A highlight reel of Nazi cinema rewinds a familiar and fearful montage: the celebration of eugenic perfection in Leni Riefenstahl’s triumphal pseudo-docs, the anti-Semitic agit-prop of Hippler and Harlan, and the stock footage from archival compilations whose final act reveals the skeletons, living and dead, from the liberation of the concentration camps. Yet the entertainment feature films made under the banner of the swastika—the marquee fare that the average German might have gone to see on a night out—is mainly a blank screen. For decades, the prints were kept under lock and key, banned from exhibition in Germany and radioactive to critics who preferred to dote on the glories of German Expressionism in the 1920s or the high renaissance of the New German Cinema in the 1970s. Only recently have scholars and documentarians been granted access to the vaults sealed since 1945.
Written and directed by German documentarian Rüdiger Suchsland, Hitler’s Hollywood: German Cinema in the Age of Propaganda 1933-1945 (opening Wednesday at New York’s Film Forum) seeks to fill in the mental gap by taking an unblinking—and sometimes frankly appreciative—look at the cinematic legacy of the Third Reich—the big-budget diversions too connected to the world outside the theater to be deemed truly escapist, but that, on the surface anyway, seem more concerned with the eternal appeal of love, music, and adventure than the immediate needs of the thousand-year Reich. His is not a reexamination or a revision—after all, so many of the images will be new even to the eyes of cinephiles—but a preliminary once-over to scope out the terrain. I can’t imagine anyone interested in the symbiosis between film and history not being fascinated and challenged by Suchsland’s audacious act of archival retrieval.
Voiced in subdued Teutonic tones by the actor Udo Kier—Werner Herzog was unavailable?—Hitler’s Hollywood boasts an exceptionally eloquent and thoughtful narration. More than simple exposition for a rapid-fire clip-a-thon, the commentary is an exercise in film criticism, exegesis, and argument. “The films are better than their reputation,” asserts Kier, setting the terms for the studio tour. “Many are worth a second look, a look that focuses on the details and disregards the surface message without losing sight of it. Some films disclose more than the makers intended.” To presume the creators weren’t aware of what they were up to or implicated in is dubious, but Suchsland is dead-on about the films being worth a second—or, for most of us, first—look.
After a perfunctory précis of the Nazi rise to power, the film settles in and goes to the movies. “Most Germans had adjusted themselves to the regime,” is the droll understatement spoken over home-movie footage of a placid and peaceful Germany, what with the unadjustable arrested, exiled, or murdered.
Of course, the alliteration of the title is a misdirection: the mogul who presided over the film industry of Nazi Germany was not Hitler but his lapdog wingman, Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, the frustrated artist who sought to emulate the Jewish studio heads he despised and who was wont to rail against his own stable of filmmakers as hacks incapable of making a single hit with the trans-national appeal of a low-budget programmer from Warner Bros. Goebbels, the obsessive producer-as-auteur, attended to every budget line of the regime’s production slate with the maniacal attention to detail of a Zanuck or Selznick. His scent pervades the frames like a toxic gas.
Passages from Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt make cameo appearances, but Suchsland’s guiding lens comes courtesy of Siegfried Kracauer, the Frankfurt School alum and refugee from Nazism whose From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological Study of the German Film, published in 1947, offered a roadmap to the collective dreamscape of the German subconscious. Kracauer psychoanalyzed Weimar cinema as a nightmarish foreshadowing, in which the vampire in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) is a precursor to the Nazi specter of the bloodsucking Jew and the rebellious students in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) are proto-Hitlerjugend tearing down the stuffy Prussian order; his book draws a straight line from Fritz Lang’s mythopoetic saga DieNibelungen (1924) to the gates of Auschwitz. Once a canonical rite of passage for undergraduate film students, From Caligari to Hitler has fallen into disrepute for its schematic paint-by-numbers Freudianism. Though Michel Foucault has long since supplanted Sigmund Freud as the go-to guy for theoretical scaffolding in film studies, Suchsland remains loyal to his countryman’s notion that “cinema is a seismograph of its time” registering the subterranean tremors of its audience.
Under the iron first and watchful eye of Reichsminister Goebbels, the dream factories of the Third Reich produced over 1,000 films, the vast majority of which were comedies, melodramas, and costume adventures. Significantly, the regime produced absolutely no horror films, either because the atmospheric backdrop was too evocative of the Judaic entartete Kunst (degenerate art) of Weimar Germany or because the genre was historically redundant.
What is left is alternately eye-opening and jaw-dropping. Suchsland unspools plenty of pure Aryan kitsch: chiseled Wehrmacht hunks and fetching mädchen in uniform, blondes of Hitchcockian frigidity, fresh-faced brownshirts diving headlong into their cult of death. In Veit Harlan’s Opfergang (1944), shot in spectacular Agfacolor, a blonde Valkyrie (Harlan’s muse and wife, Kristina Söderbaum) in a white bathing suit, galloping bareback on a white horse, unsheathes an arrow and hits the bull’s-eye—a Wonder Woman for Goebbels’s extended universe.
