Nazi Film Genres
Out more than 1,000 feature films produced during the Nazi period relatively few were directly propagandistic. As both Petley and Taylor have noted Goebbels was concerned with developing covert rather than overt ideological content: ‘At the moment propaganda is recognised as such, it becomes ineffective’, said Goebbels. One of the most notable directly propagandist films includes Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). It was a huge Nazi rally choreographed to fit in with the film, which can be seen as the nadir of Fascism. While this film is often classed as a ‘documentary’ this underplays the importance of the cinema in the creation of the event itself. It was a huge spectacle carefully designed to be filmed as a part of an emotive and overwhelming display of power. Reifenstahl discussed aspects of the spectacle and how it could best be filmed with Hitler himself. The film is now best considered as an historical document which is evidence of how Nazism consolidated its power both in the content and simultaneous control of the media it can also be directly linked to the principle of Fuhrerprinzip. The film’s importance in relation to the consolidation of Nazi power after 1933 means that a separate analysis will be given
Riefenstahl also produced films which glorified the idealised Aryan body in Olympia (1938). Olympia used 45 cameras some suspended from balloons shooting 400 hours of footage edited down to 4 hours.
As an actor Riefenstahl also contributed to the Mountain-film genre starring in many of Arnold Fanck’s films such as Storm Over Mont Blanc /Avalanche (1930) which was a part of the national mythology.
Recent analysis of the more generic film output has challenged earlier work by people such as Erwin Leiser who considered that most cinematic output of this type was ‘distractive entertainment’. Rather it is important to analyse how a culture of everyday fascism was ideologically developed through this cinematic output.
It is very important to consider the cinematic texts within the overall contextual situation of the politics and economic situation of the time. The film industry and its products need to be considered as a substantive part of a range of mutually interacting ideologically driven media strategies in which the viewing and exhibitionary conditions are an important part. The task for the analyst as Rentschler sees it is to comprehend the way in which films interacted with and resonated within larger social constellations.
The Nazi Star System within Genres
The commercial need for a star system to compete with Hollywood had already been established and under the Hugenberg ownership of Ufa this approach had been successful prior to the Nazi government. Cinema in Third Reich continued this trend. Any star system has the function of collapsing the boundaries between persona and character. The projection of audience desire and anxieties onto stars has an important ideological function of this style of cinema. Along with the more obvious hierarchical elements of star systems this was fundamental to Nazi cinema and the huge salaries and regal treatment afforded to the recognised stars ensured that they were not lured to Hollywood.
The salaries paid were unsustainable so the Nazi government effectively subsidised their opulent lifestyles. The discourses of stardom in the media and their lifestyle which was exotic and glamorous, provided an outlet for pent-up desires. As much as anything it is this aspect of Nazi cinema which can be compared with Horkheimer and Adorno in their analysis of the ‘Culture Industry’: “Pleasure always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even where it is shown. Basically it is helplessness. It is flight; not, as is asserted, flight from a wretched reality, but from the last remaining thought of resistance.” (Horkheimer & Adorno: The Culture Industry, p 144).
Under American Liberalism the culture industry served the needs of monopoly capitalism whilst in authoritarian regimes it served the interests of the state and its controlling elites more directly. Whichever way it is considered, ‘It’s only entertainment’, as a statement functions as an ideological chimera.
There was a fundamental paradox in Nazi cinema that many of the female stars acted more as an exoticised and eroticised pole of attraction based upon non-Aryan models of womanhood. Indeed many were foreign. This analysis of the Nazi star system drawn from Sabine Hake appears to be directly contradictory to that of Jill Branston who has drawn heavily on the work of Erica Carter. Branston suggests that the propaganda demands of the Nazis laid an emphasis upon ‘the biological-racial essence of character, which ‘should’ correspond to external appearance via cinematic realism.’
Above the Swedish actress Zarah Leander in a costume drama. A genre often considered as inherently conservative. Below another Swedish actress Kristina Soederbaum in one of the most blatantly propagandistic and overtly anti-semitic films of the Nazi era directed by Veit Harlan. Here the ‘historical’ costume drama is undoubtedly linked to a Nazi agenda.
The development of genres was important as a way of wooing and keeping popular audiences ‘ One of the main psychological functions of genre in general is to produce specific emotions (joy, fear, sadness) and process them through predetermined forms that offer imaginary solutions to social problems’ . During the Third Reich the genre range was intentionally limited. Crime, thrillers and courtroom dramas were seen as drawing attention to taboo subjects and therefore no investment was forthcoming in these genres.
