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The Forbidden Films of the Third Reich

Nazi propaganda: show it, or bury it? A new documentary takes on the question.

Thomas Doherty
May 12, 2015
Zeitgeist Films
A scene from the 1941 Nazi propaganda film "Homecoming," by Gustav Ucicky, as seen in "Forbidden Films," a documentary by Felix Moeller.Zeitgeist Films
Zeitgeist Films
A scene from the 1941 Nazi propaganda film "Homecoming," by Gustav Ucicky, as seen in "Forbidden Films," a documentary by Felix Moeller.Zeitgeist Films

From its first great eye-popping expression, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), still the go-to source for archival images of the übermensch, up to and beyond Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), a counter-factual mash-up of all things swastika-bedecked, moviegoers have been transfixed by the pageantry and pathology of Nazism on screen, as if by gazing into the images a clue might be found to unlock the madness. In Forbidden Films: The Hidden Legacy of Nazi Films the German documentarian Felix Moeller presents a selection of rare snippets from the Third Reich’s marquee programming—material that in another context might be billed as treasures from the vault. “Between 1933 and 1945, 1,200 feature films were made in Germany,” an omniscient script declares by way of introduction. “After the war the Allies banned over 300 films as propaganda. There are still restrictions on over 40 of these films today.” (Moeller, who previously surveyed the terrain in the poignant Harlan—in the Shadow of the Jew Süss [2008], means restrictions in Germany, where the public availability and exhibition of the Nazi oeuvre is strictly controlled.)

Made under the aegis of the Reichsfilmkammer, the film branch of the Reich Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, and overseen by Propaganda Minister and avid cinephile Joseph Goebbels, the films represent a cross section of anti-Semitic hate-mongering, anti-British agit-prop, Aryan bluster for all ages, and seemingly innocuous musical and melodramatic fare. Yet even while drawing back the curtain on its dicey attractions, the film ponders whether this stuff is so toxic that it should remain buried in cold storage for as long as race-hatred endures, which is to say forever. Of course, the question answers itself. Check out the come-on title: Who doesn’t want to see a forbidden film?

Moeller opens his peep show with an overripe metaphor: archivist Egbert Koppe walking down the corridors of the Federal Film Archive in Hoppegarten, Germany, a bunker-like storage facility containing five tons of nitrocellulose film. Combustible and highly flammable, as we know from Inglourious Basterds, the nitrate stock is literally and, we need not be told, figuratively explosive. Not that the danger will prevent Moeller from taking the 35mm film canisters off the shelf and unspooling the contents; that’s why we’re here.

After the requisite trigger warning, Forbidden Films settles into the familiar grove of an archival documentary smart enough to know it has the goods and need not get too flashy: talking heads from academia, samplings from the films in question, and, in this case, reaction shots of ordinary moviegoers beholding the films for the first time at screenings in Munich, Paris, and Jerusalem. Organized into vague categories (“anti-British,” “Against the Weimar Republic” “For the Führer”), the entries range from the infamous, to the obscure, to the WTF? Veit Harlan’s disturbingly accomplished The Jew Süss (Jud Süss 1940), which transports Nazi racial politics to the royal digs of 18th-century Württemberg, takes top billing, the occasion for a sold-out revival screening in Munich, spiritual birthplace of the Third Reich. (The screening was held at the Munich Filmmuseum, directly across the street from the Israeli Cultural Community Center.) The gorgeously shot Homecoming (Heimkehr, 1941) depicts a bizarro-world version of Polish-German relations that turns the Germans into victims of Polish brutality. Stukas (1941) looks to be a looney martial-musical in which a chorus of fighter pilots sings in harmony while strafing the British. (“What bloody fun!” exults the squadron leader after a raid. “Fiery as a Reich’s Party Rally, wasn’t it, boys?”) The Agfacolor costume drama Kolberg (1945), Goebbels’ epic boondoggle, gets an all-too-brief cameo: An allegory for resistance set during the Napoleonic Wars, it is an astonishing testimony to the cinema-centric proclivities of a pair of executive producers who funneled a cast of thousands into a morale-boosting super-production even as their regime was imploding around them. The Rothschilds (Die Rothschilds, 1940) exposes the Zionist plot for worldwide financial hegemony with the eponymous family establishing branch banks in capitals across Europe: When the points on the map are connected, they form the shape of a (spoiler alert) Star of David.

Even in so grim and weird a gallery, two entries stand out. The raw race hatred of Fritz Hippler’s The Eternal Jew (Der Ewige Jude, 1940) retains its power to repel. Playing like a feature-length version of the editorial cartoons from Julius Streicher’s anti-Semitic rag Der Stürmer, it contains what may be the single most sickening montage in the Nazi canon: the exterminationist cross-cutting between the physiognomy of “Jewish types” and swarms of scurrying rodents. Moeller decided to include only a few brief glimpses from the film, culled from a video website and shot from a computer screen—both to show how accessible the material is today and to deny it big-screen validation. “I think this is the most vicious and perfidious and repulsive film and I didn’t want to transfer it to HD quality,” Moeller wrote in an email. “We had a discussion with people from the German distributor and the TV station whether to show it. Once, the great documentarian Erwin Leiser said no cinematic analysis would justify the reproduction of these images.”

