“Cadets” is a German film made during World War Two, so of course it advances the propaganda of the Reich. But this is actually a well-made and entertaining movie, in spite of its political agenda. The Nazis devoted a substantial amount of resources (often including slave labour) to well-made, elaborate movies, often in historical settings (most notably the epic “Kolberg”) … leaving me to wonder if history might have taken a different course if Germany had devoted all those resources to winning Hitler’s war.
“Cadets” takes place during the Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763, a conflict which I consider the first true world war. (American history books identify this conflict as the French and Indian War, often omitting to mention that much of the fighting took place in Europe, and nearly every European nation was involved.) The Seven Years’ War and World War Two had a major factor in common: in both cases, Russia changed sides during the war.
The heroes of “Cadets” are a group of plucky Prussian boys, ages nine through twelve, who are attached to a battle regiment. (Did the Prussian army actually muster boys this young? And were those boys ever in the line of fire? I confess that I don’t know. I’ll describe the movie accurately, but I don’t know if the movie is historically accurate.) The boys are captured by Russian troops. Of course they escape. After many adventures and hardships, they heroically rejoin their unit.
This film being Nazi agitprop, naturally all the Prussian boys (surrogate Germans) are a bunch of little Tintins, brave and resourceful and good-looking. The Russians are coarse, filthy vulgarians with no sense of honour nor valour. Most nations have resorted to similar stereotypes in their wartime films.
“Cadets” seems to be aimed at both adult and youth audiences in Germany and Austria. On several levels, this is an entertaining “Boys’ Own”-style adventure film, about as realistic as “Emil and the Detectives”. In hindsight, though, we know that the Nazi war effort was preparing boys of the Hitler Youth to go into combat, and that many boys as young as the cadets in this film were eventually in the front lines of the Wehrmacht and the Volkssturm, blindly and patriotically dying for their nation while adult Nazis were frantically rushing westward, hoping to surrender to American or British forces before the Red Army arrived. Those brave boys were decoys so that cowardly men could survive the war.
For those who can look past its political agenda, “Cadets” is an enjoyable film with plenty of action. The period detail is, as usual for German movies before and during the Reich, impeccable. The production values are more than adequate, and the exterior locations are impressive. The boy cadets sing a rousing song, “I Like a Fight with the Enemy in the Field”, and Lydia Li is attractive as a Russian singer. Fully aware of its political context, I’ll rate “Cadets” 7 out of 10.