Forbidden Films (2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Felix Moeller

2016 European Union Film Festival

Swastika

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Freedom of speech. Has there ever been a more slippery phrase in modern times? In 2015, French cartoonists exercising their free speech to lampoon Islam were gunned down by offended Muslim extremists, causing worldwide mourning and defiant support for their work; yet, a French comedian was arrested for hate speech for making comments that appeared to sympathize with the gunmen. Americans condemn the repressions of the Iranian state, which has banned writers, filmmakers, and activists, imprisoning and executing some of them; yet, in recent years, Americans have seen major suppression of demonstrations and the killing of citizens, most notoriously in Ferguson, Missouri. Moreover, in the name of free speech, billionaires are now able to spend unlimited amounts of money in U.S. elections on politicians they favor. If there’s anything that’s certain, it’s that free speech is neither universally understood nor universally available, even in countries where it appears to be a core belief.

Homecoming

Film, of course, has a long history in the debate over free speech. From the Catholic Church to AMPAS and governments at all levels, films have come in for condemnation, censorship, and outright banning for everything from miscegenation of the races (Piccadilly [1929]) to sexuality (Kiss Me, Stupid [1964]). Implicit in these actions is the recognition—or fear—that films can be an effective tool for winning hearts and minds. As Hitler articulated in Mein Kampf:

One must also remember that of itself the multitude is mentally inert, that it remains attached to its old habits and that it is not naturally prone to read something which does not conform with its own pre-established beliefs when such writing does not contain what the multitude hopes to find there. … The picture, in all its forms, including the film, has better prospects. … In a much shorter time, at one stroke I might say, people will understand a pictorial presentation of something which it would take them a long and laborious effort of reading to understand.

With this assertion in mind, the Nazi Party included propaganda filmmaking in its plan, establishing a film department as early as 1930. Eventually, filmmaking was nationalized and administered by Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. While only about 15 percent of the more than 1,000 films that were made in Germany from 1933 through 1945 were blatantly propagandistic, most films conformed to Goebbels’ Nazification program in some way.

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Today, Germany still grapples with its Nazi past, including how to deal with the hundreds of propaganda films that unified the people of the Third Reich so effectively behind its mission to become masters of the universe. Forbidden Films deals specifically with the 40 or so Nazi-era motion pictures that are still banned from unrestricted public viewing. Director Felix Moeller isn’t as interested in the films themselves as in the debate surrounding whether it would be wise to loose them upon the general public. Although Forbidden Films wends its way through some of the “genres” with which Nazi propagandists concerned themselves, including anti-British, anti-Polish, youth indoctrination, pro-euthanasia, and, of course, anti-Semitic, with each topic prefaced by a quote from Goebbels (e.g., “Film is the educational tool to teach our young people” for films meant to delegitimize parental guidance in favor of Nazi ideology), he’s more interested in the reactions of those who attended supervised screenings of these films in Germany, France, and Israel and discussed them afterward.

Forbidden

Moeller consults a number of film scholars who foreground the films under discussion with their specific function and the elements that helped them work their magic on the movie-going public. Some films are blatant with their messages, which we see in the anti-Polish Homecoming (1941). Poles are shown discriminating against their German-minority population, climaxing with the gunning down of a family of five—an incredible act of projection that the Nazis used to justify their invasion of Poland. Homecoming fooled one German viewer, who said he never knew about the “merciless way that Poles terrorized minorities.”

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Other films, the scholars say, are more suggestive. The Rothschilds (1940), which takes fictionalized biography to new territory, reinforces with subtle, repeated phrases the notion of a global Jewish conspiracy to control the world by controlling its banks, ending with the admittedly not-so-subtle image of a Star of David formed by connecting the dots representing centers of Rothschild domination. An even more disguised propaganda film, the pro-euthanasia I Accuse (1941), was designed to make the public comfortable with the Nazi plan to murder 70,000 physically and mentally disabled Germans. The film concerns a woman afflicted with multiple sclerosis who begs her physician husband to end her life before the disease leaves her unrecognizable. Right-to-die groups operating today might take a lesson from its persuasive melodrama and the star power of Heidemarie Hatheyer as the wife. Indeed, I Accuse is only one of the films that skillfully used well-known stars for their marquee value and acting talent. In addition to Hatheyer, Goebbels employed Paula Wessely (Homecoming and other films), Emil Jannings (Uncle Kruger [1941] and other films) and Heinrich George (Kolberg [1945] and other films). Many of the viewers are surprised at how entertaining and well produced they are.

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The most notorious film Moeller takes on is Jew Süss (1940). Considered by many to be one of the most effective of the anti-Semitic films of the era, it takes place in the distant German past, during the 18th century reign of Duke Charles Alexander of Württemberg. The duke turns to Süss the Jew for financial help, and this allows Süss to infiltrate Christian society, where he subverts the rule of law and eventually rapes a Christian woman. The money-grubbing stereotype is paired with dangerous, lawless behavior to incite audiences and help them justify the persecution of Jews. A lot of money was spent on this film, and the high production values and quality performances and script made it a big hit.

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Most of what I know about Jew Süss is what I’ve read because Forbidden Films provides only excerpts of that film that are not particularly edifying about why it is so heinous. On the whole, however, the film handles its excerpting quite well, and I found particularly interesting the edited-out footage—swastikas, Hitler, tanks, and planes—of films that then went on to be shown in theatres and on TV after the war.

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Forbidden Films is hardly a well-crafted film itself. It opens somewhat inexplicably at a well-fortified storage facility for thousands of nitrate films. Apparently, the idea was to compare the flammable and explosive nature of nitrate with the incendiary nature of the banned films whose reel cans are displayed for Moeller’s camera. The audience discussions resemble C-SPAN televised lectures and discussions. Better are the individuals who are filmed outside the screening room for their take on what they have seen. These interviews go from unhelpful to illuminating: director Margarethe von Trotta, no doubt approached for her celebrity, adds nothing, while a French woman, interestingly, believes the films would be more dangerous in France, where the right-wing National Front is strong. Moeller also obscures the faces of two interviewees, former neo-Nazis, who offer little other than that these films were popular in their group and available through YouTube.

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Unsurprisingly, opinions about the continued restrictions on these films are varied. In Israel, one man thought they should be shown to every school child so they can be understood and rejected. A Holocaust survivor in Germany did not want them shown on TV, as had been proposed, whereas free-speech advocates believed that people should be allowed to make up their own minds. Some people castigated film fans for wanting them released just to satisfy their cinephilia, and one scholar felt that editing the films was tantamount to mutilation. Knowing how carefully these films were crafted to sway public opinion and how susceptible all of us are to being manipulated, I personally favor erring on the side of caution by offering them only for educational purposes. Forbidden Films is not a great film, but it can be a great facilitator of conversation.

Forbidden Films screens Sunday, March 6 at 3 p.m. and Wednesday, March 9 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

  • Hoggle spoke:
    23rd/02/2016 to 4:23 pm

    The notion of a picture being worth a thousand words is not new – sorry Adolf; what was new at the time was the possibility of the technological staging of an experience of the picture in the political process.

    The ‘propaganda’ films of the Nazis were not free speech because they were done with the context or background of suppression and barbarism. The degree that something has that background or context around it is the degree it is not free speech.

    In a contemporary sense, the extent that a governing process has similar contrasts of speech, that is a price is being paid by portions or segments of a population for it, is the extent that the governing process is political ( a current issue with that is Billionaires & special interest type funding in elections for example). There can always be expected though to have areas in any type of governing process where speech is not free, just as there is in day to day life.

    The more violent a society is, the less speech is free in it – that being violent societies or violent areas of society need to be or have more vigalence on exploitive modes and expressions of speech when those issues are being touched upon if it is to become less violent in those ways; the Nazi propaganda era with Germany is a pretty all round encompassing good example of that!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/02/2016 to 4:33 pm

    Hoggle – Nazi propaganda films represent state-authorized speech, and their creators were not free to deviate from the party line. All propaganda shares that in common. Whether they should continue to be censored has less to do with the nature of the films’ speech and more to do with what societies that profess to value the free exchange of expression and ideas feel about this deviation from their own belief. My view is that freedom without responsibility is anarchy, and one must weigh what is responsible with what a belief that is applied without regard to the consequences might incite.

  • Charles Kroeger spoke:
    23rd/02/2016 to 10:48 pm

    You’ll notice the German government does not entertain any ideas about a film festival of Nazi propaganda films, as it were, being somehow dignified by the veil of academic discourse with the outcome being of educational benefit. This is because they know better, and learned this lesson the hard way.

