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Hitler’s Hollywood

by Glenn Erickson Jul 03, 2018

 

What, another docu about Nazis? Rüdiger Suchsland’s show tells the entire story — with many rare clips and interesting actor and filmmaker profiles — of the hundreds of state-produced German films made during the Third Reich. It’s the most thorough, informative and eye-opening show on the subject I’ve yet seen. It comes with revelations about some surprising names, like Douglas Sirk and Ingrid Bergman.

 

Hitler’s Hollywood
DVD
Kino Lorber
2017 / Color & B&W / 1:78 enhanced widescreen / 105 min. / Street Date July 10, 2018 / Hitlers Hollywood: Das deutsche Kino im Zeitalter der Propaganda 1933 – 1945 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Narrated by Udo Kier
With film clips of Hans Albers, Heinz Rühmann, Zarah Leander, Ilse Werner, Marianne Hoppe, Gustaf Gründgens, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Alfred Abel, Lída Baaroví, Willy Fritsch, Gustav Fröhlich, Lilian Harvey, Johannes Heesters, Brigitte Helm, Paul Henreid, Margot Hielscher, Emil Jannings, Pola Negri, Magda Schneider, Kristina Söderbaum, Anton Walbrook.
Film Editor: Ursula Pürrer
Produced by Gunnar Dedio, Martina Haubrich
Written and Directed by Rüdiger Suchsland

 

When I reviewed Zeitgeist/Kino’s Forbidden Films: The Hidden Legacy Of Nazi Film a few weeks back, a reader told me of an even better documentary by the same filmmaker, Rüdiger Suchsland. Forbidden concentrated on viewer reactions to the movies of the Third Reich, whereas this full docu tells the story from beginning to end, in detail that will impress knowledgeable film historians. I found good samples of films I’ve only read about, and was introduced to impressive actors I’d never heard of before. The scary message of Hitler’s Hollywood is that the Nazis’ movies aren’t all obvious ugly propaganda, no more than spirited advocacy films from any other country. The narration script, written by Suchsland, would make a good book in print. The show presents scores of relevant titles, names and faces, but also puts forward a compelling interpretation of what we’re seeing. The first lesson we learn is that Josef Goebbels’ Nazi pictures didn’t attack the audience, but instead put forward a natural, seductive line of reasoning.

 

Goebbels seized control of all German media and public communication almost from the beginning, and of course only Nazi ideals prevailed. But the main aim of the films was to entertain. After the Jews and liberals were expelled or chose to flee, those artists that remained strove to make pictures Germans wanted to see. A few years into Nazi rule, all private companies were consolidated into the single entity Ufa GmbH, and Goebbels personally approved everything. (Recommended viewing: The Goebbels Experiment) Musicals, adventures and comedies prevailed. The show opens on clips from a picture about two confidence men that impersonate Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The detective heroes sing as they enjoy a bath in a fancy hotel room. When Agfacolor came in, audiences were treated to lavish musical entertainments with scantily-clad dancers.

The question of Nazi propaganda is always present. The blatant example given is Hitler Youth Quex, which seems a direct response to the short-lived pre-Reich communist picture Kuhle Wampe: Or, Who Owns the World?  Young boy Quex rejects the licentious socialist youth but is inspired by the order, rituals and quest for political perfection demonstrated by the Hitler Youth. Quex’s father, a socialist lout, is superseded by a Nazi youth counselor.

 

Virulent anti-Semitism becomes a major theme as the state takes steps to persecute Jews. Pictures are made depicting Jewish perfidy through history, including one about a Jewish cad that tricks good Germans to extort a personal fortune. He then forces the heroine to submit to him sexually by torturing her boyfriend. The docu stresses that most pictures didn’t have overt messages, and instead simply presented a consensus approval of conformity to a single value system. One romantic drama starring Swedish import Ingrid Bergman, is about some women that try to start their own business. By the last reel, they ‘learn’ that their place is in the home, having children. I had no awareness of this film, which doesn’t appear in the Bergman bios I’ve read or seen. 1941’s I Accuse (Ich klage an) is a courtroom drama about a doctor whose wife has a terminal disease, and commits a moral mercy killing. By extension the pro-euthanasia theme is applied to cripples, the sickly and mentally impaired. The narration notes that the film immediately preceded the Nazis’ widespread use of targeted euthanasia. The timing of the most virulent anti-Semitic films also immediately precedes changes in state policy.

Identically to the Russians and East Germans, Nazi films almost always prioritize communal action and subservience to the state over personal concerns. We see one example of a fine film shelved because its characters act too independently. In the average Nazi picture, happy housewives, workers, businessmen and soldiers have few selfish desires. They express the clear motivation to do their best for the Führer and Germany as a whole. If doubts arise, they are always resolved by picture’s end. Thus Hitler’s Hollywood proposes that the films share a single theme of unsullied cheer and optimism. There is only one communal character of a positive, hopeful citizen doing his duty. It’s a sinister expression of political mind control, as if human nature wants us not to be individuals, but anonymous units in a mass. The montages of faces that we see gazing with wonder upon the arrival of Hitler in Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will make perfect sense.

 

We see various newsreels, especially around the Olympic Games, and when the war begins. We’re told that Goebbels pitched many of his films at the female audience. One happy romance filmed in wartime shows a couple meeting several years earlier at the Olympics, recalling happy times. In another domestic drama, a wife that once complained when her cameraman husband went on long work trips, now preaches that since there’s a war on, he has a good reason to be away from home. Wartime films stray from contemporary events to historical themes, obviously to provide moviegoers with escapist entertainment. Elaborate fantasies like Baron Münchausen were popular, with its magical adventurer and screen-ful of nude harem women.

