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SEHR, volume 5, Supplement: Cultural and Technological Incubations of Fascism
Updated December 17, 1996

the ministry of illusion

german cinema in the goebbels era

Bruce Thompson

When Germans went to the cinema during the Third Reich, what kinds of films did they see? Graham Greene offers a clue in a film review from 1937. The film was Veit Harlan's Der Herrscher (The Ruler), and it reached England because it featured a performance by the great actor Emil Jannings. Greene was not impressed:

Der Herrscher, except for a pleasantly savage opening, a funeral frieze of dripping umbrellas and heartless faces,is a wordy picture about an elderly ironmaster who wants to marry his secretary and is almost driven insane by his children's opposition. Herr Jannings has the meaningless gaze of a sea-lion with huge sloping shoulders and watery whiskers to whose emotions we apply for want of anything better, such human terms as pity, anger, terror, though we cannot tell, on the evidence of those small marine eyes, whether he is really registering anything more than a dim expectation of fish.[1]

Jannings's lugubrious performance was apparently not untypical. There was from the beginning to the bitter end a note of mourning in Nazi cinema, as if the burdens of the master race were after all too great to be borne.

But Joseph Goebbels and his henchmen at the Ministry of Propaganda were determined to offer more positive messages as well. The Goethe Institute's recent series The Ministry of Illusion: German Film 1933-1945 suggests that their grand ambition was to create a National Socialist version of the Hollywood dream machine. Eric Rentschler, the curator of the series, has selected twenty-one films in the Hollywood mode from an astonishing variety of genres: melodramas, musicals, romantic comedies, "historical" biographies, fantasy films, adventure films, a disaster film, and even a Luis Trenker Western.[2] Many of these films are interesting as examples of how the regime sought to manipulate and captivate audiences. Some exhibit impressive craftsmanship of various kinds, and an exceptional few may be considered major works. The extravagant fantasy film Münchhausen (1943), for example, with Hans Albers as the mendacious Baron, offers special effects and lavish production values that more than match Hollywood standards. (There are, to be sure, occasional absurdities: in Trenker's 1840s-era Western, for example, a chase scene in which cowboys and Indians converse in fluent German, while what appears to be an errant Volkswagen scoots across a corner of the screen.)

One can hardly call such a series a festival, but together the films suggest that Graham Greene's melancholy portrait of a dismal cinema needs some qualification. The first film in the series, Paul Martin's Glückskinder, (Lucky Kids, 1936) is very far from Der Herrscher in mood and style: it is the "It Happened One Nacht" of German cinema, with a plot stolen from Frank Capra's classic romantic comedy. Ironically, at the very moment when refugees from Hitler's Germany were beginning to infuse Hollywood films with the brooding spirit of Weimar cinema, the Nazis were trying to imitate the optimistic spirit of Hollywood films. Classic Weimar films (Caligari, Nosferatu) had focused on uncanny forces and hidden threats beneath the surface of everyday life. The cinema of the Goebbels era pretended that everyday life in the Third Reich was normal. If there were threats, they were clearly definable, and they could be overcome by a 'triumph of the will.'

The Ministry of Propaganda supervised the production and distribution of more than 1100 narrative feature films during the twelve years of Hitler's empire. Goebbels envied the seductive power of Hollywood productions; a screening of Gone with the Wind caused him a week of jealous tantrums.[3] He was shrewd enough to understand that a steady diet of propaganda films alone would quickly empty the theaters. He also knew that most of the second-rate directors who remained in Germany after 1933 were incapable of producing aesthetically ambitious works. In any case, he wanted German films to make a profit and to dominate the European market. Hence the appeal of the Hollywood model, of films designed to distract and entertain while at the same time offering a mass audience appealing images of heroism, leadership, and authority. But, not surprisingly, the subliminal messages of Goebbels's films tended to differ significantly from the subtexts of their Hollywood prototypes.

The American cinema in this period features a characteristic plot. The hero, like a modern Achilles, is a rugged individualist: aloof, isolated, technically proficient in his craft but emotionally withdrawn or repressed. The action of the film breaks down his resistance to commitment and involvement, reintegrating him into a community to whose service he then devotes his considerable prowess and charisma. The Western hero and the private eye are the typical examples of this pattern, but one finds it even in musicals where the reluctant impresario has to be persuaded to mount one more big show. The archetypal example is, of course, the Bogart character in Casablanca, nursing his injured romanticism in a cosmopolitan refugee colony. Everyone's favorite American film is, among other things, a parable of the overcoming of American isolationism.[4]

