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Universal Monsters in Review: House of Dracula (1945)

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Was there a change in atmosphere with House of Dracula? Maybe this feeling is just me; maybe not, but while screening this latest in Univeral monsters, there seemed to be a different quality of theatrics going on. Both good and bad, perhaps. Mostly good, if you ask me. In its place in history, House of Dracula was released in December of 1945, a little over three months following the end of WWII. As we’ve noted in previous reviews during this series, Universal was not immune to Hollywood’s propaganda, pro-war influence. Many of these classic monster films, starting in 1941 and running thru 1944, there’ve been subtle hints of “invaders,” and an almost puritanical rule of “killing the monster.” Some movies were not so subtle, Invisible Agent (1942) was the most painfully obvious of American propaganda films during this era.  Now, with House of Dracula, I had started watching with this expectation of similarity with the other films. And there were some, but what really struck me as different was a major focus on duality and the understanding of the identity of the monster. Take Dr. Franz Edelmann, a respected member of the community in the setting of House of Dracula. In his attempt to “cure” Dracula, and The Wolfman, he himself turned outwardly monstrous. It begs the question, who is the enemy? The roles for the characters in House of Dracula were equally magnificent, even with the absence of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, replaced in this film by John Carradine. My favorite character by far, I thought, was the hunchbacked nurse, Nina (played by the lovely and native Texan Jane Adams). I felt that her role was pivotal to the sticky plot carried throughout the Hollywood prescribed hour long movie. As it is, I’ve probably chatted long enough. Let’s see what our esteemed guest has to say about House of Dracula.

 

House of Dracula

By: Chad Clark

House of Dracula was released in 1945 and stands as a sort of swan song for the fabled Universal monster franchise. The film is a direct sequel to House of Frankenstein and would be the last time (with the exception of the later Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein) that these iconic monsters would appear together on film.

First of, I would say that the inherent nostalgia of these movies make it hard to not enjoy them on at least some level, even if the film itself might be somewhat flawed. I have always been a big fan of the orchestral scoring used in this era, giving the movies much more of a feel of the theater than I think we get in modern film. And of course, I think that while my modernistic makeup gives me an almost unconscious urge to resist it, movies shot in black and white really have a forlorn beauty to them that I think is absent from our modern .

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To start with what I like about the film, I love the feel of physical spaces, the weight of props and the use of practical special effects. This is not to disparage the art of digital effects but I think that there was a special passion in movies like this where, if you wanted to do something, you had to figure out how to do it. The essential spirit of invention out of necessity I think gives a unique feel to a movie. I think everyone involved becomes very invested in making sure the product is as good as it can be. In modern movies, I often feel like the actor spends the entire film miming movement in front of a green screen so it is refreshing to see actual sets, with real physical objects.

The effects of this film are actually quite good. The effect of Dracula transforming into a bat and vise-versa was done extremely well. Ironically, I found the fairly simple effect of the bat flying to be more awkward and cheesy than the effect of a human transforming into the bat itself. I’m sure that a younger viewer, spoiled by the digital effects of our age would find many of the effects silly but I think that they are used exactly as effects should. Regardless of how seamless and realistic they look, they are simply one tool used to move the story forward. This was a time when movies were about the magic and the story. Sometimes, I think that the movie-making process has been so de-constructed anymore that we have lost sight of that.

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The acting for the most part is decent, with a few stand-out performances. I thought that Onslow Stevens as Dr. Franz Edelmann and Jane Adams as Nina were both very good, with performances that were maybe a little more nuanced and heart-felt than the rest of the cast. Otherwise, this was a movie that felt very safe. I suspect that by this point, everyone knew that this was more about the franchise and that no one’s individual performances were going to make or break the show. You show up and slap on the makeup.

If you love the monsters, there’s a little bit of everything for you here. You’ve got Dracula and the Wolfman. You’ve got some Frankenstein and a mad scientist. There’s even a hunchback, although not quite in the context you might be expecting. And since it’s a Universal Studios driven monster flick, of course there is a huge mob of villagers, poised to chase after someone with torches if they are needed.

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The thing for me and ultimately what I think fails about this movie is that there isn’t really any cohesive or organic reason for all of these monsters to be in the same story. Ostensibly, the premise is built on the notion that both Dracula and the Wolfman are seeking out this scientist for a “cure” for their conditions but that itself is never really explored or explained. To me, it just seemed like a half-hearted attempt to provide a justification for having them both in the movie. And as for the rest of the monsters, it literally feels like we just trip over them on the road down the narrative of the movie.

And for those who love to harp on Hollywood for lacking originality and going back to retread old ideas and lean on old franchises, this ain’t nothing new. Watching House of Dracula, frankly, felt like I was watching two completely separate films. You have the story centered around Dracula and then the story centered around the Wolfman. Because both stories end up sort of competing with one another, I’m left not really caring about either. Ironically, the one character I seem to feel the most invested in is the nurse played by Jane Adams and she probably has the least amount of screen time out of all of them.

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Another irony in placing so many disparate monsters within the film is that, despite the title of the movie, I wouldn’t even categorize this as a Dracula movie. John Carradine is certainly passable as Dracula, but there is no confusing him with the dark, menacing presence of Lugosi.

But that by itself can be taken in stride. What I find more of a letdown is that while Dracula has a few big scenes, ultimately his story is wrapped up so anti-climatically that we are left kind of scratching our heads and wondering why he was there in the first place. It seems to me like we are supposed to be more emotionally invested in Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolfman than anything else. At the very end of the Dracula sub-plot, something does happen which ultimately drives the rest of the movie to its tragic conclusion, but if that was his only purpose for being in the story, it seems like they could have accomplished the same thing without arbitrarily shoe-horning Dracula into the film. Had this been a movie about just trying to “fix” the Wolfman, I think the film would have had much more emotional depth and focus.

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I don’t hate this movie, I just don’t really love it either. As I hinted at before, this just felt like a safe movie to me. It’s entertaining, but it’s also kind of bland. To me, it seemed like Universal was couching on the spectacle of bringing all these monsters together in one film being enough of a draw that they didn’t really need to focus on the rest. Nobody is really going out on a limb with the story or trying to break new ground with anything. This is not a movie that will blow you away or amaze you.

It is, however, a great film to throw into the DVD player, order some pizzas and invite your friends over for movie night.

chadclark

Chad A. Clark is a Midwestern author of horror and science fiction. His artistic roots can be traced back to the golden era of horror literature, Stephen King, and Robert McCammon being large influences. His love for horror began as well in the classic horror franchises of the eighties. He resides in Iowa with his wife and two sons. Clark’s debut novel, Borrowed Time, was published in 2014. His second novel, A Shade for Every Season was released in 2015, and in 2016 Clark published Behind Our Walls, a dark look at the human condition set in a post-apocalyptic world. His latest book, Down the Beaten Path, releases in September 2016. You can keep up with all of Chad Clark’s works by following him on Amazon here.

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A Grotesque Mannequin: Europe’s Old Conscious within a New World Paradigm (1945-2002)

Frankenstein, 1931.

Frankenstein, 1931.

World War II in Europe had come to a horrible end. The ashes of homes, roads, and people covered a once lush countryside of an epoch healing within the bruised and blushing scars of WWI. Survivors faced an unimaginable future in 1945. According to historian Eric Brose, “the infrastructure of an entire continent – roads, railroad tracks, tunnels, train stations, bridges, port facilities, and airports – lay in ruins” (Brose, 267). The casualties were beyond imagination, and among the maimed and broken soldiers, the women murderously raped and rapid suicide following wars end, Europe peered into the same mirror Elie Weasel once did after the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp, and watched the reflection of a disfigured corpse crying out for retribution, contemplation, and atonement.  Europe was torn apart and reassembled according to new existential principles. In the years following 1945, Europe’s old consciousness was forced to occupy a new paradigm and marched unsteadily from post war malaise, through the Cold War and the atomic age, and terrorism. In the popular and controversial films of Post-WWII Europe, such as: The Bicycle Thief (1948), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), and Bend It Like Beckham (2002), and the particular history each film reveals, we will peer into the mirror ourselves and ascertain how postwar Europe’s displaced, suppressed, and reshaped reassembly was sadly unsuccessful. But we’re talking nearly sixty years of history here! How could we possibly cover so much time and so much history in is meager blog? Simple, we can’t. Instead, we’ll cover the evolution or devolution (depending on how you interpret events) in each decades most predominate historic theme.

The beginning in the end…1945:

In the autumn of 1944, Käthe Kollwitz, a preeminent German sculptress who had attempted to convey the bitterness and helplessness felt during the post war years following World War I, lamented regarding the resurgent bestial realities of the new age when she said, “I am dying in this faith [in humanity]. People will have to work hard for that new state of things, but they will achieve it” (Brose, 266.)  Kollwitz held out, despite the unimaginable devastation, “the life of the world might move forward” (266), that somehow the dignities of the individual could be elevated above the authority of the state, that people would avoid mechanized-obedience and become ethical, moral creatures, concerned with the suffering of others. However, in the chaotic aftermath of World War II, the political landscape darkened once again and old motifs, such as: Nazism and Fascism will prove hard to eradicate. According to historian Eric Brose, with communism sweeping into Eastern Europe uninvited, “Understanding reality and coping with life’s dilemmas became even more difficult as the Grand Alliance came apart along ideological seams and the far more frightening image of atomic Armageddon appeared on the horizon” (Brose, 267). In the midst of the atom, Europe picked the pieces of her crumbled and fractured landscape.

In the aftermath of 1945, as displaced people huddled together in Red Cross camps, dreaming for the return of normalcy, Europe struggled in understanding the causality of WWII and the Holocaust. In doing so, Europe reassembled according to new existential philosophical principles in the growing shadow of countless mass graves and post war malaise. According to Brose, philosophers and the great thinkers of the post war age, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, struggled to understand the “authentic state of being.” Basically, these thinkers were motivated in answering the question of war, why it happened, again, and why the Holocaust happened in a modern society by understanding the reality of a hostile and threatening world and the complexity of human problems and moral dilemmas. These “existentialists” urged that “individuals controlled their own density by the choices they made” (Brose, 268). The pursuit is understandable, but the determinations, I think, are harder to grasp, especially for those of us who never experienced Europe at war, and the generations that did are rapidly fading from memory. To help future generations understand the determinations those existentialist thinkers were searching for we can look at the films of the era these dilemmas were actually being grappled with, which is the struggle between existentialism and the pessimistic and optimistic qualia of human nature. In films, such as, The Bicycle Thief (1948), audiences confronted the existentialist understanding of á priori morality, the existence of a self-evident moral, law-abiding society where certain values are taken seriously (Goldstein, 489), juxtaposed with the grim images of grisly, ruined lives; thus becoming an issue between morality verses reality.

The Bicycle Thief, 1948.

The Bicycle Thief, 1948.

Furthermore, consider the evolving relationship between father and son in The Bicycle Thief, during which the father obsesses to find his stolen bicycle, an important symbol of individuality during an era of overcrowded cities. In the pursuit to regain his independence, the father’s relationship with his son changes drastically throughout each episode. Before the bicycle was stolen, when the father’s individuality was intact, smiles abounded, the mood was carefree and light, and there was purpose despite the apparent dirtiness of the city and the chaotic state of employment. With the bicycle, the family dynamic seems normal and fluid; when the bicycle is stolen, and when the father loses his chaotic pursuit, outnumbered by the thieves, outnumbered by the protective neighborhood, outnumbered by an unsympathetic police presence, outnumbered by the disassembled bicycle parts at the market, the same family dynamic and their dreams for a better life become swallowed whole into the faceless sea of the crowd. The Bicycle Thief tares apart and reassembles existential principles in the reality that the individual cannot overcome the larger nature of society where in desperate situations people will act accordingly to desperation. A society in which individuality as become faceless in the overcrowded cities; where the human connection with each other has become twisted and malformed.

The loss of individuality and community were at the epicenter during Europe’s progression toward reconstruction. It was the ambiguous care of refugees in displacement camps, where Jewish and non-Jewish survivors, laborers, and German nationalists who fled the Red Army in Eastern Europe, who converged together in a cesspool of disillusionment and desperation, and although Allied forces worked diligently to provide the necessities of life for the uprooted souls that numbered in the millions, who had “no alternative but to remain day after day” (Perry, 273), the remnant of “death, physical injury, loss of human dignity, and material destruction left most Europeans bereft of energy for anything other than piecing their lives back together” (Perry, 269). It was during this period when Germany faced criminal and moral guilt for justification and/or rationalization regarding the commission of the Final Solution and other atrocities of war as simple acts of patriotism (Brose, 274). This is the backdrop where the precarious geopolitical differences between the Soviet Union and the United States collided. When Hitler’s crumbing house finally fell in the early spring hours of May 1945, as German High Command, General Alfred Jodl, surrendered unconditionally, the need arose within the Allied ranks to push German political, diplomatic, military, and industrial leaders toward a nationwide effort of denazification, disarmament, and democratization. According to historian Brose, the first step in this program was to “somehow [deal with] Nazi War criminals [and] to set a postwar example of rule of law” (Brose, 282). However, despite all the overall agreement to bring justice to Nazi leadership for “war crimes,” and “crimes against humanity,” the continuity of chaos proved divisive between the United States and the Soviets. While the Americans wanted an international law against future acts of aggression, which had already been established in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, the Soviets hesitated to condemn aggression as an initiation of war (as their own government was born from “aggressive liberation” during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917).

An artists interpretation of the Nuremberg Trials.

An artists interpretation of the Nuremberg Trials.

Nevertheless, the Nuremberg Trials began in November 1945. The first docket showcased twenty-two Nazis considered to be “top level defendants,” including: Hermann Goering, Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel, Julius Streicher, and Joachim von Ribbentrop (Brose, 283). Among the cohorts there remained an empty seat reserved for Martin Bormann, head of the Nazi Party Chancellery and Hitler’s private sectary. Bormann made an excellent candidate for the first round of executions for his part as a major player in the collaboration of the mass murder of millions; however, Bormann had been mysteriously disappeared after his May 1945 escape from the Fuhrerbunker in his attempt to evade the approaching Red Army. The Bormann myth has been queerly popular in the decades following the Nuremberg Trials. Told like a monster story, various and conflicting sightings across the globe were reported, adding to a strange and abundant fascination with the at-large war criminal motif. At-large Nazi fascination reflects, in a way, an innate desire to separate oneself from the actions of perpetrators. As if to say, the monster is out there in the unknown, an unordinary entity, and as such, controlled by an unordinary fate. However, in the late 1990’s, scientists tested and confirmed the DNA of skeletal remains discovered at the bottom of a mass grave in Berlin in 1972. It was Martin Bormann, who committed suicide mere hours after leaving the Fuhrerbunker, unable to escape the chaotic streets of a crumbling Berlin; a banal and uninteresting demise for such a wildly popular myth. In the end, the Nuremberg Trials witnessed the execution of 486 Nazi perpetrators, a majority of which was hanged.

The Atomic Age and Cold War Malaise 1950’s-60’s:

The Cold War had effectually swung in from the gallows of Nazi perpetrators, ushering in a new paradigm with the old consciousness torn out from the nerve steam of Fascist ideology, grinded and reassembled into a grotesque machination of something that once was. There is no other movie that recants this strange new creature other than Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964).  Considered by many film historians and critics to be Stanly Kubrick’s best work, Dr. Strangelove provokes “laughter through tears” in a nightmare comedy designed to stir a response toward nuclear strategy and weapons (Maland, 190). According to historian Charles Maland, the “American consensus to which Dr. Strangelove responds was rooted in the late 1930’s and in the war years [when] Americans began to feel more threated by the rise of foreign totalitarianism” (Maland, 190). The paradigm of fear was solidified after the Axis defeat during WWII and the “economic prosperity fostered by the war [effort]” (Maland, 191). Dr. Strangelove shows us a world unaware of this continued paradigm dominating the American “social and political life through the early 1960’s” (191) using dark comedy in a dramatic world that no longer made sense. Kubrick describes making Dr. Strangelove during an interview in 1970, he stated:

“It occurred to me I was approaching the project in the wrong way. The only way to tell the story was as a black comedy, or better, a nightmare comedy, where the thing you laugh at most are really the heart of the paradoxical postures that make a nuclear war possible” (Maland, 196-197).

According to Maland, Dr. Strangelove utilizes nightmare comedy as a method of satire to expose four dimensions of the Cold War consensus: “anti-Communist paranoia, the culture’s inability to realize the enormity of nuclear war, various nuclear strategies, and the blind faith modern man places in technological progress” (Maland, 198).

Dr. Strangelove, 1964.

Dr. Strangelove, 1964.

The comedic use for illustrating technological mishaps of a nation can be somewhat disturbing, if not entirely revealing. Consider the scene in Dr. Strangelove where the distraught American President Muffley attempts to call Soviet leader Kissov and the back and forth parodical small talk is mixed in with talk of a renegade American B-52 inbound for the Soviet Union to unload its cargo, the bomb. According to Maland, Dr. Strangelove challenges the fundamental assumption of the fear paradigm, where the nearsighted nationality “[and] human death instinct leads man first to create machines, then to use them for destroying human life” (Maland, 205). Kubrick prods a contemplative stance on technological marvels: has technological means surpassed the bounds of human rationality and morality? Though Dr. Strangelove does not suggest that Soviet leaders are any better, it does, however, suggest that perhaps “no nation-state has a monopoly on foolishness and that the backstage strategies of military and political leaders are simply exercises in paranoia” (Maland, 206). But what does this say of Dr. Strangelove himself, the man who the film is named after? Dr. Strangelove doesn’t say much during the movie, not until the end at least, but his character is carefully crafted and shaped to represent the grotesque surviving mannequin of fascism. When Dr. Strangelove speaks his poorly hidden German accent comes through and becomes more obvious the closer the bomb is to being launched. Dr. Strangelove’s broken and crippled body moves sporadically in quick violent jerks as he attempts to contain something bubbling within. And when the bomb becomes inevitable, Dr. Strangelove bolts his arm upward, eerily reminiscent of the Sieg Heil (German hail to victory) salute.

The character Dr. Strangelove represents the monster once thought destroyed, a fascist creature devoid of feeling, horribly cold, and calculating (Maland, 202-203); the film Dr. Strangelove gives voice to Käthe Kollwitz’s 1944 lament, that though people would have to work hard, a better state can be achieved. Kubrick’s astonishing work, Dr. Strangelove, evokes her passion for a resurgence of social justice and social awareness in a society that has embraced, if not utterly conformed to the paranoia enabled by the House Un-American Activities Committee, McCarthyism, and the growing discontent of the late 1950’s, a decade plagued by othering, a symptom indicative to the historical context that spawned, according to historian Konrad Klejsa, “[the] impulse which led to the decision to start developing an atomic bomb [in the first place]” (Klejsa, 438). However, Kubrick also begs the question: do people want to work to achieve a better state or what is the better state? By 1968, it was becoming apparent that denazification could not shake the old ghost of National Socialism. The voices of those maimed by the machinations of war were becoming extinguished in the great wind of militant indifference toward world destruction, the bomb, nuclear holocaust. This disconnection really shows the disenchantment and horrible calamity of the era.

