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Comparison of French and German Cinema, 1930-1945


The dissertation aims to analyse the effects of totalitarian politics on the cinematic tradition of two of Europe’s most cultured nations, Germany and France. The study of cinema during the time period, 19301945 is a highly relevant discussion; one which is infrequently dissected by serious academic debate largely due to the lack of literature on the subject in comparison to studies pertaining to the effects of fascism upon other implements of the state, in particular religion and the military. Perhaps film students of the West still find it difficult to comprehend the fact that the Nazis were such a long way in front of their competitors when it came to the influence of National Socialist propaganda on the German people. As early as 1928 Hitler had come to understand the fundamental power of utilising modern forms of propaganda in paving the way for tyrannical rule, as he outlines in a speech dated 28 November (1999:151).

The more one addresses only one social class, the easier it becomes to make promises. One knows from the beginning what each class wants If you are always only addressing yourself to one category, then political propaganda becomes infinitely easy.

Certainly, in tandem with pervasive fascist symbolism and the dissolution of democratic political debate, the saturation of all forms of contemporary media was the key factor in Hitler’s total seduction of the German nation. As such, the topic is relevant for the twenty first century where dictator’s still maintain power over illeducated people whose information is pumped into them via state propaganda machines that feed off insecurity, prejudice and paranoia, as modernday Zimbabwe currently illustrates.

The study will be split into chapters as cited on the title page with the aim of creating an advanced understanding of how the Nazis used cinema as a tool of tricking the German people into believing concepts such as Lebensraum and the Jewish Question were issues of national urgency. The study will likewise examine the role of the Vichy collaborators in the seduction of French people, citing the essential similarities and differences of the two in terms of filmic content and production techniques. Clearly, as the instigator of right wing cinema as a political tool of mass hysteria, the German model will be first to be discussed, though the point should be made straight away that the Vichy Regime was not merely coerced into collaboration: there was active and passionate interest in France in fascist ideology with plenty of Vichy statesmen wishing to follow the path set about by the Hitler State. At no point should it be believed that Vichy cinema was a symptom of the occupation; it was, and remains, a marker for French sociopolitical beliefs at the time.

Famous and infamous films such as Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, Bertolt Brecht’s Kuhle Wampe and Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis will be featured within the dissertation, citing specific examples from the movies to highlight how dissenters managed to voice their disapproval in highly subtle fashions that were unique to the extreme fear experienced in fascist Europe at the time. Comparisons between movie production under the influence of occupation, dictatorship, peacetime and war will provide fuel for the debate within. A conclusion will be sought as to the overall features that appear uniform within right wing film making, in addition to citing the subtle differences in the experience of movie production under the spectre of totalitarianism, as witnessed in Germany and France between 1930 and 1945.

Chapter One: The effect of fascism on German Culture, 19301945

The short lived Weimar Republic is a source of great fascination for students not only of history but also of art, culture and society. Its relevance is in its oddity: the strange timeframe it fits into either side of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Nazi State, two of the most suffocating and frustrating regimes in European history in terms of creative and artistic achievement. The Weimar Republic was responsible for a brief burgeoning of liberal German film making, art, sculpture, music, theatre and culture that was the envy of the western world at the time. Perversely, the strict socioeconomic conditions of the day appeared to ensure that the Republic would be as frivolous as it was unfortunate; as daring as it was politically unstable. Yet, as Elssaesser (2000:151) suggests, Weimar cinema may also have made it easier for Hitler to cast his cinematic spell on the German people.

What has become abundantly clear is that the cinema permeated Weimar society as a very contradictory cultural force, at once part of oppositional Modernist avantgardes and in the forefront of capitalism’s own modernising tendencies (as technology, industry and fashion) and for this very reason, invested with the hopes of revolutionary changes while susceptible to being used as the instrument for their containment (in the form of specular seduction, nostalgia, propaganda.)

