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Screentime for Hitler

Der Bewegte Mann (Maybe…Maybe Not) (1994)

a film by Sönke Wortmann
Laurenfilm, $95.95


The scene is almost familiar. The time is the Second World War, and a beautiful singer with a deep voice has come to entertain the troops; she has been quarreling with her boyfriend, a dashing air force pilot away at the front, and during her concert she will try to boost her own morale along with everyone else’s. Her first number begins somberly, with a verse written in a minor key, vaguely Hebraic, like the German jazz-age numbers Marlene Dietrich sang in The Blue Angel, or like some American torch songs from the late Thirties and early Forties. The chorus is rousing, waltzlike. The camera moves back and forth between the singer, her conductor (who is secretly in love with her), and the soldiers, who eventually lock arms and sway, joining in the choruses.

If the movie had been American, Alice Faye, perhaps, or Betty Grable, or even Dietrich, could have played the singer; but the movie is German, released in 1942, called Die Grosse Liebe, and stars Zarah Leander, the full-figured basso contralto from Sweden and Nazi Germany’s highest-paid, most glamorous movie star. Leander, who looked like a combination of Dietrich and Garbo, with a trace, somehow, of Loretta Young, often played versions of herself. In Die Grosse Liebe, she is Hanna Holberg, famous Berlin Revue singer. Hanna’s conductor is Viennese, and the concert is being given in Nazi-occupied Paris, in a grand salon; the swaying soldiers are wearing Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, and SS uniforms. The song’s lyrics are knowing but upbeat: the title “Davon geht die Welt nicht unter” means “the world isn’t collapsing.”

Eventually, Hanna makes up with her boyfriend, played by the Sudeten German matinee idol Viktor Staal: they agree to marry, quarrel, then separate again, and finally are reunited after his plane is shot down. (The story is set in 1941, against the backdrop of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.) Hanna gives up her career to nurse her husband back to health and, it is later suggested, as Stukas fly overhead just before the credits, help win the war. At her final concert, at a theater in Rome, Hanna sings what would become Leander’s signature tune, her “Over the Rainbow” and wartime Germany’s “White Cliffs of Dover”: “Ich weiss, es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen.” (“I know someday a miracle will happen.”)

By the end of the war, nearly 28 million Germans had seen Die Grosse Liebe, the most popular German movie up to that time. As with all German films made during the Nazi period, every aspect of its production was controlled by Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda ministry; from the earliest days of the regime, feature films, with subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, messages of service to the Reich, or, for that matter, with no particular message whatever, were an irresistible opportunity for exerting control over public opinion. During the war, when Germans, like Americans, were going to the movies in record numbers, the stakes went up. Goebbels wrote in his diary a few months before Die Grosse Liebe had its premiere at Berlin’s Palast am Zoo, “Today entertainment is not only of political importance to the state, but to the outcome of the war.” The Third Reich’s movie theaters never closed, even after “total war” was declared in 1943 and concert halls, museums, and arenas were shut down. Indeed, Germany continued to produce films into 1945, showing them in makeshift outdoor theaters after many of the country’s real movie theaters had been flattened in air raids.

Kolberg, an epic film set during the Napoleonic Wars, in which the citizens of the Pomeranian town of Kolberg join Prussian troops to defend themselves to the death against a French siege, was a morale booster of a more desperate kind. Directed by Veit Harlan, Kolberg was the last of the so-called “Prussian films,” a German sub-genre of period film ushered in by Fridericus Rex, a highly popular 1922 biopic about Frederick the Great. Kolberg used as extras real soldiers diverted from the eastern front, more than 180,000 of them, according to Harlan’s memoirs, and had a budget of 8.5 million marks, about the same as the box office receipts from Die Grosse Liebe. The film was Goebbels’s pet project for much of the war—a perfect union of entertainment and what the Nazis thought of as politics. Kolberg finally had its premiere on January 30, 1945, the anniversary of Hitler’s seizure of power, simultaneously in the Tauentzien-Palast, the one movie palace left standing in the center of Berlin, and in the medieval fortress of La Rochelle, the Wehrmacht’s last stronghold on the Atlantic coast, where a print had to be dropped in by plane.

During the early years of the Weimar Republic, Germans had changed the way the world thought about the movies. With their new approaches to set and costume design, lighting, camera movement, and editing, directors such as Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang helped turn what had been thought of as mere popular entertainment into a new art form. Murnau had been trained as an art historian, and his films—especially Faust, his last German film (he had already left for Hollywood by the time of its premiere in 1926)—transfer great paintings to the screen as a matter of course, from Altdorfer landscapes to Munch portraits. Fritz Lang had architects designing his sets, and his movies were a crucial influence on Soviet film, the other great art cinema of the silent era. Under the Nazis, Germans drew on the techniques of their movies to create the world’s most sophisticated cinema of propaganda. Die Grosse Liebe, Kolberg, Fridericus Rex, Murnau’s 1924 masterpiece The Last Laugh, The Blue Angel, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis were all productions of the same company—the Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft, much better known as Ufa, the Third Reich’s, and before that the Weimar Republic’s, largest and most prestigious film company. The Ufa Story, a detailed history published in Germany in 1992, written by Klaus Kreimeier, a professor of film in Berlin and a former culture editor at Der Spiegel, has recently appeared here in translation.

