(30/08/07) – Cinema that is controlled or at least guided by political regimes can be difficult to discuss in an objective light because of the inevitable heckles it raises. Propaganda content and artistic merit are awkward bedfellows at the best of times and none more so than when discussing the films that were produced under the Nazis from 1933-1945. Whilst the Socialist films of the Russian directors have become admired, mainly for their use of montage technique and pace, they were of course considered subversive at the time of production and banned in many countries, notably in Britain.

The problem with Nazi cinema is the sheer horror of the regime with regards in particular to the "final solution". The suggestion that the Nazi aesthetic was a powerful one can put a person in all kinds of trouble paradoxically because the Nazis had a brand identity way before such marketing terms were derived. Separating the artistic from the ideal is a dangerous pursuit.

In Nazis and the Cinema Susan Tegel looks at the films made in the dozen years of Nazi rule, making a case for the cinematic aesthetic as intrinsic to the way that the party disseminated propaganda to the German people and even abroad. Taking us on a brief history of German cinema in order to provide a context for the Nazi film factories Tegel identifies the key Weimar movements as being perceived as liberal and decadent to the National Socialists while they lauded the national pride to be gained in the mountain films and the heimat (or hometown, which normally meant rural) picture which also prevailed in the national cinema.

When the Nazis gained power in 1933 Joseph Goebbels was assigned to the Propaganda Ministry to oversee the production and censorship of films. What’s initially interesting about Goebbels’ tenure was in the differences in emphasis that he intended for film compared with that of Hitler – his view was that propaganda was a dish best served subtly through entertainment and absorption into the public psyche as opposed to Hitler’s more direct approach.

In Goebbels’ view this was preaching to the converted, film should offer examples of being a "good German" rather than diatribes against enemies of the state. The pull between the extremes of these ideals of film-making provides for fascinating reading as the Propaganda Ministry follow an arc of confidence from their first bumbling efforts, through commercial success and finally desperation. The films’ tones also vary significantly but, Tegel argues, all bear the stamps of the regime.

The earlier kampfzeit films of 1933 provide examples of Hitler Youth shown as brave martyrs in the face of Bolsheviks, often reprising the Nazi "second anthem" Horst Wessel Leid, a song about a youth murdered by communists (who, it is revealed, was refused medical treatment on the scene because the doctor was Jewish). For a few years Goebbels would try to keep such obvious films low-key, at least from the realms of entertainment where from 1934-8 cinema was declared judenfrei(Jew free).

Possibly the most famous of the Nazi films is Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will – 1934), Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary on the Nuremberg rally. Tegel provides a detailed insight into the making of the film and two lesser known rally films by Riefenstahl, deconstructing the film in order to denounce Riefenstahl’s reputation as, particularly, a documentary film-maker and her later claim of not being a member of the Nazi party.

While in the main providing a justifiable argument, the sang froid that Tegel shows in other sections of the book is notably absent here and her vitriol against admirers of Riefenstahl’s work is palpable. It’s an argument that will probably never be resolved satisfactorily, confirming Riefenstahl’s position as one of the 20th century’s most controversial directors.

No such ambiguity can be raised against the notorious double bill of Jud Süß (1940) and Der Ewige Jude (1940), films breaking the judenfrei concept (after a couple of "comedies" featuring Jewish characters). What is striking is that these blatantly anti-Semitic features received a completely different reaction at the box office – the former, a fictionalised film, was successful but the latter, a vitriolic rant against Judaism was not.

Tegel examines these bile-laden films in some detail but also notes how the Propaganda Ministry censored its films for foreign consumption, either in occupied countries or further afield. The final chapters examine how newsreels were used (as in all countries) to provide a government voice, noting the emphasis on image and music over narration and how films about the Holocaust were produced in the late war period.

Two films at the Theresienstadt camp (a "model" ghetto) were produced by the SS as opposed to the Propaganda Ministry in order to show the world that the Jews were being treated well and "resettled". As in much of the book the details, the stories of individual characters are what brings the full horror of the regime to fore – actor, director and captive Jew Kurt Gerron being forced to direct the conditions at Theresienstadt for the SS, before being deported to Auschwitz where he perished with his wife.

Then there’s screen idol Joachim Gottschalk who refused to divorce his Jewish wife – he and his wife killed their own son and committed suicide when deportation orders were issued. That these incidents take up such little space in the book demonstrates the enormity of the situation.

Nazis and the Cinema is essential reading for anyone interested in early 20th century film, the role of state censors (not just in Germany) and the increased use of propaganda through the moving image. It is a fascinating but chilling look at the role that cinema can play in disseminating ideals (the effect of which remains, as Tegel points out, unproven either way). Where it is lacking is in a more detailed look at the subtexts of less overtly political entertainment, the kind of film that Goebbels championed such as the lavish Münchhausen (1943) which gets a scant paragraph here. More historical than analytical the book is nonetheless recommended.

Nazis and the Cinema is out now on Hambledon Continuum. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.