History is always written by the winning side. This was never more true than in the case of Nazi Germany. Everything we know about it, or everything we think we know, is filtered through layers of illusion and propaganda. But a few years ago I had a rare opportunity to get an unfiltered view of it.
On Saturday, January 14, 1995, I saw an announcement of a series of films from Nazi Germany, being shown at UCLA. It was sponsored jointly by the UCLA film department and the Goethe Institute. I had already missed the opening night, which was Thursday the 12th, but over the next few weeks I saw 18 movies in the series. They were shown in no particular order. There was a flyer accompanying the series, but the descriptions of the movies were not even true on a factual level, let alone on a thematic level, and the flyer was practically useless as an aid to understanding the films. The flyer, of course, was an attempt to tell us what to see; but we were free to ignore it and just look at the films with our own eyes.
The series was titled “Ministry of Illusion,” because these are supposed to be propaganda films. According to the flyer,
“Shooting and editing were closely supervised and the final cut of the film had to be approved — often by Goebbels or Hitler… Goebbels claimed, ‘Even entertainment can be politically of special value, because the moment a person is conscious of propaganda, propaganda becomes ineffective.’ Hence, he encouraged the production of feature films that reflected the ambiance of National Socialism, rather than those that loudly proclaimed its ideology. Consequently, as the films in this series document, cinema in the Third Reich was not solely a Ministry of Fear. It was, more than anything, a Ministry of Illusion…”
These movies certainly drew me into a different ambiance. I felt free to leave my coat, umbrella, and gym bag at my seat during intermission, something I would not ordinarily do at a theater in Los Angeles.
I wondered what kind of films would be shown. Triumph of the Will, perhaps? Wrong. There is nothing like that here. Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS? Wrong again. These films cover just about every subject you can think of, except what you would expect.
Going to these movies was like taking a time-machine back to 1933 — especially since many people in the audience spoke German, and were old enough to have been there. Some of them may have seen these same movies before, when they were children. I could almost imagine myself being in Berlin, watching these movies when they were originally shown. What the time-machine showed me was surprising, to say the least.
If you rearrange the films so they are in chronological order, it turns out that there is a progression of themes. The movies tell a story, the story of the Third Reich, a story that has never been told in quite this way.
1933 — Fugitives
A simple, mythical story, told at the beginning of the Reich. Hans Albers makes his first of three appearances in the series, as the leader who pulls his people together and leads them back home, to safety and freedom.
The story takes place in 1928. A group of about 45 Volga Germans are trying to escape from Russia. They have made their way to the Chinese border, but there they find themselves in a war zone. There is no food, no water, no transportation; the Russians are trying to hunt them down and kill them; some of them are sick; they are fighting among themselves. Hans Albers [I have forgotten the character's name, so I will refer to the actor] is an army officer attached to the German embassy. He finds an unguarded train that could be used for escape, if the track were repaired. He takes charge of the group, and together they repair the track and escape into China, and from there eventually make their way to Hamburg. The symbolism is obvious: the officer represents Hitler. Hans Albers brings to this role, as to all his roles, a unique combination of dignity and panache. When you realize that this is how the Germans saw their Führer, it puts everything in a different light.
1935 — Amphitryon
Kind of like Cool World or Roger Rabbit, where you have the mixing of two universes, with comical and almost disastrous results. Amphitryon is an officer in the Theban army. He and all the men of Thebes are away fighting a battle. His wife prays to Jupiter for victory. Jupiter, up in Olympus, hears her prayer and sees an opportunity. He is an old man, about 65, lecherous but not at all attractive. Mercury is a younger, pixie-ish man/god. They go to earth, and Jupiter tries to approach Amphitryon’s wife. She won’t even talk to him. She doesn’t recognize him as Jupiter; he doesn’t look like the statue she prays to. He disguises himself to look like Amphitryon, and pretends to be back from the war a day earlier than expected. This gets him into the house, but instead of seducing Amphitryon’s wife, he gets drunk and falls asleep. Meanwhile Mercury is disguised as Amphytrion’s slave, and he has to deal with the slave’s wife, who treats him like the drunk he usually is. When Amphitryon himself arrives, and Juno (an old battle-axe) comes down from Olympus to find her wayward husband, all hell breaks loose. This is a lighthearted, genuinely funny movie, the kind of comedy where people laugh out loud — there is no need for a laugh track in this movie.
1935 — The Old and the Young King
The King of Prussia is a jovial but strict man who lives in a world where men do their duty, period. His son has no interest in government or military affairs. He just wants to hang out with his musical friends, play the flute, read French books, and gamble. This kind of father-and-son relationship occurs many times in every generation, but in this case both father and son are caught in roles that they can’t walk away from. The King must train his son to be a King. He can’t go out and hire somebody to run the country. The Prince must do it. The King is not an abusive or petty man. He is not trying to break his son’s spirit out of jealousy or meanness, like some fathers. But he demands that the Prince live a disciplined life, and he drives his son to exasperation. The Prince makes plans to run away from home. He not only gets caught, he also carelessly implicates his friend, Lieutenant Latte, who has helped him plan his escape. The King sentences Latte to death, and makes his son watch the execution. Over a period of time the Prince pulls himself together and assumes his duties, but he carries an image of his friend with him at all times. He obeys his father, but coldly. They can never be friends. On the night of his father’s death, the Prince leaves his ongoing party and goes to him. They say what must be said, and make peace. The Prince has become a King… but at what cost.
1936 — Closing Chord
A woman abandons her child and goes to America. A few years later, inspired by a Beethoven concert, she comes back to Germany in search of her son. She discovers that he has been adopted by the same conductor who conducted the concert. She becomes the boy’s nanny, without telling anyone who she really is. The composer’s wife is having an affair with an astrologer. She eventually realizes who the “nanny” is, and fires her. She, i.e. the composer’s wife, gets sick. The doctor gives her medicine, with strict instructions to take exactly ten drops — “an overdose could be fatal.” The real mother comes back to get some things (and perhaps to steal her son, her intentions are not clear) and the next morning the composer’s wife is found dead, of an overdose of medicine. The real mother is accused of murdering her. In court, it comes out that the astrologer was blackmailing her and drove her to suicide. The composer and the real mother get married. A new family has formed.
1936 — The Kaiser of California
An epic story about a man who builds a new country in the wilderness of California, only to have it destroyed by the gold rush. The movie is based on an actual historical character, Johann Suter (known in America as John Sutter). He was a young printer who got in trouble when he printed radical posters. He climbed up to the top of a cathedral, contemplating suicide; but a spirit appeared to him, and showed him a vast world out there, full of opportunity. He said goodbye to his family and emigrated to America. After a desperate journey across mountains and deserts, he arrived in California, with a few followers whom he had saved from starvation. (This part is just like Fugitives.) Within a decade he transformed the area from a semi-desert to a fertile paradise with abundant farms, orchards, and ranches. His wife and two sons joined him. More and more immigrants joined his community, and he found work for all of them.
Then one of his original followers discovered gold nuggets in the river. All of his men deserted him, abandoned their jobs, and started panning for gold. They staked claims on land that belonged to him, and defied him to do anything about it. He took his case to court and won, but there was nothing the government could do against thousands of gold prospectors. They killed his sons and burned his house. Since no one was working, his income dropped to zero, and the bankers foreclosed on his property. At the end we find him an old man with nothing. The same spirit appears again and asks him,
Why do you keep trying to fight the gold?
You can’t stop the wheels of the world.
The parallel with Hitler is all too clear. How this movie got past the censors is not clear. A movie in which a great social experiment is defeated by the unstoppable “wheels of the world” is the last thing a propaganda minister would want the people to see. But the artistic vision is true, and Goebbels must have valued artistic truth more than propaganda. Apparently there was less censorship in Germany than we have been led to believe. And yet the title of this series is “Ministry of Illusion”… Who’s dealing in illusion, and who isn’t?
1937 — The Broken Jug
A wonderful farce; according to the flyer that accompanied this series of movies, The Broken Jug was Hitler’s favorite movie, but considering the general inaccuracy of the flyer, I don’t know whether to believe this. The story takes place in a Dogpatch-like village in rural Holland. A senior judge from the city is on a tour of the countryside to inspect the legal system. He arrives here just in time to sit in on the most absurd trial ever imagined. The judge is a drunken buffoon. The plaintiff is a woman who lives nearby, whose precious jug was broken the night before by a man who was trying to escape from her yard after being caught near her daughter’s bedroom. She says the man was Rupert, her daughter’s boyfriend. Rupert denies this, and says another man was present. As the trial goes on it becomes increasingly obvious that the real culprit is the judge himself. The senior judge finally straightens everything out, and the village judge is chased out of town. If you like physical humor — slapstick — you will love this. The actors are so good that I believed the whole thing, as if I were watching a documentary; only at the end did it finally occur to me that these people are actors, not idiots.
1937 — La Habanera
Astreé, a young Swedish woman, goes to Puerto Rico on vacation, and stays. She marries Don Pedro de Avila, the richest and most powerful man on the island. Ten years later she is sick of her jealous, egotistical Latin husband and his flyspecked third world country, but by that time she has a little boy, and she has to stay because of him. A Swedish doctor, an old flame of hers, comes to the island to cure the Puerto Rico Fever, along with another doctor, who is from Brazil. Don Pedro denies that there is a fever; mustn’t alarm the tourists. He tells his henchmen to raid the doctors’ lab and destroy their medicine. He invites the doctors to his house that evening — before they are aware that their lab has been destroyed — with the intention of having them arrested. The Swedish doctor approaches his old love with great excitement. She becomes agitated and almost recoils from him. After talking to him, she goes to her husband and asks his permission to sing “La Habanera,” the traditional song of Puerto Rico, which she has not sung for nine years. After she sings, Don Pedro himself comes down with the fever, and dies. The medicine could have saved him, but it has already been destroyed. Astreé and her son go back to Sweden with the doctor.
1939 — Effi Briest
Effi is a girl of 17 who is married to a middle aged man, an ambitious politician. He has little time for his young wife. Out of loneliness and boredom, she has an affair with a neighbor. Six years later, when the affair is long forgotten, her husband discovers some of their letters. He challenges the man to a duel and kills him. Effi goes back to live with her parents, and soon dies. She has been overwhelmed by events beyond her comprehension. This is the second movie in which things go terribly wrong (Kaiser of California was the first). The theme of defeat, of events spinning out of control, appears here, ominously, in 1939, just as the war begins. One can’t help thinking that the duel was unnecessary, and the message here may be that the war is also unnecessary, and the Reich is taking a fatal step that can only end in tragedy.
1940 — Request Concert
A sugar-coated war movie — if you change the uniforms, the leading men could just as well be Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire (American stars of the time). They are in love with the same girl, but instead of fighting over her, they bend over backwards to give each other a fair chance. They are all hearty good fellows, oozing with camaraderie. The girl allows herself to be stood up repeatedly, with no explanation or apology. Meanwhile, back on earth…
Request Concert is a lot more important than I realized when I wrote this review. I now think of it as the definitive Nazi movie, and I have given it a page of its own. A detailed review (by someone else) can be found on the Liberty Forum site. You have to scroll pretty far down the page to get to it.
