Nazism and cinema
Nazism created an elaborate system of propaganda, which made use of the new technologies of the 20th century, including cinema. Nazism courted the masses by the means of slogans that were aimed directly at the instincts and emotions of the people. The Nazis valued film as a propaganda instrument of enormous power. The interest that Adolf Hitler and his Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels took in film was not only the result of a personal fascination. The use of film for propaganda had been planned by the National Socialist German Workers Party as early as 1930, when the party first established a film department.
Goals of the Nazi film policy
Goebbels, who appointed himself "Patron of the German film", assumed, accurately, that a national cinema which was entertaining and put glamour on the government would be a more effective propaganda instrument than a national cinema in which the NSDAP and their policy would have been ubiquitous. The main goal of the Nazi film policy was to promote escapism, which was designed to distract the population and to keep everybody in good spirits; Goebbels indeed blamed defeat in World War I on the failure to sustain the morale of the people. The open propaganda was reserved for films like Der Sieg des Glaubens and Triumph des Willens, records of the Nuremberg rallies, and newsreels. There are some examples of German feature films from the Third Reich that deal with the NSDAP or with party organizations such as the Sturmabteilung, Hitler Youth or the National Labour Service, one notable example being Hitlerjunge Quex about the Hitler Youth. Another example is the anti-semitic feature film Jew Suss. The propaganda films that refer directly to Nazi politics amounted to less than a sixth of the whole national film production, which mainly consisted of light entertainment films, although it is those propaganda films that are much more well known today, such as Triumph of the Will.
The authorities and NSDAP departments in charge of film policy were the film department of the Ministry of Propaganda, the Chamber of Culture (Reichskulturkammer), the Chamber of Film (Reichsfilmkammer), and the film department of the Party Propaganda Department (Reichspropagandaleitung).
A system of "award" was used to encourage self-censorship; awarded for such things as "cultural value" or "value to the people", they remitted part of the heavy taxes on films. Up to a third of the films in the Third Reich received such awards.
Measures of the Nazi film policy
To subdue film to the goals of propaganda (Gleichschaltung), the Nazi Party subordinated the entire film industry and administration under Joseph Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda, and gradually nationalized film production and distribution. A state-run professional school for politically reliable film-makers (Deutsche Filmakademie Babelsberg) was founded, and membership of an official professional organization (Reichsfilmkammer) was made mandatory for all actors, film-makers, distributors etc. The censorship that had already been established during World War I and the Weimar Republic was increased, with a National Film Dramaturgist (Reichsfilmdramaturg) pre-censoring all manuscripts and screenplays at the very first stages of production. Film criticism was prohibited and a national film award established.
A film bank (Filmkreditbank GmbH) was established to provide low-interest loans for the production of politically welcome films, and such films also received tax benefits.
In the mid-1930s, the German film industry suffered the most severe crisis it had ever faced. There were multiple reasons for this crisis. Firstly, many of the most capable actors and film-makers had left the country after the rise to power of the Nazi government; others had been banned by the new Reichsfilmkammer. These people left a gap that the film industry could not easily fill. Secondly, the remaining actors and film-makers seized the opportunity to demand higher salaries, which considerably increased production budgets. Consequently, it became more and more difficult to recover production costs. Thirdly, the export of German films dramatically dropped due to international boycotts. In 1933, exports had covered 44% of film production costs; by 1937, this figure had dropped to a mere 7%.
More and more production companies went bankrupt. The number of companies dropped from 114 (1933–35) to 79 (1936–38) to 38 (1939–41). This did not necessarily lead to a decrease in the number of new films, as surviving production companies became more prolific, producing many more films.
The consolidation of the film industry was undoubtedly beneficial for the Nazi government. On the one hand, an ailing and unprofitable film industry would not have been of much use for the propaganda requirements. And on the other hand, a small number of big film production companies were easier to control than a multitude of small ones. Goebbels went even further and directed a holding company – Cautio Treuhand GmbH – to buy up the stock majorities of the remaining film production companies. In 1937, the Cautio acquired the largest German production company, Ufa, and in 1942 merged this company with the remaining companies – Terra Film, Tobis, Bavaria Film, Wien-Film and Berlin-Film – into the so-called “Ufi-Group”. With one stroke, the entire German film industry had been practically nationalized, but unlike the situation in the USSR, German film-making preserved its character as a private industry. Although Goebbels founded the Filmkreditbank GmbH in order to fund the industry, the funds came from private investors. Thus, there were no government subsidies to the film industry in Nazi Germany. Because of this, the industry was forced to remain profitable – and to produce films that met the expectations of the audience.
Officially honored films considered to be "artistically valuable" (German: künstlerisch wertvoll) by the state (* = predicate "special political value" - introduced in 1935, ** = predicate "film of the nation" - introduced in 1941):
Ich für Dich - Du für mich i.e. I for you, you for me (Carl Froelich)
*Hermine und die sieben Aufrechten i.e. Hermine and the Honorable Seven (Frank Wisbar)
Das Schönheitsfleckchen i.e. The Beauty Spot (Rolf Hansen)
*Der Herrscher i.e. The Sovereign (Veit Harlan)
Revolutionshochzeit i.e. Revolution-Marriage (Hans Heinz Zerlett)
Es war eine rauschende Ballnacht i.e It was an Amazing Night at the Ball, a film about the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Carl Froelich)
Der Postmeister i.e. The Postmaster (Gustav Ucicky)
Friedemann Bach, a film about Johann Sebastian Bach's son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (Traugott Müller)
Wiener Blut i.e. Viennese Blood (Willi Forst)
Sophienlund (Heinz Rühmann)
Der gebieterische Ruf i.e. The Masterful Calling (Gustav Ucicky)
A concentration also took place in the distribution field. In 1942, the Ufa-owned Deutsche Filmvertriebs GmbH (DFV) took the place of all companies so far remaining. For the export of films to foreign countries special companies had been established such as the Cinéma Film AG.
Since the days of the Weimar Republic, there had also existed an extensive system of educational film hire services which was extended under the Nazi administration. In 1943, there were 37 regional services and 12,042 city services. In parallel, the Party Propaganda Department (Reichspropagandaleitung) ran its own network of educational film hire services which included 32 Gaue, 171 district, and 22,357 local services. All film hire services had extensive film collections as well as rental 16 mm film projectors available that made it possible to show films in any class or lecture room and at any group meeting of the Hitler Youth.
Apart from the Ufa-owned theatre chain, the cinemas were not nationalized. The majority of the 5,506 theatres that existed in 1939 within the so-called Altreich (the "Old Reich", i.e., Germany without Austria and the Sudetenland) were small companies run by private owners. However, a large number of rules and regulations issued by the Reichsfilmkammer limited the entrepreneurial freedom of the cinemas considerably. For instance, it was mandatory to include a documentary and a newsreel in every film programme. By a law of 1933 (the Gesetz über die Vorführung ausländischer Bildstreifen vom 23. Juni 1933) the government was also entitled to prohibit the presentation of foreign films. An import quota for foreign films had been set during the Weimar Republic, and during World War II, the import of films from certain foreign countries was completely prohibited. For example, from 1941 onwards, the presentation of American films became illegal.
In order to boost the propaganda effect, the Nazis supported film shows in large cinemas with large audiences where the feeling of being part of the crowd was so overwhelming for the individual spectator that critical film perception had little chance. Film shows also took place in military barracks and factories. The Hitler Youth arranged special film programmes (Jugendfilmstunden) where newsreels and propaganda films were shown. In order to supply even rural and remote areas with film shows, the Party Propaganda Department (Reichspropagandaleitung) operated 300 film trucks and two film trains that carried all the necessary equipment for showing films in, for example, village inns. The dislike that Goebbels and other film politicians had for individual, more private film viewing was probably one of the reasons why they did not make any effort to develop television – at that time a technique that was ready to be applied – as a new mass media.
