Drowning out the Newsreel

Katie Trumpener

  • Nazis and the Cinema by Susan Tegel
    Continuum, 324 pp, £30.00, April 2008, ISBN 978 1 84725 211 1
  • Cinema and the Swastika: The International Expansion of Third Reich Cinema edited by Roel Vande Winkel and David Welch
    Palgrave, 342 pp, £62.00, February 2007, ISBN 978 1 4039 9491 2
  • Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation 1939-45 by Peter Demetz
    Farrar, Straus, 274 pp, $25.00, April 2009, ISBN 978 0 374 28126 7

The Second World War was fought both over and inside every cinema in Europe. In 1941 Joseph Goebbels declared that one of his key goals was ‘to establish German film as the dominant cultural world power’. He came very close to succeeding. Within a few weeks of the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, his newly created propaganda ministry set to work. During his first year in office, he founded the Reich Film Chamber, which systematically barred Jews and left-wingers from Germany’s film industry, pushing thousands into exile; in 1938, in a decree announced the day after Kristallnacht, Jewish viewers were banned from Germany’s cinemas. In the intervening years the Nazis had banned leftist Weimar-era films; stopped the publication of unfavourable movie reviews; reorganised the film rating system to reward ‘patriotic’ films; orchestrated local boycotts and protests to force Jewish cinema-owners to sell up; secretly bought these cinemas and eventually amalgamated them with Germany’s film studios to create a government-controlled monopoly; boosted cinema attendance; discounted tickets for uniformed soldiers and veterans, creating a visible military presence at many screenings; attracted German children, by the hundreds of thousands, to nationwide Hitler Youth Film Hours (frequently showcasing militarist films, and often scheduled to pre-empt church attendance); encouraged the display of Nazi memorabilia and busts of Hitler in cinema lobbies; and mandated the adoption of a new programme format that gave more prominence to the newsreel, even when (as was often the case) the feature that followed it was ostensibly apolitical ‘entertainment’.

Susan Tegel, in Nazis and the Cinema, shows that these measures provided a framework for the making and showing of propaganda films. Roel vande Winkel and David Welch’s essay collection, Cinema and the Swastika, widens the picture much further. In the mid-1930s, the Nazis began covertly acquiring cinemas and cinema chains around the world, while at the same time expanding the international distribution of German films. They also pressed other Central European film industries to adopt anti-semitic employment practices modelled on their own. As a result, most Jewish actors and directors were forced out of Central, and then Western Europe. When the Nazis threatened to boycott their films, British studios were forced to consider the cost of employing émigré actors. The German consul in Los Angeles tried to exert similar pressure in Hollywood. American studio heads did their best to ignore his threats, but hesitated to produce overtly anti-Nazi films. (The first, Anatole Litvak’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy, was released only in 1939.)

Nazi efforts to control the cinema intensified after Germany began invading neighbouring countries. Indigenous studios were bought up or shut down, and branches of German studios established in occupied Prague, Paris and Vienna. At the height of the Nazis’ power, new German feature films could play in almost 7000 domestic cinemas – and 20,000 more across occupied Europe. Germany’s Foreign Weekly Newsreel was syndicated in 36 languages, showing not only in occupied countries but (at times controversially) in officially neutral Switzerland, Portugal and Sweden. In most of Europe, in other words, German cameramen – and behind them, propaganda officials in Berlin – supplied the only available moving-pictures of the war. And across the German imperium cinemas were forced to adopt Third Reich programming formats: a German-produced or approved newsreel, a cultural short and a feature film (now often of German or Axis provenance). Following German precedent, cinemas in many occupied countries were legally required to post signs prohibiting Jews from entering. Many were also forced to show pro-Nazi films. In occupied Luxembourg, even the names of cinemas were changed to downplay the country’s long-standing cultural ties to France and stress instead those to Germany: the Marivaux cinema became the Metropol, the Cinéma de la Cour the Kammer-Lichtspiele.

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