The Cinema of Nazi Germany 1933 – 1945 Part 1
A Prefatory Note
This section requires some prefatory comments as the number of works concerned with the Nazi period now numbers tens of thousands. I have drawn upon Kershaw’s (1993) useful overview of the methodological field until that time. A key concern of this section is the confused and contradictory nature of Nazi Germany and its relation to modernity. Here I take a largely neo-Gramscian approach which argues that Nazism functioned as an hegemonising agent mediating between a variety of political bases to provide a vision of the future which could appeal to a wide range of fractions of German society of the time crosscutting many class and elite differences. Crucial in its success was support from right-wing industrialists and entrepreneurs but there was enough within Nazism to temporarily unite petit-bourgeois, rural concerns and some elements of *theorganised working class along with many of those on the margins of society those whom Marx would describe as the lumpen-proletariat. Once in power there was a massive shift in the power-base internal to the NSDAP as its populist Brown-shirt elements who often relied upon anti-capitalist rhetoric were de-capitated as a political force within Nazism with the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in which the Black shirted SS loyal only to Hitler massacred the Brown-shirt leadership. This was done with the collusion of the official forces of the state standing by. This will be covered in a separate section which deals with Visconti’s representation of the Nazi ‘consolidation of power’.
Scholars and analysts are still arguing furiously over the nature of the Nazi regime. Recent popular historical works such as Burleigh (2000) are premised on reviving the theory of ‘totalitarianism’, which has been for some considerable time been discredited amongst the discourses of historians.
Some scholars such as Mason from a left-wing perspective and Schweitzer (See Kershaw 41-42) from a more Liberal one have identified shifts in Nazism as it became more established and thus more autonomous from those class fractions and elites which had originally helped it to gain power. Thus industrial and capitalist needs became subordinated to ideological ones. Many ensuing historical debates have focused on whether there was a primacy of politics or one of economics. For Kershaw (p 48) the reality is that there was a complex overlap and interaction between the two spheres. Industrialists such as Hugenberg had always had imperialist fantasies and whilst Nazi policies could be seen to be increasing profitability then there was no serious breakdown in hegemony. This analysis is close to that of Sohn-Rethal which Kershaw describes as one in which the Nazis acted in an objective way to maximise capital accumulation at a time when there was an extreme crisis of capitalism.
It is important to take into account the relative power of any particular industries such as cinema which had an important ideological function would be relatively closely controlled and monitored by the state. Industries which had much to gain from the rearmament and subsequent war were likely to have been very close to the heart of the Nazi government. Until the war started going badly and Germany itself became increasingly threatened there was every reason to pursue war aims linked to super-profits. ‘The faster the regime careered madly out of control and towards the abyss, the greater was the scope for political-ideological initiatives out of sequence with and in the end directly negating the potential of the socio-economic system to reproduce itself.’ (Kershaw , 1993: p49). Kershaw subscribes to the argument that ‘in the last instance’ economics do not have primacy over politics, evidenced by reading the Nazi regime as one engaged in a process in which a form of radical nihilism became dominant. This nihilism is interestingly represented in the recent film of Hitler’s bunker called Downfall mentioned elsewhere in this Blog
This section suggests that a totalising link between narrative fiction film, non-fiction film, cultural policy and film policy including a cinema building programme and direct Nazi ideology and the policy aims of Nazism can be made. Cinema during the Nazi period initially worked alongside capitalist and industrial interests, and despite restrictions remained open to American and other foreign imports until 1939. There was still a very active co-production schedule with countries such as France until the outbreak of war. All of these institutional factors provided a number of variables which developed in the realms of content, distribution and exhibition, censorship and financing as both the external and internal political circumstances changed.
The Nazi government operated a twin-track policy trying to make cinema both commercially viable and strong enough to compete with Hollywood as well as being a considered as a valuable vehicle of Nazi ideology. The Nazi regime was unable to operate cinema as a strictly commercial venture throughout its period of government with the industry veering between huge losses and good profits. Until the war tide of war began to turn in 1942 Nazi film policy had successfully laid the base for a cinema which would be able to dominate the territories it occupied.
section notes that the weight of scholarship in recent years has established the importance of the ideological functioning of the genres that were prioritised by the Nazis. It was also the case that the verbal content was prioritised over the visual content in order to try and keep better control over the whole text. This goes against earlier scholarship which considered popular generic entertainment as merely “diversionary”, it also argues that readings of Nazi cinema based on texts alone overemphasise the possibility of ‘reading against the grain’ to give alternative and subversive readings for the population in general as a form of resistance.
