'Forbidden Films': New York Jewish Film Festival Review

Forbidden Films Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Film Society Lincoln Center

Forbidden Films Still - H 2015

Fascinating viewing for both film and history buffs

Felix Moeller's documentary explores the issue of whether films produced by the Third Reich should receive public exposure.

For most people, the brief excerpts presented in Forbidden Films of several of the 40 remaining films produced by the Nazis between the years 1933-1945 will be the only opportunity they have to see them. Felix Moeller's compelling documentary asks the provocative question — is this a good thing? Should these incendiary films, whose distribution is banned in Germany and many other countries, be kept under lock and key, shown only in tightly controlled academic situations? Or should contemporary audiences be exposed to their venality? The documentary recently shown at the New York Jewish Film Festival has been acquired for theatrical distribution by Zeitgeist Films, which should lead to further discussion of the issue.

As that famous film buff and Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels noted in his diaries, "Film is our most important medium of propaganda." To that end, the Third Reich produced some 1,200 films during their reign. Forbidden Films features scenes from many of the most notorious among them, including such anti-Semitic works as Jew Suss and The Eternal Jew. Also included is commentary from various German academics and historians, as well as discussions among audiences at the limited screenings they're provided.

It's a fascinating debate with no easy answers. Some argue that banning the films only increases their dark appeal, and that many of them are available via the internet and various underground sources anyway. Others say that their release will only incite further hatred and anti-Semitism, already a pervasive problem throughout certain European countries.

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One of the more fascinating interviews features comments from two neo-Nazis, seen only in shadow, who not surprisingly are fans of the vintage films with which they are clearly familiar.

Among the startling facts revealed is that Jew Suss was seen by more German citizens upon its release than such hit contemporary films as Titanic and Avatar.

Not all of the films dealt with Jewish themes. The Homecoming purported to depict Poland's persecution of its minority German citizens, in a complete reversal, as one expert points out, of what actually happened. There are anti-French films, anti-British films, anti-Russian films and even a drama promoting euthanasia, a philosophy that the Nazis wholeheartedly embraced.

We hear from audience members at several screenings, with one attendee saying about Jew Suss that "It makes me ill because it was so good."

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Ironically, there's more support in other countries for releasing the films in countries than in Germany. One commentator points out after a screening in Jerusalem that Israelis are generally more tolerant about their exposure than Germans.

The documentary also includes excerpts from several films that were edited, or "de-Nazified," to remove their more incendiary content. But that raises the question of whether these altered films are historically accurate.

While the onscreen debate about the issues occasionally proves a bit dry, there's no denying the inherent twisted power of the films themselves. Such scenes as the ones depicting Jewish bankers drawing a map of the world as a Star of David in The Rothschilds or a teenage boy defying his father to join the Hitler Youth in Hitler Youth Quex have a queasy fascination that only accentuates the moral issues involved in their seeing the light of day.

Production: Blueprint Film
Director/screenwriter: Felix Moeller
Producers: Amelie Latscha
Directors of photography: Isabelle Casez, Aline Laszlo, Ludolph Weyer
Editor: Annette Muff
Composer: Bjorn Wiese

No rating, 94 minutes