May 20, 2008

German Expressionist Cinema as Unintentional Nazi Propaganda

Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934) and Olympia (1938) are most often considered the masterpieces of National Socialist (Nazi) Germany. Both of these films epitomized the idealized view of Nazism and it’s obsession with aesthetics. Anti-Semitism is nowhere to be found in Triumph of the Will or Olympia. Fritz Hippler’s The Eternal Jew (1940), a film that did not hide Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitism, was a failure in Germany. Germans seemed to be more concerned with a once again powerful Germany than their hatred of the Jews. Before the Nazi era in Germany, German expressionist cinema was already bringing up the idea of the “evil outsider” and the Jewish other (whether intentional or not). Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen’s Der Golem (1915) predicted a threat to European Jewry and what would later erupt in the holocaust. In this essay, I will examine two German expressionist masterpieces and their psychological effects on the German audience (whether being conscious or subconscious).

F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Fritz Lang’s M (1931) both focus on a subversive element hiding in the shadows of German cities. These films were able to strike fear in the German audience while at the same time promising the triumph of “good” over “evil.” The Nazis considered German expressionism (and expressionist cinema), for the most part, the result of Jewish mental illness and deemed it “degenerate” art (Kracauer, 1947). Nazi minister of propaganda Dr. Joseph Goebbels had many German expressionism films banned (Eisner, 1976). Ironically, he was so impressed with Fritz Lang’s dystopia masterpiece Metropolis (1927) that he offered Fritz Lang the job of being the head of Nazi Germany’s propaganda film industry despite Lang being of Jewish ancestry (in which he mentioned to Goebbels). Lang fled Germany almost immediately after the offer from the Nazi propagandist (Eisner, 1976).

I chose Noseratu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) and M (1931) to examine for their more realistic expressionist sets in contrast to the ultra surrealist and nightmare like sets found in German expressionist films such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Murnau’s Faust (1926). I found the dark realist aesthetic of both Nosferatu and M to be taken more literally by the German audience than expressionist films dealing with what seems like more of a nightmare. Murnau even utilized the real ruins of a Slovakian castle to more realistically portray the immortal decay of an outsider that desires new blood.

Although F.W. Murnau was not of Jewish ancestry, he was a closet homosexual (Anger, 1981). The Nazis deemed homosexuals also as degenerates resulting in many of their deaths in the holocaust. Murnau left Germany in 1926 to work for Fox studio before the rise of Nazism in Germany. Murnau (like Lang) is often cited as being one the most important innovators of cinema and the directors as author (auteur). His contribution to cinema is immeasurable.

Nosferatu is based on the novel Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Count Orlok (a pseudonym for Dracula) desires to acquire real estate in the fictional German city of Wisborg. He is a royal outsider from Transylvania, Romania (although filmed in Slovakia). Upon count Orlok’s arrival in Wisborg, a series of deaths occur in the city which are blamed on the plague. It is important to note that the plague (the black death) was accused of being an international conspiracy of Jewry to poison European Christendom. This anti-Semitic lie closely parallels the “behind the shadows” blood draining carried out by Count Orlok. F.W. Murnau’s niche for evil that lurks behind shadows acts as a metaphorical representation of the myth of Jewish back stabbing during the first World War. The citizens of Wisborg are obsessed with finding the source of the creeping death that has plagued the city. Real estate employer Knock eventually becomes a scapegoat (just as the Jews were after the second world war) for the mysterious deaths of the peoples of Wisborg.

Rosa Luxemburg

Another fear of Germans after the first world war was the threat of international bolshevism. German-Jewish communists (called Spartacists) such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were calling for a revolution in Germany which ultimately failed (Craig, 1982). The ultra right wing Nationalist Freikorps eventually had both Luxemburg and Liebknecht assassinated. This ended any potential German proletarian (or more accurately banker) revolution. Although Jewish communists made up a very small minority of German Jewry, Nazis used what they called “Judeo Bolshevism” to their propaganda advantage (Rosenberg, 1982). The majority of Jewish Bolsheviks were atheists that had already been far removed from the Jewish collective. Jewish Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union (another source of propaganda) were also known to be anti-Semitic despite the ethnically Jewish dominated government (Solzhenitysn, 2007). Nazi theorists such as Alfred Rosenberg claimed that the Bolshevik revolution was organized in attempts to destroy Western civilization through subversive and violent means (Rosenberg, 1982). Nazis took full advantage of “Judeo Bolshevik” propaganda.

