Is it possible to appreciate the art of your oppressors even if its intent is to annihilate you? Does such an attraction reveal some deep-seated neuroses or perhaps a tendency towards self-hatred?
I’ve always been a huge fan of German cinema, including many of the propaganda films made during the heyday of the Third Reich. The most famous of these are Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” and “Triumph of the Will.” Say what you like about Riefenstahl’s “innocence” or “guilt,” there’s no question that she was a remarkable filmmaker whose work pushed the boundaries of cinematic artistry. Whatever her personal motives (she claims she was something of a dupe and not a supporter of Hitler’s vision for the German people), Riefenstahl’s work underscorses how effective such propaganda tools are. After watching either of these films, I can see how politically ambivalent people might be moved to declare their allegiance to the Master Race.
I never bought Riefenstahl’s claims of obliviousness, to some extent she had to know the role she was playing as part of Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine, but at the same time I don’t think she was motivated by Nazi policy so much as blind ambition. Always reluctant to apologize for her actions (“I filmed the truth as it was then. Nothing more.”) she came closest to acknowledging some responsibility for her role in a 1993 interview. “Being sorry isn’t nearly enough, but I can’t tear myself apart or destroy myself. I’ve suffered for over half a century and it will never end until I die. It’s such an incredible burden that to say ‘sorry’ is inadequate, it expresses too little.”
Riefenstahl died in 2003 at the ripe old age of 101. Although haunted by her ties to the Nazis, she continued making films, mostly nature documentaries, all the way up to her hundredth birthday. I remember the hubbub when Jodie Foster announced several years ago that she was going to produce and star in a film about Riefenstahl’s life. “There is no other woman in the twentieth century who has been so admired and so vilified simultaneously,” Foster said at the time. Madonna and Sharon Stone were courted for similar projects (Stone even received a fawning letter from Riefenstahl) but were reluctant to portray the controversial director. Foster herself was vilified by some for wanting to take on this role. “I’m going to catch shit on that one,” the actress correctly predicted during an earlier interview. The project has stalled for years but it’s not dead yet. In her most recent statement, Foster said, “Leni Riefenstahl’s story is something I’ve been dying to do for a very long time. I see it as the acting challenge of a lifetime. She was perhaps one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and yet her name and work will forever be linked to the horror of Nazi Germany. We have a very complicated moral tale to tackle.” I trust Jodie Foster can pull it off and I hope she gets the chance.
When I was in college I took a course in German cinema and was fascinated by the films that were made just after the Nazi rise to power. “Hitlerjunge Quex” was the best of the lot. While the director of this traditionally structured 1933 film was not in Riefenstahl’s league, he proved that Nazi propaganda techniques were well developed early in the game. In the story, young Heini Völker is invited to join the Communist Youth Organization and attend a camping trip near Berlin. His Red-loving parents are thrilled, but Heini prefers the freshly scrubbed Hitler Youth groups since they seem like so much more fun and there’s something vaguely unsettling about the swarthy Commie boys. When Heini learns that a Communist friend of his father’s is planning a bombing attack on a Nazi building, he tells the Hitler Youth kids and wins their favor. Heini’s mother is so down on the Hitler Youth that she decides to kill herself and her boy with gas (!) but he survives and joins his brethren so he can work for the true aims of the Fatherland. When Heini bravely goes into a Communist neighborhood in Berlin to distribute pro-Nazi flyers, the nasty Commies remember his betrayal and murder him in cold blood. Völker becomes a hero and a martyr for the Hitlerjugend. Again, the power of propaganda is so strong that I found myself rooting for the Nazis throughout the film. Why wouldn’t I? They were presented as all that is good and pure in the world while the Communists were the embodiment of misguided loyalties and evil plots (there were Jews in that group after all). Of course, by the time this film came out, the Communist Party in Germany had already been outlawed.
It’s much harder to empathize with the Nazi propaganda films that explore the problem of Jewish vermin destroying Germany. I remember seeing the odious1940 film “Jud Suss,” a costume drama that was shown all over occupied Europe about a conniving Jewish businessman who wreaks havoc in medieval Germany with his shady business deals and doesn’t stop until he rapes an innocent German girl after torturing her father and fiancé. In the end, the Jew is sentenced to death for “having carnal knowledge of a Christian woman.” This film is painful to watch, but even with “Jud Suss” it’s easy to recognize the expert skills exercised by so many German filmmakers. Many emigrated to the United States when Hitler rose to power but others, like Veit Harlan, the director of “Jud Suss,” chose to stay and make films for the Nazi regime. (As an aside, Veit Harlan is the uncle of Stanley Kubrick’s German wife, Christiane, and several Harlans worked on Kubrick’s final project, “Eyes Wide Shut,” a film I found almost as uncomfortable to watch as “Jud Suss.”) Because of this film, Harlan was charged with crimes against humanity after the war but after several trials his case was dismissed. Like Riefenstahl, he claimed that the Nazis forced him to make the film but many of his former colleagues contradicted him.
I’ve been thinking of my love/hate relationship with German cinema because I just saw “The Lives of Others” (“Das Leben der Anderen”), the German nominee for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar. It’s an extraordinary film that I highly recommend although I feel guilty that it induced a long reverie about the films of the Third Reich as if all German films are somehow tainted by the country’s Nazi past. It seems unfair and nonsensical to mention this beautiful film and Nazi filmmakers in the same breath. (“They brought in on themselves,” my grandmother and many in her generation would say.)
“The Lives of Others,” directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, has nothing to do with Nazis per se, but everything to do with another dark period in German history. The film takes place in East Berlin in 1984, several years before the Wall came down. The infamous East German Secret Police known as Stasi is spying on its citizens with wild abandon with the aim of extinguishing any anti-government thoughts, opinions, or activities. This puts artists of all stripes at risk and many attempt to flee East Germany or face terrible persecution. In this story, a renowned playwright and his girlfriend, one of the country’s most respected actresses, unwittingly become Stasi targets. The most intriguing aspect of the film is the exploration of the impact such surveillance has not only on the people whose lives are being ruined but also on the people doing the watching. There are so many complexities and surprise turns in the film that I’ll say no more except to urge you to go see it. I’ll definitely be rooting for it on Sunday. It’s already won a slew of awards in Europe and at film festivals around the world.
Only two German films have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film: Volker Schlondorff’s terrifying but superb “The Tin Drum” in 1979, and Caroline Link’s moving “Nowhere in Africa” in 2002. Both films address the country’s Nazi past head-on. Maybe modern German films will always be viewed through a World War II lens, even when the story is not directly related to this time period. My favorite German films of recent memory include “Good-bye Lenin,” “Run, Lola, Run,” “Das Boot,” “The Goebbels Experiment,” and “Downfall.” There’s no question that German filmmakers were among the pioneers of this art form, whether they eventually established new roots in Hollywood or participated in the various political nightmares experienced by their country.