Diversity was the key to Weimar Cinema; it was an expression of multicultural Europe that was unfortunately located in the wrong place and time. With the Prussian aristocracy, disillusioned exmilitary personnel and marginalised masses of unemployed, the Weimar Republic was insufficiently prepared to withstand a structured coup from within when it inevitably came. Furthermore, the liberalism of the Republic gave added ammunition to the nascent Nazi State, giving Hitler and his propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels a readymade scapegoat for the deplorable state of German infrastructure during the early part of the 1930’s. Indeed, it was Goebbels (1993:159) who highlighted the condition of the German nation before the National Socialists came to power in 1933 – the state of the nation according to fascist eyes.

Had it not been for the National Revolution, Germany would have been completely swissified, a nation of hotel porters and waiters, a nation having no political sense whatsoever that had lost any idea of its own historical significance.

The effect of a onedimensional, intensely political approach to cultural affairs meant a surgical shift in the prism through which German society charted its progress between 1918 and 1933, and 1933 to 1945. Most art and film historians see the change that occurred in German culture after 1933, with the infamous burning of the books (May 1933) and mass emigration of a wealth of indigenous creative talent, as symptomatic of authoritarianism throughout the world. Bland, repetitive instances of film making and culture took the place of innovation and the first seedlings of avantgarde technique. Aesthetics and the human form took on added significance. Heavy handed plot lines guided the viewer of both art and cinema along a straightforward journey to the ideological heart of work without trusting the audience with the even the slightest semblance of individual reasoning. These are the popular images of authoritarian art forms promulgated after the defeat of fascism in Europe.

Yet it would be incorrect to assume that German film making after 1933 was merely an exercise in retrospective propaganda studies; as shall be discussed in following chapters, Goebbels was fond of puncturing all genres of movies with National Socialist ideals with the result that a kaleidoscope of imagery is available to the twenty first century film student, each portraying a different vision of the fascist dream.

It should come as little surprise to students of history to see a broad similarity between movies made in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia: both countries relied upon eradicating the opposition and portraying the leader in an invincible light. Censorship at home and at the national borders also meant that fewer foreign films were being shown; those very few that made it past the German borders having to be screened first by the Nazis in order to gain an audience inside of Germany. Furthermore, the considerable risk that a film maker ran of being arrested, taken to concentration camp or even killed because of making a statement that the Nazi hierarchy did not favour was too great for all but the most ideologically driven of artists to bear. The result was an exodus of talent from Germany and a narrowing of vision to the extent that diversity, as a description of German cinema, became a complete misnomer.

Art and cinema in the Third Reich were thus reduced to an entity in support of the regime; the hand over of the baton of creativity to autocracy was assisted by the state overhaul of existing cultural ministries. As part of the broader policy of Gleischaltung (coordination) the Reich Chamber of Culture (established in November 1933) oversaw this new breed of politicised movie making and art that presented a ludicrously perfect form of the Aryan man, engaged in the typical German pursuits of sport, work and family, as Seligmann et al (2003:50) detail.

Images depicted Germans not just as modern day heroes but also as the heirs to Europe’s greatest cultural and imperial tradition, that of Alexander the Great and Caesar.

As Aryans and National Socialists were elevated to the status of hero, so the Nazis used cinema and indeed every tool of popular culture at its disposal to reenforce the slide of the enemy into the sociological abyss. Over a short period of time, the Jews took over from the Weimar Republic and the Communists as the central target of Nazi abuse as – one by one – the political enemies of the state were made obsolete, leaving the racial enemies of the state as the sole carriers of the burden of national pariahs. Propaganda and film would play a disconcertingly influential role in the social facilitation of the Holocaust – the essential psychological background whereby a nation might be made complicit in mass, statesponsored murder.

As the violence and oppression against the Jews (and against gypsies, the handicapped and homosexuals) was increased, so the state began to use film and culture as a means to making the population complicit in their racial crimes. Reichskristallnacht (89 November 1938), for example, was a stateignited campaign of hatred against Jewry that was completed by the ordinary German people, a spontaneous orgy of destruction that would have been unimaginable were it not for the driptap effect of incessant fascist film making and media saturation, as Kershaw (2000:1412) underscores.

The scale and nature of the savagery, and the apparent aim of maximising degradation and humiliation, reflected the success of propaganda in demonising the figure of the Jew – certainly within the organisations of the Party itself – and massively enhanced the process, underway since Hitler’s takeover of power, of dehumanising Jews and excluding them from German society – a vital step on the way to genocide.

