Hitler and the Nazi Cult of Film and Fame

Michael Munn
  • Review
By – June 18, 2014

Soon after com­ing to pow­er in ear­ly 1933, Hitler and his cohorts moved swift­ly to take total con­trol of the Ger­man film indus­try and use the pow­er­ful tech­niques of cin­e­ma to deify them­selves and demo­nize their ene­mies. The three books under con­sid­er­a­tion here explore how they went about this process. 

Michael Munn’s book takes a sin­gu­lar ap­proach, argu­ing that Hitler was moti­vat­ed not by a desire to gain polit­i­cal pow­er or advance a par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­o­gy, but by an insa­tiable crav­ing for fame. Munn sees Hitler as a man des­per­ate to com­pen­sate for pro­found sex­u­al inadequa­cies by trans­form­ing him­self into an object of cult wor­ship, the pro­to­typ­i­cal Ger­man­ic hero in a Wag­ner­ian epic of his own mak­ing. Rather than being dis­mayed when the end came, Hitler wel­comed it as a glo­ri­ous Goetterdammerung. 

While this view has much to rec­om­mend it — there is no ques­tion that Hitler was a deeply dis­turbed megaloma­niac — Munn’s breezy nar­ra­tive style may leave some read­ers with an emp­ty feel­ing. Was Hitler real­ly indif­fer­ent in his ide­o­log­i­cal choices? 

The books by Thomas Doher­ty and Ben Urwand tack­le a more sub­tle effort by the Nazis to use pop­u­lar cul­ture to bur­nish their image and con­sol­i­date their pow­er, name­ly, the attempts by the Ger­man govern­ment dur­ing the 1930s to exer­cise con­trol over how the Amer­i­can film indus­try por­trayed Ger­many, and espe­cial­ly the Nazis. 

The sto­ry of how Hol­ly­wood stu­dios allowed them­selves to be manip­u­lat­ed by the Ger­mans is cer­tain­ly a shame­ful chap­ter in the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can cin­e­ma. Dur­ing the 1930s, Ger­many was a lucra­tive mar­ket for Amer­i­can films. As a result, the Nazis could, and did, exploit sig­nif­i­cant eco­nom­ic lever­age over Hol­ly­wood: Any stu­dio that por­trayed Ger­many or the new regime in an unflat­ter­ing light ran the risk of hav­ing all its films banned from being shown in Ger­many in perpetuity. 

The Nazis wield­ed this lever­age through both for­mal and infor­mal con­tacts with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the var­i­ous stu­dios and with the Breen office, which enforced the indus­try-wide Pro­duc­tion Code. Rather than run the risk of hav­ing fin­ished films banned out-of-hand, stu­dios submit­ted scripts of films slat­ed for pro­duc­tion to Georg Gyssling, the head of the Ger­man con­sulate in Los Ange­les, who often request­ed (and got) changes before shoot­ing began. 

As its title sug­gests, Urwand’s book is by far the more provoca­tive of the two, argued with the inten­si­ty of some­one who feels he is expos­ing an earth-shak­ing scan­dal. But did the arrange­ment between Hol­ly­wood and the Ger­man regime real­ly amount to active col­lab­o­ra­tion,” an explic­it pact” between Hol­ly­wood and Hitler? 

Hol­ly­wood and Hitler sug­gests that Urwand seri­ous­ly over­states his case. While rang­ing into such fas­ci­nat­ing issues as Hollywood’s odd deci­sion to lion­ize Ben­i­to Mussolini’s son Vit­to­rio in 1937, its fierce re­jection of Leni Riefen­stahl a year lat­er, and the struc­ture and his­to­ry of the news­reel busi­ness, Doher­ty pro­vides a more sober appraisal of the rela­tion­ship between Hol­ly­wood and the Nazis. What emerges is not a por­trait of a sin­is­ter pact of col­lab­o­ra­tion, but an all too famil­iar sto­ry of how eco­nom­ic forces can knock our moral com­pass­es off-cen­ter. While it is appro­pri­ate to regard that rela­tion­ship as moral­ly nox­ious, its effects were in no way com­pa­ra­ble to hand­ing over Jews to be deport­ed and murdered. 

First, not all of Hol­ly­wood suc­cumbed to the Nazis’ threats. In fact, only three of the major stu­dios — Para­mount, MGM, and Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry-Fox — altered con­tent to suit the Ger­mans. The oth­ers — espe­cially Warn­er Broth­ers, which refused to do busi­ness in Ger­many at all after the advent of Hitler — steered clear of the practice. 

Nor was the Ger­man gov­ern­ment the only source of pres­sure on Hol­ly­wood to soft-ped­al crit­i­cism of Ger­many and the Nazi regime. The stu­dios had to con­tend with a wide range of inter­est­ed par­ties, from cen­sor­ship boards in munic­i­pal­i­ties with siz­able Ger­man-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tions to Amer­i­can Jew­ish groups con­cerned that anti-Nazi films would pro­voke Hitler to take increas­ing­ly vio­lent reprisals against the Jews who remained in Germany. 

In light of the diver­si­ty of its tar­get mar­kets, Hol­ly­wood was unlike­ly to have made films with any polit­i­cal con­tent at all dur­ing the 1930s, even in the absence of exter­nal pres­sure. Polit­i­cal films were inher­ent­ly con­tro­ver­sial, and contro­versy could be bad for busi­ness. Unlike Ger­many, where all pop­u­lar cul­ture was appro­pri­at­ed as an instru­ment of polit­i­cal pow­er by the regime, Amer­i­ca allowed show busi­ness to oper­ate as a busi­ness, and those in charge tend­ed to agree with George S. Kaufman’s dic­tum that satire is what clos­es on Sat­ur­day night.” 

And even the stu­dios that did acqui­esce to the arrange­ment with the Nazis had their lim­its. After Kristall­nacht in Novem­ber 1938 made the Nazis’ vio­lent inten­tions toward the Jews tan­gi­ble to the world at large, Hollywood’s inter­est in pla­cat­ing Hitler’s regime cooled consider­ably, and anti-Nazi melo­dra­mas began to churn through the pro­duc­tion pipeline. 

Addi­tion­al Titles Fea­tured in Review

Relat­ed Content:

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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