1942 — The Great Love
Paul Wentlandt, a handsome, daredevil air force pilot, goes to Berlin on 48-hour leave and sees a concert by a famous singer. Many of the men in the audience have fantasies about meeting her; he actually does it. After her performance, he pursues her to a party, and then to her home, and manages to sleep with her that same night. Then he disappears without telling her who he is or where he is going. She is distraught for three weeks, after which he shows up again. They keep trying to get married, but each time duty calls him away at the last minute. Finally he gets shot down, and that takes him out of action long enough to have a wedding; but he will soon be back in combat.
Like Request Concert, The Great Love was very popular at the time. Obviously these movies were intended to provide role models for the soldiers and their families. Of course 1942 was the year when events were rapidly spinning out of control beyond any hope of repair. At this point the Germans needed Alexander (and his mentor, Aristotle). Instead they got Captain Paul Wentlandt, ace fighter pilot and man about town.
1943 — Münchhausen
On the calendar it has only been ten years since since Fugitives, but actually a thousand years have passed. The Reich is coming to an end. Hans Albers plays Baron Münchhausen, a Faustian man, a legendary figure whose life began in the 18th century and continued for 200 years. His friend Cagliostro, the famous magician, told him that he could have one wish. His wish was to “stay as young as I am now, until I choose to grow old.” Münchhausen has many adventures. He is Catherine the Great’s lover, a slave in Turkey, and an astronaut who goes to the moon in a balloon, among other things. In a swordfight, he cuts his opponent’s clothes to ribbons and leaves him standing there naked, without breaking the skin. He is always in a space of his own, not quite participating in the events around him, as if he is playing some kind of game. When he finally arrives in the 20th century — the century in which the center cannot hold, and things fall apart, as Yeats said — the game is over. He decides it is time to bring his life to an end. In these films, Hans Albers personified Germany. When he decided he had lived long enough, it was Germany itself that died — and it was a noble death.
I mentioned in the beginning that the movies were not shown in chronological order. After seeing the first six, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue. Then I saw Münchhausen, and that put everything on a higher level. After I saw this film, I started taking the whole series more seriously. The important thing here isn’t the story itself, which is just light entertainment. It is the depth of Hans Albers’ performance which turns this collection of tall tales into something extraordinary. He created a character unlike anything I have ever seen on film. He somehow conveys an eerie sense of hypermaturity, as if there is another level beyond what we normally think of as adulthood.
Münchhausen could stand comparison with Children of Paradise, which was made in Paris at about the same time. It gives you chills.
1943 — Romance in a Minor Key
A woman in Paris is married to a banker. He is a dull, unimaginative man, but a good husband, and she loves him. She allows herself to be seduced by a famous composer. This in itself would not necessarily be a disaster. But then the composer’s brother, who owns the bank where her husband works, starts forcing himself on her. He sends her husband away on business trips and makes her sleep with him. She kills herself. The composer challenges his brother to a duel and kills him, but he takes a shot in the right hand and will never be able to play the piano again. Her husband is a broken man. An unmitigated disaster for all concerned; reminiscent of Effi Briest, but even worse; a perfect movie for 1943.
1943 — Acrobat Schö-ö-ön
This was Germany’s answer to Charlie Chaplin — the main character resembles Charlie Chaplin and is even named Charlie. A clever, enjoyable comedy, this must have been a welcome relief from the war. Charlie is a talented acrobat and clown, but they won’t let him perform. He works as the night watchman in the theater. (This theater is not the kind of place where they have dramatic performances; it’s more like a circus.) Charlie has a confrontation with the strongman, who is harassing his girlfriend; the strongman gets knocked out, not by Charlie, but by a heavy beam that falls on his head. Later he meets a female acrobat who, like him, can’t even get an audition. Late one night, when no one is around, they put together an act. The boss comes in unexpectedly and sees them. He fires Charlie. Then the regular acrobat injures himself and can’t perform. They hire Charlie and his friend to fill in. Charlie, however, can’t get ready in time because he is hiding from the strongman. They miss their chance, and are sitting forlornly on a back stage while the other acts perform. But someone trips a switch which sets the revolving stage in motion, and they find themselves in front. Charlie walks quizzically to the front of the stage, looks out at the audience, and says “Schö-ö-ön” (which means “beau-u-tiful” in German). They finally get their chance to perform.
This is a subversive movie. Charlie’s boss and the strongman represent the Nazi regime. Charlie and his acrobat friend represent creative people who felt stifled under this regime. That must have been self-evident to the authorities, but they let the movie be produced anyway. Like Kaiser of California, this movie makes one wonder how much censorship there was in Nazi Germany. Some people did feel stifled, of course, but at the same time they were allowed to express their dissatisfaction, even at the height of the war. I don’t think the American Censorship Board would have allowed a subversive movie to be made in Hollywood in 1943.
1943 — Paracelsus
A somewhat romanticized view of Paracelsus. He is presented here as a renaissance doctor who is trying to introduce scientific medicine, against the opposition of the medieval medical establishment. There is an ongoing contest to see who can cure more patients, who can control the university medical school, and who can gain the confidence of the government. Paracelsus cures the patients but loses the political struggle, and leaves town to avoid arrest. Paracelsus, like Johann Suter, appears to be up against unstoppable forces. When you quarantine a town, you cut off trade, and the merchants go out of business; they won’t put up with this for very long. When you introduce new ideas, the established professors stand to lose their students, their income, and their power; they will fight you to the last drop of blood. Gold always wins . . . apparently. You can’t stop the wheels of the world . . . but at the end, Paracelsus is still fighting. He has moved his practice to another town. Word comes that the King wants him to be the court physician. “No,” he says, “I will serve the people, not the King.”
