December 03, 2006

Open Studies in European Cinema. Summary of key findings of Rentschler's Ministry of Illusions

Introduction

First published in 1996 Eric Rentschler’s book The Ministry of Illusion was an important step forward in the historiography of Nazi cinema seeking to go beyond the over-simplistic binary models of propaganda / distractive entertainment which had been prevalent until then.

Under Goebbels cinema became centralised and consolidated. By 1942 there were 4 state owned studios: Bavaria, Ufa, Terra, and Tobis which between them dominated the industry.

Rentschler has identified a number of core features of Nazi feature films over the period:

  • Very little footage was shot out of doors or on location
  • Directors were functional as facilitators not auteurs
  • Film was to be artful and accessible not intellectual or esoteric
  • Films were made under a state apparatus that determined every aspect of production from script development to the final shape of the film
  • The conditions of exhibition including release and distribution were also closely administered
  • Nazi cinema denigrated the film of the fantastic as well as filmic realism
  • Nazi cinema assumed a ‘middle ground’ of historical period pieces, costume drams, musical revues, light comedies, melodramas and petty bourgeois fantasies

Paul Wegener Kolberg 1943_1945

  • Modernism persisted not within full length features but in short films and non-fiction films. (Examples given: Riefenstahl, Zieckle & Ruttman)
  • Nazi film narratives generally privilege space over time, composition over editing, design over movement and sets over human shapes
  • Compared to Hollywood output the films appear slow and static. There was more use of panoramas and tableaux than close-ups
  • There was little nudity and few stunts or action scenes
  • The music worked with visuals to make spectators lose touch with conceptual logic
  • The ideal film would spirit people away from the real world to a ‘pleasant, compelling, and convincing alternative space

Heinz Ruhman 1

  • Only a minority of features were ‘overt’ propaganda

The wife who was murdered by mercy killing in Ich Klage an

  • There were two waves of films with strong propaganda content. The first was comprised of the SA films of 1933. the second were the anti-Semitic, anti-British and anti-Russian films between 1939-1932
  • These propaganda films worked within the larder constellation of the whole of Nazi cinema apparatuses
  • The Third Reich was … a full-blown media dictatorship (p 217)
  • Both film executives and government film administrators avoided films which put National Socialism on display
  • The utopian spaces of cinema were sponsored by the Ministry of Propaganda: Nazi cinema not only created illusions but also often showed illusionists at work, occasionally self-reflected about the power of illusion (p 218)
  • Despite the post-war claims of filmmakers and revisionist critics, one finds very few examples of open resistance to the party and state in films of this era (p 218)
  • Rentschler recognises that not all meaning can be controlled and furthermore points out that allowing occasional spaces of transgression served the overall aims of the film industry admirably

Munchhausen on a Cannonball

  • Exceptions forming some sort of resistance for Rentschler appeared firstly after 1942 and include The Enchanted Day,Romance in a Minor Key, Akrobat Sho-o-o-o-n
  • There were more ‘leakages’ as the system gradually became more chaotic as the war drew into its final months

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