    I believe fascism is like Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease where in a prion has DNA but no RNA and so by using the RNA of its unfortunate host it rather folds itself into being at the expense of itself and the host. By saying this I’m making the analogy of CJD to the insidious mechanism of fascism and how each nation that has all this freedom of expression for good can have its way of life destroyed by that same freedom. Freedom requires an educated citizenry possessing the common values reflected in the founding documents of that nation.

    Nazi’s happen to call themselves socialist because it seemed like the right thing to do in the 1930’s. I suspect also it was a way to muddy the difference between them and the Communist who were also popular in Germany at the time. The Communist called themselves socialist too. The Communist were competition with the Nazi’s who more than likely were responsible for the burning of the Reichstag so they could blame it on the Communists and have an excuse to arrest them all and remove them from their places in the government. All this happened rather swiftly after the decrepit Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor. From that time on to the Russians flying the red flag over the Reichstag in 1945, German fascism ran its natural course.

    I really don’t see any value in preserving these films that played their part in so much death and suffering. I think they should meet the same fate as those piles of books the Nazis burned, by being burned themselves, and good riddance to evil.

    If fascism rises again in another place, the new propaganda will be tailored for the peculiarities of the unfortunate country. I would say in the US now the disease is well advanced by television radio and the Internet using a time tested template of the big lie hidden in the little truths. This is ever the fate of yet another uncivil militarized society that has failed to learn anything from its past.

  • VartAndelay\ spoke:
    23rd/02/2016 to 11:23 pm

    Funny how in a blog post about discussing forbidden films the author and three commenters (thus far) are – from what I can tell – afraid that people might see them and — gasp — make up their own minds.
    Would it be fair to guess nobody here has any trouble with Michael Moore’s films. I apologize in advance for the supposition if it’s unfair.

  • Hoggle spoke:
    24th/02/2016 to 2:09 am

    Hi

    my post was just saying that such films were not examples of free speech.

    Contemporary Free Speech i would say is a very important thing to have & strive for in the mix of things. If such films were made in a context where there was no such persecutions of any more than a random degree as relates to the content going on (i.e. they were random films not reflective of the cultural concerns to the majority of their environment or population) then i would see that as a good indicator of the strength of free speech in that context & perhaps an inevitable component of a type of societal fabric that can uphold & promote free speech very strongly without much fuss.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/02/2016 to 2:35 am

    Charles – You’re quite right about the Communists. In one of the excerpts of a youth propaganda film, the father declares himself a good socialist in the Communist sense, and his son rejects his values for Nazism. As for destroying the films, well, as a film preservationist, I’d have a hard time with that. I also think we can learn a lot from the past and from the study of propaganda.

    Vart – I have a lot of problems with Michael Moore’s films, which are lazy, scattershot attempts at social critique that often miss the mark. I have even more problems, however, with the jingoistic TV shows like 24, Homeland, and Blue Bloods that whitewash things like torture and police brutality in the name of freedom. I don’t really understand your point about fearing Nazi propaganda and but applauding Moore’s films. Are you suggesting that we want the former suppressed because it’s right-wing, but not the latter because they are “liberal”?

    Hoggle – I agree, and that was my original point. Free speech advocates often don’t want ANYTHING suppressed, believing that which is hidden is more dangerous than that which is openly expressed. It’s a Freudian notion, and after much thought, I really don’t agree with it.

  • Charles Kroeger spoke:
    24th/02/2016 to 12:18 pm

    In response to VartAndelay\ comment regarding the blanket endorsement of free and open disclosure of the past so all parties be allowed their opinion, I would add, the problem with this concept has always been humans with their large brains and free will. If all life is suffering, as the Buddhist say, then why add to it by making well constructed films with popular actors to suggest a new way of thinking whose ends were so horrendous, as Churchill said, they had no name. Is this because you do not acknowledge the two forces that drive free will or, you just haven’t thought about it?

    Freedom is…yes it’s good to have it and it’s good to defend. It is however also good to understand no concept is limitless and the freest among us will naturally arrive at the limits of this concept first. I do not, given your simplistic view, think you have reached those limits.

    I know we have probably grown weary of hearing the expression, with freedom comes responsibility. I would just add to that, freedom is always fun but responsibility generally isn’t. Given the human condition of seeking out the fun and avoiding the other gives me limited optimism of what freedom will be, in the world to come.

  • Hoggle spoke:
    24th/02/2016 to 7:38 pm

    I wouldn’t see freedom and responsibility as mutually exclusive & not fun, nor free speech as not being integral to the/a governing process.

    Basic fundamental examples of that are families, relationships, owning a pet etc

    I wouldn’t see an educated citizenary in a classical sense as the requiste for freedom of speech either, as knowledge alone is not particularly reliable as the Nazi propaganda era showed initally for the Germans of that time. Free speech is just as much, at the least, about expression of shared intentions to basic likes, wants and needs that are quite universal.

    In that context, then what isn’t free speech & what is, in any type of governing process where there are always going to be areas where speech is less free than others to some degree, has a perception about it proportional to the relative degree of free speech in the process. That for a sizeable chunk, the Nazi era of speech was not seen as blatent and extreme propaganda, is highly indicative of it being a reflection of a fabric that had not much or was non-existent in emphasis of what form free speech is firstly in it’s role, or lack there of, for a governing process of any type. So the better the perception of free speech there is, the better the trade offs with it are or can be understood, & the notorious Nazi era and it’s propaganda films certianly touch on those type of themes!!!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/02/2016 to 7:15 am

    “Free speech is just as much, at the least, about expression of shared intentions to basic likes, wants and needs that are quite universal.”

    This doesn’t really get at the heart of the need for free speech, that is, the freedom to hold and express unpopular beliefs and thoughts. Without this ability, societies stagnate. In this context, an educated citizenry – not just book learning but experience – is important to be able to react rationally to challenging ideas. I daresay we would not have gay marriage today were it not for the sexual revolution in which every type of sexuality was explored and accepted.

    As for the ideas put forward in Nazi propaganda, Germans would have had a very difficult time murdering other Germans. The Nazis had to make euthanasia acceptable to them, so that certainly does buck an “inherent” trend in German thinking of the time.

  • Hoggle spoke:
    25th/02/2016 to 7:46 am

    I very respectfully disagree with you Marilyn in your ‘heart of the need’ bit although it seems we are similar in pov.

    My prior posts were trying to say that if there was a strong culture of what you quoted of my post, then that will indeed feedback into alot more self regulating of what you expressed as being ‘react rationally to challenging ideas’ & discard what is not the flip side of that too. At one end of the spectrum that is great for adaptation & meeting challenges and at the polar other end if there is a large deficit, then you have a situation of the effectiveness of the Nazi propaganda example.

    So striving for a strong free speech perspective is great, but challenging and unpopular views can be detrimental to that perspective also in the guise of free speech. Ideally it should be self-regulating and that is what is strived for, but practically such a state of affairs probably has to be earnt incrementally.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/02/2016 to 8:53 am

    Hoggle – That is the danger and why releasing Nazi propaganda films to the general public may be a very bad idea. Human beings are capable of very good and very bad things, and we need to keep that in mind if we are to make and hold onto civil society. I’d say the U.S. is in very bad shape because it now lacks a shared vision. As I said before, freedom without responsibility leads to anarchy.

  • john spoke:
    18th/06/2016 to 2:06 pm

    Just to say: John Ford’s western epics populated with Oirish Buckos decimating the Indian “Hordes” by the bucketful is our very own Filmic White Wash of our Nach und Nebel Shoah. Ford’s replacement of our historical”SonderKommando” Buffalo Soldiers ( the Black Malgré Mois) by his favorite drinking buddies including Mildred Natwick and Shirley Temple before she took a hike with Johnnie A.
    Just to say: Broken Arrow hardly make amends for Wounded Knee and neither does Sophie Scholl decapitation for the countless obliterated Russian children .

    Born in ’33

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/07/2016 to 3:24 pm

    John – Sorry for the belated response. The films under discussion in Forbidden Films are very intentional propaganda films. It is true that the myths Hollywood spun about Native Americans and their slaughterers were whitewashes. Nonetheless, these were not used specifically to perpetrate a Holocaust, only to cover up and expiate guilt. I know it’s hair-splitting in some ways, but I do think the distinction is needed and important.

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