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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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Universal Monsters in Review: Son of Dracula (1943)

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Whenever you see a “Buy War Bonds” ad at an end of a classic Universal Pictures movie, you know you’re in store for a good time. And suffice to say, in a nut shell, Son of Dracula was certainly entertaining. The whole War Bond thing, I thought, was pretty classy of Universal to leave in the DVD formatting of the film. I’m not sure if any of the others have it as well, but of the movies we’ve reviewed thus far, Son of Dracula is the first. I’m actually really surprised Invisible Agent didn’t have a War Bond ad, given how propagandic the movie was (and yes, I totally just invented that word). And this in part is what gives these Universal Monster movies a particular glamour, the fact that we know historically that while folks were lining movie palaces at the Roxy or the Oriental or the Million Dollar Theater, their loved ones were gathering into training camps to ship off to war. For two years before Son of Dracula’s release, following December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, America was at war with the Axis Powers. Entertainment became not just a distraction but also a means of communicating support and moral. But there are also other themes going on as well, other than entertaining a war time audience. And we’ll discuss some of those themes here.

Before we begin, as per my custom, here is a rather decently written synopsis of the movie I found over at IMDb:

“Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr.) finds his way from Budapest to the swamps of the Deep South after meeting Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), of the moneyed Caldwell clan that runs a plantation called Dark Oaks. She’s obsessed with occult matters. Who better to guide her through this supernatural world than Count Alucard, whose name no one bothers to spell backwards? No one, that is, except the wily Dr. Brewster (Frank Craven), an old family friend. He’ll join Professor Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg), a specialist in the occult, in fighting this ‘Alucard’ and the woman he’s influenced. Or has Katherine influenced him? Meanwhile, Katherine’s fiancé, Frank Stanley (Robert Paige), will find his courage and his sanity sorely tested when he accidentally shoots Katherine to death, yet finds that she goes on living.”

Son of Dracula is a charming movie. Familiar scenes play out that will later be used in Abbot and Costello movies, such as Dracula arriving by train in the luggage department. The curious nature of Dr. Brewster, and the obedient naive fiance, Frank, summoned to the train station to fetch Katherine’s guest, are classic tropes used in all sorts of horror stories. The anagram, “Alucard,” was perhaps unnecessary. But maybe in a universe in which Dracula legends are real, then I assume the writers knew what they were doing. Speaking of which. Son of Dracula gets a double dose of Siodmak! Curt Siodmak wrote the screenplay while his brother, Robert Siodmak directed. We’ve reviewed thus far lots of movies penned by the talented Mr. Curt, however, Son of Dracula is the first film in which Robert directed. Robert will go on to direct many amazing films, most notably Phantom Lady in 1944, however, Son of Dracula will be his only fling with Universal Monsters.  I can only imagine what the stage looked like with both Robert and Curt working together. The first film that I know of that the brothers collaborated on was People on Sunday, a 1930s German silent picture during the interwar period, just before they both fled Europe for the coasts of California.

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But I digress. See what happens when I start rambling!

Back to the film at hand.

As I stated before, Son of Dracula is a very charming movie. The actors were excellent. The early 1940s special effects were actually rather good, I especially liked how Dracula kept his coffin in the swamp, and as the sun set upon the Bayou, it rose from its watery grave, and then walking upon the land in a wisp of smoke. I loved the part of Katherine who was not your typical “woman in distress” character. In fact, the woman in peril was played up only to fool audience and character expectations. Katherine was wonderfully not the hero nor was she the victim. Naive as she may have seemed, she was certainly in control. She wanted to live forever, consulting a witch she’d brought over from the old country, hardly second questioned when the hag turned up dead and she’d been seen fleeing the woman’s hut. No one was going to stop her or get in her way. Katherine was deviously two-faced. Towards the end, I actually stopped to ponder if Dracula was the antagonist, or if he was simply a vessel in which Katherine used to obtain immortality? Watch for yourself. It does seem as if Dracula was nothing more than a pawn, duped into coming to the swamps of America on the temptation of richer soil and life and of course, Katherine. Though, honestly, I don’t think Drac cared much for her, in fact I’d be so bold as to say he was using her as much as she was using him. And still, the camera rolled as if this stoic and powerful presence was in control when in fact it was the woman behind him that was pulling the strings.

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Given that this is a 1940s picture, its a rather fresh breath of air to see a woman playing the part of mastermind.

Certainly something we haven’t seen since the 1936 film, Dracula’s Daughter.

The real victim in Son of Dracula is gullible fiance Frank, who’s played more cruelly than the fiddle that Georgia boy played against the Devil. Catering to Katherine’s every need, pleading with her, lapping up her fawned morbidity. Man, the more I think about her character, the more cunning she seems. She brought Drac to America knowing what he was. She allowed the Vampire to slay her father, knowingly changing the will to suit her needs, all the while pretending some sort of family honor in keeping the estate. She coldly watches her boy-toy lose his mind and then temps him with life-everlasting, prodding him to destroy Dracula. Why? Because she got what she wanted out of the “monster.” Eternal life. After the cards have been played on the table, we are still uncertain what Frank will do. Will he destroy Dracula and return to his beloved to live forever. Or will he himself become destroyed? Or perhaps he will kill both Dracula and Katherine… Despite the fact that this movie is 73 years old, I’m still not going to give away the ending. I feel something this movie’s conclusion is something that needs to be discovered firsthand and not through a review, especially not by the likes of me. I will say though, I was surprisingly satisfied.

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My only qualm was the always lovable Lon Chaney Jr., who will eventually go on to play not only the Wolfman, but also Kharis, from the Mummy movies, and Frankenstein’s creature. And while he played an excellent mummy, best in The Mummy’s Ghost, and a rather decent Frank, I did not really care much for his role as Dracula, not even as a quasi fleshed out decedent of Dracula. He was…okay in the part as Chaney is an excellent actor, but still…his maleficence seemed too forced and very Larry Talbot-like. Also, towards the middle, the movie dragged on a bit. For Universal Monster classics, about an hour is perfect; an hour and twenty is pushing things.

My rating: 4/5

Tommy_Bride

Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel,Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò His new Subdue Series, including both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.

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D-Day 3D: Normandy 1944 @ Houston Museum of Natural Science

Heads up history nerds! Opening at the Houston Museum of Natural Science between May 23rd and running through June, D-Day 3D: Normandy 1944 is a 3D film presentation what looks to be a docu-drama, blending multiple cinematographic techniques, including animation, CGI and live-action sequences. Though D-day is one of the most violence moments for the U.S. forces during WWII, the presentation looks to be geared toward a younger audience. Just spit-balling here, but D-Day 3D wont be your typically meaty Ken Burns take on the war, instead, according to the Houston Museum of Natural Science website, the presentation will be an educational tribute to those who gave all on the beaches of Normandy, bringing “this monumental event to the world’s largest screens for the first time ever. Audiences of all ages, including new generations, will discover from a new perspective how this landing changed the world. Exploring history, military strategy, science, technology and human values.” Obviously, this isn’t for the “hardcore” of us, but who cares?!? This still looks like fun and its a great promotion for history in general. So get your young-ins together and hitch up the fam-mobile and head downtown and support the troops who stormed those beaches and the history that followed. You can check out the advertisement below. 

 

For more information regarding D-Day 3D, check out the Houston Museum of Natural Science website.

For more information regarding D-Day actual, check out American Experience on PBS.


The Masquerade of Death: A Progression of Chaos in Europe (1925-40)

"Hand to Hand Fighting," Otto Dix

“Hand to Hand Fighting,” Otto Dix

There is a popular concept to interpret cataclysmic events as harbingers for Last Judgment. Understandably, looking to the galloping Four Horsemen is a popular motif when events in the world seem out of control. Consider the sketch by Otto Dix in 1917 simply titled, Hand to Hand Fighting, where in orphic cubism soldiers are mangled together in an orgy of violence. Dix had presented this work as a depiction of the cycle of life during the Great War, which had erupted in central Europe during the summer months of 1914. In 1917, as a German solider, Dix would have been deep in the mud and death, surrounded by “lice, rats, barbed wire, fleas, shells, bombs, fire, [and] steel” (Brose, pg. 81), elements characterized by trench warfare. According to historian Eric Brose, in just 1915, “Well over two million men fell on the western front” (Brose, pg. 81); this is the world in which Dix makes deep and often chaotic brush strokes, mockingly showing us a world of ghastly maiming machines of war (Brose, pg. 77).  From this foundational nightmare a chaotic history unfolds, the history of a post Great War Europe, of Russian Revolution, of Weimar Germany and the road to WWII and ultimately, the Holocaust. And in films as well, such as: Battleship Potemkin (1925), M (1931), and Jud Süss (1940), and post Great War novels, like: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), we can see the hoof prints of an apocalypse that has already happened.

The most interesting notion of the apocalypse are the prophets who foretell impending doom.

