Last week in Germany, Nazi films were available for public consumption for the first time. In a country still haunted by its past, the release of these films has been controversial and greeted with worry. In order to view them, people must go to public screenings preceded by a lecture on the evils of National Socialism, such is the state’s fear of their power.
Cinema has been the premier method of propaganda in the 20th Century, just as artwork was used before. Christian artwork was used for centuries to show the story of Christ: Da Vinci, Caravaggio and Rembrandt all used Christian stories and symbols in their work. The powerful imagery of the crucifixion and the resurrection allowed artists to work within a framework familiar to the audiences of the time, whilst extolling Christ’s virtues with their own individual interpretations. Cinema has worked in a similar way, although with the relative decline of religion, political ends have more often been sought.
When we think of the word ‘propaganda’, our minds might turn to state run scaremongering of the Nazi and Communist regimes. The word has developed negative connotations in the west, which likes to see itself as a free society. Yet propaganda in its true sense is ever-present in every society. Every film ever made is propaganda. When a director evokes sympathy for a certain character, that is propaganda. Whenever there is an underlying theme, that is propaganda. 12 Years a Slave is anti-slavery propaganda. Schindler’s List is anti-Nazi propaganda. The importance is in which sort of society it was made.
Governments have worried about the power of cinema since it was invented and that’s not just totalitarian governments either. One of the great films, La Regle de Jeu, by Jean Renoir (son of August Renoir) was released in 1939. It was subsequently banned at the outset of the Second World War because it was believed to show France in a negative light. Not surprisingly, the 1940 film, The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin was banned in Germany for its not too thinly veiled satire of Hitler and the perils of authoritarian rule.
In Germany’s postwar denazification policy, this fear of the power of cinema can be seen most clearly. Possibly the most well known Nazi era film is Triumph of the Will, the documentary by Leni Riefenstahl. This film is banned from showing due to the numerous appearances of swastikas. Riefenstahl was a master filmmaker, up there with the great documentarians of cinema. Riefenstahl was also a woman, which is interesting in itself (try and name one successful early Hollywood director who was female). She invented many techniques that are still used today, such as aerial photography and the distortion created by the use of long-focus lenses. Triumph of the Will is also frighteningly inspiring, even for the most liberal minded of viewers. Riefenstahl captures the order and unity of the Nazi march in all its grandiosity.
So should the film’s power mean it should be banned, just for its subject matter? It is odd that the early-Soviet films have not faced such strict measures. This is partly because the Russians were blessed with several brilliant directors. Sergei Eisenstein directed Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky, two masterpieces. He was also a pioneer in the use of film montage, which is used in almost every film nowadays. Less known, but equally brilliant was Alexander Dovzhenko, who is most famous for his 1930 film, Earth, an almost hallucinatory tale of the success of collectivisation, despite its critics.
These works are cinematic landmarks. They are rightly available for everyone to view. Most are even on Youtube. Just because ‘Earth’ shows collectivisation in a positive light does not mean the viewer will forget the fact that millions died as a result of it. It is the same with Nazi era filmmaking. Their ideas of a Germanic Reich with a strong leader should not be able to convince a well-educated viewer.
Another famous Nazi film is ‘Jew Suss’ about Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, a Jew, infiltrating his way into the inner-circle of Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg. It is known as one of the most successful pieces of anti-Semitic propaganda created in Nazi Germany. It is said Heinrich Himmler ordered all members of the SS to watch it. The film is a surprisingly measured tale of corruption. Its structure and pacing is excellent and the two central performances of Ferdinand Marian and Heinrich George are compelling. Though there is no evidence of its influence, Night of the Hunter, the masterpiece from 1955, bears a lot of similarities. It too has an outsider infiltrating a small community for monetary gain, despite the suspicions of some characters. Yet Jew Suss, because of its place in history, will never be widely viewed. Its agenda is obviously anti-Semitic. Rather than give Oppenheimer a more sophisticated motive for his greed, it is explained simply by the fact he is Jewish, an obvious failing of the film. It is the equivalent of having a terrorist Muslim in a film today, with no other motive for his violence than that he is a Muslim. It would be rightly disregarded as racism.
But Jew Suss, and films like it, should be available for public consumption for many reasons. The first is that it shows in its raw intensity the levels of anti-Semitic feeling present among the Nazis. 20 million people in Germany saw the film when it was released, roughly a third of the population. This makes it a cultural landmark. With the exception of Gone with the Wind, there has never been a film viewed by such a percentage of the population in Western countries. It was released in 1940, just a couple of years before the Holocaust was instigated on a mass scale. Goebbels, the propaganda minister, was heavily involved in the production of the film, which demonstrates what the Nazis thought about the effects of propaganda. The film should be studied for its effect on Germans, not be hidden away. Confronting the past is vital to ensure it will not be repeated, to paraphrase the historical cliché.
It seems that cinematic propaganda is more powerful somehow. The Birth of a Nation, made in 1915 by D.W. Griffiths, was a three-hour epic about the Ku Klux Klan’s superiority over Blacks, portrayed by black-faced white actors. The film is credited with starting a revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the south in the following years and its membership peaked in the early Twenties. This could be used as evidence that propaganda films are capable of turning people evil. But the issue here is with education. An educated person after watching The Birth of a Nation will not feel compelled to join the Ku Klux Klan. But in the early twentieth century, the American South suffered major economic inequality, poor educational standards and desperate poverty. They were an audience ripe for corruption.
Perhaps those responsible for Germany’s censorship have looked at the cultural influence films have on us. Never mind the aforementioned controversial examples for one moment. Think of the way we dress, talk, behave and think. Films have, for most people, influenced these choices. I purchased a grey suit after watching Jean Paul Belmondo wearing one to strut through Paris in Godard’s classic ‘Breathless’. I copied the meatball recipe that Clemenza reveals in The Godfather. In many ways, I am a product of cinema. I am a victim of propaganda.
For all the thousands of film theory classes being taken around the world at this very moment, a propaganda film is surely the wet dream. In Jew Suss, a student can learn not just the techniques of the director and writer but also (and this is often neglected in film theory) the motive behind it. The director, Veit Harlan, claimed to have been coerced into making the film by Goebbels, whilst holding no anti-Semitic beliefs of his own. This of course is the likely response from someone threatened with prosecution for Nazi sympathising, but it reveals something far more important. Films like Jew Suss are literally showcasing what the Nazis wanted the public to think.
And with the showing of films like Jew Suss, with a modern day perspective, surely it is a celebration of modern freedom and liberty that we remain unmoved by it? Its propaganda message combined with the skill in which it is made will have absolutely no effect upon the modern, well-educated viewer. Instead of having public lectures preceding it, Germany should trust its society with such a heavy, unpleasant reminder of its past. Would it not be more powerful to show it in its historical context? With the rabid anti-Semitism brought about by the Totalitarian government of the time, would it not be the ultimate, brilliant response to show it as it was? To trust your citizens to not fall for cheap propagandist lies is the ultimate exclamation of free speech and democratic solidity. Let people see the films. Let people study them. Let people learn from them.