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Popular Cinema of the Third Reich

Popular Cinema of the Third Reich

An overview of Third Reich cinema through the lens of national cinema studies.

January 2002
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288 pages | 6 x 9 | 16 b&w photos |

Too often dismissed as escapist entertainment or vilified as mass manipulation, popular cinema in the Third Reich was in fact sustained by well-established generic conventions, cultural traditions, aesthetic sensibilities, social practices, and a highly developed star system—not unlike its Hollywood counterpart in the 1930s. This pathfinding study contributes to the ongoing reassessment of Third Reich cinema by examining it as a social, cultural, economic, and political practice that often conflicted with, contradicted, and compromised the intentions of the Propaganda Ministry. Nevertheless, by providing the illusion of a public sphere presumably free of politics, popular cinema helped to sustain the Nazi regime, especially during the war years.

Rather than examining Third Reich cinema through overdetermined categories such as propaganda, ideology, or fascist aesthetics, Sabine Hake concentrates on the constituent elements shared by most popular cinemas: famous stars, directors, and studios; movie audiences and exhibition practices; popular genres and new trends in set design; the reception of foreign films; the role of film criticism; and the representation of women. She pays special attention to the forced coordination of the industry in 1933, the changing demands on cinema during the war years, and the various ways of coming to terms with these filmic legacies after the war. Throughout, Hake's findings underscore the continuities among Weimar, Third Reich, and post-1945 West German cinema. They also emphasize the codevelopment of German and other national cinemas, especially the dominant Hollywood model.

  • Preface
  • 1. Popular Cinema, National Cinema, Nazi Cinema: A Definition of Terms
  • 2. Made in 1933: German-Jewish Filmmakers and the Forced Coordination of the Industry
  • 3. Cinema, Set Design, and the Domestication of Modernism
  • 4. At the Movies: Film Audiences and the Problem of Spectatorship
  • 5. Stars: Heinz Rühmann and the Performance of the Ordinary
  • 6. Detlef Sierck and Schlußakkord (Final Chord, 1936): A Case Study of Film Authorship
  • 7. The Foreign and the Familiar: On German-American Film Relations, 1933-1940
  • 8. The Annexation of an Imaginary City: The Topos "Vienna" and the Wien-Film AG
  • 9. The Power of Thought: Redefining Popular Cinema between Realism and Illusionism
  • 10. A Question of Representation: Working Women and Wartime Cinema
  • 11. The Legacies of the Past in the Cinema of Postwar Reconstruction
  • Notes
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index of German Titles and Names
  • Index

Sabine Hake is Professor of German at the University of Pittsburgh.


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Why another study on the cinema of the Third Reich, and why now? The slow unification of both Germanys after the opening of the Berlin Wall and the changing political landscape in Europe since the 1990s have brought a renewed interest in the Third Reich, especially around issues of popular culture and everyday life. Many factors have contributed to this development: the revisionist histories of the Third Reich and their relevance to the conception of postwar Germany; the confrontation with the legacies of the German Democratic Republic and the old Federal Republic; the heated debates around appropriate forms of public commemoration in relation to the Holocaust and World War II; and the growing attention to questions of nation and national identity in the new Berlin Republic.

In the cultural sphere, the return to conventional genre films since the 1990s has demonstrated the importance of indigenous popular traditions. Contributing to this trend, German film scholars have turned to the cinema of the Third Reich and begun to explore previously neglected areas and uncharted territories in what is still regarded by many as a highly problematic period of film history. Most initiatives have been informed by the desire to move beyond deterministic theories of propaganda and ideology and incorporate more film-specific methods and inquiries. The main focus has been on the so-called Unterhaltungsfilme (literally, entertainment films) that, more than anything, confirm the pervasive influence of popular culture. Among other things, this revisionist project has drawn attention to the conflicts, contradictions, and compromises in a cinema all too often dismissed as escapist entertainment or vilified as mass manipulation. Yet what still deserves to be examined in greater detail are the heterogeneous elements, including the social fantasies, cultural traditions, economic interests, and institutional pressures, that thrive even under the conditions of state ownership or control.

