The Twisted Art of Documentary

Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (1948)

a film directed by Stuart Schulberg and restored by Sandra Schulberg and Josh Waletzky

A Film Unfinished (2010)

a film directed by Yael Hersonski
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AP Images
Hermann Göring, front right, during a recess at the Nuremberg trials, November 24, 1945. At front left is the American intelligence officer G. M. Gilbert, who served as prison psychologist and interpreter for the Nazi war criminals.
The function of propaganda is…not to make an objective study of the truth, in so far as it favors the enemy, and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly.
—Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

All governments make propaganda. The difference between totalitarian government propaganda and the democratic kind is that the former has a monopoly on truth; its version of reality cannot be challenged. Past, present, and future are what the rulers say they are. Which is why, from the official point of view, there is no stigma attached to the word “propaganda” in totalitarian societies. Nazi Germany had a Ministry of Volk Enlightenment and Propaganda, and the Soviet Union a Department for Agitation and Propaganda.

The idea that rulers should impose their own realities exists, at least as an aspiration, in democracies too. It was nicely summed up by a US government official not so long ago who stated that “we [the Bush administration] create our own reality.”1 But democratic governments and parties are not supposed to dictate the truth. We expect partisanship from our politicians; they can try to make their case. But the word “propaganda” has a negative connotation. It smacks of coercion, or official lying. And so propaganda cannot be called that, but must be disguised as “news,” or “information,” or “entertainment” (Casablanca, Mrs. Miniver). The propaganda department of the US government during World War II was called the Office of War Information, and on several occasions during the last Iraq war heroic myths were presented as news stories.

This is not an argument for moral equivalence. One can be arrested for exposing official lies in democracies, but the chances of that happening are a great deal slimmer than under dictatorships, where the fate of whistle-blowers and naysayers is often far worse than jail. Nor is it an argument against governments trying to propagate a message. This can be necessary to mobilize people behind a difficult but essential enterprise (fighting Nazi Germany, say). Perhaps the masking of propaganda is an inevitable bit of hypocrisy in a democratic society, even though slipping fictions into news stories as facts cannot be condoned under any circumstances.

Some propaganda is not only made for a good cause, but can be factually true. But if so, can we still call it propaganda? And if it is for a good cause, should we still mind that it is propaganda? If it is also good art (pictures commissioned by churches or kings or the Cuban Communist Party, for example), should we care about the cause? Some of these questions, and more, are raised by the current release of two fascinating documentaries, one the reconstruction of a US government film made …

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  1. 1

    An aide to George W. Bush, quoted by Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.