Directors who were committed Nazis became associated mainly with the historical and biographical film. Comedy is also an interesting area of cinema to consider with about half the feature length films produced in Germany after 1933 being comedy hybrids such as rustic comedies and musical comedies. Of these hybrids the white collar comedies managed to retain some of their social awareness.
The Comedy Genre
It has been argued that far from being harmless entertainment ‘comedy functioned to make German film audiences emotionally pliable for a propagandistic consensus constructed across all media discourses.’ This can be seen as a double aesthetic strategy. On the one hand the strategy functioned to separate the unacceptable characters to the regime from ‘legitimate’ society. At the same time the way the comedy operated institutionalised the norms of Nazi ideology in ways which easily translated into the everyday life of much of the population.
It has been noted that the visual aspects of the comedy was subordinated to the verbal which allowed for more control of the text giving a stronger preferred reading. This has been compared to the more visually based comedic output of US cinema. For example, Horak notes the career of Heinz Ruhman which traversed Weimar, Nazi and the Bonn periods. Ruhman’s character was always seemingly subverting order in order to grab a piece of power for himself and thus integrate himself into the status quo. Ruhman’s roles are frequently infantilist after 1933 but without the subversive potential which Horak assigns to US infantilist comedians such as Stan Laurel.
Below two images of Ruhman.
By comparison with the Hollywood infantilists Ruhman’s infantilism is a repression of sexuality in favour of lavatorial humour. Horak suggests that German comedians from Ruhman to Hans Moser to Heinz Erhardt are de-erotisised or emasculated. Horak further argues that this may be because Nazi culture extolling the woman’s role as mother has removed sexual discourse from the cinema. This fits in with Horak’s hypothesis that sexual desire is entirely repressed in Nazi cinema which functions to ensure the culture of sacrifice for the Fatherland.
Please follow link for article on Musical Comedies under Nazism
Other genres that continued to be popular were the Bergfilm (mountain film) and the Heimat genre. Nether of the genres originated with the Third Reich but both were comfortably adaptable to Nazi ideologies. Fanck’s Bergfilm comedies of the Weimar period often featured Leni Riefenstahl. Both the White Ecstasy (1931) and The Big Leap (1927), concentrate on the physicality of the ski race thus repressing sexuality. The comedy lacks the anti-authoritarianism of Hollywood slapstick.
Audience and Distribution
From the above review we can see that there are currently differences of analysis of Nazi cinema. There is a need to pay more attention to the concerns of audience and the patterns of distribution of various types of film. For example in Hollywood cinema it is well known that ‘B’ movie Westerns were mainly targeted at male rural and small town audiences. Discovering which films were distributed to which parts of Germany would help deepen the analysis of how the Nazi media strove to create a Nazi imaginary in both major industrial cities which had sophisticated audiences and isolated rural areas. As a sub-genre of rural comedies has been identified a useful research development would be to find out if they were screened in large cities and whether they were considered popular.
The evidence proffered by Taylor in his analysis of ‘Triumph of the Will’ (which is largely regurgitated in the notes on the recently released DVD), suggests that it did very well in the Ufa first run cinemas in the major cities of Nazi Germany, yet it was relatively unsuccessful in the more rural parts of the country. This is anomalous because we know that the Nazis failed to win the political control of any major industrial city while there were proper elections. We also know that the mass consistent political base of Nazism came from the rural and small town areas of Germany. What explains the apparent success of this overtly propagandistic film in the large cities? Given the Nazis effectiveness at organising ‘Mass Ornament’ and the fundamental importance of the content in consolidating Nazi control the machinery was simply not going to allow it to be a failure. Were the mass of Nazi supporters bussed into the big city cinemas? There is room here for further research.
Overall it seems clear that a useful area of further research would analyse more closely the patterns of distribution of the particular types of films and their target audiences. There is plenty of evidence that the Nazis were good at targeting different audiences in their political campaigning to gain power, which gives the analyst good cause to believe that they recognised that audience was never going to be totally homogenised but more heterogeneous. The problem here becomes developing a range of films with a consistent Nazi-approved content that appeals to a wide range of audiences.
