Dietrich’s Ghosts is the first major English-language study of the film aesthetics of the Third Reich. Although much of the material centres on the post-1933 start system, Carter also includes chapters on reception studies, exhibition and spectatorship and the state of the German film industry under the Nazis.
Carter treads the well-furrowed path first explored by Siegfried Kracauer in his seminal study ‘From Caligari to Hitler’. Kracauer argued that a nation’s films ‘reflect its mentality in a more direct way than other artistic media’ because of the collaborative process of production and the collective nature of audience reception. Nazi Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was certainly aware of cinema’s power to coerce, and Carter is right to argue that much of German cinema after 1933 became part of a wider Nazi backlash against modernism in all its forms. After the great leaps made during the Weimar years (Expressionism, F.W. Murnau, Dietrich), Goebbels restructured the film industry, instigating a new generation of film actors who fostered an anti-modernist mode of spectatorship that Carter terms the ‘völkisch sublime’.
This claim about shifting modes of representation and spectatorship after 1933 is interrogated in the second half of the book through a series of star case studies. Carter acknowledges early on that the restructuring of German cinema pivoted around the ‘towering personality’, and goes on to demonstrate that while Emil Jannings figures as an exemplar of the völkisch sublime, Marlene Dietrich is conceptualised as the key battle ground for competing models of stardom, national cinema and spectatorship. Intriguingly, the title refers to the actress Zarah Leander, an uncanny double of star actors Garbo and Dietrich exiled from Germany after 1933.
Indeed, after the detailed (if rather dispiriting) account of German cinema’s socio-economic components, Carter’s more illuminating writing on the aesthetics of Third Reich cinema is welcome. There are references to Lang, to Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924) and von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel (1930), to lighting, camerawork and set design, and well-argued chapters on acting styles and audience reception. Carter borrows from Richard Dyer’s influential Stars to critique German cinema’s own cult of personality, examine the difference between stage and screen acting and highlight the importance of lighting and space to differentiate ‘stars’ from mere ‘background actors’.
The most compelling part of the study is the deconstruction of Marlene Dietrich and her ‘ghost’ Zarah Leander. Carter traces Dietrich’s career with the use of some wonderfully evocative stills, and then resurrects Leander. Carter introduces a contention of Freudian analysis that ‘painful experiences of loss or absence…are compensated…by the substitution of the lost object with a fantasised double, copy or facsimile’. Cinematically, this recalls, of course, James Stewart, Kim Novak and the makeover from hell, but for Carter’s thesis, this chimes perfectly with Third Reich culture. Leander ‘becomes’ Dietrich, replacing the émigré and assuming her identity, fanbase and cultural resonance. It is a fascinating idea, and one that Carter develops vigorously.
More might have been made of the possible interaction between star and set design (French cinema of the 1930s built decor around the stars) and a comparative study of Hollywood’s German-speaking stars of the time might have further underlined the central thrust of the book. Overall, though, Carter’s transition from thesis to book is sophisticated and compelling. As befits work based upon doctoral research, Carter’s study comes complete with tables, photographs and prodigious cross-referencing. This is no dry account; it teems with anecdotes, historical context and fan letters that clarify the central argument.
Dietrich’s Ghosts reassesses existing paradigms in Third Reich film history, and throws new light on the popular culture of the Third Reich. Sumptuously illustrated, it offers a compelling counter-claim to those who regard German cinema between Lang and Fassbinder as something of a vacuum. Instead, for all Carter’s insistence upon Kant and the sublime, this is a rich cultural study of two actresses set against the historical backdrop of expulsion and assimilation.