Some 40 propaganda films that emerged during the Nazi era are being kept in a vault. Should they remain under lock and key, or released for everyone to see?
How should propaganda material produced by Hilter's Nazi party be dealt with? Should books, texts, symbols and films by hidden away and banned from public viewing? Or should they be exhibited in order to learn more about how the Nazi party promoted their ideologies? If the answer is yes, who should be given access to this material? Researchers? Or the public as a whole? Are the risks so great, that documents such as these could find a new audience amongst die-hard and young right-wing extrememists?
A burgeoning debate
A satisfactory answer to such a difficult question can and does not exist. The discussion regarding Hitler's infamous memoir "Mein Kampf" (My Struggle) is a hot topic once again, as copyright restrictions on the text are due to expire in 2015. Complicating matters is what will happen to the propaganda films created by the National Socialists. Berlin's "Zeughaus Cinema" in the German Historical Museum is currently screening National Socialist films as part of their program. The Film Museum in Munich will shortly begin screening a series of films from the era as well. A symposium in Munich is also planned.
Joseph Goebbels greets "Jud Süss" director Veit Harlan
The issue centers around 40 so-called "restricted films". Referring to literary and cinematographic works which are only allowed to be shown in an academic context. Well-known films such as "Jew Süss" as well as anti-Semitic 'documentaries' such as "The EternalJew" belong to this category. Most of these films remain unknown to today's filmgoer. One thing unifies all these works: They glorify war, are anti-British or Polish, are anti-Semitic, or encourage hatred.
At the conclusion of the Second World War, over 1,200 films produced between 1933 and 1945 were collected by Allied Forces and divided into three categories. Most were subsequently released for viewing, others screened after being edited and a small proportion were classified as reserved, to be stored away for no one to see. There remain around 40 "reserved films" under lock and key. The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation based in Wiesbaden, as well as the Federal Archive in Koblenz are responsible for archiving the documentary works.
Home of the Freidrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation in Weisbaden
Recently, accusations have been made that access to the archived films is unjustly restrictive. "Backdoor censorship is being practiced using copyright law," wrote one journalist in "Die Welt" daily newspaper. An accusation that the director of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, Ernst Szebedits, will not allow to stand: "The Murnau Foundation is commissioned to handle these films with care and prevent the public from obtaining unrestricted access to them." This, he emphasized, is a public order made by the German government. Aside from that: "Copyright law is not a method of censorship."
Seeking unrestricted access
Szebedits, who has only presided over the foundation for a matter of months, is open about the future handling of the films. In the past, the foundation has been accused of being defensive on the issue. The issue of unrestricting Nazi-films has also proven to be a political hot potato which many politicians have avoided over the years. Szebedits is calling for new guidelines for the future use of controversial films: "Why not assemble a committee of experts to debate the issues and draw up new guidelines?"
After all, the impact of the National Socialist films on the general public has changed over the decades. Some of the films considered by the Allied forces and following generations to be too heavy-handed, may be of no danger in contemporary times.
German Historical Museum Director, Jörg Frieß
Jörg Frieß from the German Historical Museum also supports a new system for dealing with old propaganda films. This week the "Zeughaus Cinema" is showing restricted films such as "A Beautiful Day" and "My Son, the Minister", which are not comparable to films such as "Jew Süß". "We are in the middle of an open trial," said Frieß. "These films should all be seen again, and – in dialogue with the audience – with new opinions formed."
Frieß believes a discussion should be led concerning political content of the films and the political influence they may hold. Especially in relation to genres such as comedy, which provide widely differing interpretations: "Context and reception is completely different to that of the 1930s and 40s," emphasized Frieß.
A scene from the film "Jud Süss"
At the film screenings in the "Zeughaus Cinema", Frieß observed the different reactions in the audience. Many older audience members pointed to the explosiveness of the films and called for restrictions to be applied to future films. The younger members of the audience, on the other hand, had a very different relationship to the restricted films. "Our democracy is strong enough to allow for open exposure to these films," said one film-goer. Up-and-coming generations protested most strongly against the introductions to the films which pointed to very specific readings of the works: The "act of simplifying, introducing, the media and film pedagogics" were not welcomed by younger members of the public, reported Frieß. A reaction also observed by Ernst Szebedit and one he can also relate to. But with one clear exception: Obviously anti-Semitic hate works such as "Jew Süss" or "The Eternal Jew" should only be shown under restricted conditions in the future."
Author: Jochen Kürten / hw
Editor: Jessie Wingard