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Culture

How anti-Semitism impacted film before and after the Nazis

Anti-Semitic tendencies in film weren't restricted to the Nazi era. Film historian Frank Stern explains how pre-war and postwar films portrayed Jews - and why Germany's approach lags behind the US and France.

DW: When we think about anti-Semitism in the movies, we invariably think about the period 1933 to 1945 and about Nazi propaganda films. But weren't anti-Semitic films produced even before 1933?

Frank Stern: Yes, they were. People immediately think of Nazi films like "Jud Süss" and "Homecoming." They forget that Nazi film politics, filmmakers, actors and scriptwriters could draw on a huge pool of Jewish characters and stories from between the two world wars.

The portrayal of Jewish characters was firmly established in mainstream film. Whether portrayals were positive or slightly critical, self-critical, stereotypical or clichéd - whatever was out there in German-language movies in Berlin or Vienna between the wars was more or less a service outfit for Nazi film policy makers. It just needed to be turned around. Every cliché was exaggerated, and every stereotype got a racist bent.

Read more: How Germany deals with Nazi propaganda films today

Could you name an example?

Ernst Lubitsch's wonderful, funny movies. From 1914 on, Lubitsch portrayed fantastic, neurotic, loving Jewish characters - though you could also take a critical view of them - that lived somewhere in Berlin. They were usually young men. He played these characters, too, with an overly big nose, exaggerated gestures, distinctively erotic, and with sexual connotations.

Ernst Lubitsch (AP)

Ernst Lubitsch's subtle humor became known as the "Lubitsch touch"

He developed a trademark style, called the "Lubitsch touch." Everything that came across very lightheartedly on the screen, much beloved by audiences, was reversed after 1933, turned into anti-Semitic, racist, sexist stereotypes where physiognomy played a role in particular - the face, body language - and had a negative connotation. I believe this connection is important because otherwise you would think the Nazis invented it all.

What happened after the war? Did anti-Semitism continue in film?

That is one the most exciting questions in postwar film history. The simple answer is, it lives on! Filmmakers still work with clichés and stereotypes, though now they often have a philo-Semitic bent - that is, an appreciation of and respect for Jews. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that you will hardly see Jewish men on German-language screens, rather Jewish women who are portrayed as victims.

The first movies made after 1945 tended to brush off general responsibility and guilt; instead they point at individuals responsible for the deaths of Jews.

Were there films that spoke out against anti-Semitism, too?

Arthur Brauner made a few films that take a vehement stance against anti-Semitism. In Vienna in 1948, director GW Pabst filmed "The Trial," which turns against anti-Semitism as it still existed after 1945.

Some filmmakers and producers tried to confront the Nazis' anti-Semitism. If you look at German-language film history, you will quickly find that certain stereotypes and clichés reappear - and that has actually increased over the decades.

Read more: New strategies for far-right publishers in Germany

Germany actually produced a lot of films about the Holocaust and the Nazi years over the past decades. Do you have examples of clichés?

Volker Schlöndorff uses massive anti-Semitic clichés and stereotypes in some of his films, for instance in "The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach," which portrays the traditionally conspiratorial, rich, lonely, stateless Jew in a manner so extreme that it is shocking.

Film still from The Tin Drum (Imago/AGD)

Anti-Semitic references were also found in Schlöndorff's award-winning film "The Tin Drum" (1979)

"The Tin Drum" has anti-Semitic scenes that take place in Gdansk, something few people seem to have noticed; after all, the film won a lot of prizes. And let's not even talk about a movie that was quickly forgotten - "The Ogre," where the tale of a Christian martyr is supposed to save the Jews…

Certainly Schlöndorff and other directors and filmmakers didn't have a hidden agenda?

No, and neither did Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who also had anti-Semitic elements in his films. This is how I like to explain it: Fassbinder didn't hate Jews; Schlöndorff doesn't hate Jews. But somehow, unconsciously, thoughts about Germany's past, about German-Jewish history are still brewing. Some directors still harbor anti-Semitic thinking, and that simply shows itself in their movies.

What about international film after 1945?

It's a bit different in international film, in particular in France, the US and Britain. Casting is meticulous in French films about Jewish characters. That is not always the case in the US. But they try to avoid portraying anti-Semitic stereotypes and clichés. That would be difficult anyways, because both the American and the French film communities have many talented young Jews.

Frank Stern (Privat)

Professor Frank Stern

That was common in Germany before 1933, too: Both Jewish and non-Jewish artists were part of the mix. No one thought about it, people simply worked on their films and tried to do their best. That is typical of the US and France, but not yet of Germany and Austria.

On the other hand, I must say I noticed in recent debates with young filmmakers that a very talented young generation is evolving, so we can expect a new form of non-stereotype film and body language in the future.

Frank Stern has taught cultural history at the Institute for Contemporary History at Vienna University since 2004. An expert on film history, he has previously taught at various universities in Israel, Austria and the US.

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