It is argued that all the institutional arrangements for cinema worked together towards specific ideological ends as a matter of policy. In this sense Nazi Cinema can be considered as different to Hollywood and other European cinemas from states which functioned as developing liberal democracies. In so far as term ‘propaganda’ is useful we can consider a definition of propaganda which includes ‘promoting the policies of the state’ as being useful. Taylor writing on Nazi and Soviet cinema suggests that ‘Propaganda is the attempt to influence the public opinion of an audience through the transmission of ideas and values.’ When dealing with the Nazis it is important to differentiate between the period of the Nazis before coming to power and the period after coming to power. Before coming to power the Nazis had little direct influence of cinema. Mainly their interventions in the area were limited to protesting at screenings of the pacifist film All Quiet on the Western Front.
Right from the outset of power the Nazis had a clear cultural and media policy of taking over the cinema in terms of using it as a tool of ideological communication for their own ends. During their period in power the state effectively gained more and more control through the backdoor as without state investment the industry was unable to stand alone commercially. This was partially caused by the international reaction to the Nazi regime in which trade and consumer boycotts dramatically reduced the export market.
The Installation of Third Reich Cinema
On March 13th 1933 a new ministry the Reichsministerium fur Volksaufklarung und Propaganda (Reich Ministry for People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda) [RMVP] was launched. Goebbels became minister in charge of print media, film radio and later TV when it emerged as a technology. Race laws and anti Trade Union laws went into operation as soon as practically possible.
There was a forced integration of the film industry during 1933 and 1934 which completed the processes of consolidation which had been going on during the Weimar period. After that 80% of output came from four major studios. Many of the integration and consolidation measures were ones which had been planned by the Spitzen-organisation der Deutschen Filmindustrie (SPIO). Klitsch who had been appointed managing director of UFA in 1927 was appointed president of SPIO in the same year.
In 1932 which was a highly problematic year for the industry with falling audiences more imports and rising costs SPIO had come up with a strategy for the industry which would cut overproduction and cut production costs. They also planned a special film-bank for the industry which would safeguard investors and would have to approve the production schedule. Distribution would have to be guaranteed before a film could be started and the distributor would have to be a member of SPIO.
Overall this meant that SPIO would have overall control of the production and distribution process. Because the cutting of ticket prices was eating into distributor and producer profits (see the graphs taken from Rentschler) SPIO wanted only exhibitors who agreed to programming and tickets policies to gain access to distribution thus giving SPIO control in the exhibition sector as well. In June 1933 the SPIO-Kommission brought together industry representatives with the new government to discuss industry reorganisation. In July 1933 the Chamber of Film was set up on a provisional basis and fully established in September.
Output during the Nazi period averaged about 100 feature films per year alongside numerous shorts, newsreels and documentaries. This compares with about 130 feature films per annum in France during the 1930s. France produced 220 features overall during the Occupation 20 of which were made by the German controlled Continental films. Hake suggests the film industry was a considerable economic force however measured by numbers alone it was in fact similar to France. Given the levels of state intervention in Nazi Germany in the 1930s indicators of the comparative health of these two industries by profit is not really a meaningful one.
After 1933 film practitioners of a range of crafts were organised through the Reich Culture Chamber. Only Germans defined by citizenship and racial origin were eligible to be members. This was part of a purge to rewrite and erase aspects of film history. In 1935 the threat of revoking screening licences for all films made before 1933 meant that the names of Jewish directors were removed from the credits. At the same time political rallies were organised against films that featured Jewish actors. Any Jews left in the industry by 1933 quickly left the country.
More fundamental restructuring followed. The Reich Film Law of 1934 established the censorship criterion. Anything that could be considered anti-Nazi aesthetically, morally and politically could be banned and confiscated. Importantly a pre-censorship regime was instituted based upon scripts that were submitted prior to any production work being undertaken. This had the effect of reducing risk for studios, ensuring that tight ministerial control was maintained and meant that the number of films actually censored in the post-production stage before release was tiny. Most direct censorship happened during the war years when individuals had become persona non-grata or images were considered bad for morale because of the fortunes of war.
Financing systems which included incentives were also an effective form of political control by refusing to finance films which the government didn’t approve of. Through the ‘Predicate’ system a range of awards and distinctions were given to feature films. The film credit bank that was established in 1933 and which had become incorporated into the Chamber of Film provided financing for nearly 70% of the films produced through a loan system with loans often not repaid suggests Hake. Petley argues that although the bank was state owned, the banks which lent the money included the Deutsche Bank, the Dresdner Bank and the Commerzbank thus it functioned to safeguard investments.
