By Jeremy Carr.
Even if there wasn’t a compelling, underlying thesis to Hitler’s Hollywood: German Cinema in the Age of Propaganda: 1933–1945, this 2017 film by Rüdiger Suchsland would still be a valuable, fascinating record. For the sheer breadth of assembled material, an overwhelming array of Third Reich-era film clips from movies rarely seen and seldom discussed, Suchsland’s documentary is worthy of praise. But there is a point to be made. Suchsland, who had in 2014 directed a film based on Siegfried Kracauer’s celebrated 1947 text, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, here takes the essential premise of Kracauer’s work, that cinema is a revelatory medium, disclosing much about any given culture or nationality, and applies that concept to the thousand or so features actually produced during the Nazi reign, a time generally foreshadowed in the films analyzed by Kracauer.
The twist in what Suchsland advances has to do with how Kracauer’s sociopolitical scrutiny, convincingly speculative as it is, would then apply to films literally fashioned under the aegis of a state-controlled industry, with all the manipulation and censorship that entails. At the same time, as Suchsland’s cinematic collage indicates to an astonishing extent, these were also first-rate productions, well-crafted, entertaining films, with prominent stars, talented directors, and ample financial support. How, then, does one rectify the propaganda inherent in the art and the art that enhances the propaganda, and how much, in fact, was even straightforward propaganda to begin with?
Narrated by Udo Kier, whose intensely Germanic inflection is at once poetic and sinister, Hitler’s Hollywood begins by submitting largely frivolous fare, diversions with good looking actors singing and dancing, whistling and smiling, with happy children, conservative views of domesticity, and the general promotion of surface stability, serenity, and, dare one say it, innocence. Like the unsound state of the nation, though, these innocuous German features belie the realities of a country as it ambivalently adjusts to a brutal regime. As Kier remarks, and this could be the fundamental core of Suchsland’s film, “Cinema offered an additional distraction.” The stress was on fantasy, theatricality, spectacle, and emotion, and just in what is seen here, these movies thrive on all levels. But there, beneath the harmless veneer, were hints of what was to come: there were shades of indoctrination and a thematic and visual preoccupation with death. For Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, cinema was the ideal mass communication tool, inexorably linked with the essence of propaganda, and whether the resulting films were works of pure escapism or blatant promotions of such entities as The Hitler Youth, as the narration notes, the sequence proceeded thus: “The politics of aesthetics followed by the aesthetics of politics.”
As a critic and historian, Suchsland submits that the roots of these motion pictures are entrenched in a covert cultural conspiracy. “What are these films about?” asks the narration. “What do they reveal and what are they hiding?” Similar to what Kracauer puts forth, what Suchsland evokes is unsettled in its substantive validity; in other words, the respective author reads into these films certain connotations that may or may not have been intended, presenting diverse examples, some of them decisive, some of them debatable, but most all of them open to interpretation. There are, of course, unambiguous examples like Leni Riefenstahl’s blatantly propagandistic Triumph of the Will (1935) or Veit Harlan’s venomously anti-Semitic Jud Süss (1940), the “most disgraceful” entry according to Suchsland, but to his credit, the writer/director nimbly processes areas of equivocal potential, implying associations but resisting a complete proposal. “No film can be a deserter,” though, as the commentary contends, so just as any given picture seems safe enough, there it is, plain as can be, that tingle of fascistic evangelism. These films are therefore full of routine incongruities, taken from feminist and working-class perspectives in the midst of the repressive madness, or showcasing a pleasurable soccer match that takes place the same morning war is declared on the Soviet Union. The contrasts evinced in Hitler’s Hollywood are at times hard to comprehend but are immensely intriguing all the same. And anyway, the gradual path toward global conflict soon tramples modest notions of sheer diversionary leisure, and such reticence dramatically changes with the outbreak of war in 1939. From that point on, there grows increasingly little ambiguity in much of what Hitler’s Hollywood presents.
Primarily produced at Ufa studios, most of the titles in Hitler’s Hollywood were obtained from The Murnau-Institute and were selected by Suchsland for their escapist tendencies. His focus was on “mainstream cinema … the aesthetic experience of National Socialism, and its seduction and enchantment mechanisms.” While the abundant sampling is welcome, many of the films are never identified by name. It’s unfortunate for those intrigued by one film or another, but it is understandable given the rapid pace in which these clips are flashed. As the name Hitler’s Hollywood suggests, Third Reich cinema strove to emulate America’s moviemaking hub, and so what are acknowledged are stars, directors, and familiar genres. There is a rare talking turn by Metropolis icon Brigitte Helm; there is the bubbly appearance of 23-year-old Ingrid Bergman (an appearance better left forgotten as far as she was concerned); and there are early films by G.W. Pabst and Detlef Sierck/Douglas Sirk. There is even a remake of Frank Capra’s 1934 Oscar winning rom-com It Happened One Night. As these assorted films play out, Suchsland tends to avoid extensive visual analysis, instead favoring an examination of performer posture and behavior, looking at the emotional resonance of their conduct, but by the end of war, and by extension the end Hitler’s Hollywood, he does reconsider the lavish technique of these later features. At this stage, though the advanced practice showed no sign of formal hardship, the German film industry became “something hysterical,” reflecting a country hurtling toward disaster (fittingly, one film shown concerned the sinking of the Titanic). “Propaganda,” comments Kier, “was becoming a farce.”
Suchsland wonders if it’s best to imagine the whole Third Reich age as if it were itself a single film, such is its peculiarity and seclusion, but he also speculates on how much of the epoch lives on, even today. This is arguably the most provocative question issued by Hitler’s Hollywood. “Without wanting to conflate the two periods,” he states in press notes for the film,
it would also be naive to say today that propaganda doesn’t exist. This has contemporary relevance – in terms of the history of contemporary German cinema and in Hollywood, in terms of the representation of politics within cinema, but also in news, advertisements, and electoral campaigning, which I hope to share with the viewer.
To that end, many who see Hitler’s Hollywood will draw inevitable comparisons to contemporary times, and a quote from Hannah Arendt, inserted in the film, especially hits home:
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Nevertheless, for all of its social and political value, Hitler’s Hollywood is also an important documentary from a cinephile’s perspective. Surely, there is an added incumbrance placed upon these troubling films, many of which “seduce their public into immorality or at least into holding double standards,” according to Suchsland: “It was a cinema that was openly insincere, and which integrated lies and imposture.” But they are movies after all, and one has to marvel at their variance and quality. They are, as Suchsland’s narration declares, “better than their reputations.” Rarely screened since the war, German films from this era are hard to come by, certainly compared to those immediately preceding the period. Perhaps this has to do with logistical availability, perhaps it has to do with a collective guilt for even being curious about what these pictures were like in the first place. In either case, Hitler’s Hollywood succeeds because it alleviates this problem on both counts, providing a preliminary glimpse at what the era had to offer and presenting the work in a conducive historical context. Uncomfortable as it may be to admit, one comes away wanting to see more, which is a testament to the efficacy of Suchsland’s considered treatment.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.