1944 — Maria the Ferryman
A strange, abstract story in which Death appears as a man on the ferry, a tall, imposing, ghostly man. Maria is a young woman, a runaway, a stranger in the village, who takes over the job of ferryman at a river crossing after the old ferryman dies. Just as she gets settled into the little cottage that comes with the job, a wounded man appears on the other side of the river. She ferries him across and hides him in the cottage. Death appears again, this time in pursuit of the man. She leads Death though a swamp, praying that she may be taken instead of him. Death sinks into the swamp, the man gets well, and the two of them leave the village and go across the river to his home.
1944 — The Great Sacrifice
The story of a husband and wife, and a young woman who lives nearby. He falls in love with the young woman, who has a lingering illness. His wife knows about this, and does nothing to interfere with their happiness. When the girl is too ill to get out of bed, she waits for him to stop outside and wave every afternoon; and when he can’t come, his wife wears a disguise and waves to the girl in his place. These characters have an exaggerated gentility that is hard for me to comprehend. The man sitting next to me in the theater laughed through most of this movie, and I think I know why — it struck him as absurd, in the same way that Goethe’s Elective Affinities struck me as absurd and funny. I’m not sure why the Germans would have wanted to watch this movie in 1944, when the sky was falling. Perhaps the sheer unreality of it provided an escape.
There may be another reason that didn’t occur to me at the time. The Great Sacrifice must not have been unreal to its original audience. It was an illusion, of course, and they knew that, but it was an illusion they wanted to see, because at some level it reflected the reality of their lives. Like Elective Affinities, this movie must express a part of the German soul that outsiders can’t really know. This, like Dresden, is what the Allies wanted most to destroy.
1944 — The Great Freedom
Hans Albers again, in his final appearance. He spent 18 years at sea. Just when he was ready to advance to mate (which required a substantial payment), his brother stole his savings. When we meet him he has given up his sailor’s life and become a landlubber and entertainer. He works as The Singing Sailor at a nightclub called “The Great Freedom.” His brother dies and leaves him the name and address of a girl he has left in the lurch. He goes to see the girl and takes her back to Hamburg with him. She sleeps in his spare bedroom. He falls in love with her, but doesn’t do anything about it. He takes it for granted that they will marry. Meanwhile another man is pursuing her.
When matters are about to come to a head, he has a restless night, with nightmares about his brother, the girl, his other lady friend, his ship, his sailor friends, his failed life, his inability to make decisions… The next morning he resolves to propose. He has the engagement ring. He prepares a beautiful dinner with flowers and candles. But the girl (who represents Fortune) doesn’t show up for the dinner — she goes to the other man, the one who knows what he wants. Our hero drinks himself into a stupor. The next day he goes back to his old ship, which is about to set sail, and leaves Hamburg.
This is a brilliant but bitter story, as if The Aeneid were told from the point of view of Turnus. This is the opposite of escapism. This movie looks at defeat head on, without flinching.
1945 — Under the Bridges
Two men own a barge outfitted like a houseboat. They live on the barge with their pet goose, and go up and down rivers and canals, carrying cargo, passing under many bridges. (Yes, they have a pet goose. This is a comedy, of all things, in 1945.) One night they see a young woman on a bridge, and think she is going to jump. Instead she throws a ten-mark note into the water. They retrieve it and try to give it back to her, but she won’t take it. She starts to leave, but then realizes she needs the money to get home. They invite her to sleep on the barge; they will take her back to Berlin for ten marks. She accepts this invitation, and after some initial hesitation they all become friends. (The goose, alas, gets eaten.) It turns out that she earned the ten marks by posing for an artist, hoping to seduce him; when he showed no interest in her, she tried to throw the money away. When she is back home in Berlin, they both pursue her. The rivalry threatens to destroy their friendship. Eventually she joins them on the barge, and it is not clear which one she has chosen; the audience is left wondering if she is going to live with both of them. The three of them sail down the river, under the bridges, toward some unknown destination. This is 1945. The war is over. The Reich is over. Life goes on.
From Illusion to Reality
What is one to make of all this? I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich as an extra-credit assignment in my 9th grade World History class, and I have been reading about Nazi Germany off and on since then, so I know something about it. At least I thought I did. But this series of movies was a revelation to me. I had no idea the Germans watched movies like this.
These movies are amazing, not so much for what is in them as for what is not in them. There are no Jewish capitalists here, no Jewish Bolsheviks, no degenerate Jewish artists or journalists, no Jewish villains of any kind. That whole issue just doesn’t come up. In the whole series there is only one character who appears to be Jewish: in The Great Love, the singer is accompanied by a pianist/composer named Alexander Rudinsky, who is in love with her. He is a decent man, not a villain at all. In fact when matters are coming to a head, the plot turns on the question of whether he will do the right thing — and he does. (I found out later that out of a thousand movies made in Nazi Germany, three were anti-Semitic.)
The stereotypical “fascist” personality does not appear here. The only puritan in the whole series is Astreé’s aunt in La Habanera, and she is no fascist, she’s just a prudish old lady. Even the King in The Old and the Young King is usually an affable man who likes his beer. Some characters are unpleasantly authoritarian, such as Charlie’s boss and Paul Wentlandt’s commanding officer, but they are not the heroes of their respective stories.
There are no Nietzschean “Blond Beasts” in these movies. There are two giants — circus strongmen — and they are both ridiculed. The only character with an overinflated ego is Don Pedro, and he is also treated with something less than respect. There are seven characters who could be considered heroic: Hans Albers in Fugitives, Lieutenant Latte, Johann Suter, Paul Wentlandt, Paracelsus, Maria, and Baron Münchhausen. None of them has anything to do with Nietzsche’s “will to power” philosophy. All of the characters except one are drawn to human scale. The only exception is Baron Münchhausen, who is larger than life — but he doesn’t dominate the world, he plays with it, like a man playing with his grandchildren.
There is very little violence in these movies, and it is never graphic. There is nothing like Rambo or the Friday the 13th series, not to mention Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. The idea of “romantic violence” would seem absolutely bizarre to the characters in these films, and presumably to the audiences who watched them. What little violence there is comes from the villains, not the heroes. Johann Suter, for example, doesn’t even try to defend himself against the prospectors. In fact, for someone who is used to Hollywood movies, the lack of violence makes these films a little boring. You feel like there should be more action.
Paul Wentlandt is the closest thing to a macho man. He is a big guy, and he certainly doesn’t need a course in assertiveness training. He looks like he could take care of himself, but we never find out, because there are no fights in The Great Love. Wentlandt is a civilized man — not rude, not rough, not a rapist, not a berserker. He is a charming, sophisticated fellow who almost reminds me of the man in the Taster’s Choice commercials. If he found himself drinking coffee with that man and his lady friend, he would not feel out of place. He might be more comfortable drinking coffee with them than drinking whisky with John Wayne. Apart from Wentlandt, and perhaps Hans Albers in Fugitives, the other characters don’t even come close to being macho. These men are gentlemen. They don’t get in fistfights. They fight each other in formal duels, if they fight at all. Mr. Rogers would not feel out of place here.
If these movies really were intended to create an illusion, you have to wonder: Why would the Nazis want to create this particular illusion?
Nordic religion doesn’t appear in these films at all, not even in the background. There are at least vestiges of Christianity — cathedrals, flagellants, Bibles — but no trace at all of Odinism. The pagan gods appear only once (in Amphitryon), and they appear in their Greek/Roman form, not their Nordic form. The astrologer in Closing Chord could be considered a vestige of paganism, but he doesn’t represent an ideal, obviously; he is a vicious man, and they have to extricate themselves from him before they can get on with their lives.
By modern standards, these films would all be rated G or PG. There is only one bare breast in the whole series (in Paracelsus). There is a skinny-dipping scene in The Great Sacrifice, but the girl stays under water. In this respect Nazi films are exactly like American films of the 1930s and 40s — sex is treated very discreetly. There is no nudity in Gone with the Wind, either, even though Rhett Butler spends a lot of time in Belle Watling’s establishment.
The “Blood and Soil” theme appears only once (in Kaiser of California). There are no sturdy German peasants working the land. The closest thing we get to peasants are the villagers in Maria the Ferryman, who are sinister small-town lowlifes, and the villagers in The Broken Jug, who are clowns. The theme of class solidarity doesn’t appear at all. The only working class character who has a major role is the maid in Closing Chord. The whole story hinges on her testimony at the trial, but the fact that she is working class doesn’t enter into it. The working class as such doesn’t appear in these films. Most of the films involve wealthy people, entertainers, military officers, or unique individuals such as Paracelsus and Münchhausen.
To an American, the most amazing thing of all is the lack of police in these movies. Hollywood produces one cop show after another. It would be hard to put together a series of 18 Hollywood movies (not to mention TV shows) spanning a 13 year period without including some cop shows. But there are almost no police investigations in these Nazi movies. There are occasions when the characters get in trouble with the king or the mayor, but the police as an independent institutional force just barely exist in this universe. The characters have affairs, fight duels, and generally do whatever they want without thinking about the police. There is a trial at the end of Closing Chord. That’s almost the only time the police appear.
I would have thought that the Nazis would be obsessed with law and order, even more than Americans. I thought there would be story after story about heroic Gestapo agents ferreting out enemies of the state — Dirty Klaus instead of Dirty Harry. But if these movies are any indication, law and order as we understand it was a matter of little interest to the Germans.
Could this be the result of censorship? — Possibly the government thought the police were too sacred to be the subject of a movie? No, that can’t be true, because there is one movie about law enforcement — The Broken Jug — and the authorities get no respect at all. I say “authorities” because there are no police as such in this village. There is no one with a uniform or a badge. It’s much more primitive than that. In any case, The Broken Jug is a joke, and the local magistrate is the butt of the joke — it’s like a Keystone Kops movie — and this is supposed to be Hitler’s favorite movie!!
We have been taught to associate Nietzsche with the Nazis, but Nietzschean themes don’t appear here. Paracelsus, however, does appear. Actually Paracelsus is easiest character for me to identify with. He wasn’t just a doctor, he was also an alchemist and a philosopher. I can certainly relate to that. However, there is just one little problem. He was a Christian. Here are some quotations from his writings:
To what end does man live on earth, if not to become versed in the works of God and to learn how all things have their source in Him?
Christ exhorted men to take heed and learn from the example of his gentle and humble heart. From Christ flows the spring of truth, and that which does not come from Him is but seduction.
Many persuade themselves that they themselves are the spirit, but it is with them above all that the spirit has never been.