The masterplot of German heroism appears to be quite different. The hero is not at all reluctant to demonstrate his commitment and authority: he knows that the community is threatened from within and without by anarchy and disintegration. Thus we have the dashing Hans Albers restoring the cohesion of a fractured colony of Volga Germans threatened by perfidious Bolsheviks in Gustav Usicky's Flüchtlinge (Fugitives, 1934); the indomitable Luis Trenker trying to save his community from the corrosive effects of goldlust in Der Kaiser von Kalifornien (The Emperor of California, 1936); Jannings as Frederick William I in Der alte und der junge König (The Old and the Young King, 1935) protecting Prussia from the foppish French; Werner Krauss in G.W. Pabst's Paracelsus (1942) attempting to save Basel from foreign microbes and local mediocrities. In these films it is the community, rather than the hero, that is reluctant to face the demands of the situation. Should the hero make the mistake of transplanting himself to America, as Trenker does in his extraordinarily accomplished film Der verlorene Sohn (The Prodigal Son, 1934), the community is simply too large and alienated to be saved. Depression-era New York City is indifferent both to the hero's moral stature and to his physical prowess, and what begins and ends as a high-spirited mountain film shifts into a somber neo-realist mode in its starkly beautiful New York scenes. Location-shooting of this sort was exceptional: Goebbels preferred to confine his filmmakers to the studio, where they ransacked almost every conceivable historical period in search of plausible Führer-figures.

The results of this plundering of the past could be sinister. Here the case of Emil Jannings is instructive. Jannings, in spite of Graham Greene's wicked portrait of him, was in his prime a wonderfully expressive actor. His face could register every shade of intelligence from demonic genius to blank stupidity. His body could mime both grace and oafishness, power and decrepitude (and sometimes both in the same performance, as he did in Der letzte Mann for Murnau and later in The Last Command and The Blue Angel for Sternberg). At first glance his performance in Hans Steinhof's The Old and the Young King seems to be another tour de force in which the great actor manages to exhibit the extremes of pathos and ruthlessness at the same time. But place the film in its historical moment and the perspective changes. As Erwin Leiser suggested thirty years ago, the language the old king uses to justify the execution of his son's best friend is remarkably similar to the language Hitler used to justify the Night of the Long Knives. Prussian raison d'etat provides a distinguished pedigree for Hitler's brutal purge of Röhm and the SA.[5]

Graham Greene noted a similar convergence between past and present in Gustav Ucicky's Das Mädchen Johanna (Joan of Arc, 1934). It is a pity that this film does not appear in the Goethe Institute's series, for it seems to be the only version of the story in which Joan is not a heroine:

The real hero is Charles [VII] with his Nazi mentality, his belief in the nobility of treachery for the sake of the nation. The purge of 30 June and the liquidation of Tremouille, the burning Reichstag and the pyre in Rouen market-place - these political parallels are heavily underlined. The direction is terribly sincere, conveying a kind of blond and shaven admiration for lonely dictators who have been forced to eliminate their allies.[6]

Joan of Arc failed to provide a suitable model for German womanhood not only because she was French but because of her insistence on acting in accordance with her own independent judgment (or listening to the voice of God, which is really the same thing). Women in the films of the Third Reich rarely exhibit independent judgment, and the consequences are dire when they do. Zarah Leander, the leading female star of the period, is chastened in Douglas Sirk's La Habañera (1937) for insisting on leaving her homeland in search of love and adventure in fever-ridden Puerto Rico, and again in Rolf Hansen's Die grosse Liebe (The Great Love, 1942), where she fails at first to understand that her pilot-lover's military responsibilities are more important than her personal happiness. "There is a veritable subgenre of Nazi moral tales," Eric Rentschler notes, "focusing on the taming of shrews and the reeducation of willful wives and lovers."[7]

Yet there are striking exceptions to this pattern, and these are among the most fascinating films in the series. For example, Sybille Schmitz, who was a haunting presence in Carl Dreyer's Vampyr (1932), created another uncanny character in Frank Wysbar's supernatural tale Fährmann Maria (Ferryman Maria, 1936). This delicate allegory of the struggle between Love and Death was one of the few films of the Goebbels era that succeeded in recreating the characteristic atmosphere of Weimar cinema. Goebbels gave the film a prize, although the minions of Death bore a remarkable resemblance to Nazi Stormtroopers. More typical was the spectacular disaster film Titanic (1943), in which Sybille Schmitz again made an eerie appearance, floating above the crude anti-British propaganda of the absurd screenplay.[8] A decade after the end of the war this extraordinary actress committed suicide. Her last years, embittered by unemployment, poverty, and drug addiction, were mythologized by Fassbinder in his densely textured late film Veronika Voss (1981).

But perhaps the most remarkable rediscovery in the Goethe Institute's series is Marianne Hoppe, an actress whose persona was as robust as Schmitz's was fragile. In 1939 she appeared under the direction of her husband Gustav Gründgens in Der Schritt vom Wege (Effi Briest). It is a miraculous performance, perfectly judged, without a single false note. Like Fontane's poignant novel, the film offers a powerful critique of Prussian codes of honor and authority, and it does so with remarkable tact and economy of means. Though less sophisticated technically, it is in its own way as beautiful as Fassbinder's elegant version of 1974. Marianne Hoppe is utterly convincing as the child-bride, and deeply moving as Effi's marriage drifts toward crisis and collapse.

