With Inglourious Basterds released this week, we take a look at the cinema of Nazi Germany…
Prior to 1933 the German film industry enjoyed a highly influential and critically acclaimed period of creativity and originality but the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party would see many key figures emigrate from the country, including renowned directors Joseph von Sternberg and Fritz Lang alongside screen stars Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre. Shortly after coming to power the Nazi Party implemented the Reichsfilmkammer (Reich Chamber of Film), which effectively nationalised the film industry under the control of Joseph Goebbels and his Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. This move served to exclude ‘Non-Ayran’ talent and those at odds with the Nazi ideology from working in the industry while giving the state total control over the production, content and distribution of German film output.
Goebbels had once described himself as an “impassioned devotee of cinematic art”, and held a personal film collection for his private screening rooms that included classics such as Gone with the Wind (1939) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which happened to be banned at the time due to perceived anti-German messages. Goebbels personally regretted the exodus of talent and initially granted more creative freedom to filmmakers, however by 1937 the Ministry for Propaganda had taken ownership of the major film studios and Goebbels’ influence stretched to script approval, financing, cast selection and beyond.
While the film industry in Nazi Germany initially appeared to flourish, many of the smaller production companies soon faced bankruptcy in the face of increased salary demands from members of the Reichsfilmkammer, along with the loss of revenue from international boycotts that banned the import of German films in other markets. This merely served to tighten the Nazis grip on the industry by enabling them to concentrate on a smaller number of production companies, with only 38 managing to survive by the outbreak of World War II (from over 100 which had existed in 1933). In addition the import of foreign (mainly Hollywood) films had also been banned, giving the Party complete control over the silver screen.
Most of the films produced during this period were by and large devoid of overt Nazi propaganda, with Goebbels envisioning the cinema as a tool to provide escapism and entertainment for the masses. Much of the propaganda took the form of documentaries and Party-produced shorts although by 1938 and with war just around the corner, Hitler personally complained to Goebbels about the lack of Nazi themes within the productions. In response, Goebbels approved of a number of highly anti-semetic movies such as Der ewige Jude (English: The Eternal Jew) and Jud Süß (both 1940), which played upon Nazi stereotypes of the Jewish people as materialistic and untrustworthy. In the case of Jud Süß, Goebbels personally intervened and ordered extensive reshoots after watching an early preview which depicted the lead character of Süß in a sympathetic light as opposed to that of an evil villain. So successful were these films in their aims that they helped to sway public opinion, and it was reported that a number of teenagers were so enraged by the content that they immediately set about attacking Jews after leaving the cinema.
As war raged in Europe, Goebbels continued to try and divert public attention from the Allied bombings with a number of films that incorporated comedy, music, and romance alongside patriotic messages and Nazi propaganda. Movies such as Wunschkonzert (English: Request Concert, 1940), Die große Liebe (English: The Great Love, 1942) and Kolberg (1945) were effective tools in distracting the German populace, and at the height of its popularity the film industry exceeded a billion cinema admissions.
Goebbels had also tried to improve the image of Nazi Germany by creating a ‘star system’ similar to that of Hollywood and it was not uncommon for leading Nazi figures such as Goebbels, Hitler and Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring to appear in public alongside famous actors and actresses. Göring was married to the actress Emmy Sonnemann in 1935, while Hitler often attended dinner parties with actresses Lil Dagover and Olga Tchechowa (who was later discovered to be a Soviet sleeper agent with rumoured ties to the Hitler assassination plot). Goebbels – a notorious womaniser – was himself involved in a number of affairs and sought to divorce his wife Magda after a two year relationship with Czech actress Lida Baarova until Hitler – fearful of a scandal – ordered Goebbels to end the affair.
Another regular member of the Nazi star circuit was female filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who Goebbels had earlier tried to fix up with Hitler during a dinner party in 1932. Riefenstahl had begun her career as an actress and dancer in the 1920s, and in 1931 she had produced, directed and starred in Das Blaue Licht (English: The Blue Light), which had received international recognition along with moderate critical and commercial success. While Hitler baulked at romance with Riefenstahl, he was impressed by her creative talents enough to appoint her his personal filmmaker. Riefenstahl was commissioned to cover the 1934 Nuremberg Party rally, which led to the 1935 documentary Triumph des Willens (English: Triumph of the Will), a groundbreaking piece of film that featured techniques such as unusual camera angles, dramatic editing and lighting and a rousing musical score. The film received recognition and awards across the globe and was considered to be one of the greatest documentaries ever produced, despite controversy over its promotion of the Nazi regime.
Riefenstahl would follow Triumph of the Wills in 1938 with another acclaimed yet controversial documentary Olympia, which covered the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. Once again Riefenstahl employed cutting-edge techniques for the time, and the resulting film is often regarded as one of the greatest of all time (including an appearance on Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Movies list). While critics dismiss the film as more Nazi propaganda in line with her earlier documentary, many have defended Riefenstahl and point to the extreme close-up of Hitler as African-American Jesse Owens claims a gold medal as evidence against such allegations. Nevertheless, Riefenstahl’s association with Hitler and the Nazi Party led to her arrest in 1945 and she was tried without conviction on a number of occasions as a Nazi propagandist. This effectively ended her career, although she did release two further films in 1954 (Tiefland, filmed between 1940-44) and 2002 (Impressionen unter Wasser, English: Underwater Impressions, which premiered mere days before her 100th birthday).
German cinema would continue to prove popular in the immediate aftermath of the war, witnessing a shift towards the Italian neorealist style with the Trümmerfilm (English: ‘rubble film’) genre, which depicted harsh day-to-day reality of civilian life. This eventually led to a period of crisis and stagnation until the advent of ‘New German Cinema’ in the late 1960s, although East German cinema would remain under tight Communist control until the fall of the German Democratic Republic in 1989. Despite the propagandist nature of the films produced during the Nazi regime and the strict guidelines enforced by Goebbels, they remain of historical importance both as examples of the powerful nature of the medium as a tool for propaganda and for pioneering production techniques and technical achievements, although clearly the deep association with Nazi ideals rightly ensures they remain highly controversial.