To solve this problem it seems likely that, as in other countries, the multi-generic or genre-hybrid film which is likely to have the most highly paid stars will be constructed in such a way as to appeal to a broader spectrum of people in relation to their class and intellectual background and Hake specifically use the term ‘cosmopolitan atmosphere’ required for commercial success across the domestic and international markets. The use of the term ‘cosmopolitan’ has a certain irony as on Peter Wollen’s analysis ‘cosmopolitan’ as a term tends to refer to mobility of Jewishness. It leaves me with the question of whether the numbers of films with exoticised and eroticised stars was more of an urban than a rural phenomenon?
There is some evidence that use of the cinema to promote certain ideological priorities as the Nazis consolidated and developed their grip on Germany can be discerned in certain key films. Riefenstahl’s documentary style Triumph of the Will can be seen as directly corresponding to the myth of Nazism that they had directly seized power. This rather contradicts the reality that Hitler was placed into the position of Chancellor by sleight of hand and collusion by von Papen and others. This was done at a time when the support for the Nazis was beginning to wane and the organisation was facing bankruptcy after two election campaigns in 1932. At the time they thought they could muzzle the Nazis and use them for their own ends.
This was followed by Riefenstahl’s Olympia, again a documentary style paean to the idealised Nazi body which can be directly linked to the main ideological campaign of ‘Gleichschaltung’ the so-called ‘co-ordination’ of all political, economic and cultural activities. The Berlin Olympics was the perfect vehicle to celebrate ideologies of youth, purity and fitness, which can ultimately be linked to the Nazi eugenics programme which had been rapidly installed to deal with ‘unhealthy Aryans’ soon after the Nazis came to power. This also corresponds to the obsession with health and hygiene.
Cinema and Euthanasia
The issue of eugenics and resistance to some of the most outrageous aspects of this came to the fore in 1941. In August Bishop Galen the Bishop of Munster delivered a sermon detailing how innocent sick people were being murdered with their families being given false death notices. Copies of the sermon were delivered throughout the Reich, the RAF dropped copies of the sermon over German cities and Burleigh cites responses from an officer in northern Lapland reporting that his soldiers had received copies of the sermon. Galen was too popular for the Nazis to simply take him out and as a result a major ideological response came from the cinema with the release of Ich Klage an (I Accuse) (1941, dir Liebeneiner, which presented a case for ‘mercy killing’ or involuntary euthanasia.
The subsequent trial becomes a showcase for the Nazi position utilising some of the best known stars of the cinema at the time. According to Welch (2002) the audience reception was generally positive. Reports of the SD (Security police) indicate that members of the poorer classes were sympathetic on financial grounds as the sick would have been a ‘burden’.
The Catholic clergy in the south were particularly resistant to the film and encouraged their congregations to avoid it. They interpreted the film as a direct response to Galen’s sermon. Apparently some younger doctors viewed the film favourably. The film attracted 18 million viewers which for Welsh ‘Reveals an alarming flight from reality, a willingness on the part of German audiences to delegate responsibility, and a reluctance to face the moral consequences of their actions.’ Welsh, 2002: p 91).
Whilst the general output of the Nazified film industry largely ignored the Jewish in a form of structured absence, a number of key anti-Semitic films were released towards the end of the 1930s and into the wartime period. These coincided with the increasingly militant campaign against the Jews being conducted by the Nazis. Kristallnacht in early November 1938 has become infamous and marked the beginning of a new phase of anti-Semitism which became constructed as the ‘Jewish Question’. Welsh argues that film was co-ordinated with other parts of the mass media to conduct an ideological / propaganda campaign of anti-Semitism. The first of these were Robert and Bertram (1939) and Leinen aus Irland (1939). Both work within the comedy genre to caricature Jews as subhuman. In the same year Goebbels banned the term ‘anti-Semitic’ replacing it with the expression ‘defence against the Jews’.
In Bismark (1940), dir Liebeneiner the hybrid genre form of Biopic and celebration of German heritage sees an assassination attempt by a Jew on Bismark. Below images from Bismark (1940).
1940 also saw the release of three of the most infamous anti-Semitic films produced by the Nazis: Die Rothchilds, Jud Suss, Der ewige Jude (The Wandering Jew). Arguably these films were produced to help justify and rationalise the process of deporting Jews from Austria and Czechoslovakia to Poland.
