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EXBlicks: Pandora’s reels

The Third Reich's Nazi propaganda films have been locked away for 70 years now for a number of reasons. But should they be? Join us for "Verbotene Filme", exploring their censorship in Germany, at EXBlicks on Tue, Mar 1. 20:30 at Lichtblick Kino.

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Should the last banned Nazi propaganda films finally be released to the public? Take part in the debate at the screening of Felix Moeller’s Verbotene Filme at the next EXBlicks on Tuesday, March 1, 8:30pm at Lichtblick Kino.

Seventy years after the apocalyptic demise of Hitler’s murderous Reich, its filmic legacy continues to fester and decay in German archives. Allied authorities originally banned 300 Nazi-made films on the grounds that they were either anti-Semitic, racist or war-glorifying. Today, just over 40 are left, guarded by the Murnau Foundation and the German Federal Republic’s Bundesfilmarchiv. Permission to view the banned films is only granted under supervision by approved film historians.

One man who’s seen them all is German filmmaker and historian Felix Moeller, whose 2014 documentary Verbotene Filme is a soul-searching look into Germany’s long-suppressed Nazi cinema heritage. “I grew up watching so many anti-German propaganda films, like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. There were no pro-German war films. So it was a discovery for me to find films where German soldiers played the heroes. Really bizarre,” says Moeller.

Each of the films he presents in Verbotene Filme has its own political axe to grind. Hitlerjunge Quex (1933) drills German youth to be selfless individuals in the service of the Nazi state, closing with Hitler Youth hero “Quex” (“Quicksilver”) dying a melodramatic death after being beaten up by German communist thugs. Meanwhile, Heimkehr (Coming Home, 1941) portrays Poles as inhuman beasts ruthlessly beating up Poland’s German minority, burning their books, destroying their schools and killing their children. The happy ending: endless columns of Germans happily marching back towards their homeland past a drive-in screen-sized Hitler portrait. The film perniciously reverses the perpetrator/victim roles, justifying the brutal invasion of Poland and preparing public opinion for Hitler’s plan to reconquer what he called German Lebensraum. More nemesis-fabrication is on show in the cynical anti-British film Ohm Krüger (1941). Set in South Africa during the Boer War, it depicts British concentration camps, barbed wire and mountains of corpses. Manchester dog-eat-dog capitalists and British soldiers break every rule in the book to get their hands on Boer gold, as the new Reich must rise up to stop their predations.

Though the public certainly watched – over a billion visitors went to the cinema per year in Germany during WWII, as opposed to just 120 million per year today – they didn’t always buy in. “The Gestapo’s moles’ actually reported that the public could see through the propaganda. It was laid on too thick – particularly the caricatures of the British in Ohm Krüger. They were just too clumsy,” says Moeller. This was certainly the case in the anti-Semitic Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew, 1940), which goes as far as to portray Jews as “breeding like rats” against backdrops of swarming rats.

More insidious is the Goebbels-commisssioned Jud Süß (Süß the Jew, 1940), an 18th-century period piece about a Machiavellian, corrupt and womanising treasurer in the Baden-Wüttenberg court. After a final, banal closing plea to keep the German nation and blood free of the Jewish curse, the treasurer (coincidentally, also the rapist of a German gentile woman) is executed. Despite the film’s ugly message, it’s well made in its own right, its narrative efficiently filmed to gripping effect – even by today’s standards. Verbotene Filme shows viewers coming out of a special screening in current-day Munich, abashed and even nauseated by the way they had been drawn into the film. Ultimately, for most talking heads in Moeller’s film, this is the reason to keep the Nazi propaganda banned.

Moeller witnessed German viewers undergo an epiphany after viewing Hitler’s worst celluloid hits. “Before my film, almost everyone was in favour of releasing the films. But after seeing it, two-thirds of the audience changed their mind. They’re horrified that a nation like Germany could have produced something so diabolical,” he says. He himself wrestled with the question of whether or not to include Der ewige Jude in his film. “It’s a very nasty piece of work.” In the end, he self-censored by filming the rat scene in poorer quality from a computer screen. “No analysis justifies repeating such images. Especially while there are still Holocaust survivors alive.”

In Verbotene Filme, German Holocaust historian Götz Aly advocates releasing the films to aid in historical debate. Schöneberg film buff Jan Björn Hoffmann agrees, saying, “If Germans cannot cope with them, then you have to start asking questions about what is wrong with the German education system.”

Moeller is torn on the subject of whether the films should be made accessible to the public. On the one hand, the argument seems moot to some extent: many of the films are available online, in low-resolution bootleg versions. But Moeller is concerned that these copies spread Hitler’s mind muck without proper guidance. “The films present a totally distorted reality. People see their prejudices confirmed – such as today’s ones about the Russian mafia in Berlin.” As for the pervasive clichés of double-faced, money-cunning, world-domination-aspiring Jews, who would defend that they’ve disappeared from people’s psyche with the Reich?

Moeller also fears that releasing films like Heimkehr would incense Germany’s neighbours. “Kaczynski’s PiS party in Poland would be up in arms about its anti-Polish sentiments. If Hitler’s anti-Russian film GPU (The Red Terror), film with its caricatures about the Russian secret service, were released, the Russian media could very well use that to fan anti-German prejudices. The foreign press would trumpet ‘Germany says Nazi films are now OK!’. German politicians are in a no-win situation.”

Whether or not the films are released, Moeller believes they should at least be preserved rather than left to decay. “France spends enormous amounts to preserve its film heritage. Germany spends just €10-20 million per year. The trouble is, to preserve our dark film history, taxpayer funds would have to be spent on digitalising it,” he says.

He recommends releasing Hitler’s euthanasia-endorsing Ich Klage An (I accuse, 1941) first – a real curiosity whose topical message has, interestingly, made the progressive pro-euthanasia set support the film on occasion. “It’s a relevant theme today, and the film’s technical quality and craftsmanship are outstanding,” says Moeller. “Then I would release the other films one by one as DVDs with additional historical material as has been done with Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” No matter what, he adds, “There would be nothing worse than seeing these films freely available at petrol stations for €5.99. We need the historical context.

Watch Verbotene Filme at our next EXBlicks screening on March 1, 8:30pm at Lichtblick Kino.

Originally published in issue #146, February 2016.