It is in response to these larger debates that my study on popular cinema in the Third Reich calls for the normalization of German film history. Until unification, Third Reich cinema has been treated as the ultimate Other of German cinema and its competing discourses of art cinema, popular cinema, and national cinema. Especially the totalizing views of cinema and propaganda, ideology, and the fascist imaginary have provided a substitute for detailed historical research and political analysis. Likewise, the circular reasoning behind much writing (e.g., cinema as ideology as cinema) has produced the kind of extraterritorial space, or bifurcated narrative, that makes possible the reconstruction of an untainted filmic tradition associated with Weimar cinema, exile cinema, DEFA cinema, and New German cinema. The more Third Reich cinema is conceptualized in the homogenizing terms of domination and conformity, the more the pre-1933 and post-1945 years can be associated with a liberating heterogeneity. The identification of fascist mass culture with classical Hollywood cinema often has a similar effect, with the blanket dismissal of these two extreme examples of the culture industry opening up a space for the (often posthumous) validation of modernist practices and postmodern sensibilities. Normalization in this overdetermined context therefore means the recognition of the continuities on the aesthetic, cultural, social, and economic levels that haunt the history of German film beyond all ideological divisions and political ruptures; it also means an acute awareness of the paradoxical, asymmetrical, and nonsynchronous relationship between cinema and politics both then and now. As a result, Third Reich cinema can no longer be treated as an aberration of the past but must be acknowledged as an integral part of the aesthetic and ideological legacies of the twentieth century, including its traumas and burdens.

The present book contributes to the reassessment of popular cinema in the Third Reich by redefining both the subject and the method of investigation. Three basic assumptions inform my thinking about the material to be presented on the following pages. First, cinema in the Third Reich was above all a popular cinema sustained by well-established generic conventions, cultural traditions, aesthetic sensibilities, social practices, and a highly developed star system. Second, these popular forms and styles developed through the selective incorporation of elements from the pre-1933 period into post-1933 cultural practices and the ongoing transformation of these elements in the productive encounter with other national cinemas, especially the dominant Hollywood model. Third, the discourses of the popular and the political remained at odds with each other and, based on their different investment in the national and the international, and the modern and the traditional, entered into highly unstable and invariably provisional alliances. Beyond the institutional and ideological pressures typical of any state-controlled cinema, the often evoked specter of a media dictatorship remained precisely that: a phantasmagoria. However, this phantasmagoria also opened up a space for the convergence of popular traditions, cultural ambitions, and international styles in the building of a public sphere presumably free of politics.

Paying equal attention to the constituent elements of popular cinema is relevant not only for the rewriting of film history but also for a better understanding of the politics of entertainment during (and after) the Third Reich. In light of these wider implications, the prevailing filmic forms and practices can no longer be reduced to the opposition of entertainment vs. propaganda, nor can they be examined solely through the intentions of the Propaganda Ministry or the thematic overlaps with key ideas in Nazi ideology. Instead the process of incorporation, transformation, and instrumentalization must be evaluated in the larger context of German cinema, including its history and historiography. For this reason, I propose to shift the terms of the debate from the study of individual films to the examination of popular cinema as a social, cultural, economic, and political practice. That means: to move beyond the text-based models shared by the earliest studies on film propaganda and the most recent theories of the fascist imaginary and to develop further the contextual models that show popular cinema as a historically specific articulation of social fantasies and mentalities and examine its relevance as an ongoing negotiation of conflicting positions and influences. Key to this conceptual realignment is the insistence on cinema as a material practice and historical force. Yet new insights into the simultaneously stabilizing and destabilizing function of popular cinema can only be gained through approaches that recognize its multiple functions as a local and national industry, a cultural institution, a public sphere, a social experience, and, of course, a fantasy machine.

Defining popular cinema as a dynamic process that involves aesthetic styles and social practices, cultural traditions and economic products, public institutions and private imaginations, and, last but not least, various notions of "the popular" expands the area of investigation not only in relation to the constituent elements and processes. Greater awareness of the complex nature of popular cinema and its privileged moments of crisis, controversy, and compromise also forces us to rethink many of the tacit assumptions about the sociopsychological function of mass entertainment in the Third Reich and, more generally, in modern Germany. In particular, the event-based nature of cinema brings out the most effective forms of negotiation and the most important areas of contention in the social and cultural practices that are implicated in, but never reducible to, dominant ideology.

The theoretical implications of approaching popular cinema as a site of ongoing struggle are far-reaching. In terms of German film history, the focus on typical genres, tastes, and styles draws attention to the discontinuous continuities—that is, the prevailing modes of representation and their changing critical and aesthetic investments—that defined classical genre cinema from the late 1920s to the 1950s. Moreover, the attention to industry practices and audience expectations highlights the extensive exchanges, again with the necessary modifications, between a self-consciously national (and nationalistic) cinema and the kind of international tendencies and developments associated with Hollywood. In terms of modern German history, the emphasis on popular traditions shifts the terms of the debate from a deterministic relationship between cinema and ideology to the often inconsistent articulation of that relationship in economic strategies, political measures, artistic traditions, social movements, and, perhaps most importantly, popular tastes and mentalities. And in terms of film studies, the combination of textual and historical analysis moves the study of popular cinema beyond the binaries of propagandistic vs. escapist, subversive vs. affirmative, or innovative vs. conformist that continue to influence the debates on the fascist imaginary in often unproductive ways.

