NEW YORK — Imagining a world where the Nazis won World War II has been fertile ground to fiction authors for decades. What few realize is that a visualization of this dark fantasy already exists for us in film vaults. With a proper guide, a look at this parallel world can be illuminating.
Rüdiger Suchsland’s “Hitler’s Hollywood: German Cinema in the Age of Propaganda 1933 – 1945” is a remarkable essay film, consisting exclusively of clips made under the auspices of the Third Reich. As with all cinema, this archive represents the dreams of the culture that made it and, in this particular case, of the society it yearned to become. The films are a mix of anti-humanism and stylized craft, and, while perhaps it is distasteful to award them too much praise, it is foolish not to study and learn from them.
The documentary is a dizzying collage of imagery, but carefully constructed so as not to be seductive. “These films are better than they are remembered,” a voice acknowledges against a wash of expressive, shimmering black-and-white dissolves.
Few can deny that German artisans in the 1930s didn’t have a look. But the narration by German actor Udo Kier (who sprinkles in some personal narrative: “This is my parents’ Germany”) is a resonant mix of awe, disgust and forensic science. “What do the films reveal? And what are they hiding?”
Three days after Hitler became chancellor he saw “Morgenrot,” a submarine film set during World War I. It helped crystallize, so this documentary argues, his vision of a strong Germany, and he recognized the importance of cinema.
His propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels quickly took an executive role not just in national film production, but in distribution and exhibition, too. Nazi Germany was film crazy, but it wasn’t just the A pictures. It was the shorter “culture films” as well as its slanted newsreel footage. It was as much escapism as it was indoctrination.
Suchsland’s chronological clip reels show how Nazi cinema, particularly in the early years, mirrored what was happening in Hollywood. There were musicals and comedies that, on their surface, seem completely benign.
Karl Hartl’s “The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes” presents happy, beautiful German men singing lyrics like “the world belongs to me,” which, to contemporary ears framed by the Nazi terror of Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret,” becomes quite eerie.
The romantic films are lush, the adventure films crackle. There is very little fantasy, science fiction or horror because this didn’t fit Goebbels’ framework. Realism, the glory of the state and, as Suchsland shows, a curious fascination with noble, bloodless death were the recurring themes.
The lesser known films are couched by the more notorious ones. Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s chum whose propaganda works are still cherished by aesthetic purists, gets no shortage of attention. Udo Kier’s narration approaches her 1935 documentary “Triumph of the Will,” which is essentially a Nazi rock video, the way someone approaches the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. He breaks down its components according to Goebbels’ ideology, but eventually the theory becomes white noise against the imagery.
The most bluntly anti-Semitic films are Erick Waschneck’s “The Rothschilds” (1940), in which a secret diagram to conquer the world just happens to look like a Star of David, and Veit Harlan’s “Jud Süss” (1940), a movie that suggests that your town will only know peace if it is free of conniving crook-nosed Jews.
“Hitler’s Hollywood” offers up many interesting historical footnotes, like clips from Ingrid Bergman’s first major role in Carl Froelich’s “The Four Companions” (1938), which could generously be called a typical “modern career girl picture” if it weren’t for its inexorable ties with so many successful Nazis. We also meet other stars and starlets who were well-paid for their services in the German film industry. One wonders if Ilse Werner or Anneliese Uhlig would be household names if they emigrated like Marlene Dietrich did.
The final film analyzed in “Hitler’s Hollywood” is Veit Harlan’s “Kolberg” (1945), a bombastic, historical epic of a German town valorously resisting a siege during the Napoleonic Wars. It is an orgy of denial. Audiences could revel for a few hours, looking for some psychological cushioning in the last, brutal months of of the war before the Reich’s inevitable collapse. The production used 50,000 soldiers as extras, all looking strong. Suchsland juxtaposes this with real images of wounded and starving soldiers, the victims of all this heinous propaganda. When did they recognize the chasm between dreams and reality?
“Hitler’s Hollywood” is a nightmare and a warning in the least expected package: a cinema studies crash-course. It’s up to us in the audience to learn from it.