Nazis: we hate these guys. But can we learn anything from the wildly popular propaganda films they made for German and occupied-Europe audiences in the 1930s and 40s? That’s the question German documentarian Felix Moeller explores in his Forbidden Films: The Hidden Legacy of Nazi Film.
This is a frustrating movie in some ways: if you’re expecting, as I was, a thorough look at the Nazi films themselves, you will be disappointed. We get snippets of some of the most notorious of the movies, such as 1940’s Jew Süss, a historical drama that some consider the most anti-Semitic film ever made (though I learned this from Wikipedia, not from this doc), and 1941’s Homecoming, which defended the Nazi invasion of Poland by recasting it as a matter of self-defense against the horrible anti-German Poles. (Apparently at least some of these movies are available on YouTube, which one historian here calls a “hotbed” of neo-Nazi activity. I haven’t searched for them.) But Forbidden Films is more about the controversial debate in Germany over whether these films should be shown publicly; many are still banned outright except for screening under severe restrictions, and then only for educational purposes. And that is a fascinating discussion, which Moeller captures via interviews with filmmakers, film historians, relatives of those who worked in the Nazi film industry, and ordinary members of the public at carefully controlled screenings in Berlin, Paris, and Jerusalem. One seemingly sane and reasonable audience member, a man who is far from a child, is surprised to “learn” the “truth” about the Nazis in Poland, which underscores the power of these films to sway the ignorant with their lies and manipulations.
And that is the real power of Forbidden Films even for those of us outside Germany. The Nazis films were first and foremost entertainment, and were as popular as entertaining movies were in the U.S. and other Allied nations in the decades before television. More people saw Jew Süss, Moeller notes, than have seen Titanic or Avatar in recent decades… which is the same thing you could say about Gone with the Wind. Quite apart from the historical and educational value of the Nazi films — which is enormous, of course — is the subtle warning to us movie lovers today, to be aware of the seductive power of movies. Of any well-crafted pop culture, really. Have you been seduced into believing something you might not otherwise accept? It’s a chilling thought.