Infamous but Seldom-Seen Films of the Third Reich Will Get a Rare Screening

<i> Biederman is a Times staff writer</i>

To the world’s misfortune, Joseph Goebbels loved movies.

At the height of the Nazi madness, Hitler’s Minister of People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda still managed to screen one virtually every day.

He even had a personal print of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Goebbels liked to pluck starlets from the sound stages of the Fatherland, but he also admired film itself. He loved its immediacy and, perhaps most of all, its power to persuade. The real-life movie mogul from hell, he turned film into a weapon that helped murder millions. In the process, he left a shambles the film world that was one of the genuine treasures of Germany before the Third Reich.


Movies made during the dozen years in which Goebbels dominated the German film world are being screened this month at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Tainted by their association with Hitler, these movies are rarely screened. “There’s 12 years of German filmmaking that, by and large, have not been seen in this country,” said Ronald Haver, the museum’s curator of film.

To be screened as part of “From Caligari to Hitler,” the museum’s current series on German film, the Nazi movies range from politically innocuous comedies to such vicious propaganda as “Jud Suss” (“Jew Suss”), still banned in Germany today.

In their unexpected variety, the movies are an illuminating adjunct to the museum’s upcoming show on “ ‘Degenerate Art’: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany,” which opens Feb. 17. While the exhibition will document the art condemned by the Nazis, the films “will show what they considered acceptable,” Haver said.

William Moritz, described by Haver as a leading expert on German film, selected the National Socialist movies. Moritz, who teaches film and video at CalArts, explained that the Nazis inherited a filmmaking industry that was admired worldwide for its innovation and technical excellence. German directors such as Ernst Lubitsch and F.W. Murnau and stars such as Marlene Dietrich had already moved to Hollywood, not hounded out of Germany but drawn to Southern California by the complex gestalt of factors that had made it the international film capital.

Hitler’s ascent put that emigration on fast forward. In 1933 all Jews were barred from the German film business. Suddenly, Jewish stars such as Elisabeth Bergner vanished from the screen, replaced by certified Aryan gods and goddesses such as Kristina Soderbaum. Getting out was tricky. Those in the German screen trade who lacked money or contacts outside the country were often trapped, even if they had exit visas. A job offer from Hollywood could literally save your life. The fortunate few networked their way out of peril and into the movie business elsewhere as Billy Wilder was able to do in 1933.

Burdened with intractable accents, refugee actors often faced the ironic fate of playing movie Nazis for the rest of their careers.

Goebbels wanted a movie industry free of gays, Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Reich, but he also wanted a financially and artistically triumphant German cinema, Moritz said.

In his view, Goebbels knew a good film when he saw one. He admired “The Battleship Potemkin,” although he wouldn’t allow anyone in Germany to see it except film students and others approved by the Reich.

But, Moritz said, Goebbels’ racism and homophobia--and the stultifying, bureaucratic control he imposed on the movie industry--all but precluded making even half-decent movies. Good Aryans could be promoted into jobs left vacant by the state’s new racial laws but, to Goebbels’ chagrin, the imprimatur of the Reich did not confer talent. Many of the heavily censored films that resulted, Moritz said, “hardly make sense.”

“Goebbels was desperate to retain good filmmakers,” Moritz said. So desperate that the Reich minister would sometimes overlook the legal impediment of Jewish blood if the moviemaker was valuable enough. The most famous instance involved director Fritz Lang, who told Goebbels he would not work for the National Socialists because, after all, Lang was Jewish. “I’ll decide who’s Jewish!” Goebbels ruled.

Lang was able to slip out of Germany, (though not on the first train to Paris, as he claimed, Moritz said). But several other Jewish artists found themselves in the excruciating position of having to stay and make movies for the anti-Semitic regime.

One of the best, in Moritz’s view, was Reinhold Schunzel, whose “Viktor und Viktoria” (1933)--the inspiration for Blake Edwards’ “Victor/Victoria"--and “Amphitryon” (1935) will be screened Saturday at LACMA.

Schunzel’s sly musicals “are both wonderful movies and very subversive,” Moritz said. Ironically, when the English-language version of “Amphitryon” opened in the United States in 1936, it was picketed by Jewish groups and other anti-Fascists. If a few prescient Americans were indignant about what was happening in Nazi Germany, many of the major studios were not so squeamish. Some American studios provided credits stripped of Jewish names when their movies were distributed in Germany. And MGM kept its German offices open until 1940, Paramount until 1941.

Schunzel was able to flee Germany in 1937.

Moritz, who has interviewed more than 50 people who made National Socialist movies, said that many of the best films are characterized by subtle subversion of the values Goebbels so desperately wanted to see reflected on the screen. You needed talent to make a good movie in the Third Reich, but also had to be unusually clever, Moritz said.