In March 1899, composer Richard Strauss was considered to be rather ordinary “elegant-looking man whose odd style matched the polyphony of [his] strange [performance in] A Hero’s Life” (Brose, pg. 38).  Strauss conducted A Hero’s Life in Frankfurt’s Municipal Museum to an audience made up of European aristocracy who sat uncomfortably in their chairs, clinching against a melody that reflected a mood anguished by the birth pains of modernity. According to historian Brose, Richard Strauss’ performance pulsated, not just with disdain for the new social transformation, but also with the rapid growth of industrialization and technological change occurring within a “political structure poorly [suited] to withstand such [a] challenge” (Brose, pg. 51). One of the most curious moments during Strauss’ A Hero’s Life was when, while crouching, he would suddenly stand upright and point toward the brass players hidden on either side of the orchestra, as if with a wave of his baton, Strauss orders a battalion of conjured soldiers in a “forward march.”

But how did the end begin? What was it that set the fuse burning out the colonial world, exploding into a world at war?

"Self Portrait," Otto Dix, 1913.

“Self Portrait,” Otto Dix, 1913.

Richard Strauss, along with his other contemporaries dealing in moral artistic relativism, whose work became obsessed on the fragmented and fractured foundation of the world, seem to have been oddly sensitive to apocalyptic visions (Brose, pgs. 64-65). Modernity was on the move, marching to the trumpet call and the inevitability of war in Europe. According to Brose, several developments had increased this inevitability. Consider, Europe and her long history of discontent and conflict among a growing population squeezed within smaller and smaller country states – each with an unquenchable desire for independence. Or consider the booming industrial and technological revolutions pitted against a system of multiple colonial rivalries, each maneuvering into either alliances or opposing armed encampments. Or perhaps, the escalating urge from these colonial states to purge discontent brought on by dynamism through acts of war. Or even perhaps, heightened anxiety weighed on the shoulders of finite leaders pointing an accusing finger between each other (Brose, pgs. 74-75). Obviously, we can estimate that there was no single factor that ushered Europe into the Great War; but rather was each a deadly mixture in an already boiling pot. There is some debate on the initial spark that set the fuse. Brose among other historians point toward the June 28, 1914 assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand. According to Brose, “six Serbian terrorists united in a convoluted and still shadowy conspiracy to…destabilize the Austro-Hungarian Empire and make way for a South Slav state” (Brose, pg.75).

Looking to the ethnic grievances of these six Order of the Black Hand assassins as the ignition that set Europe into a horrifying four year conflict seems plausible, even with its conspiratorial flare. As news of the Archdukes assignation spread, Bosnian Muslims and Croats distanced themselves by firebombing Serb businesses, Vienna threated ultimatums to set loose the “anti-Serb zealots in the army like Hötzendorff” (Brose, pg.75) and sought backing with Germany, while Russian Tsar Nicholas II weighed defending the “honorable” relationship with their fellow Slavic and Christian Orthodox ally Serbia (pg.75) against internal unrest. As established allies, France backed Russia. Armies mobilized. Warning given. Mediation floundered. On August 4, 1914, with German carvery thundering into natural Belgium, London decided on the side of France. The Great War had officially begun (Brose, pg.76).

The Storm of Steel, coined by German solider, writer, philosopher Ernst Jünger, the Great War is considered to be the first in mechanized warfare. According to historian Brose:

“[The] ghastly maiming machines of modern war had changed…the street [of Europe] of 1914, [that were] so full of life and youthful vigor, [into monstrous] defacements, [men with] their lips and jaws blown away, feeding tubes inserted where mouths had been, wads of gauze stuffed in nose holes bigger than silver dollars…and piles of amputated body parts. [The] survivors among these half-men would somehow have to adjust to civilian life” (Brose, pg. 77).

"The Trench," Otto Dix, 1923.

“The Trench,” Otto Dix, 1923.

As the armies mobilized and marched during those late summer months of 1914, the Great War quickly became a war of attrition with each faction burrowing deep within the blood soaked earth (Brose, pg. 78) in an nightmarish zigzag pattern of endless trenches, feebly protected by a mash entanglement of barbed wire. Machine-gun nests and heavy artillery became hellish bloodhounds guarding the killing zones between enemy trenches. In 1915, a “greater horror” was unleashed: “a thick yellowish-green, ground-hugging cloud of poison gas that caught gagging, chocking, dying allied soldiers completely by surprise” (Brose, pg.81). The Great War was the world in which Otto Dix would capture in his paintings and drawings throughout the remaining years of his life, a world where “butchers (artillery) smash the person next to [you] into pieces with one blow and mockingly cover [you] with blood and flesh and guts” (Brose, pg.81). Sacrifices increased throughout 1916 on both fronts with an estimated eighteen million lost by years end (pg. 84).