These films were marketed under the guise of being ‘factual’. Jud Suss is the story of a Jew conducting a political machination in Wurttemburg. The story ends with the hanging of Suss and the banning of Jews from Stuttgart in 1738. Bringing together Nazi themes under the guise of popular entertainment the SD reports on favourable audience responses and Goebbels considered the film a success from the popularity of it. We don’t know who stayed away from these screenings. In Heimkehr (1941) Jews are represented as encouraging the Poles to commit atrocities against German minorities.
The cinema of the Third Reich saw the development of a monopolistic system in which the interests of the main industrial players and the NSDAP became merged. The period saw the rationalisation of the industry turning it into a highly profitable enterprise with a core strategy of developing an industry able to compete with Hollywood. The industry willingly complied immediately with Nazi norms of anti-Trade unionism and anti-Semitism. Many of the more authoritarian ideas of the Nazis in both content and management of the industry are likely to be discovered in a study of Ufa after its take-over by the extreme nationalist Hugenberg during the late Weimar period.
The ideological leanings of its products were strongly different to Hollywood and the output of other democracies. Holding a position of covert rather than overt ideology to win hearts and minds many genres were repressed, replaced and reinvented. Genre was used as an ideological tool even in the realm of comedy which is often associated with subversion and transgression. Within the genres themselves sexuality was repressed and replaced with the aestheticised body, which could serve the Fatherland as either soldier or idealised mother. It seemingly displayed a Fascist utopianism in which social problems were removed by magic by not being discussed at all.
In Nazi Germany the conditions of exhibition further supported the ideological nature of the content with their strongly ‘preferred readings’ based upon Nazi ideologies. Jews had been banned from cinemas and people were unable to come late to the shows which always had propaganda and newsreels on first. The weight of contemporary criticism now sees Nazi cinema holistically as an ideological machine, covering all aspects of the institution of cinema from production, regulation, audience, content, criticism, aesthetics and finance. This is in contradiction to earlier work which saw the generic output such as comedies as simple distractions.
Textually-based readings which argue that individual films can be seen to contain ‘ruptures and contradictions’ fail to contextualise and consider the mutually performative nature of all the key parameters of Nazi cinema as an institution in which all aspects of the media institutions worked within a totalising policy environment devoted to fostering a Nazi ideologically based concept of the everyday. There are those who take a different perspective including Antje Ashied.
Textually based readings across a wide range of texts should be able to discern a distinctively fascist aesthetic which aestheticised politics and the body in what might be termed as ‘hyper-naturalistic’ in other words a representation of ‘natural’ which is far more than natural. Nazi cinema eschewed cinematic techniques such as montage. Where possible it privileged the verbal over the visual with the exception of highly choreographed distinctly propagandist products.
Much of the research work has been focused upon Nazi feature films yet the role of newsreels and documentaries also needs to be analysed more rigorously. The figures used by Rentschler providing an overview of Nazi cinema also show up some interesting features which could be usefully investigated further. It is not until 1936, three years into the Nazi regime long after the unemployment rate had been radically reduced that the German cinema has recovered so that both ticket sales and gross income exceed the figures of 1929. This seems to indicate that at this time there wasn’t an enormous amount of enthusiasm for Nazi style cinema in the early years of the regime.
An interesting pair of figures that emerges is the enormous increase in both cinemas and box -office numbers between the years 1938 and 1939. The rise in box-office figures can be explained by interest in the newsreels during the early and successful part of the war. Presumably families of soldiers would wish to keep up to date about events. Also of interest is the huge rise in the number of cinemas of approximately 1,500 in the space of a year. This is unlikely to have been driven by purely commercial factors and provides an indicator about just how important a role the Nazi cultural policy makers thought cinema could play. Given that there is evidence from elsewhere that Hitler was expecting to fight a major European war in the very early 1940s it is not unreasonable to speculate that this massive growth of cinema building which ran parallel to the growing Nazification of the content of the films once they had consolidated their power was part of a coherent strategy which understood Nazi cinema functioning simultaneously as an ideological battering ram and a growing global cultural industry.
Overall there is still much work which needs to be done to tease out the full extent of how cinema was developed for Nazi ends during the time of the regime. It is a cinema which was in many ways more invidious than the purely propaganda models recognise and it was built into the structure of the industry as well as the content itself. The content across all cinematic genres was being designed consciously or unconsciously to promote everyday Nazism in ways which no other regime has ever done.