What does cinema know that we don’t? That is the intriguing question posed by two powerful documentaries about the cinematic legacy of the Nazi era and the Weimar Republic respectively.
Inspired by the work of critical theorist and film critic Siegfried Kracauer, Hitler’s Hollywood investigates Nazi cinema as a style unto itself, completely under the control of the Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels.
A narration delivered by legendary actor Udo Kier describes Nazism as “a cult of death”, which is made abundantly clear in films that valorise youthful self-sacrifice (recruitment film Hitlerjugend Quex), operatic nihilism (war epic Kolberg) and geometric mass hysteria (Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious Triumph of the Will).
The result was a grotesque state-controlled “dream factory”, with a cast of stars making comedies and musicals, and earning huge riches. It is a great shock to discover that both Ingrid Bergman and director Douglas Sirk (to name only two) first plied their trade in the Third Reich before emigrating to Hollywood.
Viewing extended sequences from these notorious films is bracing to say the very least, especially when it comes to the truly horrifying antisemitism of Jud Süss. The documentary brings the current use of such repellent tropes into sharp focus, and reveals their true, noxious origin.
However, there are films of genuine merit, such as GW Pabst’s medieval allegory Paracelsus and Kautner’s Port of Freedom — rare glimpses behind the façade that speak to a future beyond the horrors of the regime.
Perhaps the fatalism of Kracauer’s work — looking for signs of the rise of Nazism in the evolution of German cinema — comes from the absolute destruction of what had gone before.
The second film on the DVD is Suchsland’s preceding film From Caligari to Hitler. Although it is more conventionally structured, including interviews with leading academics and film directors, it is even more ambitious, daring to chronicle the history of Weimar Republic cinema, a development of Siegfried Kracauer’s ideas as well as a social history of the Republic itself.
Described as “a hothouse of cultural production”, the incredible richness of Weimar cinema pours forth: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, F W Murnau’s Nosferatu, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and the star power of Louise Brooks, Marlene Dietrich, Gustaf Grundgens and Peter Lorre.
But new and compelling names emerge to take their place alongside them: UFA producer Erich Pommer, pioneering directors Marie Harder, Walter Ruttmann and Werner Hochbaum. Their films are a treasure trove of life in Weimar Germany, and many of them, such as Brothers, People on Sunday and Raid on St Pauli, are unashamed evocations of working class life during an era of great turmoil.
This is the legacy that the Nazis sought to obliterate, but as the veteran director Volker Schlondorff says at one point, “these were finally fathers we could identify with”.
This pair of documentaries illuminates two contentious cinematic worlds that have too often been cast in shadow, and are a must for film buffs and social historians.