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The film industry under the Nazis

Jochen Kürten sh
May 7, 2020

On May 8, 75 years ago, the Germans surrendered and WWII was over. Yet, even right until the end of the war, Germans were still going to the movies, enjoying films commissioned by the Nazis.

Hitler als Ehrengast bei Filmvorfuehrung
Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

Film played an important role in the propaganda of the National Socialist Party between 1933 and 1945. Of all the arts, film and cinema received the most support from the Nazi elite, including Adolf Hitler and Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels until the end of the regime. "Even at the movies there was a total war effort," Rainer Rother, director of the Deutsche Kinemathek Museum for Film and TV, told DW.

Distraction and propaganda

As late as April 1945, when large parts of Germany, including Berlin, were already in ruins, entertainment and propaganda films were still being screened in theaters. Rother, author of the book Zeitbilder - Filme des Nationalsozialismus (Images of Time - Films of National Socialism), points out that from the Nazis' point of view, the medium of film was of the utmost importance.

A few months before the end of the war, the population was still encouraged to believe in the possibility of victory. The films shown while the Nazis were in control, explains Rother, had a lot to do with this. The German film production, "continued in 1944, and even then, there were complaints from the Ministry of Propaganda that the number of films was insufficient. There were very clear efforts to continue film production and also to keep it at a high level so that a so-called "basic supply" was secured, says Rother.

The idea was that if the bombing of German cities was to become more and more intense, Germans should go to the movies to be distracted. "This was seen as a factor that could maintain the satisfaction or acceptance of the population," explains Rother. Two types of films were used for this purpose: entertaining films that diverted people from everyday atrocities of life during war time, and Nazi propaganda films.

Read more: Beethoven as Nazi propaganda

Flash-Galerie Sowjets befreien Berlin
The Soviet Army at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, marking the defeat of Nazi Germany Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Operettas and drama

Light-hearted and entertaining films were screened most often. "Clearly, in the last years of the war, the objectives were oriented more towards the 'entertaining' film. That was different in the 1930s," says Rother. "After the war began and until about 1942, there was a real boom in propaganda films," he notes. As soon as the war situation changed for the worse, such films were "assessed as counterproductive and redirected: That means that relatively few propaganda films were commissioned or produced, and there was a much greater emphasis on the entertainment genre."

Rainer Rother
Rainer Rother, artistic director of the Deutsche Kinemathek and book authorImage: picture-alliance/dpa

At that point, the strategy of distraction was in full effect. And so, amidst death and destruction, a population that had believed in the National Socialist ideology for years and who had largely voluntarily gone the way of war and destruction, practicing racism and anti-Semitism, was to be kept busy with operetta and melodramatic films during the last months of the war. 

A few to remember

There are quite a few films that have survived this dark period — and in numerous genres. "It's a colorful mix," says Rother, citing director Helmut Käutner as an example. "Käutner's wonderful film Under the Bridges, a romance that turns its back on war, was certainly one of the strongest films he made." But it didn't premiere until after the war in 1946. More typical of the period were music and operetta productions like Die Frau meiner Träume (The Woman of my Dreams), which premiered in the summer of 1944.

German cinema under the Nazis, therefore, relied on distraction, entertainment and diversion until the very end. "The will to agitate viewers seemed exhausted" writes film industry insider Karsten Witte in the publication Geschichte des Deutschen Films (History of German Films): "After the turn of the war in Stalingrad, the melodramas came back. Resignation, aestheticism, simple dialogues and music prevailed again," he writes.

Film still Kolberg
'Kolberg' is about resistance at all costs: Actor Paul Wegener portrayed a Prussian officerImage: Imago Images/Mary Evans Archive

Propaganda remained at the core of the German film industry until 1945

But screening fluffy films for entertainment was only one side of National Socialist film policy, albeit the dominant one. "Until the end of the regime, film remained a product of compromise, which had to serve the conflicting functions of entertainment and propaganda, satisfy different interests and tastes, and convey both populist tendencies and ideological positions, " author Sabine Hake writes of German film history. Ideology, according to Hake, remained a "core component" of Nazi cinema.

The German propaganda film Kolberg is remembered today as a particularly sinister movie. The story took place in the context of the Napoleonic wars and showed how a German village tried to overcome French troops. "Kolberg was certainly also intended as a sign on the part of the propaganda ministry," says Rainer Rother, describing the production by director Veit Harlan, who also directed anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda film Jud Süss.

Kolberg was often shown in the last weeks of the war, both at the front and in local cinemas to encourage the population to resist the allies. 

With Kolberg, the people should also be prepared to lose

But Kolberg also carried another message at its core: while it was a clear appeal to the power of the Germans, it also conveyed a suggestion that the war was already lost. "I don't think that this film was primarily or solely associated with the fact that it would ignite the spirit of resistance in the population and thus achieve the turnaround of the war at the last minute," explains Rother.

Filmregisseur Veit Harlan 1954
Despite his contributions to Nazi propaganda, 'Kolberg' director Veit Harlan, here in 1954, was allowed to continue to make films in West Germany a few years after the warImage: picture-alliance/dpa

It was a film about perseverance that came to the cinemas shortly before the looming defeat of the murderous Nazi regime, yet it also contained a message for posterity: a fatalistic "death wish." In the film, when the town of Kolberg is heavily bombed, citizens are encouraged to fight to the very end and never give up. "In many melodramatically grounded films, and Kolberg is a very melodramatically grounded film, there is this expectation of death," explains Rother.

Right now, when the end of the war 75 years ago is being commemorated, perhaps it is worth remembering that Nazi ideology is not entirely dead in Germany. For this reason, films like Jud Süss and Kolberg are still part of the country's history and should be discussed, for better or worse. Fortunately, these films are banned from being screened at cinemas today.