How Hollywood managed to celebrate German culture in 1954

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s musical coming out just nine years after the end of World War II invited Germany back into polite society

On 15 June 1954, nine years and thirty-seven days after the end of the Second World War in Europe, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released its hit musical The Student Prince.  The Nuremberg trials had concluded less than eight years earlier.  The Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR were not yet five years old.

And yet, despite the end of the war being no longer ago than, say, the death of Osama Bin Laden or Castro’s resignation are now, The Student Prince was a rapturous celebration of German culture.  How could this have been?  How could Hollywood have pivoted so quickly to restoring its sheen to a country that had brought civilisation to the brink, where crimes against humanity had been planned and carried out on an unimaginable scale?

The Student Prince bears the usual signs of being clumsily and hastily assembled on the studio system’s over-heating production line

Let’s begin with the movie: 107 minutes of pure corn, though sprinkled here and there with that sly but gentle wit at which Golden Age Hollywood was so adept.  “Your Highness dances with firmness and decision but the throne of Karlsburg won’t fall if you… bend your knees a little”: so the hero, a handsome, stuffy, dutiful Prussian prince, is told by his prospective wife during their first waltz together.  Prince Karl is sent to the University of Heidelberg to rectify his deficit of warmth and charm, which is standing in the way of a union arranged to keep the dynasty afloat.  There he falls in love with Kathie, a barmaid.

The Student Prince bears the usual signs of being clumsily and hastily assembled on the studio system’s over-heating production line.  Its lasting fame rests primarily on one musical number and, instead of a whodunit, a who-sung-it. ‘Drink, Drink, Drink’, surely one of the greatest of all drinking songs, is performed by the legendary Mario Lanza; but, on screen, the words emerge from the mouth of the English actor Edmund Purdom who plays Prince Karl. Lanza had left the production due to a contract dispute before principal photography had begun.  

The Student Prince, poster (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)


The film is a warm-hearted, well lubricated affair.  In the opening scene, a mildly sozzled professor, Prince Karl’s tutor, is summoned to the castle from a tavern where he is both playing chess and joining in with a rollicking ballad.  Later, when Karl arrives in Heidelberg, student songs ring out from the moment his train rolls in.

Nowhere in movie history, I imagine, are so many brimming steins waved in so many biergartens.  Students in fraternity uniforms turn to Plato and Euripides only when their drinking schedules allow.  And each evening’s revelry concludes with a bleary rendition of ‘Gaudeamus igitur’: “Let us rejoice, therefore / While we are young. / After a pleasant youth, / After a troubling old age, / The earth will have us.”

However, despite the presence of beer halls and uniformed youth, there is little trace of the Nazi stain in the Germany of The Student Prince.  It appears to be set in a kind of dreamtime after the creation of the German Empire but some years before the First World War, when the patchwork of petty kingdoms, principalities, duchies and cities, a throwback to the Holy Roman Empire itself, still held.  The existence of the Kaiser is noted but for comic purposes only: Karl’s prickly butler Lutz threatens Kathie’s innkeeper uncle with a byzantine scheme for bringing down trouble from the highest levels on the head of his niece (who had pushed the Prince over when he had got a little too fresh with her).  The fraternities, meanwhile, do not march around Heidelberg so much as lollop.  At the one lecture we see Karl attending, he is witheringly instructed to turn his thoughts from the military conquests of Alexander the Great to the intellectual conquests of Aristotle.

It appears to be set in a kind of dreamtime after the creation of the German Empire but some years before the First World War

The genealogy of the film stretches back through an operetta written by a Hungarian-American composer and an Irish-American librettist; a play, Old Heidelberg by the Hanoverian Wilhelm Meyer-Förster; and a novel called Karl Heinrich by the same author, the title of which harks back in turn to the work of Joseph Victor von Scheffel, a popular nineteenth-century poet granted a patent of hereditary nobility by the grand duke of Baden.

The makers of the film also were steeped in the old continent, its joys and its troubles.   The screenwriters were William Ludwig, born in Manhattan, and Sonya Lieven, born in what is now part of Lithuania and the daughter of a Jewish political exile who had escaped Siberia with the help of a German whose surname he took on arriving in the United States.  The producer Joe Pasternak was also a Jewish immigrant from the dissolved Austro-Hungarian Empire who spent much of the late twenties and early thirties making films for Universal Studios in pre-Hitlerian Germany.  “No one’s going to get sick or die in my pictures. That’s no form of entertainment,” Pasternak once said.

When I watched The Student Prince again recently, I felt like I had encountered before something like this world conjured up by Pasternak and the rest.  But where?  And then the pfennig dropped.  On a winter’s evening in 1933, eighteen-year old Patrick Leigh Fermor stepped inside the Red Ox Inn in Heidelberg.  ‘Paddy’ was in the early stages of his walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople, later splendidly retold in A Time of Gifts; and he had already benefited more than once from the hospitality automatically bestowed in the Europe of the time on wanderers who claimed the title of student.  He was warmly received by the innkeepers, Herr and Frau Spengel, who invited him to be their guest for the night.

