23rd 02 - 2016 | 13 comments »

Forbidden Films (2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Felix Moeller

2016 European Union Film Festival

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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.

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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.

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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.


25th 05 - 2015 | 3 comments »

The New Spirit (1942)

Directors: Wilfred Jackson and Ben Sharpsteen

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, when many Americans remember those killed and maimed during their military service and honor them with parades, commemorative speeches, and the ritual eating of charred meat. There are, however, millions upon millions of unsung contributors to this country’s war efforts who will never win a medal or have a song written about them—indeed, there is a growing minority seeking to avoid doing their part at all costs, most of them at the very top of the social pecking order. I am, of course, referring to all those Americans through the decades who have paid their income taxes.

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Wars don’t come cheap these days, and it is a profound irony that conservative elements in our government who rail against taxing anyone to pay for our country’s freeloaders—you know, kids, old folks, the disabled—can’t vote fast enough to rush spending to the industrial giants who supply the guns, tanks, aircraft, bombs, and computer technology that make going to war possible. This peculiar prioritizing I lay at the feet of none other than Donald Duck.

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In 1942, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., approached Hollywood about preparing some propaganda to encourage citizens to pay their income taxes in full and on time to help pay the freight for World War II. Walt Disney, a true-blue American who drew patriotic cartoons about World War I for his school newspaper, was highly receptive to the request. The film studio responded with The New Spirit, a short cartoon that was the company’s first entry into the propaganda war. Enlisted to create this important short were two proven animation veterans, Ben Sharpsteen, supervising director for Pinocchio (1940) and Dumbo (1941), and Wilfred Jackson, the animation director of those two films. The sailor-suited Donald Duck, the government-approved mouthpiece for this task, became the everyman to sell the importance of tax filing to the public, some of whom were alive before 1913 when there were no federal income taxes.

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Donald (Clarence Nash), like many Americans, is literally filled with patriotic fervor fed by outrage at the attack on Pearl Harbor, American flags rising on the whites of his eyes as a radio announcer (Fried Shields) becomes the motivational voice of the anthropomorphized, floor-model radio. He winds Donald up about a very important contribution he can make to the war effort, leaving Donald pleading that he will do anything, anything to help. Nonetheless, when he finds out he’s being asked to pay his income taxes, his reaction is less than enthusiastic.

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Once convinced of the importance of this duty, however, Donald throws himself into it, bringing every weapon of calculus at his disposal. The all-knowing radio reminds Donald that he made less than $3,000 that tax year, so he can file that era’s version of a 1040EZ form. The film helpfully goes through the steps needed to file this form. Donald, in his eagerness to help win the war, zips across the country to hand-deliver his tax return to the Treasury.

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It is here that the drums of war pound with growing sexual tension as phallic columns of coins turn into factory smoke stacks and production lines turning out “guns, guns, all kinds of guns.” “Taxes to beat the Axis” becomes the rhythmic slogan that helps hype the battle action—sinking ships, shooting down planes, destroying submarines. Of course, the enemy craft are marked clearly with the Nazi swastika or rising sun and equipped with predatory fangs and evil eyes. Ultimate victory is predicted, freeing everyone from want and fear, with heroic assurances that “taxes will help keep democracy on the march.”

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It’s not certain what parts of The New Spirit were most effective, but a Gallup poll that year found that of the estimated 60 million people who saw the cartoon, more than 37 percent said it positively affected their willingness to do their taxes. Ironically, the government never paid Disney to produce the film, which had originally been part of the bargain, and the studio lost a bundle on it.

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In one of the most bizarre moves by the Association of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The New Spirit was one of the 25 films nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category. Perhaps it was nominated for its psychological realism about the seductive power of weapons. It’s a perverse delight to think what would greet such a film made and distributed widely today—it might just cause a rightwing meltdown.


4th 02 - 2009 | 14 comments »

Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

Director: Gregory La Cava

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There are many classic film buffs out there for whom the Pre-Code era of 1930-1933 is the source of their greatest viewing pleasure. It’s easy to understand why—it’s a momentous time in film and world history. Sound trickled in, flowed steadily, and quickly inundated motion picture production. With that sound, it was possible to hear the songs and seductions that brought musicals and sex vividly to life—and scared the hell out of the Hays Office. It was also the time when the Great Depression grabbed onto the world economy and plunged it as low as it had ever been experienced in the United States. All types of films explored the plight of the unemployed, from Busby Berkeley musicals to gangster flicks to comedies about slumming socialites.

One type of film that wasn’t particularly common in the United States at that time, but was in its ascendancy in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, was the propaganda film. Hollywood moguls interested in churning out mind-distracting entertainment certainly weren’t interested in it. In fact, there’s only one well-known propaganda film from that era done by the only movie mogul who not only had the interest, but also the experience to pull it off—Gabriel Over the White House, a production of William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures.

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Hearst, of course, was the notorious newspaper baron whose politics and personal preferences trumped truth and impartiality in the heyday of yellow journalism and beyond. In the early 1930s, Hearst used his various bully pulpits to tout what would become Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal administration.

