Rob Edelman: History And The Holocaust, Part 1

Jul 30, 2018

It has been my experience that, for many of the younger generations, history is irrelevant. If it happened last Tuesday, let alone last month or year or decade, it is unimportant. Perhaps this explains why, these days, in order to market their products, so many companies stress the words “now” and “today” in their advertising. For after all, all that matters is “today,” is “right now.” Five minutes from now, “today” and “right now” no longer matter.

This directly relates to the reality of the Holocaust. Who exactly was Adolph Hitler? What was his impact on the world, and what might have happened had Germany actually emerged victorious during World War II? Distressingly, I occasionally come upon twenty-somethings who are oblivious to Hitler, even after all their years of schooling. 

All of this comes to mind while watching and pondering a compelling new documentary, which has just come to home entertainment from Kino Lorber. It is titled HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD. Its director is Rüdiger Suchsland, its full title is HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD: GERMAN CINEMA IN THE AGE OF PROPAGANDA, 1933-1945, and it is a follow-up to the equally informative FROM CALIGARI TO HITLER: GERMAN CINEMA IN THE AGE OF THE MASSES.

Both films are explorations of the impact of Nazi cinema between 1933 and 1945. The latest opens with an obvious yet telling quote from Siegfried Kracauer, the noted German film historian. According to Kracauer, “Watching old movies is a means of exploring one’s past.” And the first clip we see in HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD is from a 1937 film about, of all characters, Sherlock Holmes. The sequence is lighthearted, almost comical. We see the Sherlock character dancing and whistling. But then, a bit of dialogue transcends Sherlock Holmes. It relates more to Germany’s vision of itself in 1937, and it is: “...from now on, the world belongs to us.”

HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD is loaded with clips of all types. Many were filmed in color as well as black-and-white, and collectively they offer the view that Germany was then attempting to become what may be best described as a “second Hollywood.” There are comedies, musicals, romances, melodramas, historical dramas, and so many of its films are steeped in fantasy. They are theatrical and bigger than life, but there is a major difference. Many are blatantly anti-Semitic. They feature Jewish characters who are scapegoated, and are destined to be exterminated. In this regard, HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD focuses on the power of cinema as propaganda. At one juncture, we are presented with a question that begs for discussion. That is: “What does German cinema tell us that we have forgotten?” 

There is, however, one major flaw in HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD. Its narration, in English, is by Udo Kier, the German actor, and much of it simply is unintelligible. Still, HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD is loaded with information and insight. It is a sobering reminded that there is so much more to the German cinema of the period than Leni Riefenstahl, and TRIUMPH OF THE WILL.

Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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