Film propaganda had the highest priority in Germany even under the severe conditions of the last years of World War II. While schools and playhouses stopped working in 1944, cinemas continued to operate until the very end of the war. In Berlin for instance, anti-aircraft units were posted specially to protect the local cinemas in 1944.
There always had been film stars in Germany, but a star system comparable to the star system in Hollywood did not yet exist. Various Nazi leaders denounced the star system as a Jewish invention. However, in order to improve the image of Nazi Germany, Goebbels made great efforts to form a star system. After Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo had gone to Hollywood and could not be persuaded to serve the National Socialist film industry as figureheads, new film stars were promoted.
The best-known example is the Swedish actress Zarah Leander who was hired in 1937 by the Ufa and became the most prominent and highest-paid German film star in only a few years. The publicity campaign for Leander was run by the press office of the Ufa, which concealed her past as a film actress already well known in Sweden and put their money right away on her charisma as a singer with an exceptionally deep voice. The Ufa press office provided the newspapers with detailed instructions on how the new star would have to be presented, and even the actress herself had to follow detailed instructions whenever she appeared in public. This kind of star publicity had not existed in Germany before.
High politicians such as Hitler, Goebbels, and Hermann Göring appeared in public flanked by popular German film actors. The female stars in particular were supposed to lend some glamour to the dry and male-dominated NSDAP events. Hitler's preferred dinner partners were the actresses Olga Tschechowa and Lil Dagover, and from 1935, Hermann Göring was married to the popular actress Emmy Sonnemann. The relationships of Goebbels to several female film stars are also notorious. Magda Goebbels left a screening of the film Die Reise nach Tilsit, because it seemed to her too close a telling of her husband's relationship with Lida Baarova, which had resulted in the actress being sent back to her native Czechoslovakia.
Personal proximity to the political leaders became a determining factor for the career success of film actors (The early death of Renate Müller apparently resulted from her lack of co-operation with the requirements of the régime). An informal system of listings decided how frequently an actor would be cast. The five categories extended from "to cast at all costs even without a vacancy" (for instance Zarah Leander, Lil Dagover, Heinz Rühmann) to "casting under no circumstances welcome".
How crucial the film stars were for the image of the National Socialist government is also evident from the tax benefits that Hitler decreed in 1938 for prominent film actors and directors. From that time on, they could deduct 40% of their income as professional expenses.
During World War II German film stars supported the war effort by performing for the troops or by collecting money for the German Winter Relief Organization (Winterhilfswerk). Although most of the male stars were exempted from military service, some – such as the popular Heinz Rühmann – participated in the war as soldiers, often accompanied by newsreel film crews.
- List of German films 1933-1945
- Cinema of Germany
- Reichsfilmarchiv (an archive for films created under Nazi rule)
- Why We Fight, an American answer to Nazi propaganda films during the World War II years
- Cinzia Romani, Tainted Goddesses: Female Film Stars of the Third Reich p13 ISBN 0-9627613-1-1
- Cinzia Romani, Tainted Goddesses: Female Film Stars of the Third Reich p9 ISBN 0-9627613-1-1
- Cinzia Romani, Tainted Goddesses: Female Film Stars of the Third Reich p2 ISBN 0-9627613-1-1
- Cinzia Romani, Tainted Goddesses: Female Film Stars of the Third Reich p2-3 ISBN 0-9627613-1-1
- Cinzia Romani, Tainted Goddesses: Female Film Stars of the Third Reich p86 ISBN 0-9627613-1-1
- Klee, Kulturlexikon, S. 227.
- (German) Albrecht, Gerd (1969). Nationalsozialistische Filmpolitik. Munich: Hanser.
- (German) Spiker, Jürgen (1975). Film und Kapital. Der Weg der deutschen Filmwirtschaft zum nationalsozialistischen Einheitskonzern. Berlin: Volker Spiess. ISBN 3-920889-04-5
- This article is translated from its equivalent on the German Wikipedia