As I want to argue, popular cinema in the Third Reich must be approached through its inherent contradictions. On the one hand, its most successful genres and most popular stars confirm the formative influence of the early Weimar sound period and point to even stronger connections with the classical Hollywood cinema of the 1930s. On the other hand, the Gleichschaltung (forced coordination) of the industry in 1933 completed the institutional alignment with the ideology of National Socialism, primarily through the new anti-Semitic measures and the creation of a highly politicized genre, the so-called Staatsauftragsfilm (state-commissioned film). On the one hand, the identification of popular cinema with escapist entertainment helped to maintain the institutional divisions between high and low culture and between the public and private sphere of which cinema had always been an integral part. On the other hand, the affinities of popular cinema with consumerism, urbanism, and everyday life dissolved these bourgeois categories of distinction into more elusive configurations between aesthetics and politics, power and desire. On the one hand, the emphasis on fantasy and illusion made popular cinema a privileged site for the imaginary resolution of social and psychological conflicts and therefore instrumental to the preservation of the status quo. On the other hand, the cinematic experience in the widest sense gave rise to other meanings and effects that, while not subversive as such, often threatened the overall system of prohibitions, restrictions, and controlled transgressions.

Articulating some of these contradictions, the book is organized around different aspects of popular cinema and, by extension, elements of film analysis (e.g., genres, stars, directors, audiences). By exposing Third Reich cinema to these categories, the following eleven chapters try to shed light on the cinema's precarious position between political, social, and economic interests; regional, national, and international influences; high and low culture, as well as modern and antimodern definitions of art and design; petit bourgeois, popular, populist, and völkisch traditions; and the various ideologies that sustained classical narrative cinema during the 1930s and early 1940s, including the ideology of National Socialism. In such an expanded definition of popular cinema, the popular and its affiliated terms (e.g., populist, folkloric, petit bourgeois) open up a new perspective not only on German cinema before 1933 and after 1945 but also on the function of film history and, by extension, of cultural history in the conceptualization of popular culture in relation to national culture, regional culture, and folk culture.

Several assumptions entered into the selection and presentation of the historical material. First, only a context-based definition of popular cinema is able to reconstruct the processes of appropriation, incorporation, and transformation that connected filmic practices after 1933 to the Weimar period and to classical Hollywood cinema and that facilitated the many overlaps with musical, literary, and theatrical culture. Second, the mass appeal of popular cinema must be examined through the functioning of cinema as social experience and public event and, furthermore, through its affinities with modern design, urban lifestyles, and other mass media practices. Third, the ideological functions of popular cinema, whether in relation to classical narrative cinema or the fascist public sphere, have to be assessed primarily through its successes and failures—that is, through those moments where the plans about political indoctrination and mass manipulation are implemented, modified, or abandoned altogether.

While taking the form of self-contained essays, the individual chapters are organized in a roughly chronological fashion that acknowledges the considerable differences between the prewar and war years and pays close attention to the filmic legacies associated with the years before 1933 and after 1945. In the selection of the material, I have tried to strike a balance between relatively unknown topics (e.g., film theory in the Third Reich) and topics with heightened relevance to film theoretical debates (e.g., Detlef Sierck and authorship). Moreover, I have made an effort to include a wide variety of primary and secondary sources that, in ranging from star biographies to studio histories and reception studies, are bound to bring out the complexities and contradictions of the historical period under investigation. Finally, I have emphasized the perspective of the typical, the average, and the ordinary in order to move away from the few privileged texts that have been enlisted in the creation of a new symptomatology of fascism.

Accordingly, Chapter 1 looks at the peripheral role of popular cinema in the existing scholarship on propaganda and ideology and proposes a critical reassessment of ambiguous terms such as "escapist" and "entertainment" and their discursive function in the context of national cinema and popular culture. Chapter 2 reflects on the historical designation "made in 1933" by measuring the impact of anti-Semitism through the thematization of exclusion in two romantic comedies by German-Jewish directors. Chapter 3 considers the legacies of high modernism in the work of several famous set designers from the Weimar years and traces the domestication of the modern style from the technological thrillers of the early 1930s to the woman's films of the early 1940s. Chapter 4 gives an overview of the extensive debates on audiences in the trade press and in academic scholarship and shows to what degree mass-psychological theories served to address persistent concerns about the elusive conditions of film reception. Chapter 5 enlists the screen persona of Heinz Rühmann and his approach to comic acting in a sustained reflection on the crisis of modern masculinity and petit bourgeois consciousness.

To continue with this brief overview, Chapter 6 uses a close reading of Detlef Sierck's Schlußakkord to look at film authorship in relation to the stylistic possibilities of melodrama and the genre's precarious alliance with artistic and cultural ambitions after 1933. Chapter 7 expands the concept of national cinema into international practices by comparing the undiminished appeal of Hollywood films during the 1930s and the very different situation of German films in U.S. markets. Chapter 8 follows the changing meaning of "Vienna" as an important cultural and political topos in German and Austrian films made before and after the annexation, with special attention paid to Willi Forst's Vienna Trilogy. Chapter 9 approaches the extensive writings on film during the Third Reich as part of an ongoing, and ultimately failed, effort to incorporate older discourses of filmic realism into a more flexible aesthetic of reception indebted to fascist notions of populism and folk culture. Chapter 10 analyzes the overdetermined function of women, and the problem of modern femininity, by looking at the representation of working women in wartime cinema. And Chapter 11 considers the diverse attempts at coming to terms with the cinema's own past in a number of postwar films about, and with, famous stars from the Third Reich.

The individual chapters are designed in the form of case studies that, while contributing to a coherent argument about the highly adaptable nature of popular cinema, cannot be reduced to one particular thematic focus or conceptual category. In response to the particular difficulties of writing about cinema in the Third Reich, I have chosen an approach that articulates my resistance to totalizing models on both the conceptual and analytical levels. Aiming at a kaleidoscopic effect, as it were, every chapter is structured around one particular problem or problematic. To give an example, Chapter 4 on film audiences focuses on the prevailing debates on audience preferences during the Third Reich but also considers the wider implications of introducing a category like reception into the study of a cinema often described as totalitarian. Ideally every critical category sheds light on all the other categories and, in so doing, contributes to the process of historical revision that draws attention to the economic, ideological, cultural, and social influences and the pervasiveness of institutional and aesthetic compromises. Moreover, every aspect of popular cinema interacts with all the other aspects in order to bring out the multitude of filmic practices that can neither be reduced to, nor separated from, the ideological and institutional pressures associated with National Socialism, the Propaganda Ministry, and the film industry during the Third Reich.

Within this kaleidoscopic structure, the individual chapters are nonetheless connected to each other through a number of recurring themes: the generic and stylistic traditions that link filmic practices in the Third Reich to the Weimar period and the postwar years (2 and 11); the centrality of classical narrative cinema and the star system (7 and 11); the persistent problems in defining the project of national cinema against the dominance of Hollywood and through alliances with other German-speaking cinemas (7 and 9); the almost compulsive concern with identity, especially in relation to gender and class (1 and 10); the preoccupation with audiences and questions of spectatorship (4 and 9); the strong ties between popular cinema and musical culture and the heavy reliance on literary and theatrical traditions (6 and 9); and, last but not least, the continuous compromises on all levels between film as art, entertainment, commodity, and propaganda (5 and 6).

As regards the wider implications of this study, my reasons for creating these kaleidoscopic effects can be summarized as follows: First, by focusing on popular cinema, I hope to move beyond the conceptual models that subordinate filmic practices to theories of fascism or the culture industry, and, in so doing, stabilize their more problematic qualities through the aesthetic and ideological effects attributed to popular cinema. Second, by organizing my argument around the main elements of cinema, rather than those of politics and ideology, I want to emphasize what I have earlier described as discontinuous continuities in German cinema before 1933 and after 1945 and in international developments during the 1930s and early 1940s. From such a perspective, what is at stake is no longer just the cinema of the Third Reich, but German cinema as a whole.

Of course, my intention is neither to depict popular cinema in the Third Reich as merely an artistically inferior or ideologically more insidious version of Hollywood; nor to disregard the conditions of production and reception in a state-controlled cinema and incorporate its films into an undifferentiated body of work—that is, of mass entertainment—available to changing forms of cultural consumption. On the contrary, it is my belief that only this process of historical revision will bring into relief the particular characteristics—the Otherness—of German cinema after 1933, and do so precisely through the practices shared with other national cinemas of the period. Only by moving beyond the double dangers of demonization and banalization can we engage productively with the continuous challenge of the Third Reich to present-day debates on popular culture and political ideology.



“This is an immaculately researched, sophisticatedly argued investigation into the richly varied aspects of popular cinema during the Third Reich. . . . The result is an impressive, highly informative, and insightful book.”
Alice Kuzniar, Professor of German and Comparative Literature, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


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