Gabriel Over the White House, a truly bizarre film on first viewing, centers on the Hoover/Hardingesque political hack, Judson “Judd” Hammond (Walter Huston), who we first see taking the presidential oath of office, change his evil ways, baby, after a coma-inducing car accident puts him in touch with an unseen presence. His mistress, Pendie Molloy (Karen Morley), who also mends her fornicating, father-fixated ways to embrace the more age-appropriate marriage-minded presidential press secretary Hartley “Beek”’ Beekman (Franchot Tone), senses the presence and identifies it as the angel Gabriel.

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Hammond is shown before the conversion hobnobbing with his party cronies, all of whom hold cabinet seats, carelessly discarding the problems of massive unemployment and rampant crime as “local matters.” Hammond, the rare bachelor in the White House, is a real bad boy. After installing Molloy as his “private secretary,” and putting off all serious questions at his first press conference with jovial dismissal—and the announcement that all future press conferences will require questions submitted in writing beforehand—he decides to take a joy ride in his limo with several of his staff. He floors it, pushing past 110 mph so as to shake both his security escort and trailing reporters. The car blows a tire and careens off the road. The condition of the passengers in the ill-fated car is never revealed, but the comatose president is not expected to live.

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As divine presences always seem to do in movies, the unseen messenger arrives on a gust of wind that ruffles the curtains covering the president’s open bedroom window and fills the room momentarily with light. The doctor, Beek, and Pendie are hurriedly called in from their death watch in an adjacent room by Judd’s nurse. Judd has regained consciousness. He’s alert, but distracted, as though he were listening to a voice beyond the wall. His coldness toward Pendie announces his renunciation of the immoral pleasures of the flesh, and with a vigor and seriousness of purpose never seen in him before, sets about mending the ills of the country. He fires all of his sleazy cabinet members, encourages labor leader John Bronson (David Landau) and his million unemployed men to come to Washington to talk about stimulating the economy, and sends tanks against notorious bootlegger and criminal Nick Diamond (C. Henry Gordon). When the political hacks in Congress rebel against Judd’s sweeping social-welfare proposals, he declares martial law.

In his zeal to fill up the nation’s depleted coffers, he decides to collect the debts the nations of the world owe the United States for supplies and assistance it provided during and after World War I. He deploys the Navy to prevent any interference with his grand plan—to gather all of the leaders of the world on a naval vessel and watch American bombers destroy two American battleships. These planes, rather than some antiquated battleships, represent the military force of the future, and he will not hesitate to use them if the debts are not paid and a new understanding of peace is not reached that very day. The leaders of the world line up to sign and stamp their seal on a peace accord. Hammond enters the room last. Looking not at all well, he stumbles to the table on which rests the document and, with a shaky hand, signs it. Then he collapses and dies, his brief resurrection rescinded now that his divine work has been completed.

gabriel%202.jpgIt would have to take someone with the enormous ego Hearst had (or the absurb humor of the Blues Brothers) to promote his politics as a mission from God. The authoritarian way Hammond goes about doing good reminded me of another film that most people see quite benignly, but that I have always contended was rather fascistic—The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Gort and the bombers are much the same, as are Klaatu’s and Hammond’s ultimatums. The difficulty in seeing Hammond’s actions in a completely sympathetic light have to do with our understanding of and revulsion against martial law. Doing right by assuming absolute control just doesn’t taste right. Nonetheless, there’s no mistaking the appeal of Hearst’s agenda to a country bent by the Depression, from the proposal for a federal works program Hammond promises to the throngs of jobless men chanting, “We want work,” thrusting their shovels into the air, to the war on crime, with Nick Diamond unmistakably modeled on the real gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, whose death in 1931 precluded him from suing Cosmopolitan for defamation of character. Many of the programs Hammond outlines actually formed part of the New Deal; indeed, Hearst sent the script to his candidate, FDR, for suggestions and revisions and worked them into the screenplay.

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Despite Hearst’s adulterous, live-in relationship with Marion Davies, he preferred to project a moral protagonist in Hammond. Pendie comes off a bit like Mary Magdelan crossed with Jean Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The very presence of women seems to be undesirable, and there are only four in the entire picture: Pendie, Hammond’s nurse, Hammond’s sister, and Bronson’s wife—a reformed sinner, a traditional helper, a relation with a walk-on who looks after Hammond’s beloved nephew Jimmy (Dickie Moore), and the wife of a labor martyr. Not a substantial woman in the bunch. And Pendie’s romance with Beek is one of the most bloodless I’ve seen, that is, until Pendie is felled in a hail of machine-gun fire from the Diamond gang, but miraculously lives to tell the tale and trot off into marriage.

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Gregory La Cava is a skilled director with such classics as My Man Godfrey (1936) and Stage Door (1937) to his credit. I believe it is his skill in bringing this film to life that disguises its true nature as a propaganda picture. Huston plays the sinner quite realistically, as do all of the crooked pols who surround him. His saint is forceful and rather wooden, appropriately a vessel rather than a man. Franchot Tone, who always seems a bit precious to me, really nails this character, a 1930s version of Tony Snow before Hammond’s transformation, revealed to be a really likeable guy. Karen Morley is better in this film than in most of her output, putting more feeling into her unfortunate, flat voice.

Gabriel Over the White House was an eerie film for me to watch again. Yesterday’s corrupt prosperity, today’s economic collapse, and a president from one of the most corrupt states in the union offering change we can believe in—including a return to some New Deal measures—parallel the world of this ancient Hollywood oddity. This is a timely film to ponder.


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