The Red Ox was “an entrancing haven of oak beams and carving and alcoves and changing floor levels”, which, Leigh Fermor discovered, also functioned as the headquarters of the Franconia student league.  In The Student Prince, Karl joins the Westphalian “corps”, resisting the overtures of his natural fellows, the haughtier and more menacing Saxoborussians.  The latter were “Heidelberg’s Bullingdon”, according to Paddy, who goes on to muse about local student life: the songs, the drinking rituals, and, above all, the duelling – which was not duelling at all but “ritual scarification”.  Those dashing scars, he writes, “were school ties that could never be taken off, the emblem and seal of a ten-years’ cult of the humanities”.  In the film, Prince Karl himself gets embroiled in a duel, which he wins.  But his defeated opponent is far from unhappy, having taken a slash to the face: “It’s a beautiful cut,” a chum of his reports.  “Straight as an arrow.  He’s very proud of it.”  (It is perhaps in depicting this resort to stylized violence that The Student Prince comes closest to hinting at some of the more menacing spirits lurking in the German mind.)

Patrick Leigh Fermor ended up spending a number of days in Heidelberg as a guest of the Spengels.  It was a memory of Germany that “failed to succumb to the obliterating moods of war” (a war in which he fought against the Germans as a commando on the island of Crete).  The Student Prince too was perhaps an exercise in avoiding the obliteration of a better memory of Germany.  Or, to put it another way, the film feels like Hollywood throwing a lifeline to a version of Germany that once beguiled the world, but that was at risk of sinking from sight in the dam burst of horrors released by the Third Reich.  It may even have had some propagandistic value, too, helping to soften any resentment about the billions of loan investments made to support post-war German recovery.

Intriguingly, earlier in A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor had pondered this mystery of the two Germanys, trying to work out when the stereotype of “picturesque principalities exclusively populated (…) by philosophers and composers and bandsmen and peasants and students drinking and singing in harmony” had begun to give way to other far more sinister visions, ramping up eventually to the grin spectacle of the Nazis.  His conclusion?  “After the Franco-Prussian War, perhaps.”

The English historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was another who pondered what went wrong.  The Third Reich, the apotheosis of German shame, came about, he believed, because Hitler possessed a (demonic?) “genius for utilizing all the destructive and negative elements in the different German traditions – Austrian Pan-Germanism, Prussian militarism and Machtpolitik, South German political romanticism – each of which contributed its share to Nationalist Socialist ideology and the totalitarian state”.  The Fuhrer’s success was “at the expense of all that was best” in German culture.  (There is an echo here of JRR Tolkien railing against “that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler” for “ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit”.)  Dawson was fond of quoting the prophetic words of nineteenth-century Austrian playwright, Franz Grillparzer: “The path of modern culture leads from humanity through nationality to bestiality.”  In other words, the churning, confusing, absurd-seeming mix of statelets that composed the central European empires was some kind of stay against barbarism and despotism.

The nobler elements of the various German traditions, the things that, in Dawson’s estimate, Hitler had crushed or ignored, are all detectable in The Student Prince

The nobler elements of the various German traditions, the things that, in Dawson’s estimate, Hitler had crushed or ignored, are all detectable in The Student Prince.  They are served up, of course in the interests of money-spinning Tinsel Town make-believe – even the Prussianism comes mainly in a twinkly-eyed form – but also to return to audiences all the delights of an older vision and perhaps, indirectly, to help give Germany another chance.  Certainly, the allure continued to exert itself for many years: the best segment of Blake Edwards’s long slapstick comedy The Great Race (1965) takes place in the little kingdom of Carpania (with Salzburg playing the part of the capital Potsdorf) where the foppish Crown Prince Hapnick (played, hilariously, by Jack Lemmon) is being plotted against.  There are waltzes, duels, monks, cheering peasants, beautiful castles …

This allure has long been felt in this country too.  Leigh Fermor captures it beautifully again and again in his chapters covering Germany.  Charles Marriott, writing about travelling on the Rhine three years before the outbreak of the First World War, found that every crag and valley on either bank, and every island from Bonn to Mainz has its two or three deep layer of romance.’  And when an Oxford don wanted to evoke for Justin Cartwright the beauty of a particular quad at moonlight (The Secret Garden, 2012), the tenacious grip of old Germany on our collective imagination asserted itself again and he spoke of looking across the Rhine at a minor principality.

Heidelberg is in on the Neckar rather than the Rhine, but no matter.  In The Student Prince, it is where castle, lecture hall and beer garden meet; and one place where, one can at least speculate, that 1950s Hollywood, with a typically uneven mixture of schmaltz and wit, of awkwardness and élan, invited Germany back to the table of civilised nations.  For a beer.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover