What can movies tell us about the world we live in? Have lived in? Will live in? Siegfried Kracauer’s seminal 1947 study, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, puts forth that the roots of the National Socialist Party could be found in the works of Germanic films, specifically in metaphors and symbols. Whether or not the filmmakers intended these symbols and signs is not the point; what matters is how the audience interprets and molds them for their own goal. All images contain the roots of propaganda: You just got to know what to manipulate and how to do it. From Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 6, “Cinema verboten.”
Between 1933 and 1945, Germany’s Third Reich produced 1,200 feature films, of which 300 were labeled propaganda by the Allies and banned from public screenings and distribution following the war. To this day, restrictions on 40 of these titles are still in place.
What power do these films possess that they should never be seen? What does an institutional ban on artistic works say about Germany’s free democracy? Those questions—one verbalized, one alluded to—form the crux of Felix Moeller’s latest documentary, Forbidden Films, which looks at the 40 Nazi films still under government ban.
Moeller places clips from the films alongside interviews with historians and cinema programmers in an attempt to understand what power they held and why that power remains. Hitler and his Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, were film nuts of the highest accord—Goebbels especially fancied himself a cinephile, even recording personal reviews in his diary. They loved cinema, the glitz and glam of rubbing elbows with actors, the power of the moving image, and, most importantly, the vastness of the audience—1 billion attendees in 1943. The highest-grossing of the 40 forbidden, The Great Love, drew an audience of 29 million Germans, the same number of Germans who attended Titanic and Avatar combined.
But these movies—anti-Semitic, anti-French, anti-British, pro-war, pro-euthanasia—weren’t endless “Heils” rained down on viewers, nor were they simply a visual compendium to the vitriol spewed from the Führer. These movies were crafted much like classic Hollywood cinema: compelling characters, lush cinematography, melodramatic flourishes, and a strong narrative structure. The results are stunning, and even to this day, audiences that see these movies are surprisingly moved, in most cases, against their better judgment.
To capture this response, Moeller follows the movies as they are screened in Munich, Berlin, Paris, and Jerusalem. These are controlled, contextualized screenings with a Q&A session following. After seeing the movies, some audience members agree they should be banned. These movies enflamed hate and resentment back then, and they could do the same today. Others say no, movies should not be censored in a free society. Moeller does not express it bluntly, but the comparison between banned films and the Nazis’ predilection for burning books hangs over these public debates.
As does anti-Semitism, which rears its ugly head, although quietly, in the Q&A sessions.
The most damning evidence is provided by two neo-Nazis, filmed in silhouette, who admit that they obtain the forbidden films via the Internet or right-wing vendors and use them to indoctrinate young recruits.
There are no easy answers, and Moeller doesn’t try to provide one, though he seems to side with anti-censorship. There will be those that abuse these films and use them to further their own hateful positions, but censoring art does not stop these individuals from hating; it only fuels their rebellion. Instead, the public must confront the past head-on, watching these dastardly works and considering them for what they are and represent. Cinema is an opportunity to try to understand the experiences of others. It’s not always pleasant, but it is necessary.
Forbidden Films is available to stream on Kanopy. Header photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.