'Hitler's Hollywood' Explores the Lost Propaganda Films of German Cinema

A scene from the documentary "Hitler's Hollywood." (Kino Lorber)

Germans, just like Americans, were big filmgoers during World War II, but what exactly did they watch, and what did it all mean?

"Hitler's Hollywood: German Cinema in the Age of Propaganda," a fascinating film that is as thorough as it is idiosyncratic, provides an answer.

As directed by Rüdiger Suchsland, this German-language documentary borrows a theme from film historian Siegfried Kracauer that, as Suchsland puts it, "films contain the collective unconscious of the period in which they were created."

In Germany at the time, film was a state-controlled industry very much under the authority of Joseph Goebbels, the Reich's minister of propaganda, so much so that Suchsland argues that Goebbels alone should be considered the auteur of Germany's output.

What the party wanted was to in effect create a second Hollywood, a mass entertainment complex that would, the film posits, be better than life, creating emotion and spectacle, appealing to the heart and the eyes.

Suchsland estimates that some 1,000 films were made during the Reich era, and he says that although barely known today they are better than their reputation and definitely worth a second look.

"What does cinema know that we don't?" he asks. "What does it reveal; what does it conceal?"

Although the voice-over of "Hitler's Hollywood" is thoughtful and provocative, quoting not only Kracauer but Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag, what makes this film come alive is, not surprisingly, the clips from these ventures.

Expected titles such as Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" get their due -- as does the celebrated flying cannonball scene from "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" -- but many of the films that get a shout out are likely to be unfamiliar.

These include "Hitler Youth Quex," about a young man who spurns the tawdry free love of Communism for the rigor and order of the Nazi Party, and "Wunschkonzert," in which a young couple meet cute at the celebrated opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympics.

Considerably stranger, at least in the clip shown, is the veteran G.W. Pabst's "Paracelsus," with a bizarre St. Vitus sequence seeming to question Nazi obedience.

"Hitler's Hollywood" is especially strong in pointing out tendencies in Nazi cinema -- the way it offered audiences escape from ordinary reality as well as indoctrination.

This was, Suchsland says, an artificially perfect world of forced cheerfulness, a place of "constant if rather strained joviality."

It also was a world that applauded self-sacrifice in the name of duty, that conveyed a mystical yearning for death, so much so that "every death was a happy death." Actress Kristina Söderbaum perished so often on screen that some called her "the Reich's floating corpse."

Anti-Semitism was, not surprisingly, also a major theme, in films like "The Eternal Jew" and "Jud Suss." The later was directed by the accomplished Veit Harlan. "No other director," Suchsland says, "made such perfidious films at such a high level."

"Hitler's Hollywood" also introduces us to some of the Reich's stars, most notably Ilse Werner, a woman with a notably modern acting style whose films included "Wunschkonzert." Her father, we are told, turned down an MGM contract for his daughter so she could star for Germany. A sad story all around.

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'Hitler's Hollywood: German Cinema in the Age of Propaganda'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

@KennethTuran ___

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