And so it began. The Storm of Steel, as Jünger had called it, recalling from his own experiences in the trenches, witnessing the old stag of colonialism come crashing down, its legs broken by the sheer weight of mechanization. But how did we enter the war? In an era of progressive-ism, how could the isolated United States ever get involved with something so far away? Well… perhaps the reasons are too convoluted, too precarious, much like that of the countries of Europe, to narrow a definitive answer for why?

Nevertheless, in the early morning hours of April 1917, the U.S. declared war with Germany. Our staunch isolationism broke apart after relations were aggravated with German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann’s “ridiculous ploy to entice Mexico and Japan into a war against the United States” (Brose, pg.97). Leadership within Germany crumbled as her labor force began to strike. Troops would not follow the monarchy into last-ditch battles. “Workers’ and soldier’ councils, formed in emulation of revolutionary Russia the previous year, [spreading] quickly” (Brose, pg.99). In 1918, Russia fallen apart due to civil war and revolution throughout 1917, spreading across Central and Eastern Europe. Austria-Hungary dissolved. The war was coming to an end. On November 11, 1918, the Armistice was signed, ceasing the usually thundering boom of artillery fire and ushering unto the land a strange silence among the thirty-seven million dead, wounded, or missing. Upon this queer scene, one can imagine the surviving forces climbing carefully out of the trenches, gazing at the mutilated landscape and asking themselves, “What do we do now?”

Indeed…what do we do now? What happens to the world after she tears herself apart?

As the drum beat of the Great War faded, the galloping march of Pestilence and Famine spread across the postwar landscape. According to historian Brose, “five years after [the Great War] started, almost three million civilians in Germany and Austria-Hungary…[who were] succumbing in great numbers to tuberculosis, pneumonia, typhus, and a deadly new mutated strain of influenza” (Brose, pgs. 100-101). The End Times would have most certainly been a popular motif among the hungry and diseased ravaged villages and cities of 1919. And to make matters worse, the Treaty of Versailles, with its harsh provisions of War Guilt placed upon Germany, gave Europe no real chance for economic recovery – guaranteeing “a war of revenge” (Brose, pg. 103) down the already bloodied path. Further bolstering this season of discontent, on the eastern front, the Red Army forces that grew from the Bolshevik revolutions of 1917 and 1918 had swelled to five million by 1920, spreading communist rule across Byelorussia, the Ukraine, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and finally Georgia in 1921 (Brose, pg. 107). Reflecting on the words of President Woodrow Wilson, that the Great War would be a “war to end all wars” (Brose, pg. 107), and in light of the apocalyptic developments throughout Europe, one has to wonder if the end hadn’t already come.

The Battleship Potemkin (1928) is considered to be a masterpiece of silent cinema (Bordwell, pg. 61). According to film historian David Bordwell, “Potemkin seeks to arouse emotion and partisanship [while] aiming at [a] revolutionary pathos” (Bordwell, pgs. 61-62). Commissioned by the Soviet government to commemorate the uprising of 1905, director Sergei Eisenstein created within Potemkin a film filled with metaphorical motifs and analogies resembling, what he considered the natural process of rebellion (Bordwell, pg. 99). One needs only to look to the scene with the boiling soup followed by the shot of angry sailors, or the scene with the rotting meat filled with maggots and the ship doctor claiming, “These are not worms” (Bordwell, pg. 71), a humorless comparison, or even more blood curdling montage bounded of the Odessa Steps, the massacre, where women and children are mowed down against an unstoppable unreasonable Tsar military force. This, of course, further exacerbates the widening gulf between bourgeoisie and what represents for working class why the Bolshevik revolution happened in the first place.

Though The Battleship Potemkin is based on events that occurred in 1905, the film was made in 1925, serving as an historical record for the time in which it was made. So what does Potemkin say about 1925? Consider historian Brose and his comments on the history of Europe in the Twentieth Century, when he states:

“It was not just that communism had survived, a victory that shaped the next seventy years. Of significance were also the ways that people – party officials, workers and peasants, parents and children – changed. For many years subsequent historians concurred that war and civil war brutalized the population and coarsened public life to the point where much worse atrocities – the mass executions – became all but inevitable” (Brose, pg.166).

Potemkin tells us that The Great War did not win the day for democracy, it further exacerbated it; whilst simultaneously promoting, as Stalin states in his work, The theory of the Proletarian Revolution, “a great popular revolution…which had such an important ally as the vast mass of the peasantry who were oppressed and exploited by the landlords” (Goldstein, pg. 236).  Potemkin used images with the cowardly priest, dominating ship captain, and the relentless firing squad on the Odessa Steps, to remind the people of the corruption of religion, the corruption of the aristocracy, and to remind the people of the unifying revolutionary cause.

"The Skat Players," Otto Dix, 1920.

“The Skat Players,” Otto Dix, 1920.

The masquerade of death was in full swing during Germany’s Weimar era. Recognizable developments were taking place.  According to historian Konrad Heiden, “inflation [had] plagued Germany throughout the first years of the republic, brought on by financing [a] war through bonds…” (Heiden, pg.144) and with the steep reparations demanded from the Treaty of Versailles, beginning in 1923, the republic’s currency was valued roughly 4.2 billion marks to the America dollar (144)! This hyperinflation infiltrated every aspect of life, especially for the working class German, where store food lines took an eternity to move forward and when “you reached the store, a pound of sugar might have obtained for two millions; but, by the time you came to the counter, all you could get for two millions was half a pound, and the saleswoman [would say] the dollar had just gone up again” (144).  By November 1929, Chancellor Gustav Stresemann launched a season of reconciliation with France, Britain, and the United States, finally ending the crippling hyperinflation (though, keep in mind that most of everyone’s savings had been wiped out and the U.S. Stock Market Crash that happened back in October 1929 was on the verge of pulling Europe into another depression); however, despite this period of increased economic stability, those who were effected most would not forget and would effectively blame the Weimar Republic.

Fritz Lang’s cult film M, though seemingly simple, is suspect. Consider how, according to film historian Anton Kaes, “M was not among Germany’s top ten features of 1931 [and] the film received mixed reviews [with] only modest box-office returns” (Kaes, pg.138), yet despite being overshadowed by the eventual collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism, M is not only a rich source for historic symbolism in the midst of a chaotic 1931, but also because it represents the emergence of National Socialism.  The history surrounding M, the political and social crisis of the Weimar Republic, cannot help but have some kind of impact on the film. In a way, M captures the surrounding worldwide recession and apocalyptic dreariness during the 1930’s, the mass unemployment and rise of criminality and political discontent that eventually lead to the rise of the Nazi Party (Kaes, pg.140). According to historian Kaes, “the original title [of M] was Mörder unter uns (meaning…Murderer among Us),” which, in a strange way, combines the “explosive atmosphere of Germany two years before Hitler’s assumption of power” (Kaes, pg. 141) and the infamous murder trial involving SA (Hitler’s “Storm Troopers) hit men who had murdered a member of the communist party in the late fall of 1930. Besides using M as an interpretation for one of the notorious Four Horsemen, historian Kaes reflects on the films own history as it represents itself in 1931 and asks if indeed, “were the Nazis ‘murderers among us’” (Kaes, pg.141)?

"Self Portrait," Otto Dix, 1926.

“Self Portrait,” Otto Dix, 1926.

Consider the final scene in M and the row of weeping mothers who plead: “This [trial] will not bring our children back to life. People should… take better care… of their children” (M, 1931) as a literal foreshadowing of the up and coming far right (Nazi party), of the youth being swept up in the momentum of National Socialist revolution. According to Kaes:

“M presents a society at war with itself. Serial murder recalled wartime slaughter, and the heightened state of mobilization of an entire community echoed experiences from the home front…[focusing] on the downtrodden lumpenproletariat, [including] washerwomen and fatherless children, criminals and beggars, haggard prostitutes and slovenly policemen” (pgs. 143-144).

M is a representation of the public’s strange fascination with murder in 1931 Germany, suggestive in imitation murder, which “displaces and shields us from real murder” (Kaes, pg.146), thus, in an ironic twist of things, “murder and its mass marketed representations feed on each other” (Kaes, pg. 146). Basically, murders are covered by the media in noir-esk fashion, thus inspiring future killers to commit asks of violence, which in turn is reported by the media, and so on and so forth; all the while, sitting on the backdrop of current events relating to culture and social n(m)ormality. According to historian Kaes, the Great War was still a “living memory [of] national shame of defeat and [resentment of] the financial and moral burden” (Kaes, pg. 151) embodied in the Treaty of Versailles and the failures of the Weimar Republic.

