We forget how while a world war was raging across the globe, Germany was attempting to function, at least for many of its citizens, as a country we might understand. People went to work. People gathered in parks. People went to the movies, all under the imposing might of the Nazi regime, so mythologised by Hollywood and Western cinema over the last 70 years in all manner of ways. Hitler’s Hollywood, if you can forgive the provocative title, is a look at the cinema that went on inside the Third Reich at the time Hollywood was making film noir, Westerns, screwball comedies and musicals.
Rudiger Suchsland’s documentary feels more akin to a video essay, if a long one at 105 minutes. Narrated by German acting veteran Udo Kier, whose rich, heavily-accented English will be soothingly recognisable to Western audiences the moment you hear it, Hitler’s Hollywood uses a mixture of footage, archives and clips from a range of German movies made across the 1930s and 40s to compliment Kier’s information, as we are guided through the journey of Nazi cinema up to the point the Reich feel. Suchsland’s research is incredibly thorough.
What powerfully comes across in watching this documentary is how, despite what you may imagine, not all of these films were simply propaganda for the masses. It would be simplistic to assume that. American and British cinema in wartime had an equal amount of pictures commissioned in order to favour the bravery and honesty of the Allies; conversely, not a great deal of cinema that was released between 1933-1945 got past the nose of Heinrich Himmler himself, but Suchsland’s film is at pains to point out that some of it was just as much geared to be escapist entertainment as it was to implant Nazi ideals of strength and racial purity.
Equally, subversive and even anti-Nazi rhetoric found its way onto the screen via one or two directors brave enough to code their messages through allegory and symbolism, though undoubtedly cinema of the period was straightened and simplified through the Nazi machine. Nothing quite as expressionist as FW Murnau’s Nosferatu or baroque as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, both of which pre-dated the Reich, was getting made in Germany during this period. Nevertheless, Suchsland sees this documentary as a way to champion certain films, and film stars, that have been subsumed or forgotten by the dark legacy of Hitler’s regime.
In reality, this is two distinct, while related, documentaries for the price of one, as extra material also contains From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses – Suchsland’s earlier 2014 film on the social and cultural impact of German cinema during the Weimar Republic, the political era which followed WW1 and preceded Hitler’s rise to Chancellor in 1933, a piece which is even longer than the main documentary itself, and no less insightful about the cinematic history of one of the 20th Century’s most fascinating, and eternally studied, nations.
Hitler’s Hollywood won’t have you rushing to Amazon looking to buy the first Hans Albers film you see (or maybe it will…) but it will provide you with an indispensable look at cinema from a dark period of history which perhaps deserves re-examination.
Hitler’s Hollywood is now available from Eureka Entertainment.