Europe’s Uncertainty during the 1970’s:

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum: Or How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead, is the story of a young woman who is scrutinized and harassed by police and tabloid (sleaze) press after she spends the night with a suspected terrorist. Film historian Jack Zipes begs the question regarding the political reality and repression in the Federal Republic of Germany (Bunderrepublik) during the 1970′s using both the film and novelization of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. Zipes first illuminates the reality in which these two depictions are attempting to criticize.  According to Zipes, the reality of theBunderrepublik of 1972-75 is “on one level the entire history of the student movement or extra-parliamentary opposition [which] provides the subject matter of the novel and film” (Zipes, 75). Basically, the history these two forms of the same story attempt to bring to light depictions of social political attitudes and conditions regarding the late 1960’s and early 1970’s with the SPD uber-conservative government (75). The political situation in Germany seems to be volatile during this period, especially due to the actions of a few militant terrorists, the Baader-Meinhof Group, aka the infamous RAF. Because of the actions of the few, according to Zipes, the conservative forces of the German state and mass media made it appear as if the entirety of the “Left,” the progressive forces of the Bunderrepublik were associated with terrorism. An incredible swing on the American-esk McCarthy pendulum, ushering never-ending witch-hunt bonfires stacked with the stench of 800,000 progresses and reformers who were no longer fit the state’s “legitimate” government program (76).

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1975

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1975

According to historian Zipes, Heinrich Böll’s writings are concerned with gross human rights violations and origins of violence (77). The novelization of the story, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, for better or worse, urges for the reformation of mass media, of the press, radio, and TV. Considering Zipes interpretation of the novel, a strange dual world emerges where the fictional narrative is more truthful than the non-fictional reports carried out by the corrupted mass media. Though, according to Zipes, Böll does not create a perfect explanation of the “socio-political dynamic of violence in the Bunderrepublik” (78); however, it nevertheless a straightforward participatory revelation of a moralist’s case for political resistance (79). In Volker Schlöndorff’s film adaptation of Böll’s novel, Zipes mentions a more distinguishable focus on a cohesive left movement that was nearly nonexistent in the novel (81). According to Zipes, director Schlöndorff “focuses [his film] on the power relations in the case of Katharina Blum in order to facilitate the viewer’s comprehension of how the police and mass media conspire to victimize private citizens” (81). Basically, where Böll focused on the power in the use of words, Schlöndorff gives greater attention to the unfolding of human drama in the interpersonal relationships of his characters. And while the film is somewhat of a bore, the character development and the unshackling of Katharina toward the end is an important conceptualization of the possible effects of extreme othering and incredible swings on the pendulum. 

Moving into a new era (1990’s-2002):

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1994 seemed like a sunbeam cast on a dreary landscape haunted by ghosts and monsters for nearly a hundred years. However, throughout the post-WWII years, with the stream of immigrants coming into Europe, old animosities and ideologies resurfaced (Brose, 457). As the iron curtain fell over Moscow, once restricted communities were once again able to move toward the “imagined good life in the West, and labor shortages soon [followed] giving way to sluggish [economic] growth and high hovering unemployment after the 1970’s” (Brose, 457). During the 90’s, the European Union sought to make labor movement within Europe easier, whilst simultaneously making immigration stricter. In 1995, Jacques Chirac stated a common sentiment among Europeans, “France cannot accept all the wretched of the earth” (Brose, 457). In Germany, the ressentiment against “outsiders” seems even more staggering considering their contextual history, with, according to Brose, “10,037 hate crimes” committed in 1999. After a century of othering, it would seem old motifs have survived for the dawn of the 21st century.

Bend It Like Beckham, 2002.

Bend It Like Beckham, 2002.

In the film, Bend It Like Beckham (2002), director Gurinder Chadha tackles the growing issue with xenophobia in a post 9/11 world, where, according to historian Brose, terrorist attacks “ushered in a period of intense cooperation on security and defense between Europe and the United States” (Brose, 459), which in no small way exasperated tensions between migration and emigration.  Throughout the film, dual characters Jess, an orthodox Sikh, and Jules, a seemingly average white female Brit, deal in similar situations that confront the complex limitations of society. Gurinder Chadha’s film, much like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, also calls back to the 1944 lament of Käthe Kollwitz, as Jules and Jess challenge multicultural barriers that surround them in their place in 21st century history. The best illustration for this positive call for change can be seen in the final montage sequence in Bend It Like Beckham, after Jess’ father tells her to fight boundaries, but simultaneously is unaccepting of Jess’ love interest with couch Joe, an Irishman. Demonstrating with each boundary overcome, there are still more boundaries to cross. The final breakdown at the close of the film shows Jess and Jules “spotting” famed soccer player David Beckham at the airport, representing the resurgence of Englishism, followed by Jess’ sister’s pregnancy, representing family and tradition, and followed at the end with Jess’ father playing lacrosse with Joe. The finality of the film gives audiences the impression that there doesn’t need to be a stereotype “British,” or “American,” or “German,” culture, but that a melody of multiculturalism could work. As we look back at the close of the 20th century, we can see evidence of the failure of accepting the other; however, the 21st century is still in front of us.

The mirror Elie Weasel peered into after the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, when we saw himself as this ghostly apparition, a reflection completely unfamiliar to him, his body tortured by all he suffered during the Holocaust, we too must beg the question of our own reflections and the reflections made in history. The physicality of Europe was in no small way torn asunder. But when Europe was reassembled according to new existential principles, was she born again or was she tragically the same entity forced to occupy a new paradigm, a sown monster marching rigidly from post war malaise, through the Cold War, into the atomic age, and eventually facing new forms of terrorism and xenophobia. In the popular and controversial films of Post-WWII Europe, such as: The Bicycle Thief (1948), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), and Bend It Like Beckham (2002), and the particular history each film reveals, we witnessed the continuity of old ideologies that originally gave birth to the maiming machines of war that gnarled a post WWI generation whose voices had been extinguished in the great wind of Russian Revolution, the complete and utter failure of the Weimar Republic, the rise and fall of the Nazis and ultimately the horrific revelation of the Holocaust. The history archived in films, such as: Battleship Potemkin (1925), M (1931), and Jud Süss (1940), along with novels like, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), demonstrate the progression of chaos in Europe, while films like, The Bicycle Thief (1948), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), and Bend It Like Beckham (2002) demonstrates, sadly, how the fabric of fascism and extreme othering were simply ripped from one body and sown onto another. For the most, this was a 20th century history; what can be said of the 21st? Will the monster continue to terrorize the countryside? Or can we hold out for hope, as Käthe Kollwitz once did, and “believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart” (Anne Frank, 1944)?

