The German film industry was controlled by Joseph Goebbels from 1933 until his death in 1945. As Catherine Hokin found while researching her new novel, The Lost Mother, this extended further than dictating only the content of films.
Joseph Goebbels had an eye for the importance of film, even before he was made Reich Minister of Propaganda in 1933. In 1930, a column of the Berlin Sturmabteilung (SA),who were then under Goebbels’ control, stormed a showing of the anti-war film Westfront 1918, releasing mice and stink bombs into the audience, on the grounds that the film was ‘unpatriotic’.
That charge, and the threat of ongoing violence, was enough to ensure that the film was quickly removed from cinemas. It was also a warning of what was to come in Hitler’s new Germany.
Goebbels’s Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda was founded on 14 March, 1933. Its first act, on 1 July, 1933, was a purge: a prohibition on anyone of Jewish extraction appearing or participating in any aspect of German film production. Immediately 310 Jews employed at the Universal Film AG (UFA) complex at Babelsberg were dismissed, cutting core talent at every level. Some of the earliest casualties included the director Max Reinhardt and producer Eric Pommer, whose credits included The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari, Metropolis and The Blue Angel.
Goebbels controlled every aspect of the industry through the Ministry’s Reichsfilmkammer, overseeing film financing, the evaluation of scripts and casting and monitoring audience reactions. Although his predilection for actresses is well attested, Goebbels made no secret of his low opinion of the men and women whose careers and lives he dictated, describing them as ‘a lot of children’, ‘completely inept in practical matters’ and ‘layabouts’.1
He was, however, also very aware of how much he needed them and of the constant lure of Hollywood. To counteract that temptation, he replicated a star-system at Babelsburg, loading his ‘pampered darlings’2 with huge salaries, tax advantages and privileged living conditions. It was a lifestyle many of them (although not all) paid for in 1945 with their careers.
Goebbels not only understood the mechanics of film-making, he was a master at understanding the power of film to stir emotions, distract from reality and, ultimately, soften unpalatable truths. Bullets won battles; but the cinema was where he believed hearts and minds were won, as well as being the place best suited to demonstrating the National Socialist (NS) ideal of a German national community as one rooted in the land with a distinct racial identity and historical destiny.
Films which hammered this message, such as 1933’s Hitlerjunge Quex, did not, however, attract the crowds. Goebbels therefore focussed on the type that would.
German audiences were huge fans of American films until they were banned in 1940, and many of the party leaders remained devoted to them: Gone With the Wind and Cinderella were both shown repeatedly at Hitler’s Berchtesgarden retreat.
To attract audiences, Goebbels had to meet that need, so he ordered UFA to make a series of frothy ‘screwball’ comedies, including the 1936 Glückskinder, a copy of It Happened One Night. This, however, was Hollywood with a twist: all the films made at UFA, whatever their genre, had to be infused with German, meaning NS, values.
Despite the reality that people were fleeing Germany in droves, scripts were chosen which reflected the theme of Heimat, with movies such as Der Flüchtling aus Chicago focusing on emigrants returning to the Homeland. Also important were the Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) films, and historical epics.
And, as the war progressed and daily life worsened, Goebbels left overt propaganda to newsreels (the doors were locked while these were shown) and the messages in the films themselves became subtler things.
Ich Klage An (1941), a huge commercial success seen by 18 million people is, on the surface, the heart-breaking story of a beautiful young woman with multiple sclerosis who pleads to be killed, an act her doctor husband commits. The film was in fact commissioned by Goebbels to make the public more supportive of the T4 euthanasia programme.
Jud Süss (1940), a lavish costume drama set in 18th-century Stuttgart, was another huge success, seen by 20 million. Goebbels himself was involved in the writing and editing.
The plot centres on an ambitious Jewish businessman who becomes treasurer to the Duke of Wurttemburg, interferes in his affairs, and eventually rapes a Christian girl, a crime for which he is executed. Every Jewish character is a villain and the (Jewish) extras used for the synagogue sequence were instructed to behave in a wild, demonic fashion.
Director Veit Harlan’s wife Kristina Söderbaum (who was ‘nobly’ drowned so often in her films she became known as the Reichswasserleiche, the State Water Corpse) was chosen to play the girl because of her baby-faced looks and air of childlike innocence.3
Jud Süss is now considered to be one of the most antisemitic films of all time: it was banned in 1945 and its director was the only Third Reich film director to be charged with crimes against humanity. Like Ich Klage An, it is still banned from public showing.
As Goebbels made clear in a speech in 1933, he had a clear vision from the start of what the role of German art, including cinema, under the Nationalist Socialists should be: “heroic, steely but romantic… nationalistic with great depth of feeling; it will be binding, and it will unite, or it will cease to exist.”4
Apart from Jud Suss, which Himmler had shown to SS units to whip up antisemitic hatred, it is difficult to gauge how successful Goebbels’s propaganda was. The only contemporary reactions were those collected by his department. Most of the films made between 1939 and 1945 have been banned and the actors who starred in them remained largely tight-lipped about their experience.
One thing is certain, however. For all the illusions it cast, Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry, along with every other cog in the Nazi machine, was highly successful in one key aim: the destruction of countless numbers of innocent lives.
Find out more about The Lost Mother.
She has written a number of features for Historia, including The ‘hidden’ Nazis of Argentina, Concentration camps and the politics of memory and An appearance of serenity: the French fashion industry in WWII.
3 Nazis and the Cinema, Susan Tegel, Bloomsbury, 2008
4 Goebbels: A Biography, Peter Longerich, Vintage, 2016
Premier of Triumph of the Will at the UFA Palast, Berlin, 1934: picture-alliance dpa via dw.com
Joseph Goebbels in 1942: via Wikimedia
Glückskinder (Lucky Kids) film poster: via Wikimedia
Autographed photo of Kristina Söderbaum: Ross-Verlag via Wikimedia
Hitler and Goebbels visit UFA, 1935: Deutsches Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1990-1002-500 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia