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.

The Ministry of Illusion, a recent book about the fate of German movies under the Nazis, by Eric Rentschler, one of America’s most respected scholars of German film, begins with an analysis of The Blue Light, which he calls “a master text” of Nazi cinema. Junta is a martyr—she dies, it seems, for “beauty,” a heroine in the German romantic tradition; indeed, as Rentschler notes, The Blue Light, like Murnau’s Nosferatu, is filled with images lifted from Caspar David Friedrich paintings. Riefenstahl—in countless interviews since the war, in her long and ridiculous autobiography, and in a recent lengthy documentary by German filmmaker Ray Müller—has tried to cast herself as a martyr for beauty. Beauty, she and her defenders like to argue, is the real subject of Triumph of the Will and of her two films about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the first of which begins with a series of images depicting Greek statues turning into German-looking athletes. (The sequence was quoted in The Eternal Jew, the 1940 German “documentary” commissioned directly by the propaganda ministry, in which the Riefenstahl-like sequence is used to link Germans with Western civilization, while parallel sequences link Jews with vermin and with international banking.)

As Rentschler shows, drawing on Susan Sontag’s well-known article in these pages,* Riefenstahl’s postwar spin on her career has been ruthlessly self-effacing, and self-promoting. She has tried to dismiss her role as Nazi Germany’s most acclaimed filmmaker by presenting herself as a naive, somehow pre-political artiste, or even as a dissident artist, battling, by her own account, an openly hostile Dr. Goebbels, while romanticizing her films as singular works of genius.

Rentschler’s book is ostensibly a series of in-depth analyses of several prominent feature films produced under the Nazis, but his larger interest is to show how popular culture worked in the National Socialist state, how films played the central, and, at times, a seemingly innocuous part in what Goebbels described as the “orchestra principle,” a systematic attempt by the state to remake every aspect of German life. The 1936 Ufa screwball comedy Glückskinder, or Lucky Kids, was set in a cheerful, bustling Manhattan built on Ufa’s back lot, and starred Lilian Harvey in the Claudette Colbert role. There are madcap adventures, and a few silly musical numbers. Rentschler argues that the film’s apparent independence and lighthearted approach became key ingredients in Goebbels’s idea of entertainment, which was meant to provide a distraction from politics, a vacation, as it were, thereby making explicit political messages—in newsreels, for instance—more effective.

Rentschler takes up Münchhausen, the astonishing fantasy film about Germany’s legendary, adventure-prone baron, starring Hans Albers. Shot in color, in a process developed by I.G. Farben (“now eyes really will appear blue and hair really blond,” Albers is supposed to have said), and laden with special effects, like Münchhausen’s balloon trip to the moon, the film, as accomplished in its way as The Wizard of Oz, had its premiere in 1943, in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ufa’s founding. And he discusses at length Jud Süss, the most notorious movie produced under the Nazis, directed by Veit Harlan. Rentschler’s modish academic style—he is as fond of quoting Jacques Lacan and Don DeLillo as he is Goebbels and Kreimeier—may put off some readers, but he has assembled much sound historical detail, especially in his appendixes, which serve as a compact summary of the entire subject.

Jud Süss was farmed out to Terra, another of Germany’s major film companies, but had all the elements of a prestige Ufa film, including a lush eighteenth-century setting, a cast full of Ufa stars, and a premiere at the Palast am Zoo, Ufa’s most prominent movie theater. For Lotte Eisner—the author of The Haunted Screen (1969), the other landmark study of German cinema—Jud Süss is the epitome of Ufa’s approach to filmmaking. The real story of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, a Jew from Frankfurt who advised the Duke of Württemberg and was executed in 1738 after the duke died, had been the subject of a popular Weimar-era novel by Lion Feuchtwanger. What Feuchtwanger conceived as a parable about German intolerance, the Nazis turned with remarkable ferocity into a parable about Jewish rapaciousness. The real Süss Oppenheimer was caught between the duke, who was Catholic, and his Diet, which was controlled by Protestants; in the film, the duke is a pleasure-loving South German everyman whose tastes for luxury indebt him to Süss Oppenheimer, who subsequently seizes control of the duchy. Süss Oppenheimer was, in historical fact, condemned to death for “mixing carnally with Christian flesh,” an infamously Draconian sentence (and a convenient precedent for Nazi racial laws). In the film, he rapes the daughter of the leader of the Diet.

Rentschler compares Ferdinand Marian’s Süss Oppenheimer, who is supposed to embody pure evil (Marian was chosen for the role after playing a particularly convincing Iago at Max Reinhardt’s old theater in Berlin), to German cinema’s silent-screen villains, the vampire in Nosferatu and the hypnotist con man of Lang’s Inflationszeit epic Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, both of whom, Rentschler notes, were considered by German audiences of the Twenties to be “Jewish.”

Many of the Jewish characters in Jud Süss were played by Werner Krauss—three in the infamous “Judengasse” sequence—which not only gave the actor a chance to turn in a virtuoso performance (Ufa later had plans to star him as Shylock in a film version of The Merchant of Venice) but lent a physical consistency to the film’s Jews, many of whom, like the real village of Dolomite peasants Riefenstahl used in The Blue Light, seem to have the same face. Actual Jewish extras were also briefly used, for authenticity. Süss Oppenheimer, after convincing the duke to lift the ban on Jews in Stuttgart, summons his friends and relatives, who, in the dramatic scene where a crowd of Jews enters the city, were played by prisoners from Theresienstadt, dressed up in caftans. The film ends with the duke’s death, Oppenheimer’s execution, the reexpulsion of Jews from Stuttgart, and the issuing of a plea from the Diet that Württemberg should stay rid of Jews forever.

Released in 1940, Jud Süss was very popular in Germany, seen by almost as many people as Die Grosse Liebe, and was subsequently shown throughout occupied Europe. The young critic Michelangelo Antonioni saw the movie in 1941 at the Venice film festival, writing: “We have no hesitation in saying that if this is propaganda, then we welcome propaganda. It is a powerful, incisive, extremely effective film….” The movie was shown to concentration camp guards, and, in the 1950s, in Arab countries, where it was used to arouse anti-Israeli feeling. Rentschler calls it “the cinematic prologue to the Holocaust.”

Audiences today are bound to view Jud Süss with revulsion, but it apparently succeeded at the time as entertainment, in part because of the quality of its performances; indeed the film is as much a record of German acting styles, which breathe life into Harlan’s fixed ideas of character, as Nazi ideology. Heinrich George is particularly memorable as the stately but buffoonish duke. George’s own career reads like an object lesson in the ironies of German history. He got his start in the 1920s performing in Brecht plays at Erwin Piscator’s agitprop theater, made his film debut as the factory foreman in Metropolis, and played the lead in Berlin Alexanderplatz, the 1931 film version of Döblin’s great novel and the high point of late Weimar’s brief “leftist” film wave. Two years later he was playing the Communist father in Hitlerjunge Quex, who, at one point, beats up his son to the rhythm of the “Internationale.” He later starred as the rustic, forgiving father to Zarah Leander’s world-weary singer-daughter in Ufa’s extremely popular 1938 melodrama Heimat (Homeland), which lent its name and its prodigal-child story to a whole genre of German and Austrian films with idyllic, usually alpine, settings. His final appearance before German audiences was as the leader of the town council in Kolberg. He died in Sachsenhausen, in 1946, when it was a Soviet prison camp.

The Third Reich’s movie stars—whether holdovers from Weimar, like George and Krauss (who was a veteran of Reinhardt’s company and the original Dr. Caligari), or particular creations of the Nazi era, like Zarah Leander—gave the regime, both Kreimeier and Rentschler argue, a kind of credibility, a pre-1933 idea of glamour in a post-1933 world of terror and destruction. After Germany’s surrender, Ufa’s studios in Neubabelsberg ended up in the East, where they were renamed DEFA, becoming more or less for East Germany what Ufa had been for the Third Reich. Most of Ufa’s stars, and the rights to its rhombus-shaped logo, ended up in the West; the word “Ufa” is now owned by the Bertelsmann publishing conglomerate. Germany still has a chain of Ufa theaters and a network of film and television distributors called “Ufa,” but the word in its postwar incarnation has an empty corporate sound; Kreimeier calls it “an accessory of the postmodern city, where anything is possible.”


German filmmakers just after World War II initially tried to portray the country’s military and moral collapse; a genre of realistic movies, known as “rubble” films, emerged, but audiences didn’t respond. (Many of these films are of considerable interest, especially The Murderers Are Among Us, a stark portrayal of German culpability that helped to make a star out of Hildegard Knef.) Within a few years, however, West German studios were turning out silly costume films and Heimat films, indistinguishable, really, from those of the Third Reich, with many of the same directors behind the camera.

In 1962, at a film festival in the Ruhr town of Oberhausen, young West German filmmakers signed a letter officially demanding a break with such movies—what they called “Papa’s Kino.” The Oberhausen Manifesto became the inaugurating moment of the New German Cinema, and a preview of the generational turmoil that would sweep the Bundesrepublik in the late 1960s and 1970s. As Rentschler points out, many of the once-angry film directors associated with the New German Cinema now seem to have made peace with the past. Werner Herzog has called for a revival of the films of Arnold Fanck. Wim Wenders used Heinz Rühmann—one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite actors, and the most famous, or infamous, example of a star of the Third Reich crossing over into West German stardom—in Faraway, So Close (1993), his sequel to Wings of Desire. And Edgar Reitz, another signer of the manifesto, established himself as Germany’s leading director in the mid-Eighties with a rather exculpatory television chronicle about a twentieth-century Germany as played out in a fictional Rhineland village called, only somewhat ironically, Heimat.

New German Cinema reached a peak with the later work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who considered the legacy of Nazi cinema in one of his last, and best, films, Veronika Voss (1981), about a faded Ufa star from the 1940s lost in the competitive Wirtschaftswunder of the 1950s. The film plays like a parody of an Ufa melodrama. Fassbinder often cited Douglas Sirk—the successful German director Detlef Sierck, until he and his Jewish wife left for America in 1937—as his great influence.

Sirk was the master of ironic direction. At Ufa in the 1930s, he helped to make Zarah Leander a star with La Habanera, a Heimat film turned on its ear. Leander’s character, Astrée, a Swedish woman in search of adventure, has gone to Puerto Rico. While under the sway, it would seem, of a tropical lullaby, “La Habanera,” she falls in love with, and marries, the swarthy tyrant Don Pedro de Avila, played by Ferdinand Marian. Years pass, and a schoolhood friend is sent from Stockholm to rescue Astrée and her blond-haired son, Juan. As the three are sailing home, Astrée hears “La Habanera” one last time, and there is an unmistakable look of regret on her face. The Heimat genre, which Nazi cinema used in order to deliver a “home to the Reich” message, became in Sirk’s hands an entertaining study of ambivalence. He later did something similar to the Hollywood melodrama. (A typical Sirk touch: In the 1959 remake of Imitation of Life, would-be actress and single mother Lora Meredith, played by Lana Turner, is fending off a marriage proposal from her boyfriend. Sirk has the two run down a flight of stairs; at the bottom, Turner says, “I’m going up, up, up!”)

Reitz’s Heimat can be seen as a response to Fassbinder’s own damning, often surreal, series of films about twentieth-century German history, and, as he himself said at the time, to the American miniseries Holocaust, the German television event of the 1970s. Reitz’s project was to portray realistically the lives of ordinary Germans who lived through the Nazi period, the kinds of people who were flocking to see Zarah Leander in the 1938 version of Heimat, and he made much of the attractions of Nazi-era popular entertainment. (Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss only pretends to be about the allure of Ufa; it is actually about the allure of living in the past.) German soldiers on the eastern front are shown swaying silently as the soldiers on screen sing along with Leander in Die Grosse Liebe; Maria, Reitz’s heroine, does her hair up like Leander after going to see La Habanera. Reitz’s villagers are individually often memorable, even heroic, characters, but they are manifestly local, both above and below historical events, which grants them, in effect, a kind of immunity in relation to larger questions of German guilt. Reitz’s detailed vision of a Rhineland village remade German history into something both simple and remote, changing impassively, like the weather. The series was the German television event of the 1980s, watched in surprisingly large numbers on both sides of the Wall, a forerunner, in images, of German unification.

German television has expanded greatly in the past few years, first in the late Eighties, when the government allowed the licensing of private stations, and then in the early Nineties, with new regional stations, and millions of new viewers, in the East. In the old working-class districts of East Berlin, it was not uncommon in the early Nineties to have apartments wired for cable before they had bathrooms installed. Movies made under the Nazis had always been popping up on both West and East German TV, but during those first years of unification “old movies,” as Germans think of them, were suddenly being shown almost every night. There was empty air time to fill, and stations started using Goebbels-sponsored films from the Thirties and Forties, which, as it turned out, were something that Germans, still divided in all but name, had in common. Musicals starring Leander, or Marika Rökk, a Hungarian circus performer turned tap dancer, became especially popular. (Leander was promoted as a replacement for Dietrich and Garbo after Hollywood films were banned in the late Thirties; Rökk replaced Eleanor Powell.) Rökk—who was so closely linked with the Nazi regime that she had trouble resuming a film career after the war—celebrated her eightieth birthday in 1993 on German television, with a show called “Marika Rökk: The Living Legend. A Star turns 80.”

Features made during the Nazi era now appear on TV less consistently than a few years ago, but, as far as German entertainment goes, one might characterize the 1990s as the period of an Ufa boom. The most popular, and influential, German film of the decade has been the 1994 comedy Der Bewegte Mann (literally “Man on the Move”), released in the US in 1996, to bewildered reviews, under the title Maybe…Maybe Not and now available on video.

