Movie Review: Hitler's Hollywood (2017)
What was cinema like under the Nazi regime, run by Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels? And how did it differ from what Hollywood did and does?
You’ve already won me over. I’m there.
Sadly, I was frustrated throughout “Hitler’s Hollywood.” Writer-director Rüdiger Suchsland and narrator Udo Kier keep philosophizing unnecessarily rather than laying the groundwork and giving us context. It’s like a Nazi Film 101 class taught by a philosophy TA who insists on talking about his interpretations of the movies without actually teaching you the subject.
Death becomes them
Example: Kier must tell us a dozen times that Nazi cinema had a fascination with, and almost longing for, death. “A mythical yearning for death,” he says at one point. He says it’s tied to a Nazi regime that “did not celebrate life but a cult of death.”
The following narration, part of that discussion, comes about eight minutes into the nearly two-hour doc:
- “What is this German’s dream of death?” This German? The actress/character on screen? Or Germany generally? Wait, is this a mistranslation?
- “Nazi cinema seemed to be fascinated by death.” Yes, you’ve mentioned that.
- “Drowning in scenes of yearning for death.” OK.
- “It was in the glamorous mise-en-scene of death...” C’mon. Stop it.
- “... that cinema came close to the regime.” Yes, you’ve mentioned that.
- “Every death was a happy death in Nazi cinema.” Every death? It’s not even true among the scenes you’ve shown us.
- “Often absurdly kitsch.” [Sigh.]
- “What kind of nation was it that needs poets to be able to kill and to die?” What poets? Weren’t we just talking kitsch?
- “What is this German’s dream about?” This German again.
- “They clearly dreamed of ideals...” Ah, they. So “this German” is a mistranslation. Or something.
- “... of a safe family life, of unspoilt nature, of a sound home. Nazi cinema created an artificially perfect world: tradition and entertainment.” Aren’t artificially perfect worlds often what cinema is? Isn’t that MGM in the ’30s? So how did Nazi cinema differ?
- “What is striking about Nazi cinema....” Ah, here we go! Yes? Yes?
- “... is a total lack of irony.” Huh.
- “Instead there is a rather forced cheerfulness: that German laughter that the world was soon to fear. An era that in retrospect is not so amusing...” Nor at the time, Udo.
- “...appears in films as a time of constant, if rather strained, good humor.”
This is a particularly bumpy portion, but the narration throughout invariably confuses rather than enlightens. Might as well get Dieter from “Sprockets” to narrate.
The narration actually contradicts the title. It was Goebbels’ Hollywood. He approved everything, had sway and say over every aspect of every movie. Thus the dilemma for German filmmakers who weren’t fascists: “How do you smuggle in your message?” Or more bluntly: “Can you make something for this regime that doesn’t benefit the regime?” It’s a dilemma similar to what Hollywood filmmakers go through, but with much more at stake.
(BTW: I just laid out the dilemma more plainly than the doc does.)
At least the doc lays out the other aspect of the discussion:
According to [German film theorist Siegfried] Kracauer, cinema is a seismograph of its time, an indicator of the cultural subconscious of an era. Cinema knows something that we don’t know. It has an underlying meaning that can be exposed. If that is true, and we believe that it is, what does Nazi cinema reveal about the Third Reich and its people?
That’s asked about 15 minutes in. Then the doc goes about not answering the question. Unless the answer is the aforementioned: “death.” Or is deeper than that? Self immolation? And is the doc suggesting that Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union—surely his most self-destructive move—is an example of this? That the Nazis didn’t simply yearn to exterminate others but themselves, too? Is that their new mea culpa? “We‘re not that bad! We wanted to kill us, too!”
I still learned a few things. Before decamping to Hollywood, Ingrid Bergman made a German film, “Die vier Gesellen,” in 1938, about four female graphic designers trying to make it in the big city. It seems fairly innocuous but the German filmmakers are unforgiving:
Bergman later wanted to sweep this under the carpet. She said she declined an invitation to have tea with Goebbels. That was all she would say. Six years later, Bergman played an anti-Fascist in “Casablanca.” It was a sort of atonement.
The doc is even worse toward Douglas Sirk, whose real name, I learned, is Hans Detlef Sierck. Here’s what they say of him:
Having had a smooth ride for years in Nazi Cinema, he went on to shoot his melodramas in Hollywood.
That’s almost libel compared to Sirk's Wikipedia entry:
Sirk left Germany in 1937 because of his political leanings and his Jewish (second) wife, actress Hilde Jary. ...
His ex-wife joined the Nazi party and because of Sirk's re-marriage to a Jewish woman was able to legally bar him from seeing their son, who became one of the leading child actors of Nazi Germany. ... He died as a soldier [on the Soviet front] on 22 May 1944.
Some smooth ride.
The Wiki entry is actually what I wanted from the film. I.e., What happened to all of these German actors and directors? Did they survive the war? If so, how? If they were male, how did they not go to war? Veit Harlan, who directed the most anti-Semitic of the Nazi films, “Jud Suss,” also directed, in 1944/45, as the Third Reich was ending, “Kolberg,” about a German town’s refusal to capitulate to Napoleon’s army. The extras numbered in the thousands. How were these extras not at war? What battles behind the scenes—between Goebbels and who?—allowed them to remain in the movie?
Touch my monkey
The best thing you can say about “Hitler’s Hollywood” is that it’s an often tedious primer on German cinema of the era. But some of the images are indelible: the dance in “Paracelsus”; the Technicolor blonde in the white bathing suit riding a white horse in the surf in Harlan’s “The Great Sacrifice”; Baron Munchausen riding a cannonball through the air in Von Baky’s 1943 film. (Cf., American superheroes and rockets.) The doc also explains “Jud Suss” better than the doc on “Jud Suss.”
But I might’ve begun this way. It’s a passage from James Chapman’s book “Cinemas of the World”:
Goebbels, for his part, was firmly of the opinion that feature films should provide escapist entertainment for the masses and that direct propaganda should be confined to the newsreels.
Begin there, then go to Kracauer. Ask: What does the escapist entertainment still reveal—about Germany, about Goebbels, about the Nazis? And what did anti-Nazi auteurs like Georg Wilhelm Pabst manage to smuggle through nonetheless?
Leave “Sprockets” at home.