If you want to be a knight and a champion of blessedness, then be a knight through your generosity and not through the shedding of blood.
What is the meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven? It is this: that we should forgive one another — then God will love us too.
The true religion of the jurist should be: to guide men to forgive, to pardon one another, to turn the other cheek.
It seems out of character for the Nazis to honor a Christian. Why did they consider Paracelsus to be a hero?
This is one more anomaly out of a long list. There are too many anomalies. Something has got to give. I can only conclude that the Third Reich was almost the opposite of what everybody thinks it was. That’s the only way to make sense of these movies.
We are supposed to believe that these movies are illusions, but Hollywood movies are not illusions, the history books written by Allied historians are not illusions, and the postwar Nazi stereotypes are not illusions. This is nonsense.
These movies are a window into Nazi Germany as the Germans themselves experienced it. They gave me a rare opportunity to see beyond the stereotypes and get a look at life is it was lived at that time.
The Nazi Germany of our imagination has very little to do with the Nazi Germany that actually existed. I have been laboring under the same misconceptions as everybody else. If the Germans were who I thought they were, they wouldn’t have watched movies like Request Concert or The Broken Jug, not to mention The Great Sacrifice.
The strangest thing about this is that some people like the postwar caricature of Nazism, and they call themselves “neo-Nazis”!!
The Germans who lived in the Reich, the ones who watched these movies, wouldn’t have much use for today’s neo-Nazis. What would Johann Suter think about Tom Metzger and the WAR paper? What would Paracelsus think about Satanists who burn churches and leave poisoned wine bottles lying around for winos to discover? What would the conductor in Closing Chord think if he found himself moshing in the pit at a RAHOWA concert?
Neo-Nazis wouldn’t like the Reich that actually existed. They have little interest in it. There were only a few skinheads in attendance at these movies (Eric Davidson, his wife, and some of their friends — and they only came because I invited them). Neo-Nazis are attracted to the dark side of Nazi Germany, the side that is not represented here, the side that most Germans were not even aware of, and didn’t want to be aware of — the side that is constantly rubbed in our faces now.
Most people in Nazi Germany weren’t even aware of Klaus Barbie and Ilsa Koch, in the same way that most people in the United States are not aware of what goes on in American prisons, not to mention secret police in Latin America who are trained by the U.S. government to torture prisoners. Today, we think of Nazi Germany as a police state, but that wasn’t the experience of most people at the time. They would be amazed and dismayed that we remember the Gestapo and the concentration camps, and forget everything else.
I don’t want to overstate my case here. Obviously Nazi Germany was a police state, and many people did experience it that way. Even Werner Heisenberg, who believed in Nazism as much as any scientist possibly could, got called in for interrogation by the SS, and had nightmares about it for years afterward. It was a fluke that saved him: his mother happened to know Himmler’s mother. Himmler told the SS to leave him alone. Without his intervention, who knows what would have happened to Heisenberg.
Some of my heroes, such as Kurt Gödel, had to leave Germany. Gödel wasn’t Jewish, and he wasn’t particularly interested in politics, but he was too weird for the Nazis. He found a safe haven in America. There were many others like him. I probably would have emigrated myself if I had been in Gödel’s position.
The dark side of Nazi Germany certainly did exist. However, every country has a dark side. Alan Turing, a scientist of the same stature as Gödel, died (committed suicide) in a British prison. He wasn’t given the option of emigrating. Even America is not necessarily a safe haven anymore. On more than one occasion, I myself narrowly escaped spending 20 years in prison. It was sheer dumb luck that saved me. I wouldn’t have had the option of emigrating, either.
Fifty years from now, late 20th century America may be remembered, like Nazi Germany, as a police state, a country responsible for war crimes. There will be monuments to the six million innocent people who were sent to prison and had their homes confiscated for growing pot. Cool World will be as forgotten as Amphitryon, and 2001: A Space Odyssey as forgotten as Kaiser of California. Posterity will remember nothing about America except Darryl Gates.
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones.
The first movies I saw were Maria the Ferryman and The Great Sacrifice. This was one of the most bizarre evenings I ever spent at a theater. I almost didn’t come back. The second night I saw Request Concert and Romance in a Minor Key. This is turning out to be a vacation to hell. What kind of time machine is this, anyway?
But at that point one thing was clear: I had to stick it out, and see the whole series, because these four movies couldn’t possibly have come from the Reich I thought I knew. One of the basic principles of my life is: never pass up an opportunity for a reality check.
Then I saw Closing Chord and Effi Briest. I still felt like a stranger in a strange land. Going from modern America to Nazi Germany was like playing a 45 record at 33 rpm. Everything happens in slow motion. It was like being underwater, where everything looks and feels different. In these six movies, none of the characters made much sense to me. Their lives had nothing to do with my life. And none of these movies had anything at all to do with the Reich as I had always imagined it.
The next night was the turning point. That’s when I saw Münchhausen and Amphitryon. From then on it got better. The characters started to make sense. The Old and the Young King hit very close to home. The Great Freedom is as real as movies ever get. When I had seen all three Hans Albers films — Fugitives, Münchhausen, and The Great Freedom — everything started falling into place. That was when I started working on the present review.
As soon as I started writing, it occurred to me that just about everything I expected to see was missing. No racial consciousness, no violence, no Übermenschen . . . did the time machine bring us to the wrong planet? I felt like I was trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together, and the pieces just wouldn’t fit. Eventually it dawned on me that they didn’t fit because I was trying to form the wrong picture.
