In 2014, film journalist Rüdiger Suchsland released From Caligari to Hitler, a documentary about the cinema of Weimar Germany. This period, which preceded the Nazis’ rise to power, was an era of great creativity, and Suchsland’s documentary covered many films still revered today, such as Murnau’s Nosferatu and Lang’s Metropolis. Now, Suchsland takes on a thornier subject – the cinema of Nazi Germany.
Most overviews of German film history tend to gloss over 1933 to 1945, or to focus solely on the most notorious propaganda films, particularly Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens and Olympia. But, as Suchsland explores, the Third Reich had a highly productive cinema industry, albeit one tailored to promote the messages of the state, with around 1000 feature films produced.
While many of these films are clearly, to modern eyes, blatant propaganda – from Hitler Youth coming-of-age drama Hitlerjunge Quex to the shockingly antisemitic Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) – many others reflect another objective: Hitler wanted a film industry to rival Hollywood. There were exotic fantasies, romantic melodramas, and musical revues, all of which may not seem as in-your-face fascist but which aimed to distract the masses from thinking about the state of society outside the cinema and to subtly promote classical German culture.
There were no more auteurs to match Lang or Murnau during this period (Suchsland makes the point that Nazi cinema had one auteur – Joseph Goebbels), but a few Nazi-critical filmmakers did manage to sneak the occasional anti-authority message into their work, which makes for another fascinating strand here.
The history of the period is shown chronologically, which is probably the best approach to understanding the period, though it does mean there are occasionally odd thematic jumps between sections. Nevertheless, it’s energetically edited with mountains of archive clips, while the narration is informative and hits the delicate balance between objectively analysing the films and remaining critical of the abhorrent motives behind them. The Blu-ray gives the choice of the original German narration or an English dub by the relaxing tones of cult horror star Udo Kier.
It’s fascinating stuff, not least because this era of film history is rarely explored, especially in formats as accessible as this. That said, the historical context is more interesting than any individual film; whereas you might have come out of From Caligari to Hitler with a list of Weimar movies you want to track down and see, you’re unlikely to do so here.
Speaking of which, From Caligari to Hitler is also included on the disc, so you can enjoy both, which makes this very good value for money for anyone with half an interest in cinema history.
HITLER'S HOLLYWOOD / CERT: UNRATED / DIRECTOR: RUDIGER SUCHSLAND / STARRING: UDO KIER, ADOLF HITLER, JOSEPH GOEBBELS, ILSE WERNER, LENI RIEFENSTAHL, HANS ALBERS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW