In its century-long history, cinema has seen many ups and downs but its affair with the Nazi party has to be the most disturbing of them all. Nazi propaganda films, many film historians believe, show how the power of cinema can be misused. “During the war, soldiers were given the opportunity to see films at the front in mobile film projections and there is evidence that the films had a strong impact on the soldiers’ behaviour,” says Gertrud Koch, who teaches cinema studies in Berlin and is in Kolkata to deliver a lecture on Nazi propaganda films on the occasion of 100 Years of Indian Cinema at the Department of Film Studies, Jadavpur University. The talk is in collaboration with Goethe Institute/Max Mueller Bhavan, Kolkata.
Apart from being screened to soldiers, Nazi propaganda films were shown in movie theaters to the public — where they were not very successful as people mostly seek entertainment in film theatres. This resulted in films that transferred propagandistic messages to genres such as melodrama and comedy.
“One of the best periods in German cinema was the so called ‘Weimar Republic’ that was established between 1918-33, after World War I ended and before the Nazis came to power. This was the time when Fritz Lang, made Metropolis, and comedy director Ernst Lubitsch, who went to the US and became a famous director of Hollywood comedies. Friedrich Murnau was a leading director (he made Nosferatu, one of the first vampire films). And Joseph von Sternberg worked with Marlene Dietrich in those years. It was also a phase of good experimental film and art cinema,” says Koch. The Nazi rule brought to close the golden era of German filmmaking.
Of the Nazi propaganda films, the works of Leni Riefensthal is of importance. The propaganda value of her films maybe morally deplorable but many film historians cite the aesthetics as outstanding. “Leni Riefenstahl was responsible for the propaganda film Triumph of the Will, which was commissioned to celebrate the convention of the Nazi Party, where Hitler and his crew spoke. Though she claimed, after the defeat of the Nazi Reich, that she was only doing ‘art’, the film remains a work of propaganda,”
says Koch. “How we judge propaganda films depends on the communicative strategy — are they trying to influence spectators to do things that are not in a shared interest but only fulfill the interests of the producer? One has to carefully analyse films to unlock these kinds of messages,” she says.
By: Premankur Biswas