'Hitler's Hollywood': Film Review

Fascinating for history and film buffs alike.

Rudiger Suchsland's cinematic essay examines films produced during Nazi-era Germany.

Rudiger Suchsland's documentary chronicling German cinema during the Nazi era has the perverse effect of making you want to watch many of the films under discussion. It's understandable, considering the fascinating clips on display from scores of movies, and that's only from a fraction of the 1,000 or so produced between 1933 and 1945. Providing important historical and sociological context, Hitler's Hollywood emerges as a compelling cinematic essay that should be essential viewing for cinephiles and history buffs alike. The documentary is receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere at NYC's Film Forum.

The second entry in a planned trilogy on the history of German cinema (2014's From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses was the first), the documentary makes clear how movies were an essential element of the Nazi propaganda machine. "Film was the Hitler regime's primary means of communicating with the masses," intones the narrator, German actor Udo Kier, whose voice somehow sounds menacing even when delivering academic pronouncements. Indeed, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels controlled virtually every aspect of the industry, maintaining an iron grip over creative decisions as the government took control of all the film companies including the largest, UFA, whose owners had helped Hitler rise to power. Needless to say, it was not an era of auteur filmmakers. Many talented actors and directors fled the country, including Marlene Dietrich, Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre and Fritz Lang.

Of the many films produced by the Third Reich, roughly half were musicals or comedies, feeding the public's voracious appetite for escapist entertainment. There were also historical costume epics, romantic dramas and, toward the end of the war, elaborately produced fantasies. Many films extolled the glories of death in defense of the Fatherland. Like Hollywood, there was a star system, with the most popular screen performers lavishly paid for their services. We also see a clip from a drama featuring a 23-year-old Ingrid Bergman, who just a few years later would portray a resistance fighter in the Hollywood classic Casablanca.

Interestingly, Hitler himself preferred, and privately watched, such Hollywood product as Mickey Mouse cartoons and Frank Capra films, which may account for the German remake of It Happened One Night.

The copious excerpts from German films of the era prove fascinating, from the Sherlock Holmes movie in which he and Dr. Watson appear to have a very intimate relationship to the drama about a teenage boy who finds true happiness upon becoming a member of the Hitler Youth. Then, of course, there are the blatantly anti-Semitic films, from the notorious Jew Suss and The Rothschilds to a drama about the Titanic in which its sinking is blamed on Jewish greed.

The documentary also effectively links the Nazis' use of films to convey their messages with their elaborately staged and choreographed public events. "The politics of aesthetics were followed by the aesthetic of politics," the narration points out. And with regard to the government's agenda for its cinema, Hannah Arendt, one of several scholars whose work is quoted, wrote, "What convinces masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the illusion." It makes you glad that Hitler didn't have Twitter at his disposal.

Production: LOOKSfilm, ZDF/Arte
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Director/screenwriter: Ruidger Suchsland
Producer: Martina Haubrich
Director of photography: Anne Burger
Editor: Ursula Purrer
Composers: Lorenz Dangel, Michael Hartmann

105 minutes