The Uncivil Servant: German Cinema in Nazi Times

Mitchell Abidor
April 5, 2018
OCCASIONALLY DERIDED for being too broad and hasty in its estimation of individual films, Siegfried Kracauer’s 1947 study, From Caligari to Hitler, nevertheless stands as a classic of film criticism. Its old-fashioned, Old-World vision of German cinema from its beginnings until the arrival in power of Hitler, and its focus on the unity of vision in works across countless directors and on the ways they expressed German inter-war psychology, were both ambitious and fruitful. Kracauer demonstrated an unarguable link between even the most apolitical films and the wider society. His work can be seen as laying the groundwork for the brilliant work of the American critic Robert Warshow and his analyses of all that lay below the surface of Westerns, gangster films, and Krazy Kat.

So it is quite astounding that we have had to wait decades to see the films of Rüdiger Suchsland, including his film version of From Caligari to Hitler, and now his thought-provoking and bold Hitler’s Hollywood, showing at New York’s Film forum for a week from April 11. Suchsland has applied Kracauer’s method through well- chosen clips from the films under investigation, along with quotes from Kracauer and his fellow exile Hannah Arendt.The U

For Suchsland, from the time of the Nazi arrival in power, across the plethora of films -- over a thousand of them -- and directors, there was only one cinematic auteur: Josef Goebbels. He prompted the production of films made to either directly serve the state and its ideology -- such as Hitlerjuge Quex (Hitler Youth Quex), Jud Süss (Süss the Jew), Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) -- or to express other elements of Nazi thought and action, like the woman’s role in society and of the nobility of a death honorably won. Not only Nazi policies towards the Jews were covered in pro-Nazi films, but the euthanasia program, the extermination of lives not worth living, also got its treatment in Ich Klage An (I Accuse), with the moral issues involved presented as a courtroom drama (the judges, with their Nazi eagles on their gowns can’t but come to the correct decision).

Even the Titanic, we are told, was converted into a political lesson -- not of upper-class passengers against lower, but with the sinking presented as the work of Jews and Englishmen. The film, viewed as a metaphor for the German defeat at Stalingrad, was banned in Germany but shown in fifteen occupied countries.


OF COURSE, not every film had direct or even indirect political aims, and in fact, half the films produced by UFA, the state studio, were musicals or comedies. For Suchsland, the choreography in the former, with its synchronization of movement, speaks to the uniformity imposed by the state. This is perhaps the weakest insight in the film, since no musicals so dehumanized and deindividualized its performers as those of Busby Berkeley -- though it is possible to say that the same technique applied in different societies expresses different meanings (Busby Berkeley could be viewed as the musical expression of the critique of capitalism contained in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times).

The German cinema of the Hitler years included many surprises, like a remake of Capra’s It Happened One Night, and if we are familiar with the hammer on the head Jew-hatred of Jud Süss, how many of us know the anti-Semitic comedy Robert and Bertram? 

The talent involved in these films was of an astoundingly high level. Yes, Germany (and Austria) lost Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich, but it kept Emil Jannings and G.W. Pabst and the evil Veit Harlan, as well as countless lesser-known but brilliant artists. It even drew foreign stars, like Ingrid Bergman in 1938 for one film, and the German-born Dane Detlef Sierck who, as Douglas Sirk would in America make classic weepies like Imitation of Life (twice) and Written on the Wind.

The final grand Nazi film was, in its way, the most daring of all: Harlan’s epic Kolberg. Set during the Napoleonic wars, it mirrored almost exactly what Germany was confronting at the time: massive bombardments by the enemy, a population refusing to surrender and holding out against all odds with the people mobilized in the same way as the Volkssturm of the final days, as Suchsland astutely points out. To make such a film, projecting the then-current destruction of German cities into the historical past and intending it as an inspiration, was the purest expression of the German love of death with honor, a call to die rather than surrender. And it was the most expensive film produced by the Third Reich.

Suchsland ends the film by asking “does every German film still draw on the same dreams?” Perhaps there will be a third film to answer the question. But since we learn that with the end of the war, few of the great lights of Nazi cinema saw their careers ended -- not even the odious Veit Harlan -- the answer to Suchsland’s question is probably “yes,” since, at least until the arrival of the new German Cinema in the 1960s, it was the same dreamers supplying the dreams. 

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.