Oskar Fischinger made abstract color films that were the quintessence of the avant-garde the Reich denounced as “degenerate.” Yet, as Moritz pointed out, the filmmaker was able to sneak his two-minute “Kreise” (“Circles”) past the Ministry of Propaganda’s eagle eye by adding a plug at the end for an advertising agency that effectively disguised it as a commercial. Fischinger was later an important contributor to Disney’s “Fantasia.” (“Kreise, " made in 1933, will be shown Saturday.)

Among feature filmmakers, one popular strategy for avoiding the worst of the censors’ meddling was to set movies in the past: Contemporary dramas seemed most likely to be cut or banned. Moritz said the regime was apparently oblivious to the parallels between Nazi pretensions and those of the silly deities in “Amphitryon” because the setting was the nonexistent past of classical mythology. Similarly, the medieval setting of the 1943 “Paracelsus” (to be screened Feb. 26) seemed to have blinded the censors to G.W. Pabst’s attack on bureaucracy and dictatorship.

A few in National Socialist films undermined the New Order by their very presence, Moritz said. He singles out “the wonderfully subversive Zarah Leander.” The actress’s 1942 “Die grosse Liebe” (“The Great Love,” to be screened Feb. 22) was the Nazis’ biggest box-office success. In a land where women were expected to cook, produce Aryans and make sacrifices, Leander, who continued to live in her native Sweden, was exotic, self-indulgent and apparently irresistible. The Reich was so prudish it had officially applauded American movie censor Will Hays. But Leander, Moritz said, “was and only could be sexual.”

Only 15% of the 1,350 features made under Goebbels’ supervision were suppressed by the Allies after the war as Nazi propaganda, according to David Stewart Hull, author of the classic “Film in the Third Reich.” Whether the directors were Nazis, closet anti-Fascists or something in between, most of their movies were simply bad, not evil. But even good movies made during the Reich tend to be neglected, Moritz said.

“The films of people like Reinhold Schunzel, Frank Wysbar and Douglas Sirk, who were not Nazis but just happened to be there, don’t deserve to be stigmatized,” he said.

Although a distinct minority, the propaganda films are among the most chilling movies ever made. The worst, “Der ewige Jude” (“The Eternal Jew”), is virtually a mortal sin in the form of a documentary. Made in 1940 and used to desensitize the S.S. and others to the systematic murder of Jews, it is not being shown in the series. But other hateful movies remain. The 1941 “Ohm Kruger” (“Uncle Kruger”), which stars Emil Jannings, blames the British, whom Goebbels called “the Jews of the Aryan race,” for the creation of concentration camps in the Boer War (Wednesday).

Moritz, who will lecture on censorship and propaganda at the Wednesday screenings, believes even these twisted movies should be seen. “It’s very hard to destroy a bad piece of information,” he said. “It’s better to look at it closely and see what it really is. If the audience can be brought to see how propaganda works, that’s a very good lesson.”

“Jud Suss” (1940) is the most controversial movie in the series. A tale of intrigue and rapaciousness in 18th-Century Germany, it was just what Goebbels ordered--an anti-Semitic film with superior production values that worked to incite lethal violence against Jews. Mandatory viewing for the German military, police and the S.S., it was also shown to audiences in countries where concentration camps were being built. It continues to circulate in the Middle East.

Director Veit Harlan claimed, after the war, that he asked to be sent to the front rather than make the movie, whose cast included 120 Jews plucked from the ghetto in Lublin, Poland. Harlan was eventually tried as a war criminal, but charges were dropped for lack of evidence. Ferdinand Marian, who played Suss, apparently tried himself for his involvement in the film and committed suicide.

The film will be shown Feb. 13, with “Power,” a 1934 British movie based on the same novel as “Jud Suss.” “Power” had a Jewish director, Lothar Mendes, and stars, as Suss, Conrad Veidt, who was driven out of Germany by Hitler’s rise. “The original novel by Lion Feuchtwanger, who was Jewish, and the British movie are about anti-Semitism, but they are not anti-Semitic themselves,” Moritz said.

For Goebbels, little was more important than the movies of the Third Reich. When he was trying to get his last, swollen epic “Kolberg” (Feb. 27) made in 1944, his cast of thousands included almost 190,000 soldiers, pulled out of action to serve on the cinematic front. When he learned that the actual Prussian town of Kolberg had been evacuated just ahead of the Russians in 1945, his first response was to suppress the news.

It would have been bad for his picture.

The films will be screened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Times vary, for a complete film series schedule, call the museum box office at (213) 857-6010. Admission: $6 general; $3.50 members, senior and students.