From the beginning, Ufa’s destiny was bound up with politics. Founded in 1917, Ufa was a brainchild of General Erich Ludendorff, the Kaiser’s deputy chief of staff, better remembered these days for his participation in Adolf Hitler’s Munich Putsch. Ludendorff believed that a large, centralized, state-controlled film board could counteract Allied propaganda in neutral countries as well as discourage dissent at home; it was also hoped that films could help secure German power in Eastern Europe (at the time of Ludendorff’s proposal, which took the form of a letter to the Ministry of War, Russia was between revolutions and months away from signing its separate peace with the Central Powers). Set up largely through private financing to nationalize, indeed militarize, film production and distribution, Ufa, even before the end of the war, was transforming itself from Ludendorff’s censorship board into Ernst Lubitsch’s efficient dream factory. In the early years of the republic, films were actually a significant source of hard currency. Madame Dubarry, Lubitsch’s apolitical 1919 spectacle set during the French Revolution (the mob was used for atmosphere) and starring Pola Negri, cinematic history’s first vamp, was a huge success abroad—it made Lubitsch’s reputation in America—and at home, where it was shown to Germans during their own revolution.

Once in control, Ufa’s bankers, producers, and directors managed to stay true to at least part of Ludendorff’s original idea by continuing to absorb many of Germany’s smaller film companies, like Decla-Bioscop, which had produced The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as well as much of Central Europe’s talent. By 1927, Lubitsch, Murnau, and, for a time, Erich Pommer, the producer of Caligari and later Ufa’s chief of production, had all been lured to Hollywood, and the company had fallen into the hands of another early, and far more resourceful, backer of Hitler, Alfred Hugenberg, the press mogul and Krupp chairman. It was under Hugenberg that Ufa came up with the period films (initially the object of Lubitsch’s light touch, until the chaos of Weimar gave these films an unmistakable nationalist appeal), the lavish, often sophisticated musicals, and the patriotic newsreels that were to become the staples of Nazi cinema. Within a few months of Hitler coming to power, Ufa was releasing movies like Viktor und Viktoria, the giddy musical about a woman impersonating a female impersonator, alongside Hitlerjunge Quex, a well-acted and popular melodrama about a Hitler Youth member from one of Berlin’s slum districts who is murdered by members of a Communist youth gang and dies singing Baldur von Schirach’s Hitler Youth Anthem.

Kreimeier’s achievement in The Ufa Story is to show the continuity at the film company, where the energies, and even the motives, of the general, the artist, the businessman, and the ideologue were not necessarily contradictory, and could even be complementary. Ufa has often been understood by critics as having had two histories, the “artistic” and the “political,” but Kreimeier shows his readers basically one Ufa, a politically indifferent, sometimes greedy guild, most of whose members (if they weren’t forced to flee in the Thirties) sought refuge from politics in an ideal of craftsmanship, the hallmark of Ufa’s silent masterpieces and then of its Nazi-era spectacles.

Drawing on the Weimar essays of Siegfried Kracauer—whose study From Caligari to Hitler, published in America just after the war, remains one of the landmark books on German cinema—Kreimeier connects the Ufa of the 1920s and its grandiose movie palaces, floodlit premieres, and impressive stage sets (Ufa’s old studios in Neubabelsberg, just outside Berlin, were—and indeed still are—the largest in Europe) with the political, social, and artistic crises of the Weimar years. Kreimeier identifies the so-called “Ufa style”—a familiar expression in German which suggests extravagant artifice—as a source of the subsequent National Socialist proclivity for monumentalism, arguing, for instance, that Albert Speer got his ideas for the rebuilding of Berlin (begun in 1939 but interrupted by the war) from the futurism of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the outsized grandeur of Lang’s two films based on the Nibelungen Saga. Speer’s “light cathedral,” an avenue of search beams and Nazi banners constructed for the 1934 Nuremberg congress, looked like a vast, militarized Ufa premiere. The event of course was captured on film—indeed was planned as a film—in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.

Riefenstahl actually got her start in movies as an Ufa star, during the studio’s pre-Hugenberg heyday, in The Holy Mountain, directed by Arnold Fanck, a pioneer of location shooting in his many so-called “mountain” films; Riefenstahl played Diotima, a modern dancer turned mountain climber. Five years and several starring roles later, she was directing herself in The Blue Light, another mountain film, about Junta, a mysterious hermit living in the Dolomites who plunges to her death while trying to protect a mountaintop crystal-filled grotto (when there is a full moon, a mysterious blue light emanates from the grotto, frightening, or tempting, all who see it). Within a year, Hitler had commissioned her to make Victory of Faith, the hour-long film about the 1933 Nuremberg congress that served as the precursor to Triumph of the Will.

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