Emory Report

September 13, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 4

Fehrenbach examines role of film in Nazi Germany

What role did film play in mobilizing public support for Germany's Third Reich? What can such films tell us about the nature of national socialism and the appeal of Nazi culture?

In Heide Fehrenbach's course on "National Socialism on Film," students began to answer these questions by examining the form and function of Nazi self-representation on celluloid, then turned to a study of the cultural legacy of national socialism, both in postwar German society and abroad. In the process, students were challenged to rethink the relationship between "entertainment" and "ideology," "propaganda" and "documentary," and even-perhaps most surprisingly-the conventions of "Nazi Cinema" and Hollywood.

When Fehrenbach, an associate professor of history, offered the course at Emory for the first time last spring, a dozen juniors and seniors from a variety of majors-film studies, German, history, philosophy and English-signed up. Besides consulting texts like The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda, Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife and The Racial State, students read historical and theoretical works on the Holocaust and its representation. By the time they viewed Hollywood's representation of history in Schindler's List, students found it easier to recognize issues surrounding cinema, as well as its power and place in history.

Their study of national socialism and film began with a look at the 1920s, a time of critical discourse in Germany about cultural distinctiveness and the importance of constructing a national identity distinct from America. After World War I, and particularly with Hollywood's push into European markets, cinema came to play an important role in defining "German-ness." Cinema and its public control became linked to the exercise of national sovereignty.

In the interwar period a distinctive German cinema emerged, both delimiting itself from and drawing upon American film. German stars and producers like Marlene Dietrich and Erich Pommer went to Hollywood and returned with tried-and-true Hollywood techniques. Even Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels urged German filmmakers to model their work after Gone With The Wind and Disney films to ensure popularity and win big audiences.

"Despite stringent censorship measures, Goebbels' advocacy of entertainment value over ideological instruction in feature films encouraged a Nazi-era film-viewing experience that suggested that political membership in the German national community was not incompatible with the cultivation of consumer freedoms and modern subnational identities," Fehrenbach explained. "Despite a rhetoric of cultural purity, German cinema under the Nazis continued to be a culturally promiscuous product, based upon adaptation of American forms."

In addition to screening documentaries in the class, Fehrenbach showed historical and entertainment films. Students were surprised to learn that only 14 percent of German films during the Nazi period were overtly political; the balance were feature films in the forms of comedies, musicals, histories and melodramas. A commercial film industry continued to function-and thrive-in the Third Reich, and during the war, in German-dominated Europe. Students particularly enjoyed Münchhausen, a 1943 fantasy feature film produced in color. Class discussions gradually began to focus on how films engage audiences and whether that strength can be employed to serve ideological purposes.

The course's three layered approach involved investigating self-representation by the Nazi regime, retrospective reappraisals of national socialism and the theoretical issues involving the intersection of history and film. Fehrenbach emphasized that reappraisals of national socialism and its meanings for postwar Germany must consider how the past figures into the present and the importance of film as an aspect of public history. Documentaries and propaganda films, feature and historical films all play a part.

"One of the things that interests me has to do with the after-lives of Nazi self-representation," said Fehrenbach. "It is astounding how often, for example, American documentaries on national socialism uncritically employ footage from Nazi-sponsored spectacles, like Leni Reifenstahl's 1935 film Triumph of the Will, to depict the social and political realities of life in the Third Reich.

"This recycling raises important issues for the historian regarding the relationship of film and history. How should historians approach films as 'documents?' To what extent can they give us access to the 'past-ness' of the past'? What is the role of film in historical understanding? Ultimately, of course, posing such questions forces us to rethink the ways we study the past and tell its stories; it forces us to rethink what we do when we 'do' history."

Fehrenbach, who earned a doctorate in modern European history from Rutgers University and taught for eight years at Colgate before coming to Emory, published her first book, Cinema in Democratizing Germany: Reconstructing National Identity After Hitler, in 1995. She's currently working on a book titled Race in German Reconstruction: African American Occupation Children and Postwar Discourses of Democracy, 1945-1965.

-reported by Cathy Byrd

Return to September 13, 1999 contents page