Hitler’s Hollywood: “Modern History and it’s cinema’s darkest days”
What do you think of when you think of Nazi-era German cinema? Leni Riefenstahl filling the screen with crowds cheering Hitler, or the explicitly anti-Semitic likes of Jud Süß and The Eternal Jew? Perhaps you think of Quentin Tarantino’s literal and figurative massacre of the industry in Inglourious Basterds, and the fictional actress Brigitte von Hammersmark, lionized by the regime as “the Dietrich who stayed”. One of the revelations of Rüediger Suchsland’s new documentary Hitler’s Hollywood, released on Blu-Ray by Eureka, is that Nazi cinema had a real Dietrich who stayed, the rather homely song-and-dance girl Marika Rokk.
Hang on – the Nazis made musicals? It would seem like an idea fit only for Mel Brooks comedies, but one of the unsettling central themes of Suchsland’s film is that the Nazi film industry wasn’t that different to any other. In his narration (presented in English and German versions) Udo Kier notes that the Nazi industry was fixated with youth, danger, glamour and big-scale spectacle – so, much the same as the American industry. The Eternal Jew is no-one’s idea of a comfortable watch, but it’s certainly more comforting to think of Nazi ideals being transmitted by ham-fisted, ideologically blinkered propaganda than it is to realise they can also be transmitted by the same modes of entertainment we enjoy today.
That said, please don’t think the purpose of Suchsland’s film is to apologise, or make equivocations. Considering Veit Harlan, the director of Jud Süß, Kier notes that he was probably the most talented drama director the Nazis had (although his film noir looks a bit film blanc in the overlit clips presented here). Kier also notes that he was one of the most passionately committed Nazis working in the film industry, and any attempt to divorce his fascism from his artistry will result in a complete misunderstanding of his work. When put on trial after the war, Harlan would act embarrassed by the sheer bluntness of the film’s anti-Semitic context, saying it was mostly added by Goebbels. He said this largely to save his own neck, although Suchsland’s film also argues that Jud Süß needed to be disowned in order to absolve the average German from complicity in their government’s crimes. When a country has seen and enjoyed a film as rabidly Jew-hating as this, can they really turn around and say the Holocaust was a surprise to them?
Other than this segment, the big hitters of Nazi propaganda are only briefly covered, leaving the stage free for films that will have escaped even the most diligent historian of German cinema. Did you know that Goebbels ordered a remake of It Happened One Night? That Ingrid Bergman made a film under the Nazis before fleeing to Hollywood? Or that G.W. Pabst, the legendary director of Pandora’s Box, made two films under the Nazis? Ideologically, Pabst was no Harlan – he collaborated with Berthold Brecht before the war, and made a film about Hitler’s defeat in 1955. But not every great European talent was lucky enough to escape before the clamp-down, like Fritz Lang did. His leading lady from Metropolis, Brigitte Helm, was made to star in a Nazi knock-off of that film called Gold.
Gold was the only science fiction film made under the Nazis, although towards the end of the war the industry moved towards fantasy, perhaps reflecting the increased lengths the propaganda factory had to go to tell audiences caught up in the bombing of Dresden that everything was fine in the Thousand Year Reich. Suchsland’s film consists entirely of excerpts from older films paired with voice-over, yet it still creates an apocalyptic, agonised mood in these later stretches just through choosing the right clips. The voice-over is also a work of art, informative, intelligent and full of memorable phrases. Considering German comedies, Kier notes a “rather forced joyfulness, that German laughter that the world would soon come to fear.”
Eureka previously gave British audiences a chance to see Suchsland’s work as an extra on their excellent 2017 reissue of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That film – From Caligari to Hitler – is also included on this disc, and it’s well worth looking at again. From Caligari to Hitler is a loose adaptation of the book by Siegfried Kracauer, whose Frankfurt School of cultural studies currently has a starring role in the paranoid fantasies of many right-wingers. Kracauer also appears in Hitler’s Hollywood, attacking the “regressive totality” of propaganda. Without forcing the issue, Suchsland has made a stirring case for cultural studies at a time when rightists from Bolsonaro and Orbán to YouTube no-marks and crank professors have decided that the best way to preserve academic freedom of speech is mass censorship of this and related subjects. When you’re guided by someone as deft and insightful as Kracauer, looking at a society’s art can be a way of seeing into their soul. The same can be said of Suchsland, with one added bonus. His work is extremely accessible, and Eureka deserve credit for allowing a wider public than just film festival audiences to see it.