National-Socialist Propaganda Films
Film in the Service of the State
To equate National-Socialist cinema with its propaganda films is problematic, especially as propaganda films — films pertaining directly to political measures taken by the National-Socialist government or that specifically and aggressively exhibited the Nazis' world-view — made up only about one-tenth of the over one thousand feature films produced during the Third Reich. The majority of these films are familiar to viewers today only by name. Because of their ideological content and their incendiary potential, the films are considered dangerous even today, and are prohibited from public exhibition. What, aside from being banned (since a prohibition often provokes curiosity) makes these films so interesting and at the same time so volatile? Many of these films stand out from the mass of Third Reich film productions by virtue of their immense financial, technical, and personnel expenditures alone. The so-called Staatsauftragfilme, or "state-produced films," which were commissioned by the Propaganda Ministry under at Goebbels' word. With budgets exceeding four million Reichs Mark and a full contingent of stars, these were the most expensive film productions of the time. As late as 1944/45, during the Volkssturm, or "people's storm", entire army units were deployed as extras for the "holding-out film" "Kolberg" (Burning Hearts). Aside from the state-financed megalomania, these productions demonstrate above all how propaganda, fastidious technical skill, and artistry — embodied above all by the stars — can be combined to insidious ends. They provide, above all, models for understanding the Nazis' subtle methods of propaganda.
From Hitlerjunge Quex to Friedrich Schiller
Film propaganda was thus implemented primarily by way of polarizations, in which the audience was presented either with idealized images of the perfect society or radical depictions of the enemy (both according to National-Socialist ideology). Furthermore, the propaganda function of the films was frequently context-oriented, meaning, films were produced and distributed in conjunction with specific political actions. Judging from the general principle of National-Socialist propaganda, these took various forms, gradual attempts to take elements like the "Führer principle" and the "master race" doctrine, the myth of blood and soil and the cult of the Volk, as well as specific images of the enemy and themes like war and nation, and to popularize and instill them in the masses once and for all. After the rather negative reception received by the films "SA-Mann Brand", "Hans Westmar, einer unter vielen", and "Hitlerjunge Quex" — the Nazi "trilogy of martyrs" made directly after the seizure of power in 1933 —, the Nazis tended to avoid direct representations of their regime or of the National-Socialist movement in film. Instead, in further attempts at mediating the norms of a world-view, as was predominant in propaganda films of the 1930s, they resorted to doing so at a spatial and, especially, temporal distance. Historical biographies like "Robert Koch, der Bekämpfer des Todes" (Robert Koch: The Battler of Death, 1939), "Friedrich Schiller, der Triumph eines Genies" (Friedrich Schiller: The Triumph of a Genius, 1940), and "Der große König" (The Great King, 1940–42 — with Otto Gebühr, recalling the "Fridericus Rex" series of the early 1920s) were produced as aggrandizements of "great Germans" and justifications for the "Führer principle". The teleological interpretation of history underlying these films celebrated Hitler and the Third Reich as the logical end of German history.
Strategies in World War II
With Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the beginning of World War II, came changes to the demands on film propaganda. The number of propaganda films explicitly justifying the war and the mobilization of the German people rose considerably. Slogans celebrating war and military heroism were typical for the pilot films, most of which were directed by the avid National-Socialist Karl Ritter. In films like "Feuertaufe" (Baptism by Fire), "Kampfgeschwader Lützow" (Battle Squadron Lützow), and "Stukas" (Stukas), themes like camaraderie, obedience, duty, readiness to fight, and heroic death for the fatherland were embedded and mystified in stories of adventure, romance, and male bonding – complete with spectacular flight footage. After 1941, when it became clear that the war would not be ending any time soon, its representation in feature films became practically taboo. Instead, studios began making films dedicated to mobilizing the home front, like "Ein schöner Tag" (A Beautiful Day, 1943/44), "Die große Liebe" (The Great Love, 1942), "Wunschkonzert" (Wish Concert, 1940), and, lastly, the big-budget film "Kolberg" (Burning Hearts, 1945), which was made during the final phase of the war. While pre-war National-Socialist film was not particularly incendiary, not least out of consideration for its own export potential, the construction in films of images of the enemy served, as film publicist Wolf Donner has incisively put it, "as ideological background music for the Nazis" shifting foreign policy." The propaganda films "Menschen im Sturm" (People in the Storm, 1941), "GPU" (The Red Terror, 1942), and "Ohm Krüger" (1942) demonstrated anti-Slovenian, anti-Polish, anti-Russian, and above all anti-British tendencies.
The most infamous examples of National-Socialist propaganda, however, were inflammatory anti-Semitic productions like "Jud Süß" (Jew Suss), "Die Rothschilds" (The Rothschilds), or the pseudo-documentary "Der ewige Jude" (The Eternal Jew). All three were released in 1940, a year in which the Nazis greatly intensified their "Jewish policy" by building the Warsaw Ghetto and beginning the deportation of German Jews to the east. By effectively spreading discrimination and defamation to the masses, these films colluded with the Nazis' genocide of the European Jewry, which took the lives of over six million people. The most extreme of these propaganda films, Veit Harlan's "Jud Süß", was shown to SS commandos directly before their assignments. The threat posed by the assimilated Jew Süß to the national community is woven as a central theme into the tradition of the bourgeois tragic-drama. Not only was the film a box-office hit at the time of its release, but it is enjoying an unfortunate renaissance today amongst right-wing radical groups and organizations.