The Nazi film industry

by Marc Silberman

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 34-35
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

Julian Petley, Capital and Culture: German Cinema 1933-1945. London: British Film Institute, 1979. 162 pp. ?2.45 (dist. by New York Zoetrope, 31 E. Twelfth St., New York 10003).

Julian Petley's monograph on films of the Third Reich represents a contribution to the effort of understanding fascism's popular appeal. The allure of fascism in the sphere of cultural reproduction has grown enormously in recent years. Cinema, bestsellers, auctions for Hitler paraphernalia, fashion trends toward black leather, boots, and chains, young people fetishizing fascist symbols such as swastikas, Nazi flags, and Iron Crosses, these are all part of that phenomenon which Susan Sontag calls "fascinating fascism." The interest in fascism, however, is not without ambiguity. On the one hand, it has focused attention on an historical period which demands public scrutiny; on the other hand, it mystifies the conditions of daily life under fascism.

Petley — in this study and in the series of more than 20 films which he mounted at the National Film Theatre (London) in Spring 1979, under the title "German Cinema of the Third Reich" — looks at how fascist ideology permeated film production under the Nazis. He does not resort, however, to the mechanistic process of using films to read off ideology. Rather, Petley examines film both as a vehicle and a producer of ideology. Consequently, he is less interested in discovering traces of "dominant" Nazi propaganda in the films of the Third Reich than in determining how they generate meaning.

There is a mass of criticism and documentation in German and English on the films, film industry, and film policies of the Third Reich. Indeed, in my own work on German film (articles forthcoming on "Film Narrative and Ideology in Expressionism" and "Film as Production and Reproduction in the Third Reich"), I have been surprised to find quantitatively more material on this period of German film than on the preceding period of the classic German cinema of the twenties. I suggest that this interest is due in large part to a need, whether articulated or not, to create distance between then and now, between them and us. This distance helps justify what is perceived as the manipulatory nature of the fascist consciousness industry as opposed to the relatively free circulation of ideas in the post-1945 liberal public sphere. The result is an attempt to seal off the films of the Third Reich as a mutant, interrupting the continuity of German film history and unrelated to the national cinemas of other countries.

As Petley points out, there are basically two camps of film criticism as far as films of the Third Reich are concerned. One camp views the films as mere entertainment; the other views the films as more or less effective propaganda instruments. The former position — best represented by David Steward Hull's Films in the Third Reich — regards the film industry as the victim of government coercion, which repressed and economically weakened the industry. By focusing on personalities in the industry, this type of approach can ignore the question of collaboration with all its implications. As a consequence, the approach tends to confuse the ideology and practice of fascism. The end effect is a version of laundered criticism which praises or damns the films as "works of art," isolating the acting quality of Emil Jannings, the camera work of Fritz Arno Wagner, or the directorial genius of Detlev Sierk (Douglas Sirk).

The second position — characteristic of Erwin Leiser's Nazi Cinema — is based on a naive and simplistic conspiracy theory. By concentrating on a narrow range of overtly political films, propaganda becomes confused with ideology, which in turn is reduced to a conscious and intentional process of deception by means of allegorical constructions.

Petley's point of departure redefines the whole project of cultural criticism of the Third Reich from a left perspective. First, he sets out to prove that Hitler's government did not unilaterally control the organization and structure of the film industry. Rather he asserts that government and industry worked in close cooperation to the advantage of the latter in order to create a healthy and stable industry on a profitable basis. In other words, sound capitalist management was as important, if not even more so, than ideological conviction. Second, Petley argues that German fascism cannot be located simply at the government level, but rather it must be seen as a condition characteristic of the whole social formation.

