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Germany and the Nazi Cinema

4.01.2011

In Germany, the shift to sound was more sinister, with the indigenous film industries rapidly pressed into service of the Nazi regime. Joseph Goebbels created the Reichsfilmkammer (Reich Film Chamber) in 1933 and thus made himself the sole authority on what could and could not be shown on the screen. The following year saw the passage of the infamous Reichlicht-spielgesetz (Reich Cinema Law), which made it illegal for Jews to work in the German cinema. Many talented film artists left the country almost immediately, most conspicuously Fritz Lang, but also directors Billy Wilder, Frank Wisbar (a k a Franz Wysbar), Douglas Sirk, and Robert Siodmak; actors Peter Lorre, Oskar Homolka, Anton Walbrook, and Albert Bassermann; composer Franz Waxman; and cinematographers Franz Planer and Eugen Schüfftan, as well as other gifted writers, directors, actors, and technicians.


Goebbels imported many Hollywood “B” films to meet immediate audience demand, but he also rapidly set about creating a new German cinema that would accurately reflect the dreams and ambitions of the new regime. Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang’s ex-wife, directed Hanneles Himmelfahrt (Hannele Goes to Heaven) and Elisabeth und der Narr (Elisabeth and the Fool) (both 1934), and also wrote the screenplays or dialogue for Hans Steinhoff’s Eine Frau ohne bedeutung (A Woman of No Importance, 1936) and Harlan’s Jugend (Youth, 1938), all of which enthusiastically supported the Nazi cause. Outright anti-Semitic propaganda was provided by Fritz Hippler’s notorious Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew, 1940), a scurrilous film that compared Jews to rats and then charged that they ruled the world’s economy.


Tracked down by film historians in the 1980s, Hippler, who died in 2002, dismissively referred to The Eternal Jew as “the film that bears my name,” as if the entire project had come to fruition without his help. In fact, Hippler was an aggressive Nazi supporter, and the film, one of the most vile documents ever created, helped to pave the way for the Holocaust, suggesting that the cure for “the Jewish problem” was their “elimination.” Similarly despicable pro-Nazi films, such as Veit Harlan’s Jud Süß (Jew Süss, 1940), which depicted Jews as rapacious rapists, usurers, and opportunists, as well as Hans Steinhoff’s Hitlerjunge Quex: Ein Film vom Opfergeist der deutschen Jugend (Our Flags Lead Us Forward, 1933) and Franz Wenzler’s Hans Westmar (1933), both essentially recruitment films for the Hitler Youth, were highly popular with German audiences. Amazingly, they were also shown in the United States by the German-American Bund, the then-rising American Nazi party. Shrewdly judging his audience, Goebbels, who nationalized the film industry entirely in 1942, also produced a large number of escapist musicals, melodramas, and comedies, in addition to weekly state-created and censored “newsreels,” or Deutsche Wochenschau, which kept citizens apprised of the Reich’s latest victories—vaguely real at first and later utterly fabricated, as the tide of war turned against the Reich in 1943.


Reinhold Schünzel’s musical comedy Amphitryon (Amphitryon—Happiness from the Clouds, 1935) was one example of Goebbels’s predilection for lighter, less demanding fare; as the war progressed, and the Nazis developed an early monopack color film process, Goebbels indulged in his taste for spectacle with Josef von Báky’s color fantasy film Münchhausen (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1943), which was designed as a prestige production to mark Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft’s twenty-fifth anniversary as a production entity. Other “A” level Nazi films included Eduard von Bor-sody’s Wunschkonzert (Request Concert, 1940) and Rolf Hansen’s Die Große Liebe (The Great Love, 1942), which depicted home-front sacrifice in aid of the German war effort, while Wolfgang Liebeneiner’s Ich klage an (I Accuse, 1941) presented a husband’s murder of his wife as a noble act because of her lingering illness, essentially endorsing euthanasia as a national policy. Actor and director Kurt Gerron’s Theresienstadt (The Führer Gives a City to the Jews, 1944) is particularly loathsome, because it falsely shows Jewish captives of the Nazi regime living in relative safety and comfort, when in fact the “city” cited in the film’s title was built specifically for the film and destroyed the moment filming was completed.


The town’s inhabitants were then sent to their deaths in concentration camps, along with Gerron himself, who was Jewish, and who had been forced to write and direct Theresienstadt as his last act on earth. Hitler appears in the film, smiling broadly as he tours the mock city. The film was created under Goebbels’s orders to counter reports of concentration camp atrocities that were then beginning to leak to the public.


Goebbels’s dreams of grandeur inevitably led him to the production of Veit Harlan’s epic historical war drama Kolberg (1945), designed to be the Gone with the Wind of the Nazi cinema; Goebbels himself was one of the screenwriters. Even as the perimeters of Germany were falling under the allied assault, Goebbels spent more than eight million marks on the color production and actually diverted troops from the battlefield to serve as extras in the film, which depicted German citizens in hopeless hand-to-hand combat against a ruthless enemy aggressor. After Kolberg was completed in the last days of the war, the finished film was first shown to German troops in occupied France and then screened in Hitler’s private bunker in Berlin, even as Russian and American forces were only miles away.


 Goebbels’s mad dream of cinematic power thus collapsed as did the regime that supported them; in one of his last speeches to his staff, Goebbels suggested that one day “a fine color film” would be made of the last days of the Reich, and that every man and woman should conduct themselves accordingly so that posterity could correctly report their allegiance to the Führer. In the end, as the final hours came and Hitler and his bride, Eva Braun, committed suicide, Goebbels poisoned his children and then killed himself and his wife, Magda, unable to imagine living in a world without Hitler. Thus, one of the most bizarre and death-obsessed cinematic regimes in history collapsed upon itself in an avalanche of lies, fantasies, and dreams of power. These films, both aesthetically mediocre and morally reprehensible, are almost never revived today.



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