Glitter and jackboots

The Ministry of Illusion

June 20, 1997

Today, more than half a century after the last of its 1,094 feature films was released, the cinema of the Third Reich continues to provoke strong reactions. To some, it was "a Teutonic Horror Picture Show", a monstrosity manufactured by a Ministry of Fear, notable only for the systematic way in which it abused the formative powers of film in the name of mass manipulation, state terror and worldwide aggression. To others, it represents "the golden age of German cinema", a testament to the triumph of art over politics, notable above all else for its artistic autonomy and slyly resistant energy within the context of an oppressive regime. To Eric Rentschler, the author of this quite exceptional new book, it represents something much more ambiguous, much more complex, much more intriguing.

Nazi cinema, according to Rentschler, was governed not by a Ministry of Fear but rather by a Ministry of Illusion. Egregious works of stark propaganda, such as the notorious Jew Suss, were, notes Rentschler, the exception rather than the rule ("if one is looking for sinister heavies garbed in SS black or crowds of fanatics saluting their Fuhrer," he observes, "one does best to turn to Hollywood films of the 1940s"). Generic productions, in fact, predominated: of the 1,094 feature films, 295 were melodramas and "biopics", 123 detective stories and adventure epics, and 523 comedies and musicals (which were termed heitere, "cheerful", films).

Hollywood movies continued to find an enthusiastic audience after several years of Nazi rule, thus exacerbating, says Rentschler, feelings of "envy of what one lacked, dissatisfaction with what one had". Goebbels, as he struggled to strengthen the German film industry, modelled himself on David O. Selznick and made the industry imitate the Hollywood style. A star system was created, a repertory of directors and writers was established, box-office returns were monitored closely and the importance of advertising and publicity in generating product recognition was emphasised. Some movies were based quite blatantly on Hollywood successes - such as the 1936 romantic comedy Gluckskinder ("Lucky Kids"), which was a copy of Frank Capra's 1934 Oscar-winning It Happened One Night. It is this curious familiarity, suggests Rentschler, that explains, to some extent, "why Nazi cinema equally fascinates and disturbs postwar ... audiences".

It is an issue which is, in fact, far more urgent, and more topical, than it may at first appear. The cinema of Hitler, far from perishing with the passing of the Third Reich, continues to thrive. The vast majority of the movies from this period have remained in circulation, and have retained an audience. In 1980 they accounted for 8.7 per cent of all movies broadcast by West German television stations - a total of 113 titles; by 1989 that number had risen to 169. Veteran directors, writers and performers have published breezy memoirs of the period, and the few stars from that time who survive can be seen on talk shows reminiscing about the age when German cinema was "great". Matinee screenings in big cities throughout Germany offer the interested spectator weekly opportunities to rediscover these relics, and the Berlin Film Festival has held several reverential retrospectives over the past two decades devoted to productions from this era; further afield, Nazi cinema is no stranger to the catalogues of American commercial distributors, and an increasing number of American university courses offer students the chance to analyse these movies in a scholarly environment.

The aim of both the historian and the critic of the cinema of the Third Reich, says Rentschler, should neither be repression nor redemption but rather a clearer and more careful understanding of these films "as historical entities and living presences, artefacts whose effective existence also affects many people today". Nazi cinema, he argues, "is not 1984; neither is it a nest of resistant potential"; what it is, he adds, is a source of "still resonant portrayals of an age's different inclinations and disparate wishes...(Films) that in seeking to stylise everyday reality also revealed much about the psychopathology of the Third Reich."

One is grateful to Rentschler both for producing such a well-researched, thorough and thoughtful book, and for doing so with such constructive energy, fine style and subtle wit. Any serious student either of film or of the Third Reich will learn a great deal from this splendid new account.

Graham McCann is a fellow, King's College, Cambridge.

The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife

Author - Eric Rentschler
ISBN - 0 674 57639 X and 57640 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £16.50
Pages - 456

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