But there are also moments of pure beauty, poetry, and screen magic. By 1934, all the Jews had been purged from Ufa, the only studio on the planet Hollywood took as serious competition, but even in a judenfrei film industry, the below-the-line craftsmanship was as technically proficient as one would expect of a machine shop operated by Germans. The sheer visual sumptuousness and lavish production values of the films—the gorgeous costuming, florid set design, balletic choreography, and flawless cinematography—is astonishing, especially in the wartime productions, when the real Germany was threadbare, starving, and in ashes. The Hamburg-set Grosse Freiheit Nr. 7 (Helmut Käutner, 1944), described by Suchsland as “perhaps the best film of the Third Reich,” had to be completed in Prague: The original location had been obliterated by Allied bombing. The color photography, which looks like it was shot yesterday, possesses definition as crisp and vivid as anything from the MGM labs. If the Nazi assembly line wasn’t as prolific as the one in Hollywood, it maintained a quality control that expressed the genius of its own system.
Suchsland’s survey does not neglect the unavoidable Leni Riefenstahl and her geometric orchestration of “future cannon fodder” or the notorious anti-Semitic triple bill from 1940, Erich Waschneck’s The Rothschilds, Fritz Hippler’s The Eternal Jew, and Veit Harlan’s Jew Suss (“a call for murder with the means of cinema”), but he is target fixated on the regular playbill of popular entertainments and determined to suss out “what they reveal and what they are hiding.” He looks hard to find moments that seem to subvert the Nazi ethos, that whisper that perhaps all is not right in Deutschland. “You can almost feel the urge for disaster,” rasps Kier about Herbert Selpin’s Titanic (1943), “an allegory for what was happening to Germany.” Indeed, after the icy Gotterdammerung at Stalingrad, the sinking of the Titanic hit too close to home. Goebbels banned it from exhibition in the Reich, but, weirdly, released in occupied lands.
Most provocatively, Suchsland does not stint on superlatives for the thespian talent and directorial chops unspooling before our eyes. He swoons over the “radiant and vibrant” Dutch beauty Ilse Werner, “the only Nazi actress who could really have made it in Hollywood.” He praises Ferdinand Marian, “this most modern, naturalistic German actor,” who played the lead in Jew Suss, a star turn that earned him hundreds of fan letters from smitten fräuleins. The superstar Hans Albers is lauded as “the Sun God of German cinema” and “one of the few German stars with a twinkle in his eye and even some irony.” In Der Tanz auf dem Vulkan (Hans Steinhoff, 1938), the actor Gustaf Gründgens is nothing less than “a genius.” (Oddly, Suchsland does not mention that Gründgens was the inspiration for Mephisto , Istvan Szabo’s adaptation of the Klaus Mann novel, for the deal the actor made with the devil.)
Viewers not used to hearing a critic gush over Nazi cinema, praising its aesthetic virtues, even its charms, may find some of the enthusiastic thumbs-upping tough going. The screwball comedy Glückskinder (1936 Paul Martin), a Goebbels-sponsored remake of It Happened One Night, glimmers with “sparkling dialogue.” Helmut Käutner’s Wir Machen Musik (1942) confirms his status as “one of the finest German directors of all time.” Veit Harlan, he of the Jew Suss, is “the best of them.” Harlan’s Verwehte Spuren (1938) is “a film of uncertainty in the otherwise overly certain German productions—a great film noir in Nazi Germany.”
Suchsland lets the footage unfold, allowing a scene to build in intensity, so a skeptical spectator cannot deny the artistry or implications. Caught in France when the Nazis invaded, G.W. Pabst, the Weimar maestro who in 1929 immortalized the American actress Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, found himself making his own devil’s bargain and working for Goebbels—sort of. In Pabst’s remarkable Paracelsus(1943), a chorus line of possessed, hypnotized dancers, led by a medieval Pied Piper, enacts an eruption of mass hysteria of such transparent allegorical meaning that one wonders how it got by the Reichsfilmkammer censors.
Suchsland drops the occasional banality (“Nazi cinema seems to be fascinated by death”), but he is never less than observant (“what is striking about Nazi cinema is a total lack of irony”), and often penetrating. With a filmmaker’s eye for visual detail, he probes the excessive, compulsive reliance on optical wipes, dreamy cross-fades, and blurred borders that even in the hallucinatory environs of Nazi cinema transports the spectator to an über-unreal realm. Scrutinizing a scene from Zwei in Einer Grosse Stadt (1942 Volker von Collande), he watches an attractive couple walking side by side, their flesh bared in bathing suits, but their souls bound by Nazi-Victorian corsets. “They look so inhibited—so strangely wooden and unsure,” he comments. “You can feel the shyness—it’s clear they don’t know what to do with their bodies.”
A few familiar faces flash by to startling effect. Detlef Sierck, before coming to Hollywood in 1941 and reinventing himself as Douglas Sirk, the future darling of feminist film critics for his portraits of repressed Cold War womanhood, honed his oeuvre under the Nazis. “He had a smooth ride for years in Nazi cinema,” Suchsland notes archly. An incandescent Ingrid Bergman sweeps by in Die vier Gesellen (1938, Carl Froelich), a credit she preferred to erase from her filmography. “She too first worked in Germany,” Suchsland points out, before going over to the other side as a heroine of the Czech resistance.
Hitler’s Hollywood ends with the guttural last cinematic gasp of the regime, Kolberg (Veit Harlan, 1945), Goebbels’s ruinously expensive, ludicrously elaborate, and batshit crazy war epic-cum-costume drama. To commemorate a German victory during the Napoleonic Wars, he marshaled 6,000 period costumes, 2,000 horses, and 100,000 extras for behind the lines duty as the Reich was besieged from all sides, a mind-boggling demonstration of the Nazi commitment to the dream world of cinema.
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.