The first section of the investigation proceeds to develop a theoretical framework for this undertaking. First, Petley presents a discussion of Althusser's and Lacan's theories on ideology. This is no place to discuss the merits or shortcomings of recent French critical theories, but let it suffice to say that Petley's reading of these two thinkers is brief and highly selective. As a result, his sensible conclusion that a film may produce more than one meaning and that it is necessary to examine the "production of the text" within its economic, political, and ideological context is blurred by a reliance on jargon and by schematically explained concepts. Next, the author offers a discussion of the notion of the petty bourgeoisie and the specific class nature of German fascist ideology based on Nicos Poulantzas' Fascism and Dictatorship. Particularly striking for the German development, according to Petley, was the fusion of anti-capitalist sentiment (especially from 1933 to 1935) with a corporatist ideology, reinforcing central values of fascist control such as elitism, racism, and nationalism.

The second and third sections of the book present an overview of changes in the economic and organizational structure of the German film industry from 1914 to 1945. Petley draws his material in large part from a study of the political economy of Nazi film by two German scholars (Wolfgang Becker and Jürgen Spiker). They had evaluated an enormous amount of statistical information and archival sources in two volumes from a non-sectarian Marxist perspective. Petley has done his English-speaking public an invaluable service by condensing and summarizing their main ideas and conclusions into a much shorter space without sacrificing their line of argument. Their presentation delineates the measures which were undertaken to stabilize the film industry after the Depression in 1932 and which led to increasing concentration.

In effect, German cinema — from 1914 to 1945 — represents a model of capitalist development from free competition in an open market to an oligopoly of mutual interest groups to a vertical and horizontal monopoly. Indeed except for the exclusion of "undesirables" (notably Jews and Leftists), there was a remarkable continuity in the personnel on the management level of the film industry before and after January 1933, when Hitler assumed power. In other words, the main social function of National Socialism in the film industry was to sustain the capitalist industrial structure to the advantage of big business and at the expense of small and midsized operations. (MB. A comparison of developments in the U.S. industry during this period — both their structures and the types of films produced  — could reveal some astonishing similarities, I suspect.)

In the last two sections of his study, Petley turns to the films themselves, to the entertainment films of the Third Reich, in other words, those which rely on classical fictional modes of narration. Once again, Petley tries to establish a theoretical framework, borrowing much from Althusser and the discussion in the British film journal Screen on the function of ideology in the social practice of film. This discussion insists — and rightly so — on the ideological and political nature of all films, including so-called entertainment films. Specifically Petley is concerned with how fictional films of the Third Reich (vs. propaganda films or newsreels) produce memory, that is, history.

In examining these films, Petley undertakes an investigation of those ideological positions which he defines as "petty bourgeois": i.e., desire for mystical community, nostalgia for what is perceived as the stable life of an earlier capitalist period, yearning for a leader, racism as a valve for anti-capitalist sentiment, and nationalist sentiment as a way to overcome class struggle in the more "natural" unity of the nation. Because such petty-bourgeois fears and desires played an instrumental role in the rise of German fascism, Petley seeks to relate the popular appeal of the films in the Third Reich to these ideological positions as they are "inscribed" into those very films. By this means, it is possible to develop a conjuncture between the nature of fascism and the way it works within a specific historical context.

Petley organizes more than 70 films into six categories which he had established earlier in his discussion on the class nature of fascism: the "Great Prussian Models" or films about Germany's past military glory, "Rebels" in the guise of authoritarian militarists, films about "Germans abroad," "non-German nationalism," "Blood and Soil," "Geniuses," and finally "Corporatism." In each category Petley is able to describe mechanisms and narrative procedures by which democratic and anti-capitalistic political discourse is neutralized or deflected through appeals to petty-bourgeois desires and fears. Listing such techniques hardly does justice to the intricacy with which they are constructed and interrelated. Petley traces notions of pseudo-socialism, the patriarchal family, anti-juridicalism, nationalism, pantheism, and mysticism as they function ideologically in film narrative and iconography. He examines how the classical realist text relies on particular strategies to achieve coherency and closure and then proceeds to locate the precise ideological strategies operative in these films.

Capital and Culture is not an introductory text to films of the Third Reich. Unfortunately, the discussion of specific films (about one-third of the book) is too brief to do more than to tantalize the reader. Yet, Petley's study represents an important contribution to the analysis of the film industry and ideology of the Third Reich and, more generally, to the construction of a theoretical framework for investigating the links between ideology, politics, the economy, and art.