Film Review: Hitler’s Hollywood—German Cinema in the Age of Propaganda: 1933-1945

Ambitious attempt to mine insights into the German “disposition” during the Nazi period by examining a chunk of the era’s films is a fascinating but often pummeling blitzkrieg of clips, commentary, fleeting names and film titles.
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Kino Lorber’s Hitler’s Hollywood: German Cinema in the Age of Propaganda: 1933-1945, culling from over 1,000 movies of the period (no stats on how many of these might be extant), is provocative, not just because of the intrinsic value of its content but also because of the haunting horrors we know were unfolding during that period.

Viewers, to mostly good effect, are hit with a downpour of footage. (A second viewing of this doc is required and a study guide would be helpful!) Commentary from ubiquitous, bi-continental German cult star Udo Kier steers it, as do relevant quotes from renowned experts like writer/philosopher Siegfried Kraucauer (the seminal From Caligari to Hitler) and writer/journalist/philosopher Hannah Arendt (the classic Eichmann in Jerusalem).

The doc’s writer-director Rüdiger Suchsland, in fact, was inspired by Kraucauer’s book, a psychological history of German film from 1918 (the year of Germany’s humiliating World War I defeat) to Hitler’s power grab in 1933, an attempt to analyze in these earlier films German “dispositions” that influenced events to come and Germany’s post-1945 reckoning.

Suchsland takes off from Kracauer’s proclamation that “cinema knows something we don’t,” hitting the high (and definitely foggy) road to answer the doc’s oft-repeated question: What might these films reveal?

Arendt here suggests the important role of the masses and how tapping into the power of imagination and sustained illusion—facts be damned—was another Nazi m.o. In this era of so-called “fake news” and TV’s intersection with politics, her words resonate.

As its title betrays, the doc rightfully invokes Hollywood’s influence on Nazi cinema. Hitler and Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, the hands-on dynamo (including hands on some of the era’s attractive actresses), aimed to create a second Hollywood and the films—in style, glitz, genre clichés, grammar—look it. But no horror, please; there was plenty of that playing out off-screen.

Because Goebbels, a big movie fan like the big boss, had full control of all aspects of Nazi culture and arts, the doc taps him as auteur of the entire body of Nazi cinema. Not a bad idea, as directors were not allowed to be auteurs: It was the era’s movie stars who reigned.

Hitler’s Hollywood is organized chronologically from 1933 to the buildup to war, the war itself as Germany swept across Europe (the jewel in the crown being Paris), the monumental 1943 Stalingrad battle and setback and the ensuing agonizing, inevitable big downfall. Helping viewers through this grim history are newsreels and archival material (e.g., the famous footage of Hitler, Speer and cohorts admiring their Eiffel Tower trophy, the gruesome Stalingrad suffering, etc.).

But it’s the Nazi films that matter here. They are ample, but sadly their titles rush by. Early on, a 1933 clip shows the Nazis as forward-thinking planners. It’s pure propaganda in its story of a youth moved to rebel against his family, embrace nature, cop to a cool uniform and join the Hitler Youth. (His early demise is presented as something all kids should want, since the regime’s cinema also promoted the notion that death can be beautiful.)

There’s Leni Riefenstahl’s classic propaganda piece Triumph of the Will, a celebration of physical beauty, seductive mass gatherings and camera-friendly orderliness serving as a primal, eye-pleasing follow-the-leader attraction meant to elevate Hitler. As Susan Sontag is quoted, “History became theatre.”

Genre films with the right (make that very “right”) slant were important, as evidenced by the Karl May exotic-adventure adaptation Across the Desert, deemed a precursor to Lawrence of Arabia and starring ubiquitous Nazi big-screen idol Hans Albers, who, notes narrator Kier, had “almost an American swagger.”

Many Nazi features, like the musical comedy A Night in May, were preceded by roaring propaganda newsreels. The mid-war period brought more films about day-to-day life and upbeat pictures like Grossestadt Melodie to screens (mostly for female audiences; the men were busy fighting). The Nazis’ 1943 Titanic (a first attempt at a fictionalized version of the disaster) exonerated the iceberg by blaming capitalism, the Jews and the British for the sinking. With the downfall came desperation, as seen in extravaganzas like the adventure fantasy Münchhausen, with megastar Albers, and the lavish 1945 costume war drama Kolberg  (Over 6,000 horses! Over 100,000 extras!), Nazi Germany’s most expensive production.

Other stars in the Nazi firmament included popular director Veit Harlan’s wife Kristina Söderbaum, one of the Nazis’ Scandinavian imports. Zara Leander, meant to be their Greta Garbo, was another. Even Ingrid Bergman pops up in her solo Nazi bow in a 1939 drama but beat it out of Germany, even declining Goebbels’ invitation to have tea. Also notable is Dutch-born Ilse Werner, who, as her clip and the narration suggest, was lovely and talented, probably one of the era’s most talented. She even turned down a Hollywood contract to forge her career with the Nazis.

Perhaps the most shameful of the Nazi stars was Ferdinand Marian, who starred inJud Süss, one of the era’s most notorious anti-Semitic films. Others included the biopic The Rothschilds and The Eternal Jew, the ugliest film of all, which was distributed throughout Europe and to German military audiences.

Besides Harlan, other directors cited include Detlef Sierck (aka Douglas Sirk), who brought his talents for melodrama to Hollywood after what Kier describes as “his smooth ride” in Nazi cinema, and the captivating actor/director Gustaf Gründgens, who was detested by Mr. Propaganda’s powerful Nazi adversary, Hermann Goering. Gründgens became the somewhat disguised subject of the 1981 Oscar-winning film Mephisto.

G.W. Pabst, who made an aborted attempt to get to America, is represented, as is Helmut Käutner, perhaps best known for the 1944 Unter den Brücken, which, according to Kier, showed him as “anti-fascist in his soul.”

Also cited is giant studio UFA, which, founded in 1917, was helpful in bringing Hitler to power and was taken over by the state in 1937. In goosestep with Hollywood, it is described as a real dream factory of period dramas, melodramas and costumers and rich in dazzling Agfacolor. (Münchhausen and Kolberg are two blazing examples.)

Fleeting end titles briefly tell the post-war fates of some of the stars and directors mentioned. But left out is an interesting, ironic tidbit about happy-go-lucky comic Nazi-era actor Heinz Rühmann, seen in several clips, including the doc’s very first. Years later he co-starred in Stanley Kramer’s classic 1965 Ship of Fools as Julius Lowenthal, the kindly German-Jewish salesman passenger aboard the 1930s Germany-bound ocean liner who is blissfully clueless about the Nazi nightmare that lies ahead. Hooray for Hollywood!

Click here for cast and crew information.