Rudiger Suchsland’s second documentary on the cinema of Hitler’s Germany takes a fascinating, if surface-level, look at the ways entertainment gave rise to fascism.
When people think of Nazi films, they probably think of the Third Reich’s propaganda films; Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or Fritz Hippler’s The Eternal Jew. While these types of pictures were popular in Nazi Germany, they aren’t the whole story. Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi-controlled film industry produced 1000 films, most of them entertainment films meant to rival Hollywood. They had large budgets, talented actors, and lavish visuals, and few of them dealt with political themes outright.
What do these films tell us about Nazi Germany? Rudiger Suchsland’s documentary Hitler’s Hollywood explores how the Nazis used escapist entertainment to indoctrinate the masses, and does so in an accessible, albeit general, way.
Following Suchsland’s previous documentary From Caligari to Hitler, which delved into the Weimar Republic’s cinematic efforts including some made famous by directors like F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst, and Fritz Lang, Hitler’s Hollywood goes into the themes that were prevalent in those movies not well-known outside of these Nazi contexts. While some the films were made with expressed intent to glorify the state, most were comedies, musicals, or melodramas. These films show happy Germans, laughing with friends in an idyllic countryside, pursuing career advancement in bustling cities, or searching for romance or adventure in exotic locales. It is a forced joviality without irony that borders on kitsch. But behind this happiness, there is a sinister intent. Death, whether it be dying during battle, euthanizing a mentally ill wife, or committing suicide to prevent race mixing, is glorified and to the point of kitsch. Naturally, xenophobia is also a prominent theme. Ironically, many of the Nazi film stars weren’t German, but Hungarian or Swedish.
Suchsland’s treatment of the subject is extensive, but a bit unwieldy, and it doesn’t come to a conclusive point. He gives a broad overview of the history of Nazi-era cinema and its themes without going into much detail over the films and the artist/propagandists who made them. The film would have fared better if he focused on a few specific films or filmmakers. That being said, Suchsland serves up an excellent narrator in famed German genre actor Udo Kier, his raspy narration serving the doc’s exploration of 1930s German psychology quite well.
While the breadth over depth approach of this documentary is a bit disappointing, it is understandable. Outside of historians, these films are forgotten by the public. But these films do deserve to be seen. Not for their artistic value, but because they are a warning. These are not propaganda in the strictest sense: they are escapist entertainment, but the values they espouse make the Nazi worldview palatable in the way the Nazis themselves could not. It’s worth asking ourselves how modern world events – particularly the ability for propagandists and state-run media outlets to obfuscate our collective understanding of reality and facts in favor of a pleasing narrative – find parallels within the media and cinema of Hitler-era Germany.
Hitler’s Hollywood is currently on the tail end of a week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, ending May 17th.