After 2014’s Von Caligari zu Hitler, a look at Weimar-era film production, critic Rüdiger Suchsland’s second documentary carries his psychological investigation of German cinema into the Nazi-era. While the first film still worked with interspersing snippets of interviews with directors and historians, Hitlers Hollywood has Suchsland soliloquising over images taken from the more than 1000 films which were made in the period between 1933 and 1945. Thus the film sets out to uncover the unconscious of a nation increasingly lost to its own delusions.
The narrative and aesthetic of some of these should ring familiar. In Hitlerjunge Quex from 1933 we see a confused pubescent find meaning in the brotherly (and as Suchsland points out, subtly sexualised) band of men. We see Leni Riefenstahl’s beautiful, steeled bodies and are reminded of fascism’s roots in a ruthless aesthetic modernism.
But more importantly, we’re shown a great deal of musical revue and melodrama featuring icons like Zarah Leander or Ingrid Bergman, almost as innocent as they are charming (Bergman in 1938 “feminist” romcom Die 4 Gesellen acting as a notable exception). In these superficially harmless films, we start to see a certain resemblance to the ‘other’ dream factory on the American west coast. Suchsland explains how the narratives of love and spectacle took hold of the public imagination, while also conveying fascistic ideals like the individual’s dissolution in the crowd or the cult of death. The conclusion is clear: Propaganda is art; and Joseph Goebbels, film enthusiast and Hitler’s propaganda minister is credited as the single great auteur of Nazi cinema.
Besides proving that a documentary about film can be a rewarding cinematic experience in and of itself, Hitlers Hollywood offers important insights into a period often neglected by film historians. At the same time, it cautiously hints at the possibility of applying its critical perspectives to material from outside its narrow scope, and to German cinema more generally.
Hitlers Hollywood: Deutsches Kino im Zeitalter der Propaganda | Directed by Rüdiger Suchsland (Germany 2016) with Rüdiger Suchsland, Hans-Henrik Wöhler, Rike Schmidt. Starts February 22. ACHTUNG: No English subs.