How can we account for such a radical departure from the spirit of Goebbels's cinema? Why did Gründgens make a film, in 1939, about the bankruptcy of patriarchal values and a woman's bitter disillusionment? Half a dozen years earlier Gründgens had acted in Max Ophüls's Liebelei, based on a play by Schnitzler.[9] Ophüls was concerned in almost all of his work with the exploitation of women, with the illusions of romance and the pathos of entrapment. And an Ophülsian sensibility seems to have informed Gründgens's treatment of Fontane's novel as well as his direction of Marianne Hoppe. It is difficult today to speak of Gründgens's career without invoking Klaus Mann's brilliant and damning portrait of him in the novel Mephisto.[10] We now know that Gründgens despised Goebbels and found a less intrusive patron in Goering. But whatever the terms of his bargain with the Nazi regime, the evidence of Effi Briest suggests that he remained an artist of prodigious gifts.

Marianne Hoppe was a luminous performer for other directors as well. In 1943 she appeared in Helmut Käutner's Romanze in Moll (Romance in a Minor Key), perhaps the best film in the Goethe Institute's series. Käutner shared Ophüls's preoccupation with the melancholy elegance of the fin de siècle.[11] Here again the source is a late nineteenth century realist, Guy de Maupassant (a favorite of Ophüls as well, and no favorite of the Nazis). Again the central figure is a woman trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage and destroyed by an affair with a lover who is unworthy of her. Jewels play a talismanic and ironic role in framing the narrative, like the earrings in Ophüls's masterpiece The Earrings of Madame de.... And Käutner's film employs the circular structure of which Ophüls was the master, beginning and ending with the heroine's self-inflicted death. If his camera is not quite as mobile as Ophüls's, it captures the trajectory of a woman's fate with the same exquisite combination of objectivity and sympathy. While Ophüls, who was Jewish, fled Hitler's Germany in 1933, Käutner seems to have been an example of the phenomenon of "inner emigration," an artist who managed to practice and to refine his craft while rendering only the most perfunctory obeisance to the regime.

How ironic that two of the best and least characteristic films of the Nazi era - that is, two films that qualify as works of art rather than kitsch - should be indebted to the example of Max Ophüls, a peripatetic director who made brilliant films in five languages and half a dozen countries. How ironic, too, that the best films of the period should achieve their pathos by returning to the wellsprings of nineteenth century realism and irony, qualities almost entirely absent from the mainstream films of the Third Reich. Schnitzler, Fontane, and Maupassant - the sources for Ophüls, Gründgens, and Käutner - were bitter critics of the cruel rigidities of late nineteenth century bourgeois society, but in retrospect they seemed to offer the consolation of a world in which the individual human destiny was taken seriously. And that is why, in the context of the Nazi era, their astringent humanism was the source of a subversive countertradition, an antidote to the mendacities of Goebbels's Ministry of Illusion.

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[1] Graham Greene, Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader, ed. David Parkinson (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1993), 201.

[2] Eric Rentschler's book on the cinema of the Third Reich, forthcoming from Harvard University Press, promises to be the definitive work on the subject. David Stewart Hull, Film in the Third Reich: A Study of the German Cinema 1933-1945 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969) continues to be useful.

[3] Hull 179.

[4] On American hero-types, see the classic essays of Robert Warshow, collected in The Immediate Experience (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1964) and Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1950 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985).

[5] Erwin Leiser, Nazi Cinema, trans. Gertrud Mander and David Wilson (London: Secker & Warburg, 1974), 50.

[6] Greene, Mornings, 39.

[7] Eric Rentschler, "Ministry of Illusion: German Film 1933-1945," Film Comment (November-December 1994) 35.

[8] The film's director, Herbert Selpin, was arrested early in the course of production for insulting the honor of the German army. His 'suicide' in his prison cell was arranged by the SS under orders from Goebbels. See Hull, Film in the Third Reich, 227-230.

[9] On Ophüls and Schnitzler, see Alan Williams, "Reading Ophüls Reading Schnitzler: Liebelei 1933," in Eric Rentschler, ed., German Film and Literature: Adaptations and Transformations (New York: Methuen, 1986). The most comprehensive book on Ophüls is now Susan M. White, The Cinema of Max Ophüls: Magisterial Vision and the Figure of Woman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

[10] See Eberhard Spangenberg, Karriere eines Romans: Mephisto, Klaus Mann und Gustav Gründgens: Ein Dokumentarischer Bericht aus Deutschland und dem Exil 1925-1981 (Munich, 1982).

[11] On Käutner see John Gillett, 18 Films by Helmut Käutner (London: Goethe Institute, 1980).