All Quite on the Western Front, released a year prior in 1929, alongside M, acts as a companion view into the Weimar era. According to historian Modris Eksteins, in his work, Rites of Spring, “All Quite can be seen not as an explanation but as a symptom of the confusion and disorientation of the postwar world” (Eksteins, pg.283). The story of All Quite is about Paul Bäumer and his gang of school friends turned German soldiers sent to the trenches to fight an inescapable futile war, in which the world beyond no longer knows them (Eksteins, pg. 281). As Paul states:

“I stand up. I am very quiet. Let the months and years come, they can take nothing from me, they can take nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fear. The life that has borne me through these years is still in my hands and my eyes. Whether I have subdued it, I know not. But so long as it is there it will seek its own way out, heedless of the will that is within me” (All Quite, pg. 295).

"Skull," Otto Dix, 1924.

“Skull,” Otto Dix, 1924.

According to historian Eksteins, in the final scene of the book, when Paul dies “yet strangely [is] at peace with his destiny” (pg. 281), certain axioms “lose their meaning [when people] die violent deaths – patriotism, national duty, honor, glory, heroism, valor…” (pg. 281-282) all become meaningless in the hallows of the destructive nature of war. All Quite was written in 1929 about life in the trenches somewhere between 1914 and 1918; however, this book, according to Eksteins, is not a memoir, All Quite is an “angry declaration about the effects of war” (pg. 282). Alongside M, All Quite had warned of the coming of the pale horse. All Quite wanted its readership in 1929 to journey within themselves and face the realities of the effects of war; however, in 1933, after Hitler’s rise to power, All Quite found itself on top of the pyre, burnt at the University of Berlin for being “politically and morally un-German, [and a] betrayal of the soldiers of the world war” (Eksteins, pgs. 298-299). But despite the warnings in M and All Quite for internal reflection instead of external othering, the pale rider had arrived, and his name that sat on him was Death.

According to historian Susan Tegel, the notoriety of Jud Süss (1940) derived “solely from being an antisemitic film which was [also] a box-office success” (Holocaust and the Moving Image, pg.76).  After the fall of the Weimar Republic, 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 (or state-commissioned films), and of them Jew Süss was one of the most important” (pg.76). Why? The early periods during 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 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).

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” (Rentschler, 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” (Rentschler, 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’” (Rentschler, pg.155), and the fate of a country who allowed Jewry to exist among its population. According to film historian 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).

"Fritz Perls," Otto Dix, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

“Fritz Perls,” Otto Dix, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The nightmarish fantasy of Jewish “machinations [sucking] the Swabian state dry” (Rentschler, 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 inferred 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). Basically, they are to blame for the woes of post Versailles Germany.

I’ve commented on this particular film several times already, but I must continue to press that upon the film’s release to the public, subsequent responses echoed “sentiment [that] Jew Süss was horrible and authentic, fantastic yet…frighteningly real” (Rentschler, 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 European historian Jackson 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, so-called, 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. It would seem, according to historian Brose, that the Nazis only had eyes for the Jew (Brose, pg.227).

"Der Triumph des Todes," Otto Dix, 1934.

“Der Triumph des Todes,” Otto Dix, 1934.

Interpreting cataclysmic events as harbingers for the End Times is an understandably popular motif, especially when events in the world seem to be spinning out of control. When we consider life in Europe during the Great War, which had erupted during the summer months of 1914, and the world of “ghastly maiming machines of war” (Brose, pg. 77) the war ushered in, a deeper history unfolds. Much like Richard Strauss, along with his contemporaries dealing in moral relativism, when we obsess on the fragmented and fractured foundation of the world, we can begin to see apocalyptic signs when there are none (Brose, pgs. 64-65). Don’t get me wrong, modernity was certainly moving Europe into an inevitable war. What followed was terrible and frighteningly real. And from here, another history begins to tell the story of a battered society who refused to focus on the internal outcomes of a devastating war and instead on the external excuses and outlets. From here we witness Russian Revolution, the disenchantment of Weimar Germany and her road to National Socialism, and ultimately the Holocaust, the greatest, tragic form of othering. The history, achieved in films, such as: Battleship Potemkin (1925), M (1931), and Jud Süss (1940), along with novels like, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), the progression of chaos in Europe becomes clear in the muddied hoof prints of the notorious Horsemen.The only question that remains: “Where does the story go from here?”

 

 

 


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.