Fritz Lang, Max Ophuls, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Edgar Germany Ulmer, Wilhelm Thiele, Ludwig Berger, Paul Czinner, Ewald André Dupont, Joe May, Douglas Sirk (directors); Elisabeth Bergner, Brigitte Helm, Marlene Dietrich, Peter Lorre, Asta Nielsen, Conrad Veidt, Fritz Kortner, Curt Bois (actors); Karl Freund, Eugen Schüfftan, Rudolph Maté, Franz Planner (directors of photography); Erich Pommer (producer); Werner Richard Heymann, Frederick Hollander, Bronislav Kaper, Erich Korngold, Miklos Rozsa, Max Steiner (musicians). These are the main names of the approximately 1532 Filmemigranten forced to leave Germany (or Austria) during the Thirties for political and / or racial reasons; with this emigration, German cinema was deprived of its best creative forces. With the seizure of power in January 1933, there was, in fact, a rapid process of conquest of all sectors of the state by the Nazi regime. Among these the first was cinema, destined to play a crucial role: already in Mein Kampf, the Führer had emphasized the irreplaceable educational function of the people, but this proved to be fundamental above all for the second phase of National Socialist politics, that of the so-called Gleichschaltung, or the process of leveling the institutions of Germany to the spirit and for the purposes of Nazism. With the creation of the Ministry for Culture and Propaganda, under the direction of Joseph Goebbels, we witnessed (in addition to the voluntary exodus from the country) the purge of the cinema environment, then the foundation of a Reichsfilmkammer, a public-legal corporation, the registration to which guaranteed the possibility of exercising the profession in the cultural field and therefore required the implicit adherence to the National Socialist ideology. A very strong and widespread action of censorship was exercised, especially at a preventive level, and alongside this was introduced the Prädikatisierung, a sort of state classification that rewarded, also through tax concessions, the works whose content was more explicitly linked to the official dictates of the regime.
Concerning the use of cinema as a propaganda tool, there are contemporary statements by Hitler and Goebbels rather contradictory: while the dictator affirmed the need to separate the concepts of art and politics in the film, the minister took sides (like Luigi Freddi in fascist Italy) in favor of an idea of propaganda that operated imperceptibly, penetrating into everyday life. The latter thesis prevailed, so much so that the works in which content, plot and characters were marked as National Socialist, counted a very small percentage (less than 15% of the 1110 films produced during the ‘black twelve years’).
In general, the idea of art in the Third Reich remained linked to a naturalism between the stylized and the illustrative, which expresses a consolidated or rather simplified reality (the Führer loved to repeat: “Germans means to be clear”), where the presence of the state is inherent in social and cultural relations. In the cinematographic field this trend was manifested through the Tendenzfilm, that is the application, in the most popular and tested genre films, of an extreme simplification of the narrative fabric. It is the so-called Schwarzweissdramaturgie, an exasperated Manichaeism that pits the German hero, military or civilian, against the enemy of the people, with the inevitable victory of the first over the second. Characters are ordinary individuals, absolutely stereotyped in their roles and devoid of any psychological insight, whose adventures end with the inevitable happy end, which can also include the death of the protagonist, as long as doctrinal values triumph. The background of these events is often an idyllic, rural and communal Germany, a sort of golden age that removes the first thirty years of the 20th century. and its ‘modernist’ degenerations, to return to the glories of the Wilhelminian era.The first cinematographic experience of the newborn regime was a trilogy of films dedicated to the SA (Sturmabteilungen, the paramilitary organization of the National Socialist party, whose members would have been almost all exterminated in the Night of the Long Knives, in June 1934) and represented almost the only attempt at direct propaganda, from which Goebbels himself quickly distanced himself, also due to the commercial failure that followed. These are Hitlerjunge Quex – Ein Film vom Opfergeist der deutschen Jugend directed by Hans Steinhoff, SA-Mann Brandt by Franz Seitz and Hans Westmar by Franz Wenzler, all from 1933. Despite the common theme of exalting martyrdom in the name of party ideals and schematic Manichaeism, the first film of the trilogy stands out if only for its stylistic quality, as Steinhoff still appears to be indebted to ‘proletarian cinema’, starting from the figure of Heinrich George in the role of the communist father. Disappeared, but only in appearance, from the Spielfilm, the present National Socialist reigned, however, in the Wochenschau, the newsreel, also the subject of careful manipulative attention, or in the form of a documentary, the apex of which is constituted by Triumph des Willens (1935; The triumph of the will) by L. Riefenstahl on the Nuremberg congress of 1934. Behind the documentary aspect, Riefenstahl managed to capture the most genuine spirit in the spectacular mass movements and grandiose choreographies of Albert Speer National Socialist and at the same time to elaborate at a higher level the liturgy of the Nazi gathering and the feeling of participation of the spectator. The director’s works (including Olympia, 1938, on the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936) represent an exception, however, due to his talent and his ability to find new cinematographic solutions: the rest of the documentary production, such as Feldzug in Polen (1940; Si avanza all’Est) by Fritz Hippler, did not go beyond the simple montage film for propaganda purposes. After the disappointing ‘political’ experiment of the SA trilogy, the cinema of the Third Reich returned to already proven paths, a guarantee of certain commercial success. This did not prevent him, however, especially at the beginning, from maintaining a good quality standard, even though he was deprived of his best forces, who had fled abroad. This is demonstrated by the irreverent comedies of Reinhold Schünzel (who emigrated in 1937), such as Viktor und Viktoria (1933; Vittorio and Vittoria, hence the modern remake of Blake Edwards Victor / Victoria, 1982) or Amphitryon – Aus den Wolken kommt das Glück (1935; Amphitryon), still full of Weimarian spirit, or the fascinating melodramas of D. Sirk (who also emigrated in 1937), or the few episodes in the cinema of ‘Mephisto’ Gustaf Gründgens, author of fine literary adaptations (Der Schritt vom Wege, 1939, The novel of a woman, from Effie Briest by Th. Fontane) or of graceful comedies (Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs, 1934, remake of the Murnau film; Capriolen, 1937). Between Austria and Germany the former ‘proletarian’ director Werner Hochbaum tried to escape, sometimes successfully (Vorstadtvarieté, 1935; Die ewige Maske, 1935, The eternal mask, etc.), from leaden Nazi control, until in 1939 he was excluded from the Reichfilmkammer. But apart from these ‘authorial’ exceptions, we mostly witnessed the development of genre films, especially historical ones, or literary transcriptions. The former, who had the advantage of legitimizing the war effort of Nazism, preferred the Prussian cycle and the figure of Frederick the Great, understood as the ideal forerunner of Hitler (Der alte und der junge König, 1935, I due re, directed by H. Steinhoff or Fridericus, 1936, by Johannes Mayer), and fully responded to the naturalistic dictates of the regime for their nineteenth-century academicism, as well as the biographies of the greats of the past: Bismarck (1940; Bismarck, the iron chancellor) by Wolfgang Liebeneiner, Friedrich Schiller – Triumph eines Genies (1940; I masnadieri) by Herbert Maisch or the much more successful Paracelsus (1943) by GW Pabst, who had unexpectedly returned to Germany after having spent years of exile in France. At the same time, war films developed that tended to glorify the exploits of German soldiers during the Great War, whose heroism was contrasted with the degenerate image of the Weimar Republic: the mediocre Karl Ritter (e.g., in Pour le Mérite, 1938), who together with Steinhoff and above all a Veit Harlan, can be considered among the most representative filmmakers of the time, both for his technical talent and for his strong link with the regime.