The Predicate Award System
The censorship system had made additions to the one already in force in the Weimar Republic, perhaps of more significance was the development of the ’Predicate’ system which again had its origins in the Weimar. Predicates were special honours which gave special tax relief to films considered especially worthy. As well as tax relief the award was a strong marketing bonus as well. Four films were awarded the ‘film of the nation’ which went to big budget films which were clearly propagandistic. Hake argues that state-commissioned films were effectively a separate genre as it wasn’t just the content and style of the film but the whole process of making the launches great public spectacles as well as any parallel between on-screen content and developments in the external world.
Special Conditions for Filmmakers
Far from being viewed as an especially repressive environment most of those who had stayed in Germany within the senior levels of the industry were treated very well by the state and there was intense collusion. The cultural legitimacy of the Nazi state was deemed so important that Goebbels granted special exemptions to a few specific individuals deemed too important to lose. For example Erich Kastner who had been banned wrote the screenplay for Munchausen ( 1943 ) under a pseudonym.
Foreign Film Imports and Exports
A new contingency system had limited foreign imports, however, American films still prospered and over 600 hundred foreign feature films were viewed in Germany 1933-1939. The Nazis paid a lot of attention to the conditions of exhibition and mandatory requirements for exhibition were introduced which included a mixture of a feature film and cultural films and newsreels. To try and ensure maximum audience exposure cinema owners were strongly advised not to allow entry after the programme had started to avoid the practice of skipping the compulsory bit.
The accession of the Nazis led to an immediate contraction of exports which declined by nearly 80%, however, nearly one third of foreign films exhibited in the USA in 1939 were of German or Austrian origin although they played to small audiences in cities with strong German connections. The general purge of Jews and dissidents meant that almost no creative talent came to the country. Hake suggests that co-production remained limited to Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Japan, Italy. This evaluation has not taken into consideration the considerable numbers of French people who worked in Germany in the film industry throughout the 1930s. Nor does it take into account the German production company Continental Films established in Paris during the 1930s and which operated during the war.
Growing State Control
Independent film companies were gradually squeezed out and the increasing costs of production combined which had more than doubled between 1933-1937 combined with a loss of export markets meant that even the larger studios had to accept secret government loans. Some of these costs can be attributed to the creation of a localised star system with an actor like Hans Albers earning 562,000 Reich Marks in a year. This was unsustainable on a commercial basis, for only Hollywood could pay star salaries based upon projections of huge total global earnings.
Despite the steadily increasing film attendance with almost 440 million tickets sold in 1938 many studios were operating at a loss. In 1937 even Ufa had lost nearly 15 million Reichmarks and the government effectively took over buying up 70% of the stock through a holding company called Cautio headed by a Dr. Max Winkler. Originally Cautio had been established with vast funds at its disposal to buy vast numbers of newspapers discreetly.
Similar financial deals were conducted with Terra, Tobis and Bavaria studios which kept their names but were effectively government owned. Petley cites Becker who estimated that the whole programme cost nearly 65 million marks. This is a strong indicator of how important the Nazis considered cinema to be. Winkler’s aim was to stabilise the market, make it more profitable and ultimately to reduce state aid. Winkler was largely successful in these aims.
Growing Politicisation of the Cinema
At this point much more cinematic output became directly politicised. After the invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938 ‘expensive prestige productions [were] now openly promoting nationalistic attitudes and fuelling anti-Semitic and anti-Slavic sentiments.’ The conquest of neighbouring countries significantly helped to expand the market for cinema which eventually became Germany’s fourth largest industry.
In 1941 the Deutsche Filmtheatre GmbH was established which facilitated buying up existing cinemas and building new ones in order to maximise the flow of finance back into the industry. In 1942 the Deutsche Filmvertriebs GmbH was established and the film industry became fully nationalised under a Reich film administrator responsible for co-ordinating all aspects of the film industry with the rest of the Nazi public policy field.
Eventually a double strategy was developed of producing a few big budget propagandistic or strongly ideological films supplemented by a large number of popular genre films. Cinema had become increasingly popular with 1.117 billion tickets sold in 1943. For approximately 2 years the restructured industry made healthy profits and had become independent of state aid. In its own terms Petley notes that Nazi film policy was highly successful.
- Nazi film Genres*
For the types of films which were produced by and for the Nazi regime please go to the article called Nazi Film Genres.
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