 

 

 


The Fall of the House of Hitler: Nazi Cinema and the Third Reich 1939-45

The fall of the Third Reich possesses certain quintessential features of a gothic tale: a haunted house (state), dreary landscape (total war), sickness (anti-Semitism), a duel personality (Nazism & European Jewry), and madness (Holocaust). For all its identifiable historic events, part of the terror in the Reich’s final years (1939-45) is in its vagueness. We can say for certain is that the majority did, on some level, eaten from the völk laced cake of Hitler’s ideology. What we cannot say for certain is when the German populace started to doubt their Führer. Nazi ideology had worked to bring Germany together through propaganda and popular fascist motifs. But in the end, we begin to see through cinematographic evidence that the people of the Third Reich had witnessed the true intentions behind the mask of their Führer. The spring months of communal spirituality (gemülichkeit) had passed; the cold bitter months of disillusionment and discontent were blooming. Attempts in maintaining national cohesion is what drove Nazi propaganda, through films, such as: Jew Süss (1940), Münchhausen (1943), and Kolberg (1945); however, the blur between ideology and actuality was beginning to become more clear. If we can say anything with some certainty, it is that a majority of the German people had revered Hitler and ate his völk laced cake of Nazi ideology, but when did the façade diminish? When did the German people begin to regurgitate the poisonous consummation of belief? Through the course of this discussion, we will walk the dreary landscape of Hitler’s crumbling house, depicted in the above mentioned films and their history, with the hope of revealing the cataclysmic cliff between a charismatic leader and a disillusioned people.

The deliberate genocide of countless human lives is something that cannot be discussed dispassionately (Spielvogel, pg. 255). However, in the pursuit of accountable history, we can, at least, discuss among the various aspects concerning the Holocaust, albeit we must do so with empathy, sincerity, and the upmost respect for each individual life. The burden we are left with in studying and writing about these dark days in history is answering the question of what. What moved Hitler to enforce his “final solution?” What or how did the Germany people react to such a thing? Was the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe planned from the beginning, or was it simply an (de)evolution of popular thought? According to historian Jackson Spielvogel, author of Hitler and Nazi Germany, “Hitler’s ideological stance [in his manifesto, Mein Kampf, clearly] called for the elimination of the ‘evil’ Jews if the Aryan race were to survive” (pg. 256). To begin with, we can say from what we know regarding historiography, that Hitler manipulated an emotional response, an already predisposed suspension for the causes of Germany’s failure in WWI, among a post Treaty of Versailles population. That somehow, the fall of Germany was the fault of the Jew. What we cannot say is if he actually believed that Jews needed to be eliminated. However, in the end, Hitler did use “popular sentiment in Germany” (pg. 256), in essence, to eventually carry himself to power, because to some extent, the people agreed with the rhetoric that spued from the Führer’s sermonized rants. Had the people not agreed, perhaps Hitler would have never had the support to infiltrate the Weimar Republic.

This begs the question of how widespread anti-Semitism was among the German people. It could be said that there was, at least, two traditions of anti-Semitism in Germany: the religious and the political. Consider the medieval Christian opinion that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ. Though attempts were made to convert Jews to Christianity, gradually the two became even more divided, festering a sense of fear and hatred for Jewry among thirteenth century Germany. Consider the final works of Martin Luther, who had advocated peace and love and patience, because Luther had believed that after “Christianity had been corrected by the Reformation” (Spielvogel, pg. 258), the Jews would naturally move toward conversion. When Luther became aware that the Jewish community simply did not wish to convert, regardless of Christian creed, he became indignant, increasingly impatient, angry, advocating violence and malcontent towards Jews in Germany. According to Spielvogel,  “in 1543, [Luther] published a bitter tract against [the Jews] entitled The Jews and Their Lies, in which he characterized the Jews as criminals desiring world rule…and a plague to Germany” (Spielvogel, pg. 258). During the rise and continuation of the Third Reich, Luther’s poisonous words against the Jews were constantly publicized during Nazi party rallies as an “historic account” from a legendary national hero.

Secondly, consider anti-Semitism as a political beast. The power of anti-Semitism can be found in an historic account of German nationalism. From the old empirical state of 1871, Germany, even then, had a sense of misfortune to have Jews within their nation, implying that even when a Jew was to be born in Germany that does not make them a German; she is still a Jew (Spielvogel, pg. 258).  According to Spielvogel, prior to WWI, political anti-Semitism did begin to decline, losing its appeal among the German people; however, during and after WWI, anti-Semitism found new soil in the hearts and minds of the German people through discontent with of the Weimar Republic, the depression, and especially among of the angry right-winged voices of the conservative German Nationals Peoples Party (Nazis). In the two areas of human rational thought, the political and the religious, anti-Semitism was equally strong and fervent; however, history also teaches us that this was not a symptom unique to Germany. So we are left to postulate the nagging question of how widespread and embedded hatred and fear of “the Jew” really was in Germany. Anti-Semitism seems to have been enough to get Hitler in power, but was it enough to follow the Führer’s “final solution,” and total war, to the very end?

Regardless of the debate between developed or naturalistic racism, the fact of the matter is, it exists in all forms and classes of society. There seems to be on some baser level a natural instinct of suspension for “the other,” those that look or act or talk different then ourselves. Here in America, we have had our own sordid tales of fear of “the other.” Consider our long history with slavery, Civil Rights, the Red Scare and McCarthyism, to name a few examples of our own brands of intolerance. However, it seems rather absurd to compare America with Nazi Germany, for obvious reasons. So, what really makes the difference between the expected levels of racism in society and the extreme, such as the case with Germany’s Third Reich, Hitler’s “final solution,” the Holocaust, and total war? Enduring a major war whilst maintaining control of the hearts and minds on the home front was the challenge, according to historian Jeremy Noakes, author of Nazism: 1919-1945 Volume 4, German Home Front in World War II, “for which [the Nazi regime] had been preparing [for] since its takeover of power in 1933” (pg.465), namely, against what Hitler and the Nazi party declared as “Jewish-Marxist agitators.” The responsibility of ensuring the people that Germany would “never again [be stabbed in the back],” fell upon the shoulders of Hitler’s minister of Propaganda, Dr. Joseph Goebbels.

Speaking to a group of radio officials soon after his appointment as Minster of Propaganda, Goebbels related that “the mobilization of the mind is as necessary, perhaps even more necessary than the material mobilization of the nation…We did not lose [WWI] because our artillery gave out but because the weapons of our minds did not fire” (Noakes, pg. 465). Here, Goebbels is insinuating that Germany did not lose the first war because of German military efforts, but because the hearts and minds of the people had been compromised. In the early years of the Third Reich, Goebbels’ propaganda machine remained rather vague and focused primarily on instilling “military spirit” and a nationalistic pride in films such as: Triumph of the Will and Hitler Youth Quex; however, as the Second World War progressed, the function of propaganda shifted to “mobilize[ing] the energy [of] commitment of the population for the war effort and to sustain [German] moral” (Noakes, pg.466). At first, propaganda was generated to convince the population that the German aggressions carried out from 1939-41 were actually a measure of pre-emptive defense. However, even as early as 1940, and continuing through 1945, Goebbels’ propaganda effort “turned up the heat,” becoming less vague, and began to focus on, what Hitler deemed, the internal threat. In the face of probable defeat, propaganda emphasized, through literally works and cinematography, a “conspiracy orchestrated by the Jews who dominated both [war fronts]” (Noakes, pg.466). In works such as, Sozialparasitismus im Völkerleben (Social Parasitism in the Life of the Nations) and Jew Süss, the “naturalistic application of the word parasite to the Jews [blended] with the mythical images of a vampire…[as a] purely ‘scientific’ argument” (The Jewish Parasite, pg. 20-21). For Nazi instigators and propagandist, such as Alfred Rosenberg and Goebbels, the issue with the Jew was not a moral judgment, but a “biological reality” (pg. 22).  For Goebbels, the goal was to convince through media, in characters such as Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, that the Jew was no more than a tentacled parasite that would gradually invade society “through the open wounds of the people, consuming their creative forces and hastening the doom of [the German population]” (pg. 22).

