First Run Features and Nazi History

Fascism and Beyond

by Donato Totaro Volume 8, Issue 2 / February 2004 20 minutes (4846 words)

First Run Features has in its collection several films dealing with the Nazis, mostly documentaries, the variety of which give evidence to the continuing interest and fascination with one of modern history’s darkest moments. In this review I will look at three of these DVD’s, two documentaries, Architecture of Doom and The Eye of Vichy, and the fictional The Murderers are Among Us. In Architecture of Doom (1989 German version, 1991 English version) Swedish documentarian Peter Cohen makes a fascinating and compelling argument for the Nazi Third Reich as a perverted aesthetic program. There is no doubt that politics (Fascism) and ideology (racist) are what we think of with the Nazis, but, as Cohen argues, to fully understand and explain Nazism one can not disassociate the political from the aesthetic.

Cohen uses German newsreel footage, documentaries, photos, and newspaper clippings to carve a convincing argument. The central point which links together all the disparate historical clips and footage is that Hitler was driven by an obsession to model all aspects of German life on his own views of what constituted great art. The Nazi plan was in essence a ‘beautification’ of German society through violence. This ‘beautification’ through violence started with culture (avant-garde art), then moved to the social body (unwanted members of society, such as mental patients, gypsies, homosexuals, and the physically deformed), and culminated with a specific, all-around scapegoat, the Jews (racial, economic, moral).

It is no coincidence then, that so many of the Nazi hierarchy were failed artists, starting with Hitler, Goebbels, and Rosenberg. This vacuous, superficial equation of surface beauty and cleanliness with an idyll body politic was transferred onto art, medicine, and urban planning. According to Cohen there were three obsessions that drove Hitler’s quest for a new ‘aestheticised’ Germany: his home town Linz, the musical composer Wagner, and the age of Antiquity (Rome, Greece, Sparta).

The documentary moves chronologically, beginning with Hitler’s long running attack on modernism in art with the soon to be yearly 1933 exhibit “Degenerate Art.” According to Hitler, and backed by selected German art critics, these modern artworks, with their distorted facial features, elongated bodies, heightened and stylized colors, and skewed perspectives, reflected an image of depravity and insanity which, if left unchecked, would lead to a general cultural degeneration. Modernism was seen as a Bolshevik (i.e. Jewish) art, and as such a cultural threat. This simplistic and medically backed association of artistic body distortion with various forms of mental illness and genetic deformations, exemplified in photos and documentaries, typifies the type of ludicrous literalisation which forms the basis of the Nazi ‘philosophy’.

What is especially ironic in the Nazi’s oversimplification of modern art, and something that the documentary does not mention, is that the real source for much of this modernist facial and body distortion was in fact an artistic reaction to the (in some cases first hand) experience of World War 1, and directly, the many war veterans who returned home amputees, maimed, or facially disfigured. The German artist Otto Dix, in particular, served as a machine gun unit commander in World War 1 and was forever affected by his war-time experiences. And the German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who also volunteered for service, and subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown. (“Degenerate Art: A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust”, accessed Dec. 4, 2003).

Film Historian David J. Skal, in his important book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (New York: W.W. Norton & C. Inc., 1993, p. 69), makes a similar analogy between the disfigured or amputee characters played by Lon Chaney in such post-World War 1 films as The Penalty (1920, Tod Browning), A Blind Bargain (1922, Tod Browning), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley, 1923), The Road to Mandaly (1926, Tod Browning), and The Unknown (1927, Tod Browning), and, in particular, Otto Dix’s painting of war-time disfigurement, Transplantation.

Dix was especially reprimanded by the Nazis for his many anti-war paintings, which included Butcher’s Shop (1920), War Wounded (1922), and two works which were featured in the first “Degenerate Art” exhibit, War Cripples (1920) and The Trench (1924).

The list of artists represented in the series of Degenerate Art exhibits was a who’s who of great and important German (and European) Expressionist and New Objectivity artists: to name only a few, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Otto Dix, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Emile Nolde, and Pablo Picasso. All the great art of the Weimar Period was brushed aside as ‘decadent,’ ‘degenerate,’ and ‘morally comprehensible’ in one swift swoop. The effect of this on the artistic community at large was earth shattering. When one thinks of political assassinations of modern art the context that usually comes to mind is the Soviet Union, and the officially State sanctioned art of Socialist Realism, which occurred at around the same period (1932-34) as the first exhibit of Degenerate Art (1933). Undeniably, Soviet art took an abrupt turn post-1932-33 toward an homogenized, formally simplistic, and idealized representation of what Soviet life should be like. But what happened to modern artists in Germany was no less direct and tragic. Dozens of artists, who were once lauded as German masters, instantaneously became targets of vile character assassinations. None of these artists were ever able to attain the previous highs of their career. Many left Germany (Max Beckmann), some remained but had their works confiscated and/or burned and were not allowed to work (Emile Nolde, Otto Dix). Some were arrested (Julius Levin). Some became depressed and committed suicide (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner).1

Parallels also exist between architecture in Germany and the Soviet Union. In the immediate euphoria and zeal of the post-Soviet Revolution period, Constructivist architects designed many utopian buildings and urban plans which never saw the light of construction. Likewise Hitler also had many grandiose architectural plans for monolithic domes, arches, and palaces, some based on his own designs, that never materialized, including Albert Speer’s design for a monumental hall with a dome which would be 17 times the size of St. Peter’s and seat 180,000 people.

In terms of adding vacuous intellectual weight to the Third Reich, standing not too far behind the world of art is the world of medicine. As the documentary notes, 45% of doctors in Germany were members of the Nazi party, the highest figure among professionals. The quickest way for a physician to better his or her career was to join the party and confirm the party’s racist agenda with spurious medical research. Cohen extracts from a documentary entitled Victims of the Past, which makes the unbelievable statistical claim that if the numbers of mentally ill are left to grow naturally, one-quarter of the world’s population would become mentally and/or physically ill. Hence from ‘cleansing’ art it became only a small Nazi step to ‘cleansing’ the body politic of its unwanted ‘ugly’ and ‘sick’. This led to the infamous T4 “Death Facility” where an estimated 70,000 mentally ill and physically handicapped people were exterminated using various types of poisonous gas. This was part of another aesthetically-related Nazi obsession: finding the ‘cleanest’ method to kill. A gas known as Zyklon B, the one used in the Auschwitz concentration camps, would be the eventual winner; and, in keeping with the ‘aura’ of scientific research, a doctor would always be involved in every instance of death by gassing.

From cleansing the physically unwanted, Hitler then moved forward to cleansing the racially unwanted: the Jews. Cohen again shows extracts from one of the most infamous Nazi films, The Eternal Jew, which compares images of poor and downtrodden Jews in the Polish ghettoes with plague carrying rats and vermin.

Another interesting connection that Cohen makes between the Nazis and Aesthetics is how Hitler’s warfare strategies of leveling whole cities and the enslaving and/or genocide of people had more in common with war-time strategies of the Antique era than modern warfare. A final connection that Cohen draws between Hitler’s artistic tastes and his political aims is related to Hitler’s fascination with the popular novelist Karl May (1842-1912). May wrote adventure and travel novels of the Wild West and exotic locations that were mainly intended for young audiences, but were also popular with adults. The point Cohen makes is that May never once visited any of the locations or met any of the foreigners he wrote about, yet wrote about them in detail and with authority. Hitler, Cohen argues, may have been influenced by May’s ‘power of imagination’ in his own idealism-based belief that one’s imagination is all one needs to solve problems and to make wholesale judgments on groups and races of people he had never met. (“The Strange Life and Legacy of Karl May”)

Architecture of Doom ends with one of the few shots filmed from a contemporary standpoint, and perhaps by Peter Cohen’s crew. The scene is a basement in an unspecified Allied country, filled with oil painting portraits of prominent Nazi figures. As the voice-over narration makes its concluding statement on the Nazis, the camera moves screen right to left, most likely hand-held, across the row of portraits. The image seems to be lit by a single light source placed above the camera, causing a spotlight effect on each painting which keeps most of the other paintings in partial darkness. As if to reflect on the noted quality of light, the voice-over continues: “…the obscure mental baggage, the bizarre political notions which constitute a kind of under vegetation in European culture, suddenly saw the light of day with Hitler.” The camera and its moving light rests on the pompous image of Hitler on horseback, dressed in knight’s armor, an image so ludicrous as to reflect on the whole twisted intellectual and cultural posturing of the Nazi Third Reich.

In an online review of the film, Frank Maloney makes the brilliant observation that this final shot is an homage to Citizen Kane. Maloney does not expand on this point, but the parallel is rich in meaning. In the final scene of Citizen Kane the camera cranes down toward a mass of objects to single out a sled, cuts then cranes closer to the sled now inside a furnace, then dissolves to a closer shot of the burning sled, and zooms-in slowly to the letters “Rosebud,” the name of the sled owned by the enigmatic, egomaniacal, and power hungry Charles Foster Kane. The Kane character was a fictional contemporary of Hitler, but it is of course well known that Welles modeled Charles Foster Kane after the millionaire newspaper tycoon and arch conservative William Randolph Hearst, who himself was a staunch anti-communist and who befriended Hitler and helped promote Nazi propaganda in his newspapers.

Aside from its compelling central argument, Architecture of Doom is worth watching if only for the many feet of rarely seen Nazi-shot footage, like for example, shots of Hitler’s breakneck tour of Paris museums and architectural landmarks after the defeat of Paris, or footage of the Degenerate Art exhibits. While Cohen leaves no stone unturned in mounting his argument, I found it surprising that there was no mention of two films which would seem tailor made to suit Cohen’s point, Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous Triumph of the Will (1936) and Olympiad (1938). As it stands, Architecture of Doom constitutes an intriguing piece of historical reconstruction which adds to our understanding of the dark Nazi enigma.

The Eye of Vichy (1993, Claude Chabrol) looks at the Nazi regime from another perspective, as a colonizing power, pulling the strings of France’s puppet government, led by the 84 year-old Marshall Pétain. Operating out of the city of Vichy in the unoccupied part of France, Pétain’s government collaborated with the Nazis and promoted Nazi propaganda while trying to uphold the façade of French Nationalism. This DVD, narrated by actor Brian Cox, is the English language version of the French film. However, the narration is kept to a minimum and appears only when there is a need for an image’s propaganda meaning to be clarified. For example, one newsreel entitled “The Schools of State Police” shows us images of young men in training, while the original voice-over tells us that the school is programmed for 5-week training sessions of new French police cadets. Cox’ voice-over intervenes to tell us that this program was part of a co-coordinated Franco-German plan to train men to help finish off the French Resistance. The film patches together Franco-German newsreels, shorts, documentaries, and perhaps the odd confiscated Allied footage, to reveal “not France as it was, but as the Vichy government and its collaborators wanted it to be seen.” As the voice-over informs us, these were films watched by the French public in cinemas of the (German) occupied and (Vichy governed) unoccupied zones between the 6th of August 1940 to the 3rd of August, 1944.

The chronologically edited montage includes some striking images of Franco-German war-time propaganda from every conceivable angle. A recurring target is, of course, the spreading of anti-Jewish propaganda, with extracts from the documentary films How to Tell a Jew From a Frenchman and The Eternal Jew, and a particularly striking newsreel which speaks about the “Aryanisation” of France’s work force in the unoccupied area. Along with the expected anti-Semitic films are anti-Communist/anti-Socialist and anti-Allied films, which includes footage of Pétain meeting Spanish dictator General Franco; Goebbels making an anti-Bolshevik speech; and the news of the British bombings of Paris accompanied by shots of injured women and children and a voice-over which calls the event a “bloody attack on civilians.”

There is innocuous propaganda as well, such as a newsreel extolling the huge strides made against unemployment by the Vichy government, or films urging the conservation of natural energies. Or a fascinating newsreel which shows how the ‘useless’ old French films of the past are burned for their chemical properties and recycled to make shoe polish, nail polish, etc.

Pro-Pétain propaganda also abounds, with images of Pétain visiting different cities across France to instill confidence in his limpid leadership; shots of him visiting the victims of Allied bombings; and footage of him making his annual Christmas message to the nation warning against a ‘civil war’ in France.

German-France relations are glorified with footage of Germany ‘honorably’ returning Napoleon’s body to France, to be entombed at the Hôtel des Invalides. There are a series of films showing ‘great friendship’ between French and German workers, used to promote the relocation of French workers to Germany. In a follow-up film we learn that Germany will release one French POW for every two French workers. Another newsreel tries to impart to the French the wonders of Hitler’s Youth programs.

Even the losing Battle of Stalingrad is given a positive spin with a newsreel of a German soldier skating along the Volga river as evidence of how well the Germans are adapting to the winter conditions! And there is even the token ‘humanist’ propaganda film, which records an organised film screening for the children of French POWs. As the film nears its end, Chabrol begins to show signs of the writing on the wall for the Vichy government and the Nazis. The Vichy downfall begins with newsreel footage of the funeral of Vichy Head of State Philippe Henriot, assassinated by the Resistance. Chabrol concludes the propaganda parade with brief images from, fittingly, the “Last Newsreel of the Occupation,” a bizarre film entitled “Geneva’s Ethnographic Museum,” perhaps as a metaphor for the extinction of the Vichy Government and the Nazi war machine. Chabrol follows this with three minutes of post-Vichy newsreels, which includes images of Resistance fighters, the liberation of Paris, and Resistance hero Charles de Gaulle’s speech on the ‘real France.’ The final image of the documentary is a high angle shot of a crowded dance floor. The voice-over tells us: “Dances were forbidden for four years, now people are dancing again.”

The one somewhat frustrating aspect of this fascinating film is that we are never sure when a particular juxtaposition is original or the result of director Chabrol’s editing. The newsreels are never identified, so we are never sure where we are. For example, one newsreel promotes the newly formed “Institute for Jewish Research,” which claims to have no allegiance to any political party! The film cuts from a long shot of someone making a speech on behalf of the Institute’s scientific agenda, to an extract from the infamous Nazi documentary, The Eternal Jew. We have no way of knowing whether this montage belongs to the original newsreel or to Chabrol (my guess is the latter). Although this is frustrating, in a sense this reflects the very nature of the newsreel documentary, since we never know where the footage of most newsreels originate from.

For viewers like myself who may be only familiar with war-time propaganda films from Canada, the US, England, and the odd German film, The Eye of Vichy makes fascinating viewing. Today we may think that we are too sophisticated for this type of propaganda to work, but rest assured, the art of propaganda is ever present and, with today’s media saturated news world (terrestrial, cable and satellite television, internet, radio, newspapers, etc), more important to guard against than ever. We must learn from the past, and The Eye of Vichy makes a stern, compelling lesson. The DVD includes a brief ‘colorized’ photographic tour entitled “Inside the Third Reich,” and a Trailer Gallery of other First Run Feature DVDs.

The Murderer is Among Us is, I believe, the only fiction film dealing with the Nazis in the First Run Features catalogue. And yet, the rigorous historical context of the two previous documentary films provides an appropriate backdrop to this, the first fiction film to be produced in Germany after the World War 2. While the Nazi era films were typified by innocuous entertainment fare (costume films, comedies, etc.) and the odd propaganda film, the post-War period saw an immediate return to serious social drama with The Murderers are Among Us. Director Wolfgang Staudte shopped his script around Western Germany, but no one on the Allied side of things was interested in producing a film which so directly dealt with the weight of the Nazis on the collective German psyche. So Staudte took his script to East Germany, where it was eventually produced by the Communist, state-run DEFA studios.

The film tells a seemingly simple story of a budding romance between two people who have returned to a war-torn Berlin after their war-time experiences. Hildegard Knef, a striking beauty who looks like a cross between a young Ginger Rogers and Alida Valli, plays Susanne Wallner, a young woman returning to her home after spending time in a concentration camp. When she arrives at her apartment she learns from an elderly friend, Mr. Mondschein (Robert Forsch), that another man is living in her apartment, a doctor Merten (played by Ernst Wilhelm Borchert), who himself has recently returned from military service. The kindly Susanne consents to allow the embittered and psychologically scarred Dr. Merten to remain in her flat.

From this simple premise director Staudte builds layers of emotional and psychological trauma, using a striking visual blend of baroque expressionism and on-location realism, and a blend of eloquent long takes and symbolic montage. While Wallner represents immediate hope and rejuvenation, we will soon realize that her war-time experiences were not of the measure of Dr. Merten’s, who is burdened with an overwhelming guilt which is etched in his face and drawn out by Staudte in many long takes that allow Merten the time and space to nervously pace or shift in emotional tone from calm silence to loud anger.

Merten, Wallner, Mondschein, and a fourth character introduced later in the film, Mr. Brückner, represent four German archetypes of post-War behavior. While Merten symbolizes the Nation’s guilt over the Nazi horror show, and Miss Wallner represents kind acceptance and hope for the future, Mondschein is the older generation patriarch who clings to false hopes and shattered dreams (the kindly old man clings to his son’s last war-time letter with the hope that he will still return from the war). Brückner represents the callous former Nazi who is able to comfortably live with his past sins and hides behind his petite bourgeois façade. We later learn in the film’s powerful and singular flashback, that Merten and Brückner’s pasts are intertwined. Half-way through the film Merten attempts to kill Brückner, but is thwarted by a mother’s plea that he help her suffocating daughter. The fateful event is critical, in that it not only stops Merten from committing a cold-bloodied murder, but reaffirms his self-faith after he saves the girl from death. In one of the film’s final scenes, set on Christmas eve, Merten once again takes to the street to murder Brückner. He comes across Brückner at a ruined church, where he is leading the chorus of a Christmas hymn. The Christmas setting triggers Merten’s memory, and the film cuts to a flashback which clarifies Merten’s guilt and his urge to kill Brückner.

In the flashback Brückner is a Nazi Captain who we see dressing a Christmas tree in his make-shift office. While performing his Yuletide duties, Captain Brückner calmly gives orders to a partially seen soldier to execute a group of Polish civilians. Merten, a soldier under Brückner’s command, enters his office and pleads with Brückner to call off the execution of innocent women and children, hoping that his appeal to Christmas will convince the Captain. The following mini-montage of four shots tells the gruesome outcome of Merten’s futile mercy plea: Brückner is standing in front of the Christmas tree leading a group of officers in the singing of a hymn. The camera dollies in to a medium close-up of Brückner; cut to a slow dolly in to a crucifix hanging on the wall of the room, surrounded by a helmet and rifle; cut to the final moments of the mass execution; cut to a close-up of a Nazi Report: “December 24, 1942. Execution. 36 men. 54 women. 31 children. 347 rounds of ammunition.”

The flashback comes to an end with a cut to an extreme high angle of Susanne Wallner seated at a table reading from Merten’s diary. She too now realizes Merten’s guilt, and rushes out in search of Merten, in an effort to get to him before he murders Brückner. The scene cuts to a close-up of the diary, with the wind-turned page settling on the words, “Brückner is alive. The Murderers are Among Us.”

At this point it is fitting to mention that the film’s title is a reference to Fritz Lang’s 1930 classic M, which was originally titled The Murderers are Among Us. According to most accounts, the Nazis thought that the title was a sly reference to them, so Lang sensibly changed the title to M. The Murderers are Among Us takes Lang’s cue, by having the title refer to a former Nazi Captain Brückner living a comfortable civilian life in Post-War Germany.

The Christmas setting adds a retroactive meaning to the film’s opening shot, which is an elaborate crane up which moves behind a make-shift crucifix jutting out from the ground amid the ruins of Berlin, with Merten visible in the background. By placing the film’s horrible event at Christmas time, Staudte seems to be saying that any ideal, no matter how genuine (religion) or distorted (the Nazi Third Reich), can be perverted.

Elements of Nazi historiography culled from the previous documentaries are in evidence in The Murderers are Among Us. To begin, it is not by chance that Merten is made a doctor. As we learned in Architecture of Doom, the medical field was highly implicit in the ‘authentification’ of the Nazi ‘beautification’ program. Soon after Merten and Wallner have agreed to live together there is a scene where Merten returns home and sees Wallner cleaning up his side of the apartment. Merten yells at her, “If I feel it is necessary to restore civil order, I shall do so myself.” This seems a direct allusion to the Nazi obsession with ‘cleanliness,’ as if the dirt and disorder somehow keeps the memory of the Nazis at bay for Merten.

The same scene continues with an impressive long take of just under two minutes, which begins at long shot range, as Wallner goes about cleaning the room and Merten nervously paces about. The shot scale shifts to close-up as Merten walks toward Wallner in the foreground. This is in fact the moment at which Wallner learns that Merten is a doctor. With both characters in close-up, Merten tells Wallner that he sees “no point in healing mankind,” an admission which Wallner clearly understands but leaves her in great pain. We can see the emotional pain in her face, as she shuts her eyes and bows her head after Merten walks away. At this point I will bring up a term used to define the group of films initiated by The Murderers are Among Us. Because of the ruined state of many post-War German cities that this and other later films made great use of, these films were eventually dubbed ‘Rubble Films.’2 In the DVD liner notes, German film historian Ralf Schenk writes in reference to the Rubble Films that, “This word has a symbolic meaning. This term is not only descriptive of the physical devastation of the city, but it also refers to ruins in the minds of the vanquished city dwellers.” We can see evidence of this is The Murderers are Among Us, in the cut which takes us from a close-up of Wallner’s pained face, to an otherwise illogically placed shot of a ruined building’s front wall in the process of further crumbling.

Staudte, and his set designers Otto Hunte and Bruno Monden, use the symbolic representation of physical destruction in interior locations as well, with shattered window panes, leaky ceilings, cracked walls, peeling wallpaper, and rooms that stand in darkness because of the lack of electricity.

In the film’s final scene, director Staudte resorts to full fledged expressionism. When Merten catches up to Brückner, with the full intent of shooting him, Staudte films the scene with Merten’s offscreen shadow looming over Brückner’s quivering body. Merten’s shadow appears behind Brückner, suggesting the Nazi ‘past’ that has come back to haunt Brückner.

Merten is saved the tag of murderer when Wallner arrives just in time and convinces him to place Brückner’s fate in the hand of the authorities. In Merten’s final dialogue to Wallner, the film becomes didactic for the first time, as his words speak to a nation: “But we must bring charges. Demand atonement on behalf of millions of innocent murder victims.” The style returns to expressionism, as the shot cuts to Brückner up against an abstract grey wall, pleading his innocence; but as he walks forward the camera dollies back to reveal Brückner standing behind what appears to be a prison window, with the ghostly image of dead soldiers superimposed on the left of the frame.

The Murderers are Among Us is an effective mix of war-time realism, pre-war expressionism, social drama, and good-old fashioned romance. What is especially striking is that it works at every level, and holds up exceedingly well as an important first step toward national self-reconciliation. Although sanctioned by the Communist-backed Russian government, the film steers clear of any overt Soviet propaganda. In fact, in Staudte’s original script Merten kills Brückner, but the Soviet government did not approve of this vengeful ending and forced Staudte to change it the current ending, where Wallner convinces Merten that Brückner should be handed over to a court of justice.

First Run Features’ DVD of The Murderers are Among Us is among the better of their transfers, especially considering the film’s age. The full-frame image is surprisingly crisp and sharp, while some extraneous noise can be heard on the soundtrack in the first few reels, although never to the point of distraction. Extras include a director filmography and bibliography, a photo gallery, and informative liner notes by film historian Ralf Schenk.

Of related interest, here are some other Nazi related films distributed by First Run Features: Blood in the Face (1991, Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty & James Ridgeway), The Cross and the Star and Nazi Medicine: In the Shadow of the Reich (1992 & 1997, both by John J. Michalczyk), Fire on the Mountain (1995, Beth Gage & George Gage), and Fighter (Amir Bar-Lev, 2000).

[1]For an excellent account of this historical event I recommend the television documentary Degenerate Art (1993 German-U.S. by David Grubin)

[2] Interestingly enough, Roberto Rossellini’s third installment of his neo-realist ‘war trilogy’, Germany Year Zero (1947), made one year after The Murderers are Among Us, can be also seen as a ‘rubble film.’

First Run Features and Nazi History

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 8, Issue 2 / February 2004 Blu-ray/DVD   Essays   film history   german cinema   german expressionism   nazism   political