Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Ideological Battle

How did the governments of Britain, America and Nazi Germany use the cinema to boost the morale of the people and persuade them to contribute to the war effort?
This is my history dissertation, sadly this dissertation wasn't exactly the Citizen Kane of History dissertations but apparently it was much better as a film essay rather than a history essay. This inevitably became my downfall, and briefly rereading through my dissertation I completely agree with that assessment (and noticed other flaws). I suppose, however, that fact makes it more appropriate to publish the dissertation here. The dissertation will be released in instalments, this is part 2

The cinema screen became an ideological battleground between the two very different ideologies of Nazi Germany and Britain and America. A number of films and documentaries were made by the propagandists and filmmakers that not only promoted their own ideology, but criticised the ideology of the enemy. Many American and British feature films and documentaries such as Frank Capra’s documentary series Why We Fight were filmed to explain why the US had to fight the dark shadow that is fascism. Many American and British feature films focused on the lack of freedom for those living in a fascist country (such as The Mortal Storm). Films such as Triumph des Willens and Olympia (Leni Riefenstahl, 1938) promoted the fascist ideology by alluding to the sense of comradeship and unity and in the case of Olympia the glorification of the perfect body. Nazi films also were anti-capitalist as well as anti-democratic; films such as the banned Titanic (Werner Klingler and Herbert Selpin, 1943) blamed English capitalists for sinking of the Titanic. Hans Steinhoff’s Ohm Kruger (Uncle Kruger, 1942) and Erich Waschneck’s Die Rothschilds Aktien auf Waterloo (The Rothschilds Shares in Waterloo, 1940) also contained an anti-capitalist theme.

The Nazi propaganda machine used documentaries to promote their own ideology, and discredit others, better than any other propaganda organisation during the war. Documentaries such as Triumph des Willens and Olympia were masterpieces in artistic innovation, and the use of the camera and editing techniques in Leni Riefenstahl’s films are still highly regarded today. Certainly, the two films contain a fascist aesthetic and are used to glorify the Nazi party and the Nazi ideology. Triumph of the Will opens with Hitler descending from the sky onto the city of Nuremberg. A number of film analysts concluded that this symbolises Hitler’s god like status with Audrey Salkeld saying that Hitler is depicted as a promised saviour[1] (though Salkeld then agrees with David B. Hinton who states that this sequence is given far too much symbolism[2]). This, however, proves to be an incorrect reading into the film as Leni Riefenstahl opens up a number of her films, such as Olympia and The Blue Light (1932), in similar fashion; it is an artistic trademark rather than a political statement. However, the joy of the people’s faces, the clear sense of utter loyalty and devotion to Hitler and the fact that the camera never looks down but up at Hitler does suggest that Hitler is more than just your ordinary leader. There is no acting in the display in delight in the people’s faces; it was captured in real time. Whether or not this was intended by the artist Triumph des Willens is a glorification of the Nazi party. 

The scenes of uniformity, marching and devotion by masses of people are a staggeringly impressive sight. They were likely to impress the youth who were most in awe of the uniformity and militarism of nationalism socialism. The entire film shows Hitler’s gravitas and importance, and the scene in which Hitler parades through the massive stadium surrounded by thousands of SA members depicts a man who has a godlike following. In the incredibly edited film Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl celebrates her admiration of the perfect body. The sheer strength and power of the athletes in show arguably could represent the Nazi idea of a perfect race. However, Riefenstahl shows no signs of racism as she also admires the achievements of Jesse Owens (a black sprinter who won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics). Art in Nazi Germany admired the naked body, so much so that is bordered on the homoerotic, but it seems more likely that the Nazi party admired the possible strength of the human body because of its militaristic ideology, films like Olympia promoted and celebrated the Nazi idea of a perfect body.

Even before the war had started a selection of American films contained an anti fascist or anti Nazi theme. The Henry Fonda film Blockade, which was set in fascist Spain, attacked the repressive ideology with Henry Fonda yelling, unconvincingly, at the screen teaching us of the dangers of fascism and demanding to know where the consciousness of the world is when the world has turned their backs on those fighting against fascism. Whilst Blockade was not a direct attack, films such as Confessions of Nazi Spy and The Mortal Storm (Frank Borzage, 1940) were more direct in their attack of Nazism. The Mortal Storm shows the lack of freedom in Germany as well as its violent, brutal nature to those who do not comply with the Nationalist Socialist ideology. In The Mortal Storm former friends turn against Martin Breitner (James Stewart) whose devotion to Hitler falls well below their standards. The film’s central plot is the love story between Martin Breitner and Freya Roth (Margret Sullivan), but The Mortal Storm is one of the few Second World War films from the war era that looked at the conditions in which the Jewish people suffered (they are, however, referred as non Aryan rather than Jewish because of the anti-Semitism present in Hollywood at the time). The conditions depicted in Germany in American feature films differed greatly from the American democratic ideology. In American feature films, and Casablanca in particular, America is shown as the haven of the oppressed and homeless.[3] A number of great filmmakers (such as Fritz Lang) and actors and actresses (such as Conrad Veidt and Marlene Dietrich) fled their native Germany to become major stars in American film (Veldt, a Jew, became best known for playing Nazis). Fritz Lang would play a role in the American film industries’ attacks against Nazism in the films Manhunt (1941) and Hangman Also Die (1943). In Manhunt a dramatic speech accuses Hitler of being guilty of hatred, intolerance and murder. However, not all films looked at Fascism/Nazism in a dark way but rather a light and comic way as seen in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 film To be or Not to Be, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and the British film Let George do it (Marcel Varnel, 1940) in which George (George Formby) punches Hitler in the face.

Evidently, American feature films aimed to show the difference between the repressive nature of the fascist or Nazi ideology to the liberty and freedom of the American ideology. The difference between the two ideologies was the main focus point of a part of Frank Capra’s OWI produced propaganda documentary series Why We Fight. The difference between the two ideologies is the fundamental reason why America picked up their arms to engage in war. Their world is seen as the world of freedom whilst the fascist world is seen as a slave word. The documentary depicts the slave world as one driven by militarism, aggression and violence always on a course of confrontation with an enemy. However, the world of liberty and freedom is looking for peace and security, signing and creating agreements attempting to vanquish war from the planet, but the slave world are either against any agreement or fail to stick to any signed agreement thus the slave world are the ones who caused the war that the democratic world wished to avoid. British films followed a similar trend, promoting democracy attacking the repressive nature of fascism in films such as Freedom Radio, Fire over England and 49th Parallel. Similarly to Blockade, Fire Over England does not directly attack the Nazi threat but uses the Spanish Armada (who clearly represent the Nazis) to symbolise the Nazi threat. In a major scene in the 49th Parallel, shortly after Eric Portman’s dramatic speech, the Hutterite community leader, Peter (Anton Walbrook), says that German migrants have found security, peace, tolerance and understanding of which are stamped out in Germany by the Fuhrer.

British capitalism and democracy is a target of attack for the Nazi propagandists. For example in the 1943 version of Titanic, British capitalists are blamed for the ship’s sinking. However, the film was banned as the reactions of the passengers reminded Goebbels of the reactions of the German people during the bombing raids.[4] British capitalism or capitalism in general was the cause of the British burning desire for gold in the Boar’s land. In Bismarck (Wolfgang Liebeneiner, 1940), which is also a promotion of an authoritarian leadership, democracy is criticised in the scenes in the government buildings as the two political parties spend the majority of the time achieving nothing and squabbling amongst themselves thus progress is not made as the two opposing parties contrary beliefs are halting that opportunity.

[1] Audrey Salkeld, A portrait of Leni Riefenstahl (Great Britain, Pimlico, 1997) p 139.
[2] Audrey Salkeld, A portrait of Leni Riefenstahl p 141.
[3] Bureau of Motion Pictures, Feature Review: Casablanca Digital History, accessed 12th April.

[4] David Stewart Hull, Film in the Third Reich (USA, University of California Press, 1969) p 229.

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