While Steinhoff seems at ease above all with historical-literary production in costume, V. Harlan, with his fascinating family melodramas, represents the finest interpreter of the artistic dictates of the Blut und Boden culture. Films such as Der Herrscher (1937; Ingratitude), Das unsterbliche Herz (1939; The accused of Nuremberg), Die Reise nach Tilsit (1939; Towards love), Die goldene Stadt (1942; The golden city), Immensee (1943; Il perduto amore), Opfergang (1944; The prisoner of fate), often played by the Swedish actress (and Harlan’s wife) Kristina Söderbaum, pursue, in an (almost) perfect synthesis but undermined by an underground death drive, the utopia of conciliation, where, at within the historical contrast between Kultur and Zivilisation dear to the conservative culture of the beginning of the century, man manages to recover his mythical relationship with nature. Along the same lines, but within the Bergfilm, we can place the best works of the South Tyrolean director L. Trenker, always in the balance between Germany by Goebbels and Italy by Mussolini: former collaborator of A. Fanck, of which he brings forward the great technical and spectacular lesson, with Der verlorene Sohn (1934; The prodigal son) and Der Kaiser von Kalifornien (The Emperor of California, Golden Lion at the 1936 Venice Film Festival) stigmatized corruption and decadence of capitalist civilization, indicating nature (and in particular its mountains of origin) as a place for the recovery of the roots and values of tradition.
However, most of the films produced in the twelve years of the regime are more difficult to classify, linked as it is to Unterhaltungsproduktion, a sector still subject to many questions by critics and influenced by Hollywood models, which Minister Goebbels considered his maximum ideal. Here the political intent is not easily traceable, if not at the occult level or in the means, rather than in the context or in the ends (“Even keeping our people in a good mood can be decisive for the fate of the war”, Goebbels would have said in 1942). Moreover, many of the directors who remained to work in Germany after 1933 often used the fact that they had collaborated on ‘harmless’ films as a justification. However, these are products that had a vast impact on daily life and that, Zarah Leander, Kristina Söderbaum, Brigitte Horney or like Willy Birgel, Hans Albers, Mathias Wieman etc.) developed great mythic potential. However, in this panorama, the exception represented by Helmut Käutnerwho, without assuming the character of open protest, carried out, in an aesthetic guerrilla war against the regime, Romanze in Moll (1943; The pearl necklace), Grosse Freiheit Nr. 7 (1944) or Unter den Brücken (1946, but shot in the summer of 1944), where, immersing himself in everyday life with an intimate style, he draws, with extreme formal accuracy, extraordinary portraits of anti-heroic characters.
At the outbreak of the war in 1939 there was an acceleration of the trends already highlighted, while the production, downsized to 50-70 films and now almost completely centralized in the UFA, followed the categorical imperative to spread optimism and fun as she would have managed to do well, in Agfacolor and on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the German Major, with Josef von Baky’s Münchhausen (1943; The Baron of Münchhausen), played by Hans Albers and written under a pseudonym by the dissident writer E. Kästner. However, war-related films multiplied with the aim of inflaming the soul of the population, sometimes expressly conceived for the female audience who represented the majority of the spectators, as in the case of the mélo Wunschkonzert (1940; Concerto on request) by Eduard von Borsody or Die grosse Liebe (1942; A great love) by Rolf Hansen, with Reich diva Zarah Leander. Alongside these products, the genre of the so-called Anti-films thrived, which were not the exclusive prerogative of Germany alone but which in this case carried a precise and hierarchical racist message against its enemies: if in fact the anti-British or anti-French films were substantially linked to political factors, anti-Soviet films (starting with the invasion of the USSR in June 1941) involved a mixture of ideological and racial aversion. But the lowest opponent and nevertheless considered the most dangerous was Judaism, represented as a plague that spreads in a subtle way around the world, against which the regime lashes out with films, all from 1940,
The Nazism’s delirium of omnipotence ended with an emblematic film, Kolberg (1945) by Harlan, which exalts the resistance of a small town in Pomerania against the Napoleonic armies. The latest, colossal megalomaniac of the regime saw a stellar cast and thousands of extras made up of soldiers specially recalled from the front. The ‘premiere’ was held on January 30, 1945 in La Rochelle, surrounded by the Allies, where a copy was parachuted. But the twilight of the (false) gods was upon us. On the day of the capitulation, May 7, 1945, he saw the Germany in pieces: 40% of the houses were destroyed or damaged, the industrial capacity even more than halved compared to the levels of 1936, the whole territory of the ‘Millennial Reich’ and Berlin they were occupied by allied troops and divided into four ‘zones of influence’