Director/Screenwriter: Felix Moeller
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.
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 ) to sexuality (Kiss Me, Stupid ). 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.
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.
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.”
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  and other films) and Heinrich George (Kolberg  and other films). Many of the viewers are surprised at how entertaining and well produced they are.
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.
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.
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.
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.