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.

Blatantly propagandistic films remained unpopular in occupied countries, with the key exception of Veit Harlan’s anti-semitic Jud Süß, which was seen by hundreds of thousands across occupied Europe. In the 18th century, the Jewish banker Süß Oppenheimer financed Württemberg’s absolutist court – and won emancipation for Swabia’s Jews. But, a victim of court intrigue, he was publicly hanged in 1737 (after refusing, under torture, to renounce Judaism). Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1925 historical novel sparked worldwide interest in the case, and in 1934, German émigrés in Britain filmed a version of the story that underscored the resurgence of anti-semitic persecution. Harlan’s remake, in contrast, offered historical justification for the renewed disenfranchisement of Europe’s Jews. The British film cast Süß as a tragic figure; Harlan’s biopic depicts him as a usurer and profiteer, a rapist who drives a pure German woman (played by Harlan’s wife, Kristina Söderbaum) to drown herself, and whose execution represents the lifting of a scourge. Werner Krauss (best remembered by Anglo-American audiences for his performance as Dr Caligari) plays the film’s four Jewish secondary characters, underscoring Harlan’s emphasis both on racial essence and Jewish subterfuge.

Harlan’s film was often thunderously received. And in many places, its run preceded the round-up, internment, deportation and murder of local Jewish inhabitants. Some of his other melodramas enjoyed even broader popularity – especially the implicitly anti-Slavic The Golden City. Here the plot centres on seduction rather than rape, although the film again culminates in the suicide of a blameless heroine, played once again by Kristina Söderbaum. A (German) Bohemian farm girl succumbs to Prague’s allure and to the advances of her Czech cousin; pregnant and abandoned, she returns to her village and drowns herself. Goebbels himself insisted on her death, because it also euthanised her unborn, half-Slavic and hence racially impure child, pre-empting any danger that he might someday inherit the German farm. Viewers across Europe sobbed over her death.

Films shown in occupied countries tended not to have explicit pro-Nazi messages which might alienate audiences; instead the Germans tried to appeal by showing popular film genres and encouraging the cult around their stars. Live appearances by these stars drew large crowds in quisling Croatia; a fan magazine, heavily illustrated and printed in colour, was widely read in occupied France. Anne Frank slept in a bedroom adorned with photographs of the Third Reich movie star Heinz Rühmann (alongside Ray Milland and Deanna Durbin), and devoured the weekly Dutch film magazine, devoted largely to German releases, that the family’s helpers brought her. One of them, Frank records in a 1944 diary entry, teased that she ‘wouldn’t need to go to the movies later on, because I know all the plots, the names of the stars, and the reviews by heart’.

Yet when an Amsterdam cinema burned down during a successful run of The Golden City, an underground film magazine rejoiced, hinting at politically motivated arson. A few years before, when Dutch Jews had been excluded from the movie house, resistance groups attempted a boycott; protest leaflets distributed in several Dutch towns argued that such exclusions ‘put a Nazi stamp on our public life’, damaged the ‘human dignity’ of Jewish ‘countrymen’, and functioned to ‘push them ever further outside of society’.

In fact, many cinemagoers avoided or actively resisted German blandishments. Until Pearl Harbor, Peter Demetz remembers in his occupation memoir, Prague in Danger, cinemas in the city played American musicals, including the Broadway Melody series, to ‘packed houses’ that included the city’s many jazz-obsessed swing kids. In a novel set during the occupation, Libuse Moníková writes that during screenings of newsreels ‘glorifying German war’, Czech filmgoers repeatedly threatened to destroy cinemas and called for the return of Fox, Paramount and locally produced newreels. All across occupied Europe, newsreels were flashpoints for political protests. Cinemagoers were often forced to watch them (because they were refused admission to cinemas after the newsreels had begun), but they were frequently shown with the lights up, to discourage heckling. In France and Holland, policemen were sometimes stationed in front of the screen. Such measures, however, did not prevent thousands of ‘incidents’, which in turn resulted in hundreds of arrests and temporary cinema closures. Audiences tried to drown out newsreel voiceovers by coughing, sneezing, whistling, stamping their feet in unison, by calling out sarcastic comments or by applauding scenes showing Germany itself under bombardment.

Nazi cinema, as Tegel makes clear, attempted to make subject populations collude in their own persecution and enslavement. Veit Harlan ‘researched’ Jud Süß in the Lublin ghetto; and, although she denied it for decades, Leni Riefenstahl used Roma and Sinti concentration camp inmates as ‘extras’ in an exotic feature evoking the wild freedoms of Gypsy life. Third Reich documentaries used footage of the mentally retarded to urge their sterilisation and euthanasia. And in Terezín, half-starved Jewish inmates were forced to demonstrate their ‘freedom’ in front of the camera.

Members of these subject populations still sometimes managed to sneak into the cinemas they were forbidden to enter. Some Jewish children deliberately sought out Nazi propaganda films to inure themselves. And on the day the Officers’ Plot almost succeeded in killing Hitler, Gad Beck, a gay Jew living underground in Berlin, went to see a musical in a movie palace – and made out in the dark with another gay Jew, also living underground.

Despite the Nazis’ best efforts, the Germanicisation of cinema failed. The exodus of Jewish actors and directors forced Goebbels to recruit replacements – much of the Third Reich star-culture, paradoxically, revolved around exotic, foreign beauties. In one sense this was useful since the increasingly heterogeneous audiences in German-occupied territories could identify with them. The Polish and other ‘Eastern workers’ who poured into Germany’s cities towards the end of the war to be used as forced labour were initially banned from cinemas, but this policy gradually collapsed; given their terrible living and working conditions, cinema privileges were thought to be crucial to morale and productivity. Yet as the saturation bombing of German cities drastically reduced the number of cinemas, domestic viewers became indignant, feeling themselves crowded, at times even displaced, by foreigners. The Third Reich aimed to create a uniquely cohesive, uniquely entitled national audience. Instead, Germans became part of an increasingly diverse imperial public.

After the war, the Allies made a distinction between ‘harmless’ entertainment films and prohibited propaganda films and, from the late 1940s, a cross-section of Third Reich films were shown regularly in cinemas (and later on television) in East and West Germany. Several hundred ‘political’ films continued to be banned; a few dozen still are. In the Anglo-American world, conversely, these propaganda films have been much more readily available than those classed as entertainment. Historical work on Nazi cinema has been correspondingly uneven. Over the last two decades, German historians have produced detailed, often quietly chilling accounts of Third Reich cinema life. These studies build on earlier ideological analyses by Siegfried Kracauer, Gregory Bateson, Erwin Leiser, David Welch and Julian Petley, and, like their predecessors, draw on political economy. Following the general German trend towards local history, however, they also provide accounts of how cinematic institutions were established in specific places, pushed or resisted by particular historical actors. Nazis and the Cinema and Cinema and the Swastika are in this tradition, works of political economy not film studies; their accounts are flatly content-driven, uninterested in film form, pleasure, or the spectatorial contract. Yet both offer new vistas. Cinema and the Swastika draws on a huge range of national and linguistic expertise; Tegel’s judicious overview is the only English-language account to build on recent German micro-histories.

Prague in Danger, Peter Demetz’s gripping account of cultural life in the occupied city, intersperses a lucid historical account of Prague’s complex geopolitics, ethnic politics and cultural politics with an account of his own experience. There are memorable vignettes of Prague’s hated Reichsprotektor, Reinhard Heydrich; Kafka’s lover, Czech translator, journalist and renegade Communist Milena Jesenská; the doomed poet Jirí Orten; and jazz in Prague. One important strand follows the rise of ethnic consciousness, and the escalating linguistic and cultural tensions that culminated, at the end of the war, in the indiscriminate expulsion of Prague’s deep-rooted German community along with those who had worked for the German occupation.

Demetz, with his Czech-speaking, Jewish mother and German-speaking, Christian father, straddled increasingly incommensurate worlds. Early in the occupation he moved from a German to a Czech school, became immersed in Czech literary culture, joined an illicit literary circle, and worked in a second-hand bookstore, where he quickly learned to read customers’ clothing as indices of ethnicity, politics and reading habits. He also met German émigrés (including Jewish and anti-Fascist refugees from the Third Reich film industry), witnessed the deportation of Jewish relatives and friends, and fell in love with a Sudeten German Catholic.

Several memorable episodes involve the cinema. Demetz’s Czech classmates enforced a stringent code of etiquette for movie dates, from the choice of fashionable movie (American, French or Czech) to the flavour of ice cream bought from the usherette. Yet he also went on less decorous film dates with a star-struck girl who allowed herself to be fondled by any boy who would buy her chocolate and a movie ticket.

In 1944-45, Demetz passed through various labour camps and prisons in Germany and Czechoslovakia. In a Czech forest, ‘half-Jews’ from Prague performed manual labour, yet found time (especially on the latrine) for long intellectual conversations, encompassing ‘Marxist aesthetics, Expressionist theatre and Soviet movies we remembered from earlier times’. At one point, Demetz was taken from a German stone quarry by the Prague Gestapo and transported, under armed guard, by way of Auschwitz’s local prison and Brno’s regional prison to Prague’s notorious Pankrác Prison. In Brno, his cell window looked onto the

decaying building of the Variété, where as a boy I had gone on many a Sunday to see acrobatic shows and, after the intermission, movies projected on a screen at the other end of the hall. I had sat at a table with my nanny, sipped a Lesnenka (forest lemonade) and then simply turned my head to watch when the Buster Keaton movie started.

On New Year’s Eve 1941, Demetz’s mother risked a trip with her son and her ex-husband to the cinema to see a comedy, using a large handbag to conceal her yellow star. Sitting in the circle, ‘close to a corner in case we had to make a fast exit’, Demetz’s mother ‘enjoyed herself, relaxing her grip on the famous black handbag, but when the lights went on at the end, she pressed it dutifully against her dress again’. Despite this, she was spotted by an acquaintance who knew she was Jewish. ‘So the new year did not start well. We were afraid, for at least three days and nights,’ that this man would alert the police, ‘but he was an honest man and did not. That was my mother’s last opportunity to see a movie, for we did not dare repeat such an excursion.’ That July, she was deported to Terezín, where she died a year later.