The lack of violence must be a reflection of the fact that in Germany, at that time, grownups didn’t get in fights — just like American men don’t expect to get in fistfights at the office. In those days there was a clear line between men and 13-year-olds, and also a clear line between civilized men and savages. The Germans were civilized grownups. These films are a reflection of life as it was lived in those days.
If we have somehow gotten the idea that the Nazis were berserkers — that’s our illusion, not theirs.
If we have gotten the idea that men should constantly get in fights and kill each other, like they do on American TV — that’s a Hollywood illusion, not a Nazi illusion. The violence that we take for granted in our entertainment, and in our lives, would seem pathological to them. We live in a behavioral sink; the Nazis didn’t. They saved their violence for the battlefield.
The G-rated ambiance of these movies can be explained by the fact that all movies were very tame in those days. Movies had to stay within certain limits. We know from other sources, such as the Amanda Nightingale books, that not all Germans lived in the G-rated world we see in these films. There was a lot going on in Germany that was not reflected in films. There was a lot going on everywhere that could not be reflected in the films of that era.
Nevertheless, the general public in Germany did live in a G-rated world. These movies may have been illusions — all movies are — but you have to ask, What kind of audience would want to see these illusions? That question will tell you a lot about the Germans. I’m afraid the answer is: they were normal people, the same kind of people who listen to Lawrence Welk and The Grand Ole Oprey. If we have somehow gotten the idea that the Nazis were skinheads or bikers with swastika tattoos, that’s our illusion. Nazi Germany was a lot like Branson, Missouri. (On the other hand, we must remember that real opera was still popular in Germany at that time — that’s one thing separates Dresden from Branson.)
The question What kind of audience would want to see this illusion? can be applied specifically to The Broken Jug. That will tell you a lot about this movie’s biggest fan. What kind of man would watch The Broken Jug many times, slapping his knee and roaring with laughter? Hitler came from a small town himself. The hillbillies in the movie must have reminded him of his neighbors back home, and his family. He probably saw the village judge as a caricature of his father.
The presence of Paracelsus in this series can be explained as follows. Nazism has nothing to do with Satanism. That’s another postwar illusion. Some Nazis, such as Martin Bormann, called for the elimination of Christianity, but Bormann was a rationalist, not a Satanist. Some Nazis, notably Goebbels, were Christians. Hitler wasn’t dogmatic. There was room for both Joseph Goebbels and Martin Bormann in Nazi Germany. There was room for both The Great Sacrifice and the SS. There was room for both idealism and Schadenfreude — Bianca and Amanda.
Strangely, this is also true of Judaism, where there is room for both Albert Einstein and Lavrenti Beria, both Joan Baez and Meyer Lansky, both Hugh Hefner and Rabbi Shea Hecht, both Lenny Bruce and Judge Judy, etc. The Jacob/Israel duality has been there all along in Judaism (see Genesis chapters 25 – 35).
The Paracelsus/stormtrooper duality has been there all along in Germany. It was there during the Nazi era as much as any other time.
The hardest thing to come to terms with is the almost total lack of political content in these movies.
After the film series was over, there was a follow-up evening at the Goethe Institute. There was a discussion led by Harmut Bitomsky, Dean of the School of Film and Video at CalArts. He said in the first years of the Reich, they did make some political films, but nobody, or almost nobody, wanted to see them. These films played to empty theaters, even though the government gave out free tickets. (I don’t know if this applies to Fugitives, which comes from this period. I wish I had asked him about that.) After a couple of years, they gave up and started making movies that people wanted to see.
If we have gotten the idea that Nazi Germany was a nation of crusaders, and life was one ecstatic rally after another — these movies throw cold water on all such illusions.
There are two common threads that run through the whole series.
First, humor: “playful” is not a word that normally comes to mind in connection with Nazi Germany. I always thought of it as a serious place, maybe even a grim place, but that turns out to be yet another illusion. There is a spirit of joviality that infuses most of these films, with only a few exceptions. You don’t need laugh tracks to tell you when to laugh. (Laugh tracks are a Hollywood invention — but who accuses whom of Thought Control?) Even The Great Freedom is a lighthearted movie, right up until the end. Of course that makes the end more effective: when comedy suddenly turns to tragedy, it crushes you.
The second notable theme is the triangle: Most of these stories involve romantic triangles. There are only four movies in which this theme is absent; in many of them, the triangle is central to the plot. Triangles, of course, occur everywhere. This is not a theme one associates with Nazism. It’s not clear to me why the Nazis would be so preoccupied with this subject. They must have felt a deep ambivalence in their lives, and that was reflected in all these movies about divided affection, and divided loyalty.
This series could have been called “Division of the Will.”
Most Germans, like most Americans, spent their time working in offices and factories. They supported Hitler only because he revived the economy. They didn’t have an all-consuming passion for Nazi ideals, and they didn’t want to see Fugitives over and over. They wanted entertainment. They wanted movies that reflected their own lives, and for them, as for most people in any country at any time, politics was basically a side issue. They wanted to see comedies, and movies about people having affairs. Not that there is anything wrong with comedies, but it doesn’t fit my idea or anyone else’s idea of Nazi Germany. In any case, this is where the journey from illusion to reality has brought us.
To understand what destroyed the Third Reich, we have to take an overview of these films, and an overview of the story of the Old Testament, and compare them.
We start with Fugitives, where Moses leads the people out of Egypt; then Amphitryon, an encounter between gods and humans, like Yahweh coming down and talking to Moses; then a story about a father and his son, which might be compared to Abraham and Isaac; then another story about return from exile; then Kaiser of California, where Joshua leads the people into the Promised Land, only to have them turn against him and “go native.”
