Friday, August 31, 2018

Hitler and Film

Just finished Hitler and Film: The Führer’s Hidden Passion by Bill Niven, professor of contemporary German History at Nottingham Trent University in the UK.  This is an excellent, well-written and fascinating account of the role Adolph Hitler played in German cinema during the Third Reich; a role, it turns out, which was much more extensive than previously thought.  Niven has brought together existing accounts on this topic and added new material as well.  No doubt this book will the go-to one on this subject for a while.

It’s long been known that Hitler loved movies.  Whether at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin or at his private residence in Bavaria, the Berghof, his nightly relaxation (at least before the war) was to watch movies.  Lots of movies.  Often several in one evening.  The viewing pace could be grueling.  Julius Schaub, one of Hitler’s adjutants and general factotums once complained to director Veit Harlan: “Last night I had to watch three - yes, three! - films, and this morning another one…The Führer has got unbelievable stamina when it comes to films.”  Hitler was such an avid film buff that, according to Niven, “there is even evidence he planned to have film projection unit installed in his car”.  

We have lists of the films Hitler watched and they display a wide variety of interests: dramas, comedies, foreign films, silents, etc.  Mickey Mouse cartoons and Laurel and Hardy films were especially popular.  And despite his anti-semitism, he regularly screened films written and directed by Jews.  We even know his opinions of some films.  For instance, of Karl Ritter’s Capriccio (1938), a frothy and light musical comedy, he’s known to have commented that it was “particularly bad….shit of the highest order.”  Most of his comments concerned the technique of the film.  Whether or not the actor was good, or whether the story was well told.  He viewed movies almost as an insider, looking to see what “worked” and what didn’t.

Do we know what Hitler’s favorite film was?  No, we don’t.  Two films have been accorded that status in popular mythology: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and King Kong (1933) but Niven points out that there’s no reliable evidence that Hitler ever saw either of those films.  And does it matter what his favorite movie was?  Would it really tell us something significant about him?  Would it somehow explain everything (or even anything)?  Does Citizen Hitler have a cinematic “rosebud”?  Some would like to think so.  The tidiness of it is appealing.

From Triumph of the Will
But this book is about more than Hitler’s film-viewing habits.   It details how active he was in their making, most famously in his support for Leni Riefenstahl from whom he commissioned both Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938).  Niven does a good job recounting their relationship (“obstinate donkey” Hitler calls her at one point) as well as assessing the various lies Riefenstahl would put forth about it after the war.  Riefenstahl could be particularly self-serving in regard to the truth.  During the de-nazification period she would claim that she was merely the director of Triumph of the Will; she didn’t own the copyright, it wasn’t hers.  However, as more and more interest was shown in the viewing of this masterpiece of propaganda, she did an about face and immediately claimed that she owned the copyright on it.  Litigation would go on for decades.  Nonetheless, Niven  recognizes that it was Riefenstahl, rather than Joe Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry, who knew best how to convey the powerful, mythic appeal of Hitler and Naziism.  And Hitler knew this too.  He made sure that Riefenstahl was answerable to him and no one else in the Third Reich.

Hitler even used his public film-going as a way to reinforce his message to the German people.  In fact, his attendance could be itself a public performance.  Niven writes:
Approaching the cinema to watch Storm Trooper Brand, Hitler made his way through an honorary cordon of SA men, mainly Nazis who had served in SA units active in Berlin’s communist districts.  After the screening of Hitler Youth Quex, representatives of the Hitler Youth appeared on stage and raised their arms towards Hitler.  Hitler got up from his seat and thanked them, smiling benevolently.
Hitler understood his role as a performer.  He had taken voice training lessons in 1932 and learned the importance of gesture and rhythm in his delivery.  “The Führer must sway the masses like an actor,” he had commented in 1933.  He understood film and its power better than any other leader at the time.  It was through movies that he forged his bond with the German people.  Couldn't attend a Nazi rally?  Not a problem.  They would bring the rally to you at your local movie theater - or via the mobile film projection trucks which toured Germany showing the films in small villages and rural communities.  Hitler and Film also contains a gripping and chilling account of how films such as Jew Süss and The Eternal Jew were successfully used to push the anti-Semitism of the German public to new heights of genocidal fury. 

Once the war began Hitler almost completely curtailed his film viewing, although he would remain informed of current movies on a daily basis from Goebbels or others in his circle.  Films confiscated from occupied countries during the war were collected in the Reich Film Archive, which only select state or Nazi party groups were allowed to view “for educational purposes”.  Eventually even that access was closed; no one would be allowed to see these foreign films.  “That goes particularly for Gone With the Wind,” Goebbels noted in his diary.  He and Hitler were both very impressed by GWTW (1939).  According to Hitler’s bodyguard, Rochus Misch, Hitler saw the film three times, once with Goebbels.  The spectacle of it - lush, glorious, epic, - seemed to fill the Führer with envy.  “Now that, that is something our own people should also be able to do,” he told his Propaganda Minister.  Hitler was so concerned about the power of Gone With the Wind that it was removed from the Reich Film Archive and kept in a special safe.  Also in that safe - The Great Dictator (1940) by Charles Chaplin, a film whose viewing by Hitler and Goebbels caused “paroxysms” of rage.  And no doubt paroxysm of satisfaction from Chaplin when he found out.  

But it was in the weekly newsreels (“Wochenschau”) that Hitler had the greatest impact.  He personally signed off on each one and would sometimes insist upon changes.  And that made sense; he was, after all, both their star and their subject.  They commemorated his accomplishments domestically and, after 1939, militarily.  To the average German newsreel viewer, the Führer was Germany itself and also the redeemer of the German people.  Newsreels were one of the main ways in which he maintained that bond.  Hitler himself considered them so important that he wished to memorialize his feats by transferring them to metal (how do you do that?) so they would serve as a monument for future generations. 

From 1933 to 1944 the Nazi Security Service (SD) kept track of viewers’ responses to the newsreels and they are fascinating.  In the early years Hitler appeared in newsreels frequently and the reactions from viewers could be rapturous.  Niven writes that according to one SD report from 1940
Calls of ‘Heil!’ from within the auditoriums greeted his appearance on screen, followed by a  hushed silence when the newsreel showed Hitler walking through the park with his generals…
Hitler's last newsreel appearance
As the war ground on, Hitler’s appearance in the newsreels began to decline.  By 1941 there were no more battle-field victories to celebrate on film and he instructed Goebbels to start using footage of him from earlier years.  Sleight of hand such as that can only be used sparingly.  By 1944 and 1945 the ailing Hitler had almost completely disappeared from the newsreels.  Viewers knew something was amiss.  As early as 1943 they told the SD that Hitler looked exhausted and aged.  Film-goers also missed hearing him speak; they were eager to hear their leader's voice.  But it was not to be, and over time movie-goers lost interest in the newsreels as well.  They no longer waited for them; instead going home once the main feature was over.  As Hitler’s presence diminished in the newsreels so too did the viewers credibility in the increasingly upbeat news they saw on screen.  The bond with the public which he had created via film began to fray, and when it fell apart completely viewers drew their own conclusions.  Niven observes “In the end, Nazi newsreel propaganda lost its credibility because Hitler’s frequent absence implied he no longer believed in it.”

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