December 07, 2006

Nazi Cinema: The SA ‘Movement’ films of 1933


This article argues that the rapidly changing fortunes of the Nazi party through its runaway successes and methods of following up its election victory led to problems with its intended propaganda output. The popular SA films overemphasised the role of the SA and promoted their confidence and ambitions which were at complete odds with the new priorites of the Nazi leadership. This provides a partial explanation of Goebbels’ attempts to distance the Nazi leadership from the heroic martyr SA films of 1933.

Political Background

Hitler takes full power in the middle of March 1933. Approximately 8 million were unemployed. Many firms bankrupted. Schacht is soon appointed to run the economy. Mass employment through infrastructure projects started.

Process of Gleichschaltung or ‘co-ordination’ starts. This fairly mild sounding word is a euphemism for a wave of physical attacks combined with changing laws which ousted potential enemies from work and led to the establishment of concentration camps. All political parties banned and unions taken over which is achieved by August.

The aptly named Storm-troopers of the SA were commanded by Erich Roehm. The SA was the essential front-line weapon for taking on the KPD in particular and also the SPD. They were extensively used for intimidation of elected deputies in the immediate aftermath of the March 1933 election. For several years they had been physically combating the KPD and the SPD on the ground. All three of these mass parties had armed wings. Many people in all of these parties had been injured and some killed in street fighting brawls attacks on political meetings. This had been developing since 1930 as the depression deepened and social polarisations became deeper.

Hans Westmar

One of the main tasks Hitler needed to achieve in 1933 was to physically eliminate any danger from the political left. The Nazis had gained power because the left was divided. Should they finally agree to unite against the NSDAP rule then Hitler would probably not have remained in power for long. The country would have been ungovernable. The SA were thus used immediately to totally repress what was seen as the most dangerous opposition first.

The Nazis were very pragmatic, apart from an organised boycott of Jewish shops at the beginning of April the anti-Semitism came second to neutralising the threat of the KPD and SPD. It did proceed at a legislative level as Jews were gradually forced out of work. This happened most quickly in the cultural sphere. (See Evans, 2003 for a good synopsis of this). As spring wore into summer the Nazis had made significant gains against their enemies in the process of Gleichschaltung.

The SA Films

Hitler Youth Quex

Given that the SA were playing such an important role at this time it was to be expected that they would require some representation within the cinema. The films produced helped to justify the current SA actions and to publicly develop an institutional mythology around them. Out of the three films which fall into this category Hans Westmar is based upon a real character – Horst Wessel. He was then mythologized into the Nazi canon with the ‘Horst Wessel song’ becoming a symbolic message through being turned into an anthem. Hitler Youth Quex is also based upon a true story.

SA Mann Brand

SA-Mann Brand: dir Franz Seitz (SA Hero, genre from a book by Goebbels)
Hitler Youth Quex : Hans Steinhoff (SA Hero, from a novel based upon a real life member of the Hitler Youth)
Hans Westmar : Franz Wenzler (SA Hero, from a novel based upon Horst Wessel. Goebbels intervened to change it).

SA-Mann Brand

The premiere was at the Gloria-Palast in Munich. It was disrupted because an SA chief demanded that all SA and SS members leave as the cinema was showing film posters painted by a Polish painter.

For the plot and mise en scene see Faletti (2000)

Hitler Youth Quex
Hitler Youth Quex was made by Ufa. It was based upon the real life story of a Hitler Youth member called Herbert Norkus who was killed by the Communists. Welch suggests that Ufa were keen to make the film if only to outdo their competition in Munich. It was screened for Hitler and many Nazi dignitaries at the Ufa_Palast in Munich on September 11th 1933. The production values were higher with several leading actors and the director was also well known. However it cost only 320,000 marks which was slightly above average for the time. It was reviewed favourably having a successful run at the main Ufa screen in Berlin the Ufa-Palast-am-Zoo. By the end of January 1934 it had gained over 1 million viewers.

For the plot and mise en scene analysis see Rentschler (1996) and Faletti (2000).

Hans Westmar

Hans Westmar (Still)

The film Hans Westmar directed by Hans Wenzler had a slightly turbulent route to the screens. Originally entitled Horst Wessel Goebbels cancelled its premiere originally billed for the 9th October 1933. Goebbels did this on the grounds that ‘the film compromised the hero’s stature and menaced the interests of the state and the German people.’ (Faletti, 27). Goebbels wanted some revisions and also wanted the name of the hero changed and the name of the film. The premiere eventually took place on 13 December 1933.

For plot and mise en scene see Faletti (2000).

Were there deeper underlying reasons for Goebbels’ decision?

Faletti (2000) is concerned with drawing comparisons with stylistic attributes taken from Weimar cinema which is useful, however I argue here that she might possibly be missing a more valuable point here. Why should Goebbels have taken such a disliking to the original Hans Westmar previously entitled Horst Wessel? This is a question which the specialist scholars have omitted to take up and in some cases elided out of intellectual enquiry in an entirely speculative way. Sabine Hake (2001) for example comments: Hans Westmar about the first “martyr” of the movement, required significant changes because of its presumably unflattering portrayal of National Socialism.” (My emphasis: Hake, 2001 p 26) As I argue below there is a far more plausible explanation which responds to the rapidly shifting pattern of politics in Nazi ruled Germany. Making unsubstantiated presumptions isn’t a particularly useful or scholarly way of proceeding.

Faletti too, slips over the nature of the changes in attitude from Goebbels yet this has to be a particularly interesting question. It is notable that on the 9th of September when the Horst Wessel version of the film was to be premiered Goebbels came out with his well known opinions about the nature of ‘propaganda’ films:

We National Socialists do not place any particular value on our SA marching across stage or screen. Their domain is in the street … the National Socialist government has never asked that SA films should be made. On the contrary – it sees danger in a surplus of them. (Goebbels cited Taylor 1998 p 148)

It seems abundantly clear that Goebbels considers that there is a lot at stake here. This seems a lot of trouble to go to on the surface, lets face it that great piece of “Art” with a capital A (for Riefenstahl and her apologists at least), is little more than a huge bunch of Nazis marching about and standing to attention. We can either take Riefenstahl at face value (probably unwise) claiming that Goebbels and she didn’t see eye to eye and that Hitler somehow overrode things or we can try and look deeper into the political situation amongst the Nazis themselves as it was unfurling.

The Horst Wessel song written by the martyred Nazi became a battle hymn and as such was hugely symbolically significant: That such an open celebration of brutal physical force could become the battle-hymn of the Nazi Party speaks volumes for the central role that violence played in its quest for power. (Evans, 2003: p 268)

If we take into account the fact that By the summer of 1933 the creation of a one party was virtually complete (Evans, 2003 p374) and that as Goebbels put it the Nazis were on The road to the total state. Our revolution has an uncanny dynamic (Goebbels cited Evans, 2003, 174) then we can see that over a very short time an initial set of problems was becoming superseded by another.

The Nazis had successfully brought on board many of the middle-classes as members as well as gaining the approval of many of the elites. But many of these people were being alienated by not only the brutality of the SA but also by the fact that many of the SA leadership around Roehm were interested in a further revolution where the leading capitalists were nationalised immediately, and at the same time the Roehm faction of the SA saw itself as the military vanguard of the new state. Neither of these developments was welcome amongst the leadership around Hitler and Goebbels.

The new allies of the Nazis needed to be won round. Of particular importance was the position of the army and by default the attitude of the Prussian elites. The army would certainly not accept any situation where their power was eroded in favour of the SA. As a fully professional and trained military force they were vital to Hitler’s key goal of Lebensraum or living space. This was the imperial dream writ new. Hitler wanted expansion into Eastern Europe and as can be seen after 1936 the whole state was pushed into investing in this ultimate goal. At this point Hitler wanted new friends and to win a position of trust until a fully hegemonic position could be gained. Even in the late summer of 1933 it was clear to those around Hitler that the excesses and ambitions of the SA would need to be reigned in.

It is this dramatically changing political position of street oppositionists to government and the possibilities of bringing dreams into fruition which spelt caution to the leadership. In terms of gaining a better understanding of the path to creating the Nazi state and how people were persuaded to accept it an intense appreciation of the political ground rather than abstract textual analysis is likely to bear more fruit.

It is political expediency in the light of changing circumstances that can be understood to be a marker of Goebbels’ attitude to the Horst Wessel / Hans Westmar film in September. It would be fascinating to know exactly what changes were instituted and more work clearly needs to be done on this in order to substantiate this argument fully. Currently it remains more circumstantial based on the clear shifts in attitude taking place.

Part of Hitler’s and Goebbels’ problem is the speed of their success. Had the SA needed to have been still engaged in pitched fighting with communists and other oppositionists as they were in the first few weeks of power then there is little doubt that this heavy handed ‘propaganda’ would have been required for morale purposes. But suddenly the street enemies had largely collapsed and the political and economic aims were now rather different. Eventually these intra-Nazi tensions would be resolved by the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ but until then steps were taken to control cinematic output more carefully. The extreme SA was becoming more dangerous for the overall ambitions of Hitler than the communists.

The new cinema law instituted in February of 1934. Under this law completed films were still to be submitted to the Reichsfilmprufstelle as well as having the scripts subjected to preproduction censorship. At he same time the censorship office in Munich was closed down and decision making centralised in Berlin. Each censorship committee was to have a casting vote by a member of the Propaganda Ministry. In 1935 even more measures were taken to ensure the tightest possible controls. At this point the shutting down of the Munich censorship office was important. It was from Munich that two of the three SA Movement films were made. Whether there was a conscious decision to reduce SA influence in the decision making about films is a question which is raised here.

A complicating factor is the fact that only two days after Goebbels’ speech Hitler Youth Quex is premiered. Goebbels was very flattering about it (Rntschler 1996). Was it a decision that two premieres of two similar films would damage each other, Goebbels clearly preferred Hitler Youth Quex aesthetically. Being made by Ufa in Berlin it is likely that Goebbels knew exactly what was in this film and how it was being represented. By comparison Hans Westmar represented a fear of loss of control.

Bibliography: see main bibliography using the resources tag.

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