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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Television Under the Swastika (review)

The Nazi Channel

When you think “early television,” you think Ernie Kovacs and The Twilight Zone and Edward R. Murrow and I Love Lucy and quiz scandals and Rockefeller Center and the NBC peacock and doctors endorsing cigarettes. Turns out, though, that the 1950s were not the beginning of TV as a mass medium: that was happening way back in 1935, when Nazi Germany began regular broadcasts to “television parlors,” public places where ordinary volk could go to watch the daily propaganda, as well as to the several thousands TV sets, with their big, enormous 8-by-10 screens, that landed in the homes of the Nazi elite.
Crap. The Nazis had TV in 1935? Turns out they thought they were in a race against time with the United States and Great Britain to bring TV to the people, so they plunged ahead with it. I guess we should be grateful they focused on television first and left the A-bomb for later. Good thing, too, that they didn’t win the war, or Mars would have been Nazi by 1975.

Most of these Nazi broadcasts happened live, so there’s no record of many of them, but when 285 reels of material turned up in the Berlin Federal Film Archive, German documentarian Michael Kloft went to work assembling them into the brief but spellbinding Television Under the Swastika. It’s sort of amazing, how not-different from today’s TV a lot of it is. There’s interviews with Nazi muckety-mucks blabbering nonsense about politics; chats with housewives and farmers about their opinions of what’s going on in the world; sports — the 1936 Olympics! (no Jesse Owens, though); cabaret acts (the dancing cowgirl with her lasso is an accidental peek inside the Nazi psyche, which clearly had a love for at least some things American); and a lot more that, except for a certain lack of polish, is pretty recognizably what TV turned into.

It’s all propaganda, of course — the clips from the staged “documentary” about a camp for young women designed to turn them into good housewives is a hoot — but hell, that’s true of at least half of what we see on TV today… and we probably don’t even realize which half. Nazi TV during the war are even more sad, or more hilarious, or both. Broadcasts ran all the way through September 1944, though by then they were mostly aimed at soldiers recuperating in hospitals, entertainment to cheer them up. The clip about how great life is as a double amputee — you can even dance with pretty girls after losing both your legs! — looks a helluva lot like those 1950s hygiene films U.S. teens were subjected to a decade later. And we know how honest and unbiased those were…

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