Nazi propaganda “Forbidden Films”

“Forbidden Films” by Felix Moeller
“Forbidden Films” by Felix Moeller | © Edition Salzgeber

Over 1,000 feature and documentary films were made under National Socialism, many with propagandistic content. Over 40 outright propaganda films are still banned today. A documentary pursues the question whether or not this ban still makes sense.

Old films can be dangerous. Celluloid, upon which they are printed and which was still in use well into the 1950s, is highly inflammable. Film cans can literally explode if they become too hot, and must therefore be archived with particular care. At the beginning of Verbotene Filme (i.e., Forbidden Films), the director Felix Moeller affords us a look into the archive where Nazi films are stored, which is surrounded by a special protective wall just in case such an explosion actually occurs. These films, however, are considered “explosive” not only because of their chemical material. Still far more dangerous seems to be their propagandistic content, for more than 40 films from the time of the Nazis may still not be shown unless accompanied by a scholarly introduction and subsequent discussion.

Anti-Semitic, militaristic, racistIn his documentary, Moeller introduces the “forbidden” propaganda flicks in detail. Among the best known examples are Jud Süß (i.e., Jew Süß, 1940) and Kolberg (1945) by Veit Harlan and Hitlerjunge Quex (i.e., Hitler Youth Quex, 1933) by Hans Steinhoff. The reason that these films may still be shown only under special conditions are very diverse. Especially decisive are the racist and obviously anti-Semitic portrayals, as, for instance, in the Der ewige Jude (i.e., The Eternal Jew, 1940) by Fritz Hippler, in which the Jewish population is represented as a “dangerous threat” to the rest of mankind. The film was intended to arouse anti-Jewish resentment. Other “forbidden films” are seen as militaristic and glorifying war, such as Stukas by Karl Ritter, which was shot in 1941 and aimed at inspiring young men to take part in a possible air war against England.

A suitable ban?

Nazi propaganda films undoubtedly still exert a great effect. While from a contemporary perspective many scenes seem inadvertently funny, their propagandistic intent is not always clear in all cases. Sometimes this operates more subliminally, as in Wolfgang Liebeneiner’s film Ich klage an! (i.e., I Accuse, 1941), which tells the story of a terminally ill women who is finally killed by her husband at her own request. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels lauded the film’s approach because it attuned the audience on the sly to the Nazi euthanasia programme.

Yet even if the Nazi propaganda sometimes reveals itself only at second glance, the question arises whether banning these films is still appropriate today. On the one hand, it seems advisable that they be explained by an expert to a younger audience because the latter often lack the necessary background knowledge to understand the context of films’ content. On the other hand, many of the forbidden films are now anyway available on the internet. Some can even be legally ordered from abroad as DVDs, so that banning them seems quite futile.

Necessary debate

It is also controversial amongst the many experts who have their say in Moeller’s documentary how the films should be treated. Do they still really represent today, nearly 70 years after the end of the Second World War, so strong a threat that the public must be protected from them? Or should we rather deliberately show them publicly, so that everyone can get his own impression of Nazi propaganda? It is obvious that, in this case, there can be no easy answers, even if some scholars have long been calling for the complete release of these films, as, for example, the historian Götz Aly at the end of Verbotene Filme: “I think it’s just as silly as banning Mein Kampf. I think we should make all that freely available, and then we’ll have to talk about it. Certainly there’ll be abuse, but I think that’s much better than reading it, as it were, under the covers or when people download Mein Kampf from the internet or watch Ich klage an on Youtube or bring it back with them from America. All these things must really be brought to an end.”

This certainly will not be so easy, but a new debate on how to treat Nazi propaganda films seems inevitable. The film must be urgently digitalized, for there are already few cinemas that can show 35mm copies. Moreover, the aging celluloid is threatened by decay. To preserve the films in the long term, they must be digitally restored. Perhaps their DVD editions will also offer the opportunity of preparing for the general public a scholarly and educational commentary on the Nazi propaganda films.