Scholarship on National-Socialist Film – the 1990s to Today
How to distinguish aggressive propaganda from harmless entertainment has long been a point of contention in the discussion of the National-Socialist film legacy. Political indoctrination or apolitical diversion? This rigid categorization has been called into question in numerous scholarly publications since the early 1990s. And the ideological function of such apparently apolitical popular feature films has been analyzed in a wider discursive context in works such as Stephen Lowry's "Pathos und Politik. Ideologie in Spielfilme des Nationalsozialismus" (Pathos and Politics. Ideology in the Features Films of National-Socialism; Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1991), Karsten Witte's "Lachende Erben, Toller Tag. Filmkomödie im Dritten Reich" (Laughing Heirs, Great Day. Film Comedy in the Third Reich; Berlin: Vorwerk 8, 1995), Eric Rentschler's "The Ministry of Illusion. Nazi Cinema and its Afterlife" (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard UP, 1996), Linda Schulte-Sasse's "Entertaining the Third Reich. Illusions of Wholeness in Nazi Germany" (Durham, NC & London: Duke UP, 1996), and Sabin Hake's "Popular Cinema of the Third Reich" (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002) and "German National Cinema" (New York & London: Routledge, 2002). These new approaches have focused less on a definition of fascist film that argues for the identity of politics and aesthetics. Instead they examine the various levels on which films functioned in the context of fascism.
Earlier discussion did, however, indicate that products of the National-Socialist "dream factory" had a political function insofar as they offered audiences diversion and the possibility to escape everyday life under the Nazis. The exceptional importance of this factor during the war was well understood by the Nazis themselves and largely determined their film policy.
This general argument has been supplemented in the mean time with numerous analyses of individual feature films. The films are thus understood as complex, polyvalent texts in a broader spectrum that, as Eric Rentschler has summarized, "ranges from shrill propaganda to ideological innuendo to rare instances of aesthetic resistance". One important methodological innovation has been the expanded conception of ideology informing these studies. The analytical aim is no longer to compare ideological themes in the films with whatever world views the Nazi leadership and film officials decided to disseminate. Instead, scholars explore in different ways how ideology impacts experience in a socio-historical context, the thoroughly complex semiotic exchange between the film and its audience. Film and Culture Studies scholar Sabine Hake described this development in 2004: "Recently a number of critical studies have appeared that attempt to trace how popular genres offered viewers fictional solutions to social problems and conflicts and how modern mass media radically redefined the relationship between art and politics."