Der Bewegte Mann takes place in Cologne, where handsome, philandering Axel and his long-suffering girlfriend, Doro, work in a nightclub. One evening Doro catches Axel with another woman, in a bathroom stall, and throws him out of their apartment. Axel ends up as the roommate, reluctant love interest, and best friend of Norbert, a gloomy, but, for German audiences, lovable, gay man. After Doro, who has found out that she is pregnant, walks in on Axel and Norbert, interrupting Norbert’s potentially successful seduction, Doro and Axel marry, and Axel and Norbert grow apart. The film ends outside Doro’s maternity ward, where Axel and Norbert resume their friendship.

Der Bewegte Mann made Til Schweiger (Axel) and Katja Riemann (Doro) famous in Germany, where audiences, used to the New German Cinema’s penchant for featuring directors at the expense of actors, haven’t really had much domestic glamour for over a generation. Schweiger and Riemann are attractive enough, but the most distinctive aspect of the film is its soundtrack, provided by Max Raabe, a youthful, half-serious crooner, and his Palast Orchester, who have made a name for themselves in Germany and Austria by rerecording German hits from the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties.

With its combination of farce, sentiment, and music, Der Bewegte Mann is a contemporary twist on an old-fashioned German sex comedy, hardly in the spirit of a Hollywood movie, as director Sönke Wortmann claimed in a press statement accompanying the film’s American release, and not at all unlike one of Ufa’s Thirties hits, Viktor und Viktoria, say, or Glückskinder. The movie opens in the nightclub, with Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester, appearing as themselves, singing a 1939 ditty, “Ja und Nein”; couples are dancing. The nightclub is vast and metallic, unmistakably contemporary, and the effect is jarring, anachronistic (I thought at first of Pulp Fiction, of Uma Thurman and John Travolta twisting to Chuck Berry, outside time, in Quentin Tarantino’s composite cold war diner). An older couple, who may have been in their twenties in the late Thirties, dance by, and the story of Doro, Axel, and Norbert begins on a note of gracious nostalgia.

Leander left Germany for Sweden in 1943, after it became clear that the Germans would lose the war (she had been getting part of her salary in Swedish currency). Leander’s records were rereleased after the war, and she made a few German concert tours, but there was something strange and self-parodying about her; by the time of her death in 1981, she had become a gay cult figure, a German Judy Garland. The Nineties have revived and transformed her; she is now almost a German icon, a German Edith Piaf. Leander, Max Raabe, and the various films imitating Der Bewegte Mann (Germans call them “relationship comedies,” and they have helped to double the box-office take of domestic films) are as much symbols of Germany in the 1990s as shut-down Saxon factories and Christo’s wrapped Reichstag.

This gentle, even winsome, view of the past has been accompanied—perhaps even reinforced—by its opposite. The Berlin Wall fell nearly fifty years after the start of World War II, and for the first several years of unification, Germans—in their museums, on their televisions, in their newspapers, at special concerts, in presidential addresses, at memorial services—were asked, in effect, to relive the war in a series of shaming anniversary observances. During the early Nineties, it was not uncommon for a wartime German musical to compete for TV viewers with a documentary about wartime German atrocities. A two-and-a-half-million-deutschemark exhibition commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of Ufa opened in the late fall of 1992, in East Berlin’s German Historical Museum, housed in the Hohenzollerns’ old arsenal on Unter den Linden. The exhibition itself—the largest ever devoted to film in Germany, and one of Berlin’s most popular museum exhibits in recent memory—was somewhat solemn, detailing, in room after room filled with movie memorabilia and historical documents, the opportunism of Ufa’s approach to entertainment (Kreimeier was a curator); but the atmosphere among the museumgoers, as Rentschler accurately describes it, was festive, frankly nostalgic.

At the end of 1992, while Germans were absorbing the implications of the Maastricht Treaty, and the Treuhand agency, housed in Herman Göring’s old Luftwaffe headquarters, was privatizing East Germany’s economy, and neo-Nazi violence was becoming a daily occurrence, Berlin’s kiosks were displaying posters for public events recalling this or that German war crime alongside lushly rendered movie stills from the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties advertising the Ufa exhibition. I was living in East Berlin at the time, and the one I remember most vividly showed Hans Albers in eighteenth-century costume, riding a cannonball, a trademark shot from Münchhausen (which was shown on national German television on April Fools Day, 1991). The eye lingered on the Ufa stars, on German history’s distraction from itself.

This Issue

March 4, 1999