Both an insightful, well researched look into a cinematic past that’s been swept under the rug and a potentially eerie warning of things to be on the look-out for in the future, Hitler’s Hollywood looks at the special breed of blockbuster that was produced, marketed and released under the rule of the Third Reich in Germany. Writer-director Rüdiger Suchsland has assembled a wealth of footage from films that – for better and for worse – have been largely kept out of the public eye and global cinematic conversation because they were produced during and under the supervision of a fascist regime that controlled every aspect of the media. Not all the film’s glimpsed in Hitler’s Hollywood are worth saving or reappraising, but the history behind this frequently overlooked place and time in world cinema is invaluable to an understanding of politics, fascism, and filmmaking as we know them today.
The timeline of Hitler’s Hollywood runs from approximately 1933 to 1945, the heyday of state run communications in Germany. Overseen predominantly by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, the German film industry thrived before and during World War II thanks to the country’s love of big screen grandeur and theatricality. Much of their output wasn’t vastly different or cheaper than much of their western cinematic counterparts, but a lot of it was made in service of acclimatizing a populace to Nazi ideology.
Suchsland has created what more or less amounts to a 100 minute cinematic lecture. Hitler’s Hollywood is an assembly of hundreds of clips from dozens of German produced films from the era, with actor Udo Kier (whose mother was born there and lived through the early years of Nazi occupation) narrating contextual information provided by the director. Through this approach, Suchsland offers up common themes, motifs, and styles that kept cropping up through the years.
Most German films produced in this era were chipper, but forced; shoving an “everything is great” mentality down the throats of viewers. Of the over one thousand films produced in Germany between 1933 and 1945, more than half were comedies or musicals designed to boost spirits. There was only one sci-fi picture made, and that was an unabashed knock-off of ex-pat Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It was a star driven system that pulled in actors from all across Europe to forward Goebbels’ cinematic agenda. There was an unironic, phony sense of nationalism that permeated every frame, and despite the often unwarranted sunny outlook, German cinema at the time was constantly preoccupied with death, particularly through characters who nobly sacrificed their lives for the motherland. There was a distinct love of certain visual aesthetics: camera wipes, juxtaposition of militaristic images, monumental production design, intricate choreography, stirring montages, and plenty of fades. The men were usually stocky, hearty souls, and the women were often depicted as naughty blondes.
Some of the films profiled are vile pieces of work that outright advocate for the murder of Jews, the infirm, or the mentally ill. Some, like Triumph of the Will (which remains widely studied in film schools for a number of reasons), are documentaries that are so rigidly staged and mounted that they’re more akin to rock concerts than serious scholarship. Some films would go on to be banned during the era for being subtly or ambiguously subversive. Some films are an outright cry for help coming from the people who made them. And late German cinema from the Nazi era offers as much of a glimpse into the collapse of an empire as the earlier works showcased how Hitler and his ilk rose to power.
Hitler’s Hollywood is a rather straightforward cinema studies lesson. If you’re not willing to engage with the clips and narration employed by Suchsland, there won’t be much else for you here. There won’t be many anecdotes because the people who made most of the films profiled in Hitler’s Hollywood are either long since dead or they definitely aren’t going to talk about what kind of roles they played. And outside of a scant few external voices (mostly readings from Susan Sontag and Hanna Arendt), the only true critical voice and perspective is the one being provided by Suchsland to Kier.
All Suchsland can offer is pure analysis and examination of the cinema from the era, most of which viewers will likely never be able to glimpse again outside of this documentary. And as a work of scholarship, it’s as good as a single feature film on the subject could possibly be. A true, undiluted analysis of German World War II era cinema could fill volumes and miniseries, but as an academic distillation of what movies and movie going was like at the time, Hitler’s Hollywood does a fine job.
It’s also hard to not read into the margins of Suchsland’s work given the current state of world affairs. A lot of the signifiers that Germany was sliding towards totalitarianism could be seen in the earlier films from the period. The writing was on the wall, but few took notice until it was too late to do anything about it. By that point, cinema wasn’t run by individuals with dreams and ideas, but by a single, government run company who vetted everything and put down their authorial stamp on anything due to be released. At times, Hitler’s Hollywood plays like a checklist of potential cinematic warning signs. In that respect, Suchsland’s work is downright spooky, but it’s predominantly meant to be read as a look at how thinly veiled propaganda removes all substance from motion pictures and leave no room for critical theory. It might be unnecessarily dry at times, but there are few films that could give a greater appreciation for film studies and criticism than Hitler’s Hollywood.
Hitler’s Hollywood opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, July 20, 2018.
Check out the trailer for Hitler’s Hollywood: