How Germany deals with Nazi propaganda films today

How the Nazis promoted anti-Semitism through film

Hitler's favorite director

Leni Riefenstahl was among the Nazi filmmakers who tried to redeem their reputations after 1945. She was responsible for filming the Nazi party's massive rallies and was an integral part of the propaganda machine. Anti-Semitism was inseparable from the party's ideology.

How the Nazis promoted anti-Semitism through film

Retelling history with anti-Semitic twist

"Jud Süss," one of the Nazis' most famous propaganda films, which is restricted today, was directed by Viet Harlan in 1940. Harlan tells the historical tale of 18th-century German-Jewish banker Joseph Süss Oppenheimer and places it in the context of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda. "Jud Süss" was seen by millions of Germans when it was first released.

How the Nazis promoted anti-Semitism through film

Mixing anti-Semitism with 'art'

In Harlan's film, anti-Semitic prejudices are underlined by the plot and the way the characters are portrayed. The writer Ralph Giordano said, "Jud Süss" was the "most mean-spirited, cruel and refined form of 'artistic anti-Semitism.'" Michael Töteberg wrote, "The film openly mobilizes sexual fears and aggression and instrumentalizes them for anti-Semitic incitement."

How the Nazis promoted anti-Semitism through film

'The devil's director'

His biographer once called Veit Harlan "the devil's director," due to his unabashed service to Nazi ideology. Harlan had "qualified" himself to make "Jud Süss" after making his own films with anti-Semitic tendencies in the 1930s. After 1945, the director was able to continue working after going on trial and serving a temporary occupational ban.

How the Nazis promoted anti-Semitism through film

Dealing with propaganda films - in film

Much was written and said about Viet Harlan and his anti-Semitic film "Jud Süss" after the war. At least one response to Harlan's work was uttered in film form. Director Oskar Roehler dealt with the origin and effect of the propaganda film in his melodramatic, controversial film "Jud Suss: Rise and Fall" (2010).

How the Nazis promoted anti-Semitism through film

Joseph Goebbels pulled the strings

The Nazis were quick to recognize that cinema could have a powerful effect in swaying the people. Joseph Goebbels and his Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda used the medium to promote their ideologies, including anti-Semitism. Besides feature films like "Jud Süss," cultural and educational films were also made.

How the Nazis promoted anti-Semitism through film

A so-called documentary

Another Nazi-made anti-Semitic film was "The Eternal Jew," released just a few months after "Jud Süss" in 1940. The film, made by Fritz Hippler, shows well-known Jewish artists, scenes from the Warsaw Ghetto and images of Jewish religious practices, combining them in a deceitful manner with excerpts from Hitler's speeches and SS marches. The propaganda work was billed as a documentary.

How the Nazis promoted anti-Semitism through film

Devil in the details

Most of the propaganda films the Nazis made between 1933 and 1945 used smaller doses of anti-Semitism and were not as overt as "Jud Süss." Some films were even toned down during production. The historical film "Bismarck" (1940) was originally planned as a much more aggressive anti-Semitic propaganda film.

How the Nazis promoted anti-Semitism through film

Anti-Semitism from the perspective of Charlie Chaplin

During the war, Hollywood produced a number of anti-Nazi films that condemned anti-Semitism. Charlie Chaplin humorously portrayed Hitler in "The Great Dictator" in 1940. After the war, Chaplin said he would have acted differently, had he been aware of the extent of the Nazis' extermination policy against the Jews.

Over 40 Nazi propaganda films have been listed as restricted in Germany and can only legally be screened under special conditions. Film expert Anne Siegmayer explains why that's still a good idea.

DW: The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation holds the rights to the Nazis' worst propaganda films. They can only be shown when accompanied by lectures and discussions. Is this practice still appropriate in the internet era, when media consumption has completely changed? 