Jud Süss, also known as Jew Süss, was more than a racist film.  According to historian Susan Tegel, the notoriety of Jud Süss derived “solely from being an antisemitic film which was [also] a box-office success” (Holocaust and the Moving Image, pg.76).  The Third Reich produced nearly 1,100 featured films, of those, only 229 were credited as being propaganda. Of these, according to Tegel, “only 96 were Staatsauftragsfilme (state-commissioned films), and of them Jew Süss was one of the most important” (pg.76). Why? The early periods of Third Reich cinema, as far back as 1933, featured few Jewish tropes; in retrospect, they were the thundering backdrop to a growing storm. It wasn’t until 1940 when Germany was introduced to provocative characters, such as: Joseph Süss Oppenheimer. According to film historian Eric Rentschler, in his work, The Elective Other, Jew Süss was, “Nazi cinema’s most controversial and contested film, just as its director, Veit Harlan, is (next to Leni Riefenstahl) the Third Reich’s most controversial and contended filmmaker [that held the ability to] ignite fierce passions [among the people, insomuch as] it [also] became the central exhibit in [the directors] postwar trial for crimes against humanity” (pg.149-150). Jew Süss performs as Hitler’s existential partner. On one hand, the focus is forced at one target, a target that doesn’t, according to Hitler, belong in Germany, and preparing “the German populace for the ‘final solution,’ the deportation and mass murder of European Jewry” (pg.149); while on the other hand, this fabrication of “the enemy” becomes a necessity in creating a complete gemeinschaft (or gemülichkeit) reality, in other words, the Nazi could not exist without the Jew (pg. 154).

Till the very end, Jew Süss remained Joseph Goebbels’ most effect piece of propaganda manifested in the guise of provocative “historic” entertainment; suggestive in research as it was in the portrayal of, so-called, “accurate” caricatures of the other, “latterday [Dracula’s] who…infect the German corpus” (pg. 156). According the Rentschler, Jew Süss is a monstrous entity in the history of cinematography (pg.150), but for the German people of the Third Reich, Jew Süss was something much more sinister. The film claims historic accuracy, though generic at best, for Germany. The tale of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer was something familiar, though perhaps not easily recognizable. Jew Süss played off pre-established notions of anti-Semitism, which gave historic evidence “that penetrated surface appearances and promised to show the Jew’s ‘real face’” (pg.155), and the fate of a country who allowed Jewry to exist among its population. According to Rentschler, if we can “read this film as a Nazi fantasy, it can tell us how Germans in the Third Reich saw the other and how they defined themselves in relation to that other” (pg.154). It’s interesting to note that there are few German heroes or sympathetic characters in Nazi cinematography; however, apparently the characture Süss (Ferdinand Marian) “received fan mail from [smitten] female spectators” (pg.158).

The fantasy of Jewish “machinations [sucking] the Swabian state dry” (pg.156) can be clearly seen in the dialogue between characters Karl Alexander, Duke of Württemberg, and Süss Oppenheimer, the shifty nomad “whose preferred countenance is the masquerade” (pg.155). Towards the end of the film, during an evening of fireworks and entertainment prepared by Oppenheimer, the Duke, in a cathartic moment, asks for Süss to reveal his inner face, pleading, “Ha, what does he really look like, what does he really look like?” (154). Süss replies sarcastically, “How am I really supposed to look?” According to Rentschler, film maker Viet Harlan, in his Nazi propaganda film Jew Süss invites the audience to beg the question: who or what is the Jew? And the above scene illustrates a provoked response: according to Harlan, Jews are sadistic and cruel creatures, masters of disguise and manipulators of image, beastly and equally cunning (pg.155) who offer the German corpus an alternative self, a conjured attractiveness derived from a long “tradition of anti-Semitic projections that accompanied the rise of the German bourgeoisie” (pg.164). Upon the film’s release to the public, subsequent responses echoed “sentiment [that] Jew Süss was horrible and authentic, fantastic yet…frighteningly real” (pg.155). For the German people of the Third Reich, Jew Süss presented for them a real and lasting image of the “Jewish problem,” a problem that would need to be resolved through action set in reality, the deportation and extermination of European Jewry.            According to Spielvogel, Hitler was determined to carry his Nazi ideology across Europe, establishing his own brand of New Order. For Germans on the home front, “Nazi domestic policies…were influenced by war conditions, [and] also by Hitler’s perception that Germany had collapsed in World War I because of the home front” (pg. 220). The once revered savior of Germany was becoming more and more tyrannical in his determination in not repeating the past mistakes of 1918. In September of 1939, there was a notable contrast in how the German people identified with, once again, going to war. According to Spielvogel, “in August 1914, there had been crowds cheering in the streets, a profusion of waving flags, processions, and flowers to accompany German troops marching off to war” (pg.230). But as Hitler reignited the machines of war, the people remained silent. The only sign of enthusiasm was from “devout Nazis who believed the Führer was always right and who were eager” (pg.230) for vengeance.  In the face of lacking total enthusiasm and support, Hitler was even more determined to maintain morale on the home front, than, one could say, winning the war itself.

During the first years of the war (1939-41), the Nazi Blitzkrieg (rapid conquests) won many victories for Germany, and from these conquered enemies came a mass procurement of materials for war. On the home front, armament product was unnecessary, and so, the maintained production of consumer products, and the importation of grain, silk, champagne, lace, chocolate, and “other goods from occupied Europe kept the German people relatively content” (Spielvogel, pg.231). However, near the end of 1941, in the face of fighting a two front war, a change in priorities could no longer be avoidable. The cost of ultimate victory began to weigh heavily on the minds of the German people. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, was keenly aware of the growing problem. But each message of Hitler’s genius was becoming increasingly rejected in the face of continued defeat in battle. According to Spielvogel, by 1942, “Goebbels had come to believe it was time to be brutally frank with the German people about the real military situation Germany faced” (Hitler and Nazi Germany, pg.239); however, Hitler, still fearing losing control on the home front, refused Goebbles’ suggestion. The mood and morale of the German people deteriorated as rapidly as British bombs had begun to fall on German cities; war had come home to rouse discontent and disillusionment against the fracturing ideology of the Nazi regime.