Der Erwige Jude (The Eternal Jew), the most extreme example of film utilised as a weapon of war, was a blatant and extreme vision of the life of common Jewry; the degradation of the living condition in the Warsaw Ghettoes providing the inspiration for the movie’s creator, Josef Goebbels who visited the area in 1940. The film portrayed Jews as vermin, cementing the belief in the viewer (coupled with state newspaper and radio) that the Jews were not only the enemy of the state but, more importantly, subhuman. As with all aspects of Nazi Germany, the murderous end effect can only be understood by taking the gradual desensitisation of the nation into account, a phenomenon that propaganda and film were instrumental in helping to bring about.

Chapter Two: Occupied France: Vichy Collaboration in Moulding the Image of Fascist Europe

The French experience of film was, until the continentwide rise of fascism, much the same as in Germany even if there were also fundamental differences between the two countries that made the transition from democracy to authoritarianism a more traumatic experience for the French, one that the nation has still not fully come to terms with. To start with, France, more than any other European nation, is synonymous with high culture, art and vision, characterised as the trend setting nation for creativity throughout the western world. Via Marcel Duchamp, for example, France was home to the origination of abstract art, his sculpture, Fountain (1917) often cited as a watershed in art and visual intention in the history of the West.

In addition, France had dictatorship thrust upon it in a different way to the Germans. Clearly, autocracy can only arise from it being forcibly imposed on a population, yet in Germany it was Germans taking control of their own people, whereas, after the symbolic signing of the armistice on 22 June 1940, the French were dictated to by Germany from the vantage point of a vanquished nation. Therefore, there was more a sense of cultural partition between France in the 1930’s and France in the 1940’s that was not the case over the Alsace border into Germany.

This starting point of a nation being defeated in war has been, ultimately, the greatest stumbling block regarding a better historical comprehension of the excesses of Vichy both from within and outside of French borders: for as long as the French were willing to rewrite history to paint the picture of a demoralised people who were fundamentally opposed to the right wing ideology of National Socialism, the country would be unable to see its true reflection. However, after the accumulation of two generations of historiography, Vichy was gradually deemed to be an active collaborator in the extremism that was witnessed in French culture and politics between 1940 and 1945 rather than a government coerced into cooperation. Marshall Pétain may have been little more than a puppet figurehead, but he represented a large sector of conservative France that wished to eradicate the achievements of the artistic and philosophical endeavour of the early twentieth century so as to reembrace outmoded notions of colonial France. Indeed, the right wing bloc who made up the core of the Vichy government were sympathetic to the anti-Semitic views of the Nazis – the botched military trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for spying in 1894 highlighting a chequered history of a country that had barely bothered to even notice its own deeply resentful views concerning the Jews. The official separation of Church and State by law in 1905 merely paid lip service to a deepseated problem of prejudice in France.

Although France had changed geographically, ethnically, politically and culturally between the two decades, a certain sense of continuity is detectable in French cinema of the period, which was certainly not the case in Germany. This was due to a combination of German censorship and genuine Vichy desire to ignore the shameful effect of the Occupation. As JeanPierre Jeancolas attests in his essay on the 1945 Vichy sponsored picture, Les Enfants du Paradis (2000:78), the realism that French cinema was so famous for showed no signs of cracking after 1940.

The occupation of France in 1940, the control – direct or indirect – of its cinema by the German forces, condemned use of the present tense. Fiction films were allowed, at best, to portray a kind of ‘vague present day’, a period which had the appearance of the present, but not its singular hardships: the cars or the costumes are of 1943, but the French are depicted in light-hearted romantic entanglements, stories that never show the daily problems of finding food, or the presence of Nazi uniforms.

Mention must be made of the division in France after her capitulation in 1940. Put simply, the country was split into half via north and south, whereby Paris, Brittany and the northern shores were deemed to be part of a territory called ‘Free France’, while the southern part of the nation, including major cities such Marseilles and Bordeaux (both of which had large ethnic and Jewish communities) was placed under the control of the Vichy Government. Vichy struggled to unite the two divisions until 1943 at the earliest, a time which signalled an increase in French resistance as, after the Battle of Stalingrad (February 1943) the sense of a slow protracted capitulation in the East led to a renewed sense of optimism in the West. It is important, therefore, to recognise the difficulty in defining a singular French brand of cinema after 1940. There were noticeable anomalies in how the Germans treated the two main zones. Newsreel propaganda, for instance, was different: in the Occupied Zone, cinemas screened antiBritish German newsreels, while in the Unoccupied Zone, Vichy largely steered clear of any mention of the war of the German presence in France at all.

It is likewise important to recognise that the Vichy propaganda machine was not under the same level of autocratic control as was the case in Germany. There was no allpowerful figurehead to rival Goebbels in France. Pierre Laval was the clearest comparison to him but the Deputy Prime Minister spent much of his time in Paris negotiating with the Germans. In addition, Laval believed fervently in the power of broadcast media as the fundamental tool to seduce a weary population, neglecting largely the cinema and music. Furthermore, Laval delegated control of the propaganda machine to Paul Marion after 1942, which meant a discernible lack of leadership. A comparable model to Goebbels’ extensive communications system cannot be found in Vichy France.

However, this does not mean to say that the Vichy Government was without persuasion or an ideology of its own. Although Occupied France was under the control of Germany, Vichy was given leeway in terms of national reeducation and, as the administration grew more secure in the southern part of the country (coinciding with entire divisions of German troops leaving France to fight on the increasingly demoralising Eastern Front), so a discernibly French model of fascism was seen in all walks of life, extending quickly to the national movie community.

Continuity in all areas is the chief characteristic of Vichy cinema. As beforehand, Paris remained the creative hub of wartime France; many of the cast and directors of the films of the thirties remained to star in Vichy pictures. Jean Gabin and Michele Morgan were two big name stars who fled the country, but the rest mostly remained in France and continued to work. The Germans did not permit French films to cross the demarcation line until February 1941 when it became apparent that the same stifling effect of authoritarianism was prevalent in French as well as German cinema: there was no question of antiGerman films being shown because they were not being made.

As a rule, movies produced during the Vichy years were unanimously nostalgic. As in the 1930’s, many of the movies of the early 1940’s were scripted around the French experience of World War One, characterising the recent experiences of the nation in the form of one actor or actress. The core Vichy values of family, la patrie and duty were cited in almost every film of the period, such as La Voile Bleue (1942), an anachronistic view of rural southern France that was the biggest commercial success of the forties in France. However, as Julian Jackson (2001:3201) details and contrary to popular belief, there was not a plethora of explicit right wing propaganda present in films made on the fascist side of the Vichy watershed.

Paradoxically, many themes that one might expect to have figured more prominently after 1940, almost disappeared from the screen. Before 1940, many French films contained critical portrayals of British characters; after 1940 the British are absent. Before 1940 films had frequently depicted Germans sympathetically; after 1940, despite collaboration, Germans almost disappear from the screen. In the 1930’s, antagonism to foreigners had been a frequent theme; after 1940 it was less present. Most surprisingly of all, whereas hostile depictions of Jews had proliferated in the 1930’s, they are almost absent after 1940… As far as feature films are concerned, if they reflect anything different from the films of the 1930’s it is Vichy’s desperate wish to believe the outside world did not exist.

If a viewer was unaware of the historical subtext of the films produced during the 1930’s and 1940’s in France, they would not know occupation occurred at any point. But perhaps this was precisely the point: to cover over the huge dent in national pride at having to endure occupation by pretending that it did not exist. Learning from Goebbels, Vichy would also have been aware that, regarding propaganda, less can often mean more.

Chapter Three: Josef Goebbels and the Intervention of Propaganda Cinema

Unlike in France where a clear line of cinematic continuity can be traced, in Germany there is little doubt that movies made pre1933 would not be funded under Nazi rule. Kuhle Wampe (1932), for instance, was a decidedly Weimar production. The film was written and coproduced by Bertolt Brecht who was known within Germany to be a left wing film maker and sympathiser, yet one who did not favour the heavyhanded film making approach, as the following excerpt (1996:138) underscores.