Anne Siegmayer: This practice is still useful, simply because we're talking about sensitive, critical material. We, as the people responsible for it, don't want to toss it onto the open market without commentary. Of course, we know that the films are available online to a large extent. Anyone who wants to see them, no matter what their inclination, can do so. However, it must be clear that these are illegally pirated materials that are liable to prosecution.

It's important to us to preserve our authority over the interpretation and to give viewers at cinema screenings an introduction to the topic, the opportunity for discussion and context to the films, as we are doing now.

Hilter (second from right) as a guest of honor during a film screening.

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What does this look like in practice? How often are you contacted about possible screenings?

I cannot give exact numbers, but very often. Making these films available to schools, universities and cinemas is one of our most important tasks and we are often asked to do so. We do not give the lectures ourselves, but work together with the Institute for Cinema and Film Culture and often refer their speakers.

Do controversial discussions often take place during screening events?

Sometimes, but of course it depends on the audience. I have witnessed in our organization's own cinema how varied opinions can be after the films. We had an older gentleman once who said after a film that, in his opinion, there were no propaganda war movies during the Nazi era and we should please show more of them. Then a woman jumped up angrily, loudly stated her opposing view, and left the hall during the discussion.

It seems that older visitors react positively to showing the films in a restricted manner, while younger visitors say they consider all the educational stuff afterwards to be unnecessary.

I can say little from my own experience, but I can understand that. Older visitors, who have experienced this period or its direct effects, have a different connection to it. They think it is very good and find it positive that the films are shown with commentary.

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The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau-Foundation in Wiesbaden decides who can screen the questionable films

The younger generation, which I also belong to, deals with media very differently, and take more for granted. Today, everything is available quickly. If young viewers want to see something, they don't want to go through an intermediary.

As a young person, you have a completely different media competency and a greater distance from these films. Nevertheless, I believe that contextualization through introductions is still important.

Is the list of 44 restricted propaganda films subject to review occasionally? 

Since the original list of restricted films was first made by the Allies, our foundation's board has continued to review these films with different criteria and according to its own history.  

So, will new films be added that haven't been on the restricted list yet?

To my knowledge, no films have been retroactively added. Of course, a case could could theoretically arise that would spark such a discussion. Criticism is in principle not unjustified. It's a different case with every film - each film has to be reviewed individually and sweeping judgements cannot be made. There are of course general criteria, such as if a film is inciteful, racist or anti-Semitic.

There are 44 restricted films. Which of them, aside from "Jud Süss," are also anti-Semitic?

We have to go a bit deeper there. There were actually very few films during the Nazi dictatorship which were explicitly anti-Semitic in their overall message. There is, on the one hand, "Jud Süss" and other well-known films, like "The Rothschilds," as well as "The Eternal Jew," which our foundation doesn't have the rights to.

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There were also, of course, a lot of films in which very subliminal or incidental anti-Semitic comments were made. For example, in the comedy "Robert and Bertram," the negative characters were Jewish. In the film "Venus on Trial," which deals with art, there is a discussion about "degenerate art" and classical art. Again, the "evil" figures, the art dealers who at the end are exposed as corrupt and incapable, are Jewish. That's how an anti-Semitic and negative image of Jews was transported in many films like this.

"The Eternal Jew" (1940) was a propaganda film presented as a documentary

Do you think that, if these films were made freely accessible, they would fuel the far-right milieu?

They would fuel sentiments of people who already tend in that direction. But I don't think that these films would turn someone into a Nazi or an anti-Semite today. For that, the cinematic mechanisms from back then would not be impactful enough today. Now, most films seem to us to be a bit unintentionally funny or boring. Of course, something like "Jud Süss" is still frightening. But no one can be persuaded like this again.

The Israeli historian Moshe Zimmermann once said that he supports making Nazi propaganda films, including "Jud Süss," freely accessible. But he also said that if someone wanted to see it today, the error wouldn't be in showing it, but in how they were raised. 

I would agree with his argument, but I don't share his conclusion that the films should be made available.

Anne Siegmayer is a film expert at the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation in Wiesbaden, where she is responsible for restricted Nazi-era films.