So far the parallel with the Old Testament is fairly close. The main discrepancy up to this point is that Amphitryon doesn’t correspond very well to Exodus — there is nothing playful or funny about God’s appearance to Moses.
But then, the stories diverge.
In the Bible, you have a series of prophets who call the people back to the Law, and promise them victory in the end. You have David, the warrior king who kills Goliath and serves as the model for the future Messiah. You have the general strategy of dispersal: the Jews are supposed to scatter all over the world, and plant the seeds of their faith everywhere. (The Nazis had no concept of a general strategy.) And finally you have the vision of Armageddon, in which God brings the remnant of his people back to Israel and helps them defeat their enemies once and for all. The story ends with victory.
In the Nazi movies, after Kaiser of California, you have The Broken Jug, La Habanera, and Effi Briest — farce, ambivalence, and disaster — followed by the two Mickey Mouse war movies. There was no vision of ultimate victory. The war was over before it started, because the Germans didn’t see themselves winning.
If Hitler and Goebbels were supervising the production of these movies, it was up to them to come up with a hero who achieves a definitive victory, like Aeneas or Jesus. There should have been a role for Hans Albers in 1937, where he founds the city of Rome, or rises from the dead and creates the New Jerusalem. But there was no such role for him, and so the next time we see him, he is playing Baron Münchhausen, and then The Singing Sailor.
Goebbels failed in his main task as Propaganda Minister, and Hitler failed in his main task as Führer (not to mention other tasks). Germany had the resources to win the war (at least they could have won a war, not necessarily the one that was fought), but they lost. They could have established their Thousand Year Reich, but they didn’t. Their propaganda, whether in the form of movies or speeches or whatever, did not inspire them to victory.
There is a fallacy that is widely believed: that in a conflict between races or cultures, the one with the best street fighters wins. That’s not how it works. The one with the best storytellers wins. If you can get people to see their lives as part of your story, you’ve got them. That’s one reason why the Bible is so powerful: we all see ourselves as part of the Biblical story. This applies to anti-Semites and anti-Christians as much as anyone. If you define yourself as anti somebody else, then you are living in their story.
There is very little illusion in these movies. The more I think about them, and review them in my mind, the more I am convinced that they give us a very clear window into the German imagination during the Nazi era. What they show us is a strange combination of lightheartedness, ambivalence, and gentle resignation.
What we have here is a tragic sense of life. There is nothing wrong with that, in itself. The tragic vision, the vision of The Iliad, is true, as far as it goes, and certainly profound. But if you adopt an attitude of lightheartedness in defeat, or dignity in defeat, or noble resignation to defeat . . . then you are going to be defeated. As the saying goes, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”
In classical times The Iliad was balanced by The Odyssey, which ends in victory. Odysseus let his will get distracted for awhile, but then he got his thoughts collected, went back to Ithaca, and reclaimed his home and his wife. Then came The Aeneid, the story of Aeneas leading the Trojans to Italy and founding Rome, which also ends in victory. Then the Bible, with its vision of the final apocalyptic battle at the end of time, the dissolution of the universe, and the formation of the New Jerusalem (Revelation, chapter 21) — a vast, jewel-like cubical structure, full of light, populated by spiritual beings who bask in the radiance of God, and never die.
Nazi Germany had nothing like this.
The Germans didn’t need propaganda. They needed a grand vision of human destiny. If you have a Thousand Year Reich, what happens during those thousand years? Where is mankind going? What were they going to do in the Reich? They were going to clear some space for themselves, and build autobahns, and then what? I have searched in vain for an answer. I have read Mein Kampf all the way through, plus many of Hitler’s speeches. He never gives us a vision of human destiny.
Nazi Germany ultimately failed because its storytellers, including Hitler and Goebbels, failed. Their myth of the Master Race didn’t enter into the popular consciousness enough to be reflected in these movies; and in any case, that myth itself comes from the Bible. The Chosen People were (and are) the original Master Race. Hitler just tried to transpose the idea from Israel to Germany.
They also had Wagner’s “Twilight of the Gods” myth, but obviously that leads nowhere.
Hitler wasn’t just another politician. People talk about the “Thousand Year Reich,” but if you listen closely to Hitler’s speech to the 6th party congress, in which he introduced this idea, he didn’t say “tausend,” singular, he actually said “tausenden,” plural. He intended the Reich to last into the indefinite future, thousands of years.
His ambition was to create a whole new civilization — no less! To do that, you have to have a story, an idea, a myth, a philosophy, strong enough to support a new civilization. Specifically, you have to come up with a story as powerful as the Bible. This is not easy, but, alas, that’s the level on which the game is played. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But Hitler and Goebbels didn’t do it, and nobody since then has done it either.
Note added in 2005
This was written a decade ago. I am going to let it stand as written, but if I were doing it now I would change the emphasis and maybe omit the last section. The vast cubical structure (the “New Jerusalem”) described in Revelation 21 is something most Christians are not even aware of. It may be true that the Nazis had no grand vision of human destiny, but neither did anybody else. That was not the problem. That’s not why they lost the war.
Nevertheless it is true that the one with the best storytellers wins. If you lose on that level, you lose; and if you abandon the field and don’t even try to tell a story, you lose by default.
The very idea of a new civilization that will extend thousand of years into the indefinite future is fallacious. We don’t have thousands of years. The exact form of the Singularity remains to be determined, but it’s coming. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but it’s going to happen. One way or another human history is coming to an end. The only question is how.