In the face of Hitler’s crumbling house, Goebbels sought to transform military defeat into spiritual renewal. According to film historian Eric Rentschler, the Minster of Propaganda “painstakingly choreographed and [in] electrifying performance, he let out all the stops, rousing his listeners with a call for ‘total war,’ a comprehensive remobilization” (The Ministry of Illusion, pg.193) of both mind and spirit. The film Münchhausen premiered on Ufa’s twenty-fifth anniversary as an form of psychological escape from the 900 tons of bombs, thousands of destroyed buildings, 600 fires, 711 civilian casualties, and more than 35,000 homeless, for a shell-shocked Berlin still living in the Third Reich (Rentschler, pgs. 193-194). Münchhausen acted as a placebo, a German fantasy of sensuality, decadence, and eroticism, all the things Germany had been denied in Nazi containment and control polices, because the realities of life in the Third Reich were beginning to become unbearable; discontentment was becoming more difficult to muzzle, and the bark of the German voice desired escape.

Baron von Münchhausen, another historic transfiguration of late eighteenth and ninetieth centuries, was an “improbable first-person [narrative, sustaining] …a bizarre humor and an immodest staccato, commingling hyperbole and tongue-in-cheek” (pg.194). The Baron is always “a background player in history [parading] in the age of memorable monarchs. He becomes the lover of Catherine the Great and he is a captive at the court of the Ottoman Emperor Abdul Hamid I. Reference is [also] made to Maria Theresa of Austria and to Stanislaus II of Poland” (Peter Christensen, Baron Münchhausen and the Third Reich, pg.14). Pursued by the Inquisition, the baron commandeers a balloon, traveling upward, to the moon in what could only be described as a “Nazi Wizard of Oz, [constituting] undoubtedly…the grand exception [of traditional propaganda], so it would seem, among the feature films of the Third Reich” (Rentschler, pg.201).

According to Rentschler, “for its original audience, [Münchhausen] offered therapeutic relief, a tale about a man who masters his own destiny and marshals the march of time” (pg.195); a story about Germany eternal, a Germany in which, as the film states, “Everybody knows about…but no one really knows” (Münchhausen, 1943). With state-of-the-art wizardry, Goebbels “sought to reanimate a paralyzed nation” (pg.196) and heroize absentee fathers in the face of Baron von Münchhausen as the state, and his faithful companion, Christian Kuchenreutter, as the German fighting man.

The iconic central image of Münchhausen straddling a cannonball as it zooms through the air, turning toward the audience and tipping his hat, will forever immortalize the baron as a human projectile; Germany as a human projectile in the efforts of total war. Despite its wide and celebrated reception, Münchhausen is still a fabricated world with a “sham hero [inviting] its audiences to share the fantasy;” a desperate attempt at resuscitating the hearts and minds of the German people. According to Rentschler, the baron could be interpreted as the Third Reich’s last action hero, a ditch effort in transforming the mythic image of the Aryan race into a living reality; however, dissolving before the viewer, Münchhausen reveals the machinations of Nazi propaganda and the “hollowness of special effects…whose ultimate extension could be but one thing: the end” (pg.213).

In The Shadow of Death in Germany at the End of the Second World War, author Richard Bessel notes that “during the last year of the Second World War, more Germans died than in any other year before or since. [Essentially, by] …1945, Germany became a land of the dead” (pg.51). The most significant contributor of death for Germans was in military action, “which claimed the lives of [a] astronomical numbers of soldiers in the final stages of the war.” To say the least, death was at the very center of daily life in Germany. However, this loss of life came not in the first years of the war, but in the waning and bitter months between January, and lasting till Germany’s eventual surrender in May, of 1945. During these months, the Soviet offensive crushed the Wehrmacht from East Prussia and into southern Poland. The Allied bombing campaign against Germany was at its highest peak, cities across Germany were bombed day and night, and a few were even utterly destroyed. Of the Germans that did not die, 12 million were homeless. According to Spielvogel, out of the 21,000 antiaircraft guns and German fighter planes located throughout western Germany, none “were sufficient to stop the Allied planes. [The majority of] antiaircraft guns were manned by teenage boys and girls as more men were drained off into the army” (pg.242). In contrast to the end of WWI, when German troops still stood well beyond the borders of the Reich as they surrendered, in the last battles of WWII, both solider and civilian were still fighting and dying within Germany; according to Bessel, “the dead fell not in France or Russia, but in Berlin and Breslau” (pg.52). In a radio message from a Heinrich Himmler, the acting Supreme Commander of the Replacement Army, to the Governor of Lower Bavaria, the following orders were given:

“The Reichsführer SS issues the following instructions… [you are to] maintain a stubborn, uncompromising determination to carry on [and] where there is a white flag…all the male persons of the house concerned are to be shot. There must be no hesitation in carrying our these measures” (Noakes, Vol. 4, pg.658).

And, according to Bessel, in the final months, “the Nazi regime made a point of displaying the corpses of ‘cowards’ so that all could see” (pg.53).  Günter Grass, recalling some sixty years after the fall of the house of Hitler, as a seventeen year old boy in the Waffen-SS, that “The first dead that I saw were not Russians, but Germans. They were hanging from the trees; many of them were my age” (Bessel, pg.53).  Such public death was not the only method the Third Reich used to manipulate the German population. An entry in Joseph Goebbels’ diary articulates the spawn of total war, in a confession of sorts, just a few weeks before his own suicide, that “we must always lead the German people back to the basic thesis of how we wage war and make it clear to them that they have no other choice but to fight or to die” (Bessel, pg.54).

As German civilians began becoming accustomed to living in bombed out building and air-raid shelters, propaganda films, such as Jew Süss and Münchhausen, effectively lost their appeal, especially as more and more theaters were being destroyed by Allied bombs, and as the Allied forces, on both fronts, began to become closer and closer to Berlin. Goebbles’ propaganda films in 1945, including Kolberg, were only effective insomuch as in their actual predictions of the coming horrors that awaited Germany, especially German women. According to author Atina Grossmann, in her article, A Question of Silence: The Rape of German Women by Occupation Soldiers, “Goebbels’ propaganda – for once – turned out to be correct… [In later accounts] many women reported feeling that they were reenacting a scene in a film they had already seen when the drama they were expecting actually unfolded: soldiers with heavy boots, unfamiliar faces, and shining flashlights entered a darkened cellar, searched for weapons and watches, and then revolver in hand, commanded the proverbial, ‘Frau, Komm’” (pg.52). By 1945, in the wake of the encroaching Red Army, such depictions as above, and other sordid accounts of rape, were becoming widely publicized; a shared collective experience during an event of general crisis, both horrific in nature and frightful in execution (pg. 53).

