Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013

Nazi Movie Melodrama

New Perspectives on a Dark Chapter in German Film

By David Luhrssen
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Laura Heins has written one of the more perceptive books on culture under the Third Reich. Her Nazi Film Melodrama (published by University of Illinois Press), is a close examination of a fact will known to film historians but not always well investigated: Germany’s state-directed movie industry produced relatively few overt propaganda pictures or war movies, but focused on light entertainment, romantic comedies and romantic melodramas. “The Nazis’ cinematic obsession with the mechanics of desire was surprisingly central for a society that specialized in technologies of death,” Heins writes. Sexual roles and intimations of sex filled far more footage than tramping jackboots and shrieking Stuka dive bombers. Death camps weren’t considered a fit topic for cinema.

The Nazis were no feminists, Heins stresses, and yet they had their own reasons for undermining conservative gender roles. “Contrary to common assumption, most Nazi romance films did not advocate a return to traditional feminine roles or oppose the Weimar era’s advances into sexual modernity.” Not unlike many Hollywood movies of the era, German films implicitly supported the rise of professional women “while arguing for the maintenance of hierarchical structures and self-sacrificial positions in the work place.” Women had to make themselves useful for the emerging New Order and men would still be in charge. And yet, there is the case, which Heins doesn’t address, of one of Nazi Germany’s leading directors, Leni Riefenstahl, a woman who tended to get her way, hierarchical structures or not.

But then, Riefenstahl is a unique case. Her films, especially Triumph of the Will and Olympiad, may have been the most famous movies from Nazi Germany but didn’t represent what the average German moviegoer went to see.

In contradiction to Hollywood under the Production Code, Nazi cinema championed single motherhood, a policy cautiously advanced by a regime obsessed with increasing Aryan racial stock. Childlessness was the sin according to Hitler, not “illegitimate” children. Not everyone agreed. Heins records a letter writing campaign by a Nazi woman complaining of the objectification of women in the cinema, citing the “unchanged vulgar-Jewish fashion” of filmmakers in the Reich. As Heins comments, “what had long been displaced onto an instrumentalized concept of ‘Jewish smut” was actually German masculinity’s own desire.” The Roman Catholic hierarchy also condemned these movies for their “sanctification of infidelity and divorce.” The Gestapo, evesdropping everywhere, reported negative murmurs among moviegoers over “half-naked women” on screen.

All this goes to show that the Nazis were fundamentally not conservative and embodied one of Modernity’s ugly faces. A work of astute research carried out in careful study of films and archives and scrutiny of contemporary writings, Nazi Film Melodrama is a pathfinding investigation of the interplay of ideology, popular culture and cinematic genres.

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