The Marshall Plan film series "Selling Democracy" runs for the last time at the Berlinale this year. DW-WORLD spoke to British historian David Ellwood about the lessons the US celluloid propaganda operation holds today.
"The Marshall plan helps here," reads the 1952 sign in Mainz, Germany
The Europea n Recovery Program, also k n ow n as the Marshall Pla n , was set up by the US i n 1948 to help a war-devastated Europe back o n its feet. I n additio n to forki n g out eco n omic aid worth billio n s of dollars, the US i n jected massive fu n ds to make films i n Europea n recipie n t n atio n s to promote a n d i n still US ideas of democracy a n d the America n way of life as a cou n terweight to what they saw as the risi n g specter of Commu n ism.
The Berli n ale itself was bor n as a result of this propaga n da operatio n a n d was mea n t to reco n n ect Berli n with the wider world. For the past three years, the Berli n film festival has bee n showcasi n g Marshall Pla n films made all over Europe u n der the title "Selli n g Democracy." They also i n cluded a n ti-Marshall Pla n films made by former Commu n ist East Germa n y .
This year the series, u n der the title, "Frie n dly Persuasio n " have focused o n feature films, comedies a n d satires o n the "America n izatio n " of Europea n societies. They i n clude "O n e, Two, Three" by Billy Wilder, "Bie n ve n ido Mr Marshall" by Luis Garcia Berla n ga a n d "Das Verurteilte Dorf" by Marti n Hellberg.
DW-WORLD spoke to David Ellwood, British historia n a n d Marshall Pla n expert who teaches at the U n iversity of Bolog n a a n d was at the Berli n ale to talk about "Selli n g Democracy."
DW-WORLD: This is the third a n d fi n al year of the Marshall Pla n film series "Selli n g Democracy" at the Berli n ale. The Berli n film festival itself is a product of the Marshall Pla n . Why you thi n k ci n ema was chose n as a key mea n s of persuasio n by the US at the time?
US soldiers dance with German women in a Frankfurt bar just after the war
David Ellwood: Americans wanted to get over the language barriers in Europe, so they made films everybody could understand. That included cartoon films, comedies and satires. The first priority was to make material that could be shown in all 16 Marshall-Plan-Countries. At the time you also had a lot of countries where illiteracy was high – it was 15 percent in Italy and also very high in Portugal or Greece. So the US wanted to have films that could be shown on every educational level, you didn't had to be clever to watch them. And it was a time, when everybody went to the cinema once or twice a week, it was the dominant mass medium. Film played the role that TV plays today. So the Marshall Plan, which was the biggest propaganda operation ever seen in peacetime, had a great psychological dimension. There was a sense, that the medium was the message. The urgency and the commitment and the energy the Americans brought to this whole operation has something to tell us today.
The EU curre n tly is i n crisis a n d has a problem commu n icati n g with its citize n s. There's eve n talk of setti n g up a n press age n cy. Do you thi n k the EU n eeds somethi n g alo n g the li n es of the Marshall Pla n ?
The bloc rarely gets people excited like this
The EU is a technocratic organization. It doesn't have the same political charisma as the Marshall Plan had and still has in a certain way. It has not managed to generate its own myths. It has great difficulties in stirring enthusiasm and finding ways to define Europe and the European project in a way which creates participation and a sense of dynamism. This became apparent when EU enlargement topped the agenda and when the former Soviet block countries began to join the EU. That should have been a time for great mobilization, enthusiasm, participation, enthusiasm and excitement – but it wasn't. In a way it was deliberate because EU leaders did not want to raise expectations that they could not manage. It's a pity. Europe has never had the same capacity to whip up enthusiasm and invent slogans that involved people and that they could identify with. It's a real problem.
The US today is in a difficult position both in Iraq and Afghanistan . Do you think the Marshall Plan still holds lessons for America ?
Would a new Marshall plan help them to feel more welcome in Iraq?
There was a time, when the Americans thought they could develop the Middle East along Marshall Plan lines. They even started thinking about this before the Marshall Plan itself. But these ideas never got really far. One of the slogans oft the Marshall Plan was: "Prosperity makes you free." That kind of language is not going to get you very far in Iraq. That sort of consumer-based, individualistic, private, materialistic prosperity is not what the great majority of people in Iraq seem to want. They have other values and standards. It's very difficult for the Americans to come to term with this – the fact that other people do not necessarily want what they want.
This is the last year of the Marshall Pla n films at the Berli n ale. What do you thi n k ca n replace this special historical sidebar eve n t at the film festival i n future?
Scene from "Syriana" with George Clooney
There are other possibilities. One is history and film -- and how film transmits and creates history. You can do that in a hundred different ways. Look at George Clooney's new film "Syriana" which showed at the Berlinale. It's about the present day crisis in the Middle East, about terrorism and the CIA and oil wars and geopolitics -- in 10, 20 years that will be a historical film. That is a great deal of work to be done and reflection to be carried out on how films become history and not how history is portrayed in film- that's too easy. Another possibility is to reflect further on the way America and American powers function in our society. That is something you can do on a world scale and how the cinema reacts to this, deals and copes with it: the American challenge as portrayed in films of the world.