Released on the anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power, January 30, 1945, Kolberg came at a time when all of Germany knew “the war was long-since lost” (Culbert, pg.449). Kolberg was one of the last propaganda films to come from the desperate mind of Joseph Goebbels: a cinematic justification for complete and utter total war. Goebbels spared no expense, pulling out all the stops, in what would obviously be one of the last propaganda films in his ministry. The actors’ performance was as superbly as if it were their last, as was the case for Heinrich George, who performed in such films as: Metropolis (1927), Hitlerjunge Quex (Hitler Youth Quex), and Jew Süss, who would later die in a Soviet concentration camp in September of 1946. Thousands of soldiers were pulled from the front lines as extras to give aid to Veit Harlan’s vision of exaggeration, an artistic depiction of the courage and strength and unity of the German population in the face of such desperate situations (Culbert, pg.451), carrying the message to never surrender. In a speech made by the passionate character Nettelbeck to a despondent Gneisenau, he pleads, “We know every stone, every corner, every house. We won’t surrender even if we have to claw the ground with our nails. In Kolberg we don’t give up. They’ll have to cut off our hands or slay us one by one” (Kolberg, 1945). Yet even Kolberg could not turn the tide. Hitler’s house had fallen. The once revered leader of the Third Reich, on January 16, 1945, hid in what would be known as simply, the Bunker: his final wartime headquarters, which would later become his tomb. In his last testament, Hitler continued with the same arguments, that “international Jewry would eventually be seen as the culprit” (Spielvogel, pg.217). And on April 30, he and Eva Brown, his recently wed wife, committed suicide, their bodies were quickly burned, per Hitler’s request, and one week later, on May 7, the remaining forces of Germany surrendered unconditionally.

We know how the story ends. Through such films as: Triumph of the Will (1934), Hitler Youth Quex (1933), La Habanera (1937), Jew Süss (1940), Münchhausen (1943), and finally, Kolberg (1945), (to name a few) we are given a sneak peek behind the curtain of how effective Nazi propaganda played in the hearts and minds of the German people. Arguably, we can assume that there was indeed widespread support and acceptance of Hitler’s Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism among the lives of the common Völk. The first three films mentioned above illustrate the acceptance of aesthetic fascism, the indoctrination of youth, and the importance of obedient mothers within the development of the Third Reich, in the guise of “genuine” entertainment. However, beginning with Jew Süss, Hitler’s Iron Gate had begun to close ever so tightly. Jew Süss gave the German people a collective and singular enemy to focus their discontent and anger. Münchhausen was the first of many attempts in distracting the Germany population to the realities of war.

However, as we reach the dawning months of 1945, films like Kolberg depicted Goebbles’ last attempt to provoke mass suicide in fighting to the last man, woman, and child; all the horrors of total war. It was during these moments during the war in which the German people, the once exalted and mighty Völk, regurgitate the poisonous conception of belief in their Führer’s ideology nightmare. As Allied forces marched through the streets of Berlin, most Germans welcomed them with a sigh of relief, but as they began to look around them, I’d imagine they probably recalled the promises the Führer had made: that he would win the heart of the world, but to do so, he would need Germany to play their part. Mass death was no doubt traumatic for Germany. However, in a way, it was also opportune excuse; creating on one hand deep imprints of brutality and death that lingered in a postwar culture, and on the other hand, the trauma was, one could say, an easy space goat in avoiding the memories of their overall involvement in the criminality of the Third Reich. Either way, Germany paid the high price of Hitler’s Third Reich in the coming years of the Cold War. The German people had given Hitler everything, and they likewise enjoyed, for a time, the sweet depravity of the völk laced cake, for if anything, Hitler’s ideology did create a seemingly unified gemeinschaft, but at what cost? Upon the ashes of Hitler’s fallen house, and the stink of millions lost, within the second half of the twentieth century, somehow the German people were able to rebuild themselves from the wreckage, something resembling a “normal” peaceful society.


The Shadow of Death in Germany: Richard Bessel and the end of the Third Reich

In Richard Bessel’s work, “The Shadow of Death in Germany at the End of the Second World War,” he notes that “during the last year of the Second World War, more Germans died than in any other year before or since.” Essentially, by “1945, Germany became a [virtual] land of the dead” (pg.51). The most significant contributor of death for Germans was in military action, “which claimed the lives of [an] astronomical number of soldiers in the final stages of the war.” To say the least, death was at the very epicenter of daily life for Germans living in the Third Reich. However, as we can see, this loss of life came not in the first years of the war, but in the waning and bitter months between January 1945 and lasting till Germany’s eventual surrender in May 1945. During these months, the Soviet offensive crushed the Wehrmacht from East Prussia and into southern Poland. The Allied bombing campaign against Germany was at its highest peak, cities across Germany were bombed day and night, and a few were utterly destroyed. Of the Germans that did not die, twelve-million found themselves homeless.

Contrast to the eventually surrender of German forces at the close of WWI, when the fight still stood well beyond the borders of the newly established Weimer Republic, in the last battles of WWII, both solider and civilian were fighting and dying within the very heartland of Germany; according to Bessel, “the dead fell not in France or Russia, but in Berlin and Breslau” (pg.52). According to Bessel, in the final months, in an effort to combat resistance among the German population, “the Nazi regime made a point of displaying the corpses of ‘cowards’ so that all could see” (pg.53).  Günter Grass, recalling some sixty years after the fall of the house of Hitler, as a seventeen year old boy in the Waffen-SS, that “the first dead that I saw were not Russians, but Germans. They were hanging from the trees; many of them were my age” (Bessel, pg.53).  Such public death was not the only method the Third Reich used to manipulate and control the German population. An entry in Joseph Goebbels’ diary articulates the spawn of total war, in a confession of sorts, just a few weeks before his own suicide, he remarks regarding Nazi leadership, that “we must always lead the German people back to the basic thesis of how we wage war and make it clear to them that they have no other choice but to fight or to die” (Bessel, pg.54). However, in reality, the two become equally as significant. The Third Reich would have to fight and die; not one or the other, but both.

According to Bessel’s article, the sight of such mass death was indeed traumatic for Germany; however, it was also opportune. On one hand, deep imprints of brutality and death from the Third Reich era still lingering in a post war culture, and on the other hand, the trauma was, one could say, an easy scapegoat for avoiding the memories for their overall involvement in the criminality and savagery aimed towards European Jewry. Either way, Germany still paid a high price for living in Hitler’s nightmarish Reichland, more so in the coming years, during the Cold War… and yet somehow, well into the second half of the twentieth century, building from the wreckage a “normal” peaceful society.