing Cocos Island, unaware that the Emden’s crew is at that moment taking control of the wireless station on Deception Island, part of the Cocos group. The radio operators manage to send the alarm before being shut down. The Sydney diverts to attack the Emden. Outgunned and outmanoeuvred, the Emden is blown apart in a fierce battle. Captain von Müller beaches his ship, to avoid further loss of life. The Sydney has won a famous victory in the first major sea battle of the Australian navy.

Curator’s notes

This is a partial reconstruction of what’s left of Ken G Hall’s first film – although it’s accurate to say that it was Hall’s partial reconstruction of someone else’s film to begin with. In 1928, Ken Hall was still a publicity man, working for First National Pictures in Sydney. His boss, John C Jones, bought a German feature film, Unsere Emden (Our Emden) (1926), sight unseen, because the story of how HMAS Sydney defeated the Emden in 1914 was a legend in Australia. When they watched the German film, Jones felt it was unreleasable. ‘It was a disaster’, Hall wrote in his autobiography, Directed by Ken G Hall (1977, Lansdowne Press), ‘and would never be accepted by Australian audiences because it was straightforward German propaganda’. Hall and Jones decided to shoot new scenes to cut into the existing footage. To do that, they needed cooperation from the Australian Navy, which Hall set about securing.

Hall and two experienced newsreel cameramen, Claud Carter and Ray Vaughan, spent a week aboard the Sydney, as it took part in manoeuvres off Jervis Bay, including target practice. Hall received considerable cooperation, including having the white officers’ uniforms dyed a light blue to avoid problems of halation (a halo effect on the film). Hall selected a couple of sailors from the crew to inject some comedy sequences (see clip two), and the navy provided a second ship, so that Carter could film shots of the Sydney at full speed. The new footage, with new titles, was cut into the German film and The Exploits of the Emden opened in Sydney’s most prestigious cinema, the Prince Edward, on 21 September 1928. It ran for three weeks, which was a considerable success.

Three years later, for reasons that are still unclear, someone recut the film, deleting the subplot about Fritz and his sweetheart from Germany, and shortening the overall film by more than half. This film was called Sea Raider (1931). Most of the ‘original’ film that Ken Hall made has been lost, but the battle footage is largely preserved in Sea Raider. In 2005, historian Dr Daniel Reynaud worked with the National Film and Sound Archive to partially reconstruct The Exploits of the Emden. Reynaud says some of the reconstruction is necessarily speculative, a best guess on where certain sequences came in the narrative, but it allows us to see a version of the film that is closer to what audiences saw in 1928, albeit incomplete. It makes clear that the original German film, Unsere Emden (1926), was a sophisticated piece of work.

The director was Louis Ralph, an Austrian actor and director (1884–1952). Ralph also plays the captain, Karl von Müller. Unsere Emden uses some of the original Emden’s crew members as cast, and the film was a major hit in Weimar Germany in 1926. Dutch academic Bernadette Kester writes in her book Film Front Weimar (2003, Amsterdam University Press) that Unsere Emden (1926) ‘was one of the most successful films in the Weimar period. It was promoted in a remarkable campaign during the summer months of 1926. Never before had so much attention been paid to a war film in the press.’ Kester writes that the production company Emelka published a letter from the Reich’s president, Von Hindenburg, saying that the Emelka film was ‘the only Emden film that had the support of the navy’. The film premiered in two theatres in Berlin in December 1926 and became one of the biggest films of the year. It was also popular in Britain, which may help to explain why it was bought for distribution in Australia.

What’s most intriguing is the context in which it was made, which was the secret attempt by the German Navy to promote its own resurgence. The German Navy had been rounded up and sent to anchor at Scapa Flow, Scotland, in 1919, at the end of the First World War. There, the German officers still commanding the ships scuttled most of them, in defiance of the Armistice, rather than see them handed over to their enemies. The second Emden was among those they tried to sink, but alert British sailors ran her aground before she could sink (she was given to France as a war prize and scrapped in 1926). In 1927, according to Bernadette Kester, the German press revealed that Captain Walter Lohman of the Reichsmarine (the name of the German Navy during the Weimar Republic and the first two years of Nazi rule) had ‘siphoned off around 10 billion Reichsmark from secret funds to serve as capital for supporting clandestine rearmament and militarist-nationalist propaganda’. Some of the money was directed towards a film company, Phoebus Film AG, one of the largest in the country, for the production of ‘navy friendly’ films. In this context, Von Hindenburg’s letter, saying that Unsere Emden (produced in 1926, the year before the scandal broke) had ‘the support of the navy’ begins to look suspicious. Kester points out that only three German films were made between 1926 and 1933 dealing with the role of battleships in the First World War: Unsere Emden (1926), Scapa Flow (1930) and Kreuzer Emden (1932). The third film was also directed by Louis Ralph. Again, he starred as von Müller, perhaps in an attempt to repeat the success of his 1926 version (it failed).

It’s clear that the mythmaking about the Emden was important to both sides, for different reasons. The German film industry produced a big budget film to celebrate the heroic exploits of a ship that was important in the postwar German psyche. They made it at a time when the secret rearmament of the German military was underway, accompanied by a secret propaganda campaign. Two years later, the same film arrived in Australia and Ken Hall was charged with recutting it to weed out the German propaganda and make the film more appealing to Australians, who had their own reasons to love the story. He emphasised the role of the Sydney, while still paying tribute to Captain von Müller and his crew. Some of Louis Ralph’s footage was reused again in 1932, when Ralph remade his own film. And the Australian version had been recycled a year earlier in the 1931 recut Sea Raider. There were, in effect, four films made about the Emden, all from the same material, first used in Unsere Emden (1926).