A period drama about the Boer War demonizes the British in South Africa, and has the gall to set scenes with Germans suffering in concentration camps. The impressive Ufa version of Titanic blames the disaster on British and American capitalist greed an corruption. Because Allied bombings had begun, Goebbels decided to show Titanic only in occupied territories. Near the end, with the Reich collapsing on all sides, Ufa unaccountably made Kolberg, using a hundred thousand troops as extras (!). The story of a city fighting to the death against Napoleon can only be explained as a call for a Twilight of the Gods if the Reich falls. But the documentary stresses that even the average escapist Nazi film is part of the same social Death Pact — ‘Germany First’ pits the Homeland against all.

Many famous German actors and directors fled to France and America, but the docu takes a longer look at those that stayed. Not too many Nazi stars were punished afterwards by the West, unless they were full collaborators. Director Veit Harlan was the creative force behind the nastiest Nazi films condemning Jews, etc. He married actress Kristina Söderbaum and featured her in most of his pictures. Sort of a Sandra Dee type, Söderbaum plays the Aryan victim of the evil rapist in her husband’s Jud Süß.

 

Hans Albers is the ubiquitous good-humored hero in everything from Baron Münchausen to the anti-British science fiction picture Gold, made in 1934 but already claiming that Germany was the victim of unfair economic ‘warfare’ by English business tycoons. The glamorous Swede import Zarah Leander starred as a singing, suffering heroine in grandiose love melodramas. We see clips from her features directed by Hans Detlef Sierck, who made Nazi pictures for several years until literally escaping to the West. When he reached the U.S. his name became Douglas Sirk. He and his wife bided their time on a chicken ranch until the unexpected hit, the anti-Nazi Hitler’s Madman put him back in the running. Weirdly, Sirk’s fifties melodramas for Universal that focus on kitschy transcendent love and faith, use some of the same dramatic and cinematic devices seen in his sometimes politically-inflected Nazi films.

One actor shown but not mentioned by name is O.E. Hasse, in a jingoistic combat movie called Stukas (1941). We know Hasse well from his villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess. What was the clearing method for actors that featured in Nazi films? Billy Wilder made jokes about his duty ‘cleansing’ theaters in the Allied Sector, but gave few details. I assume that those taken by the Russians may have had more serious difficulties. Hasse features in George Seaton’s The Big Lift (1948) and Anatole Litvak’s Decision Before Dawn in 1951, so he clearly found his way around his past in Goebbels’ pictures.

The docu stresses the high technical standards of German filmmaking and notes the film’s penchant for montage sequences and other cinematic effects that use superimpositions and complex dissolves. Director Suchland shows how these myth-making devices are used — in a montage of death scenes enhanced with spiritual glows and waves of light. In Nazi films every sacrifice and quest is elevated to glorious heights, to beautify the social Death Pact.

Director Suchsland also touches on films and personalities that went against the grain. One very prestigious actor-director inserted ‘questionable’ lyrics into a musical scene. Others made films (sometimes in Fascist Italy) that didn’t tow the Nazi party line. Hans Albers is a lovesick sailor in the melancholy Große Freiheit Nr. 7, which uses impressive orchestrations of the romantic song La Paloma. We see excellent color clips from movies starring the Dutch actress and singer Ilse Werner, whose romantic problems have no relation to being a good citizen in the Nazi Order. The commentary describes Werner as the one Nazi actress that could have made it in Hollywood.


 

Kino Lorber’s DVD of Hitler’s Hollywood looks very good for a Standard Def release, with almost all of the clips in excellent condition. The show uses effective graphics but does not depend on them — we’re far too interested in the content to want fancy embellishments.

The voiceover script explains the fascinating historical context. When Rüdiger Suchsland finds a filmic trend that resonates with the history of the Reich, he shows the evidence without too much of the social psychology theories we get from Siegfried Kracauer. He also doesn’t try to overload the docu with ‘star’ input — for instance, rather than stress the impact of the giant personality Marlene Dietrich, he simply states that when it became obvious that she wasn’t going to return from Hollywood, Goebbels reacted by demonizing her in the German press. The lies stuck so well that even after the war, Marlene was no longer popular in her home country.

 

The disc carries audio tracks in both German and English. Actor Udo Kier is the only voice talent credite, but I’m not sure that he does both tracks. The English track is a bit slow and tentative and the German more fluid. The English track comes with subtitles that only translate German dialogue, so I recommend the subs that accompany the German track — as more is said, at a faster pace, on that track. The audio is fine, especially in the clips from German musicals. Some of the singers are quite good but nobody dances as well as, say, our Eleanor Powell. One statuesque dancing star mainly spins around a lot, albeit sometimes in very revealing dresses.

Hitler’s Hollywood is especially impressive in that very little of it is a rehash of the usual stories of the Nazi rise to power. It also doesn’t try to recapitulate events and stories told with more focus in docus like From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses and Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood. With its emphasis on a Fascist society where all the media and information was controlled by lies dictated by imperious leaders, Hitler’s Hollywood is extremely relevant today.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



Hitler’s Hollywood
DVD
rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good English narration + alternate German voiceover
Supplements: Trailer
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 2, 2018
(5768hitl)CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.