This way of subordinating everything to a single idea, this passion for propelling the spectator along a single track where he can look neither right nor left, up nor down, is something that the new school of play righting must reject.

Betraying such antiauthoritarian views, it is no surprise that Kuhle Wampe turned out to be a socialist classic, an art house production made all the more poignant due to the cusp of the historical wave upon which contemporary Germany was riding. Brecht’s vision of a utopian community that rejects pricefixing and imperialism has been viewed as the last independent breathe of Weimar culture – the final flourish before people such as the writer left Germany forever. Films such as Kuhle Wampe, as well as The Threepenny OperaKameradschaft and The Blue Angel – all produced between 1930 and 1932 – ensured that the shift, when it inevitably came, towards the right was all the more transparent because pictures such as these simply ceased to exist in Germany after 1933.

Propaganda and cinema were married in the Third Reich like never before.

Deconstruction of the pluralist approach of Weimar’s brief democratic tradition was the first step the Nazis took in reconfiguring the German nation in their own distorted image, followed inevitably by the edification of a new mythology, built exclusively around the twin pillars of the ubiquitous power of the Fuhrer and the antiGerman predilections of the communists and international Jewry. At first, of the two, the Fuhrer Myth was the most important solidifying effect in the Nazi consolidation of power. Hitler had learnt from Mussolini – the herald of Fascism according to Hugh TrevorRoper (1995:174) – that a tyrant could exert sole control over a modern, industrial European country but only via eliminating all competing iconography and elevating the leader to a quasireligious status, which could only be achieved by extensive propaganda exercises.

As Ian Kershaw (1998:289) explains, the all encompassing image of Hitler – portrayed in banners across German cities, in schools and in cinemas throughout the nation – was vital not only in securing the stability of the Nazi State but also in making a subliminal connection between himself and the traditional heroes of German history within the broader national consciousness.

For Hitler himself, the ‘Fuhrer myth’ was both a propaganda weapon and a central tenet of belief. His own greatness could be implicitly but unmistakably underscored by repeated reference to Bismarck, Frederick the Great and Luther.

Initially, even Goebbels was taken aback by the way in which the Nazis were able to instil their extremism throughout the country. A process that should have been osmotic took place with astonishing rapidity, as the Propaganda Minister (1996:41) himself explained in April 1933.

What we are now experiencing is only the transfer of our own dynamism and legality to the state. This is taking place with such breathtaking speed that one scarcely has any time to call his own.

Goebbels considered himself to be a man of culture and the filmmakers that he most admired did not come from the right wing stock that one would naturally associate with the Propaganda Minister. For example, Goebbels was a big fan of American cinema and he privately thought that the film making industry in the United States was far ahead of German production to that point. One of his favourite movies, although he denounced it in public, was Gone with the Wind, and he was likewise a great fan of the icon of Soviet propagandist cinema, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.

Within the broader sphere of German film making during the period 1935 to 1945, Goebbels was the most important man in the country. All of the guidelines pertaining to film production in the postsilent era were rewritten after the Nazis seized power. As ever, culture and film became officially politicised and, as a by-product of Gleischaltung, the movie production apparatus fell into the hands of the Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. Therefore, without Goebbels’ patronage a film would never make it past the level of script. His control was absolute, even extending to the question of financing production. Whereas under the Weimar Republic censorship and rating were separate bodies, the Nazis held onto both principles offering a tax rebate for ‘positive’ film ratings, thus exerting considerable financial pressure on production companies that persisted in making unsatisfactory films. Reuth (1993:1945), in his rich biography of Goebbels, details the full extent of his control over movie making in Germany during this period, a description of a cultural power more potent than any available to the leader of each of the German Armed Forces.

He had lists prepared of his favourite actors, as well as of Hitler’s. He also kept close track of upandcoming talent, which he insisted on seeing for himself producers also depended on Goebbels’ favour, for he had created a comprehensive apparatus that allowed him to intervene in all phases of film production. The film department in the Propaganda Ministry, whose director Ernst Seeger served simultaneously as head of the office of film standards, oversaw production planning. All screenplays were examined for ‘appropriate’ artistic and intellectual attitudes He [Goebbels] read film scripts almost every evening, and not infrequently revised them according to his own notions, using a green ‘minister’s pencil’ that became infamous among directors. Only after he had approved a project could the Film Credit Bank respond to a request for financing. Goebbels would even intervene in the shooting, often dropping in on studio, ‘checking’ the rushes, and rating the finished product. From October 1935 on, he alone determined which films would be banned.

Goebbels was the first head of communications anywhere in the autocratic world to understand the power of cinema in seducing a country; combined with his absolute control over all areas of broadcasting, films would see to it that Germans saw no other image of themselves apart from the vision in his mind for over ten years.

However, this is not to state that films made in Germany during this period ought to be dismissed as wasteful propaganda, good for nothing but a lens through which to view National Socialist ideals. As will become apparent, a great many German productions of this time were goodhumoured, light hearted affairs that do not conform to the preconceived notion of a nation forced to watch endless versions of Der Erwige Jude and similarly dark depictions of dictatorship.

Although many films were made that were instantly recognisable as party political broadcasts, such as Patrioten (1937), there were likewise others that provided a more panoramic view of Germany’s splintered cultural psyche during the Third Reich. The following two chapters will examine two polar opposites of Third Reich cinema – Heimatfilme and Exilfilme – two bookends of the typically Nazi notion of home and abroad. As always when revisiting the ideology of National Socialism, there was very little room for any grey area in between extremes

Chapter Four: Heimatfilme

47.8 per cent of the films produced during the Third Reich were comedies, 27 per cent were ‘problem’ films, 11.2 per cent were adventure stories and only 14 per cent were considered outright propaganda films (Reuth, 1993:283). One of the most cherished German films of all time, Die Feuerzangenbowle (1944) was made during the darkest most desperate days of the war when all but the most closeted and narrow minded of Nazis could see that the war was never going to end in a German victory. The story, involving a mature student who never got to enjoy the hilarity of public school, could not have been, aesthetically and emotionally, further away from the politics of the time. But that was the point all along. By manipulating the mood of the audience, the Nazi propaganda state could change focus as and when external events demanded it. Die Feuerzangenbowle, for instance, might never have been produced if it was created during the honeymoon period of the early years of the dictatorship.

Clearly, propaganda can be inserted into a storyline via more subtle camera and plot techniques and this is how Goebbels set about reenforcing core ideals into the German film loving audience. According to Reuth (1993:284), Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda machine preferred a more pervasive approach to political persuasion, especially concerning the most important issue of armed conflict on two fronts.

Goebbels saw to it that the war, which became the main theme in films from 1939 on, was linked to the most varied genres, so as to make indoctrination of the audience imperceptible and keep the medium of film attractive. As he expected of all his propaganda ideally, so too in film, one and the same message was to be conveyed over and over again under constantly varied aspects.

Of all the creative, cinematic options open to Goebbels, the most popular genre favoured by the Nazi hierarchy was the Heimatfilme, a uniquely German cinematic experience that played on the national obsession with the homeland. Apart from Austria, no other European country has the same nostalgic disposition towards artistic portrayal of the homeland quite like Germany. Because the nation was only unified after the FrancoPrussian War in 1871, successive generations of German film makers consistently looked back to the patriarchal preindustrial period inciting dreamy landscapes and a simple way of life to try to evoke the sense of longing the displaced German people of the countryside may have felt before unification. Manuala Von Papen (1999:12) highlights the reasons why Heimatfilme appealed to the Nazi leadership.

This seems to be a genre virtually exclusive to the German-speaking countries and therefore untranslatable. Heimat means ‘home’, but also much more than that; it also stands for the entirety of one’s cultural, social, ethical and historical heritage and provides an individual, a group of a whole nation with their identity, their Heimatgefühl.

Clearly, the notions of volk (people) and heimat (home) were central concepts to the longevity of National Socialism. By combining the two, Heimatfilme leant the Nazis the opportunity to pander to the broader European taste for nostalgia as well as reenforcing the belief that Hitler was the true defender of German interests abroad. In a revolutionary move in light of the despotism of the regime, the Third Reich severed the equation of dictatorship with brainwashing propaga

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