No less unnerving, but in a very different way, is I Accuse (Ich Kluge An, 1941), a social-problem film that sparks a disquieting shock of recognition: the social problem is euthanasia. When a vivacious Aryan hausfau is afflicted with multiple sclerosis, she begs her brilliant scientist husband to kill her before her inevitable deterioration into a woman he will no longer adore. Unable to withstand her anguish, he puts her to death painlessly, lovingly. At his murder trial, a tribunal weighs the moral and medical issues, but the final verdict is left up to the audience. Clearly made to soften up conquered territories in the Greater Reich, the film lacks any conspicuous Nazi imagery or rhetoric at all. With just a bit of updating, it might be a Lifetime Movie of the Week.

After the Nazi films unreel, many moviegoers are struck by how technically proficient and aesthetically compelling the films are. “It makes me ill because it was so good,” says one queasy spectator after taking in The Jew Süss. No wonder; even after the Jewish talent was purged from the German film industry in 1933-1934, enough Weimar-era expertise remained in harness to show why German cinema was the only competition on the planet the Hollywood moguls really worried about. The regime also backed up its vision with the kind of resources and budget that today’s German filmmakers “can only dream about,” marvels director Margarethe von Trotta, who happens to be Moeller’s mother, after a screening of Uncle Kruger (Ohm Krüger, 1941), a lavish biopic of the Boer leader Paul Kruger, starring the great Emil Jannings, who abandoned Hollywood to become Goebbels’ prize poodle.

For not a few spectators, the seductive quality of the cinema breeds a fear that, if let loose, the Nazi films can be a gateway drug into the harder stuff. Filmed in shadows, a pair of former neo-Nazis confirms that the vintage Nazi fare is useful as bonding bait for new recruits, though even they scoff at The Eternal Jew as over the top. After watching The Jew Süss, a theater-full of French high school kids is nearly unanimous in voting to ban it from television broadcasts: The susceptible masses need to be protected from material that should be reserved “for the educated bourgeoisie.” A man at a cinematheque in Jerusalem demurs, arguing that The Jew Süss should be shown to every schoolchild in Israel, so they can be familiar with it, understand it, and “dispute and reject it.”

American viewers are likely to find Forbidden Films particularly illuminating. While Nazi-period documentary footage is ubiquitous (just turn on the History Channel), the feature films are virtually unknown: They were not so much erased from American movie memory as never a part of it. Immediately after Hitler took power in January 1933, most German-language cinemas—once showcases for the most popular of all imported foreign films—changed programming or went belly up after their core audience of German Jews, estimated at between 65 percent to 70 percent of the consumer base, boycotted the venues.

Spearheaded by the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights, which closely monitored and vigorously protested the exhibition of Nazi films in the 1930s, American Jewish groups rallied to close down any screening emanating from the Third Reich. Only a handful of specialty houses survived to serve German audiences—some pro-Nazi, some just wanting to hear the language of the home country. S.A.-Mann Brand (1933) and Hitlerjunge Quex (1933), two of the German youth exploitation films featured by Moeller, got brief releases in the Yorkville Theatre in New York, but the remaining German-language houses stuck to melodramatic and musical fare with little overt Nazi proselytizing. Many of the imported Nazi films didn’t even bother with English language subtitling, and none of them (in contrast to the glories of Weimar-era cinema) broke through to the American mainstream.

‘No cinematic analysis would justify the reproduction of these images.’

The stateside distribution of the more incendiary Nazi material is harder to trace. In 1941, the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League warned that The Eternal Jew was “on the Deutsche propaganda agenda” for stateside exhibition, but Variety reported that the existence of the film “in this country could not be determined.” Still, trade press reporters suspected that pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic films were smuggled off German passenger liners and screened surreptitiously at meetings of the German-American Bund, the Nazi fifth column that operated in America until 1941.

Nazi-era films are easier to see these days, even in Germany, where they remain officially banned but digitally downloadable. In the age of the Internet, the banning is recognized for what it is, a rear-guard political gesture not a practical deterrent. Many of the films Moeller showcases are readily accessible on YouTube, though not always with English subtitles or in uncut form. As Christine von Wahlert, a member of the Classification Board of the German Film Industry, cynically notes, the real reason for the continuation of the ban is that the present-day German authorities dread nothing so much as a headline reading: “Federal Government Supports Release of Nazi Films.” Predictably, the restrictive policy has an unintended consequence for film scholars. In the absence of legitimate suppliers, film scholar Sonja M. Schulz laments that she has to resort to shady distributors—perhaps with an all-too-sympathetic affinity for the back catalog—to obtain her research material. (Full disclosure: that’s how, years ago, I obtained impressively clean DVD copies of The Eternal Jew and The Jew Süss.)

Unlike the Third Reich itself, Nazi films have proven un-killable, something of an irony when so many classics of the cinema seem irretrievably lost. In 1954, Veit Harlan, saying he was “deeply ashamed” of The Jew Süss and did not want it circulating, burned his negative, under supervision of a notary. “Chances of the anti-Semitic German film, Jew Süss, being shown anywhere now are practically nil since the only remaining copy of the picture is being held by U.S. authorities in Washington,” commented a premature report in Variety.

Given how important and how amenable the films are to, well, not re-purposing but original purposing, Forbidden Films may be most valuable as a teaser for a major repertory film series and accompanying box set. Inflammatory or not, the logical place for this material is not an underground vault but a museum or revival house. As Oskar Roehler, director of the docu-drama Jew Süss: Rise and Fall (2010), comments, “If you don’t know about these things, you know very little about our country”—to which one might add “world history.” Contrary to the title of the latest exploration of the cinematic remnants of the Third Reich, Nazi films aren’t forbidden: They’re forever.

Thomas Doherty, a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, is the author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 and Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century.