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Tracing conspiracy theories in film

Jochen Kürten als
May 19, 2020

Oliver Stone's 1991 movie about the Kennedy assassination was a masterpiece of the genre. While many of these films come from Hollywood, there’s also a history of conspiracy films in Germany.

USA JFK Dokumente - Oliver Stone signiert Plakat von John F. Kennedy
Image: Imago/UPI Photo

Presumably, no one has ever postulated the following theory: that the coronavirus was brought into the world by the powerful lobby surrounding streaming giants Netflix, Amazon and others as a way to bring their competitors — the movie theaters — to their knees.

This is, of course, absolute nonsense. And yet, nobody can rule out that there's someone in the world would actually make such an absurd claim. No conspiracy theory seems to be crazy enough that it would not be written down on paper or spread indiscriminately on the internet.

Read more: Opinion: Conspiracy theories on the rise

Conspiracy theories are not theories at all - but irrational mind games

In these times, when conspiracy theories are running rampant in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, it is worth taking a look back at film history. But before we do that, we have to take note that the term "conspiracy theory" in itself is nonsensical. After all, we are not talking about actual theories, but instead about "myths," "narratives," and even "fairy tales." Those terms seem more appropriate because conspiracy theories usually have less to do with "theory" than with what they're actually directed at.

Film still of Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway
The Vietnam trauma encouraged conspiracy theories in the US: Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway in the paranoia thriller "The Three Days of Condor"Image: picture-alliance/dpa/United Archives

The assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963 led to a whole flood of conspiracy theories. At times, people claimed it was the CIA who had conducted the assassination; sometimes it was the Soviet Union, sometimes the Cubans or Cuban exiles. Then there is the theory that members of the mafia perpetrated the assassination; another theory is the later Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson or George Bush Senior were behind it.

And these are just some of the more "serious" theories — if you can use that adjective in this context at all. Some of the more bizarre "theories" claim that homosexuals or UFOs played a major role in the murder.

Popular films revolving around political-economic conspiracies: JFK

At some point, of course, the film industry began tapping into such notions. Since the murder of Kennedy still doesn't seem to be completely solved, authors, producers and directors have had plenty of freedom in concocting their own stories.

Where facts remain hidden, it's easy to speculate. Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK (see article image) is still the most popular film about the Kennedy murder today. Kevin Costner, who starred in the film, was at the height of his career at the time, as was US director Oliver Stone.

For all its cinematic brilliance, Stone's film fueled further speculations about the masterminds behind the assassination. Director Stone's focus was mainly on the arms industry. The idea was that arms producers were allegedly behind the assassination, as Kennedy aimed to end the Cold War.

The logic was that, with no threat of war and no arms race, fewer weapons would be purchased, resulting in declining revenue for the industry. According to the thesis expressed in the film, the person responsible for this development — President Kennedy — had to be eliminated.

Cinema and conspiracy theories populist, entertaining, critical

Cinema has always enjoyed taking up conspiracy theories; as popular subjects they either reveal true conspiracies or only deal in speculation.

Some films have fueled conspiracy theories, with the anti-Semitic propaganda movies of Nazi Germany being a particularly grave example. Films that critically question conspiracy theories also exist.

Read more: Conspiracies are always 'theories of power'

Many films on the subject have been created in Hollywood, perhaps due to the powerful film industry there with all its creative possibilities and imaginative minds. But there are probably other reasons as well: In the current heated atmosphere in the US, where the president in particular deals in fringe theories, the climate for conspiracy theories appears to be flourishing.

Perhaps it also has to do with the size of the US, the relative independence of the states, the citizens' love of freedom and the physical distance to the capital, Washington DC, from most parts of the country. A lack of education always fosters conspiracy theories — an issue which may also apply to parts of the US.

Two men in a black and white film still, one clearly frightened of the other
A German silent movie with a conspiracy theme: Fritz Lang's "The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse"Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Everett Collection

But German cinema has also contributed a great deal to the subject. Even during the heyday of Weimar cinema, when people acted in silent movies, the topic of conspiracies was repeatedly addressed, such as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fritz Lang's Mabuse films, as well as his masterpiece Metropolis, — all of which look at conspiracies in one way or another.

It's also easy to imagine that in just a few years, there will be a whole new wave of conspiracy film thrillers dealing with the subject of the coronavirus.