Blu-Ray Review – Hitler’s Hollywood

Hitler’s Hollywood is a documentary directed by Rüdiger Suchsland about UFA-Film GmbH, the film studio that was the only one allowed to operate in Nazi Germany. Although there were over 1000 films made during the Nazi era, these movies are almost never discussed (with the exception of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will). It is therefore a period that should be researched and studied—and as you would expect, some of the films were actually good, and others quite terrible.

Multiple film studios existed in Germany before Hitler’s rise, but they were forced to merge into UFA. Most of the huge stars and top or up and coming directors in German cinema left, of course, including Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Richard Siodmak and Douglas Sirk, joining countrymen already in Hollywood like Josef von Sternberg. Director G.W. Pabst tried to leave, but was caught in France and forced to remain and make films. Swedish star Ingrid Bergman was also pressed into doing a film with UFA but eventually managed to get away.

Sirk’s story is one of the most interesting as he left fairly late, in 1937, after three years working with UFA. His first wife had joined the Nazi Party, but his second wife was Jewish. His second marriage meant he was not allowed to see his son from his first marriage, who became one of the noted child actors in Germany during this period. Sirk later made one of the first anti-Nazi movies, Hitler’s Madmen.

The documentary is narrated by Udo Kier. It’s a thoughtful film about what for obvious reasons doesn’t get credit as a fascinating period in cinema. However, as noted in the documentary, there were a number of fascinating movies made, often with a notable focus on death. Nor are they all propaganda. Most of the features are completely forgotten, but filmmaker Josef von Báky’s pioneering full-colour feature Münchhausen included some anti-totalitarian messages, probably due to the screenwriters and director.

The films are hard to watch without thinking about the context, and of course many were propaganda vehicles, including a version of the Titanic story that blamed the ship’s  crash on the Jews. But in addition to those, there were Sherlock Holmes features and even a German remake of It Happened One Night (who knew, but Hitler was a massive Capra fan—the admiration was definitely not mutual!) Only one filmmaker ended up on trial for crimes against humanity for his propaganda work, Veit Haran, who made Jud Süß.

Hitler’s Hollywood makes the case that Josef Goebbels was the only auteur in Nazi Germany, but I think that is a simplistic way of looking at it. He didn’t shoot the films, he just produced them and told the makers what should be in them. It should be possible to judge filmmakers like Reifenstahl on their merits, without ignoring their politics.

The disc includes a second film, From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema In the Age of the Masses, also directed by Suchsland, which is a documentary based on the famous book by Siegfriend Kracauer covering German cinema from the silent era up to the start of the talkies.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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