F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu uses the fear of the infiltrating outsider to scare the audience. Count Orlok could easily be looked at as the impending Bolshevik threat. The vampire is a foreign subversive element that is bent on destruction through unconventional means (blood sucking). Although I doubt that it was Murnau’s intent to scare the audience with the threat of Bolshevism, the psychological fear that Nosferatu conjures up is the same. The audience expects an invasion that lurks behind shadows that uses strange and unpredictable methods to acquire it’s goal of destruction. Subconsciously, the viewer would have acquired the fear that Nazis also used in the propaganda against Jews.

Fritz Lang’s M also captures the audience in a world where a dark element hiding behind the shadows of a German city. The film was originally titled Murderers Amongst Us and Nazis used that title to their full advantage. Fritz Lang, in the middle of negations of the film, seized the managers lapel and found a Nazi badge on it’s reverse (Eisner, 1976). Nazis had used the original title in reference to German Jewry (and Fritz Lang and star Peter Lorre himself). The Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew also featured the end speech by Peter Lorre in M as proof of Jewish proneness to criminality. Quite absurd propaganda indeed, Fritz Lang’s M was also labeled as Jewish “degenerate” art (among other Fritz Lang films).

The “heroes” of M are the underground organized crime elements that are found in the city that the killer stalks. These heroes could easily be looked at as the Nazi “heroes” that saved Germany from bolshevism (which would later ultimately prove to end in Germany’s destruction). Peter Lorre epitomized what the Nazis thought of as the degenerate Jew. It makes me wonder why Fritz Lang would have directed such a film when only 2 years later (1933) the Nazis would take power in Germany. The Nazis threat by this time was quite obvious. I would argue than M has done more in the way of Nazi propaganda than any of the actual Nazi propaganda films (aside from the ones used as “entertainment”). Lang would later immigrate to the United States and direct the anti-Nazi propaganda film Hangmen Also Die (1943) which was loosely based on the assassination of Nazi chief holocaust architect Reinhard Heydrich.

The child murderer in M also is stamped with an M (for murderer) in the film. German Jewry would also face a similar fate when forced to wear Star of David badges to signify their background. The mark of “M” and the “Star of David” are emblems of a target. They let the population know that these individuals are outsiders and an abstraction from collective society. German-Language Jewish fiction writer Franz Kafka brought up a similar feeling with his novel The Trial. The Jew has become an object of judgment for a crime that he has not committed. He is “guilty” because he is a Jew. The same feeling was experienced by German Jewry in their horrific fate throughout Nazi rule.

Whereas F.W. Murnau’s count Orlok is a monster of horrible and obvious evil, Fritz Lang’s child murderer is a pathetic and weak individual. The child murderer acts as a conspirator of subversive hedonistic pleasures. He admits that he cannot control his perverse urges (another reason why Nazis used M as propaganda). The German psyche would respond to such a character as someone to look out for in everyday life. After watching the film, the German citizen might take a second glance at the “ordinary“ German. Everyone (especially the Jew) becomes a potential threat to the German way of life. The child murderer in M is more horrifying than any monster because he is the person we would least expect to commit such a crime.

Although I don’t believe it was intentional, the German expressionist film movement fueled fear that would result in anti-Semitic eruptions. Eruptions that would ultimately lead to the holocaust and stain Germany’s reputation forever. The filmmakers of the German expressionist movement for the most part, were far removed from the Nazi ideology (many fleeing Germany in the process). After the second world war, the German expressionist aesthetic is even more powerful and relevant now, than it was during it’s existence. The dark political and psychological elements surrounding this time period I believe, are best captured in these important films.

-Ty E


Joseph said...

Fascinating. I've been wanting to watch M for a long time. I would rather not watch a crap version, though.

Will Lewis said...

Very interesting essay. I love reading about the German Expressionist Cinema. I noticed that one of your sources is titled "Anger." I'm curious to know if this is Kenneth Anger.

Soiled Sinema said...

Indeed. I used Mr. Anger's classic Hollywood Babylon.

Anonymous said...

Interesting essay. I am very interested in expressionist cinema! Your essay gave a nice impression of the discussion whether the expressionist cinema was a fascist one. Thanks too for giving your references! Bye

Anonymous said...

A nice little article.
And an interesting blog as well, i might add.

Lester Nesterenco said...

Excellent. I've said the same things for years, although of course everyone argues with me for superficial reasons--as the stupid are always apt to do. Orlok even looks like nazi antisemitic cartoons of the day. The newer remake of Nosferatu is even worse.. which is frightening and corresponds to the very real emergence of fascism in Central and Western Europe. Subtext! It's all in the subtext.. but dull people don't "do" subtext. It taxes their brains too much.