The Dark Mirror. German Cinema between Hitler and Hollywood

Lutz Koepnick,
The Dark Mirror. German Cinema between Hitler and Hollywood.
Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002.
ISBN 0 520 23310 7
334 pp
US $ 24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)

The subtitle of Lutz Koepnick’s book may be taken literally, the subject of this ambitious and ground-breaking work being German cinema in the Third Reich and in Hollywood. Just what that means requires some explanation, especially for non-German language readers who have not been privy to the academic debates of the last twenty years, surrounding German cinema and its position(s) between two destructive world wars, political upheavals, dictatorships, and democratic reforms. As one of the participants in those debates, suffice it to say that I consider Koepnick’s book to be one of the most significant achievements in German film historiography of the last several years, a brilliant work of synthesis that restructures the benchmarks of German film history in new and enlightening ways, while simultaneously defining the critical tools necessary for analyzing both German films created under the mantle of Hitler’s murderous twelve year reign and American films, made by German exiles in Hollywood. In the process Koepnick overturns many traditional concepts of a national cinema, revealing what I once characterized as the “strangely distorted mirror images” [1] that characterize Hollywood in Berlin and Berlin in Hollywood.

While Weimar cinema has been subject to various revisions, the most influential being Patrice Petro’s Joyless streets. Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany(Princeton University Press,1989), Thomas Saunders’ Hollywood in Berlin: American Cinema in Weimar Germany (University of California Press, 1994), and Thomas Elsaesser’s Weimar Cinema and After (Routledge, 2000), the most contentious site of ideological and critical discussion has been German filmmaking in the Third Reich. The structural complexity of a seemingly private film industry in a fascist dictatorship, has until recently eluded verifiable explanatory models for its functioning in Hitler’s Germany, its politics, aesthetics, and ideology. This fact was recently underscored again in the English language press debates surrounding Leni Riefenstahl’s 100th birthday and her subsequent death thirteen months later in September 2003, when the variance of opinion over the facts and substance of her career revealed deep chasms. Some critics valorized Riefenstahl for her cinematic art, regardless of her propagandistic intentions, while others vilified her as an active participant in the Holocaust, knowingly sending innocent victims to their deaths in the concentration camps. Similarly, film historians have characterized Nazi German cinema as either fascist propaganda or apolitical entertainment, depending on their ideological frame of reference.

While German film history has always been more heavily influenced by political and social developments than other national cinemas, the politics of German cinema have consistently been a site of confrontation, when discussion turned to the films of the Third Reich. In this on-going debate regarding the cinema as a site for social, political, and aesthetic discourse, two seemingly irreconcilable positions marked the terrain, at least until recently. On one side stood those liberal and leftist film historians who sought to explicate the films of Nazi Germany as insidious, totalitarian propaganda, bent on ideologically mastering and controlling a German population, preparing them for a murderous world war of aggression and the genocide of European Jewry. This position, articulated as early as 1943 by Siegfried Kracauer in his analysis of German War Propaganda, commissioned by the United States government, presupposed a German audience, unwillingly trapped in a fascistic system of meaning production, and unable to defend itself against such thought control. At the opposite end of the spectrum, film historians perceived German film production between 1933 and 1945 to be only partially controlled by propagandistic interests, German Nazi cinema being largely understood as an ideologically neutral space, more often subject to the laws of entertainment and the market place than to the whims of Dr. Joseph Paul Goebbels. Stating that only a small portion of German films were outright propaganda (and therefore banned by the Allies after World War II), these historians pointed to this cinema’s production values and popularity with German audiences, and thus analyzed these films in terms of their stars, directors, and genres, while going so far as to find in the films pockets of resistance to Nazi tyranny.

For the past thirty years, English-speaking readers have had available to them these two contrasting views of Nazi cinema, as articulated in monographs by Erwin Leiser (Nazi Cinema, Macmillan, 1975) and David Stewart Hull (Film in the Third Reich, University of California Press, 1969). Hull in particular expressed the notion that the German Filmwelt was an ideological free trade zone, as long as films were popular and stayed away from overtly political topics. Both books in their time had strengths and limitations, but with the rise of academic film studies, in particular the application to film of more empirically-based historical methodologies and post structuralist critical tools, these positions have seemed increasingly untenable. German readers have had an even wider spectrum of literature, including neo-Fascist interpretations, like those published by the Olms Verlag in the 1970s and 1980s.

Recent studies have sought to overcome these old dichotomies. In German there has been the work of the late Karsten Witte, especially his analyses of German comedy, as well as Stefan Lowry’s work on Nazi melodrama. In English, Eric Rentschler’s The Ministry of Illusion. Nazi cinema and Its Afterlife (Harvard University Press, 1996) discovered discrepancies, inconsistencies, fissures in the text, which seemingly made Nazi films more ambiguous than leftist critics would have had us believe. But Rentschler also pointed out that it was an aesthetic and ideological strategy of Nazi cinema to articulate all perspectives, even alternative, seemingly oppositional points of view, in order better to control viewers in the interest of total war and total sacrifice, all the while giving the audience the illusion of choice and free will. Audience identification with popular stars, fulfillment of audience expectations through genre films, the creation of a fantasy space that protected individuals from the grim realities of the world outside the cinema, all these aspects, Rentschler reminded us, were ways that Nazi cinema perfectly duplicated Hollywood’s dreamscape for its own ideological ends.

Linda Schulte-Sasse’s Entertaining the Third Reich: Illusions of Wholeness in Nazi Cinema (Duke University Press, 1996) also argued that German historical films offered viewers an oftentimes pleasurable experience, even when fascist ideology was being transported. Like Rentschler, she, too, located audience pleasure in the text (however, in psychoanalytic terms), in its heterogeneity, in the internal contradictions of the text. Nazi cinema offered aesthetic harmony and the illusion of reconciliation and wholeness through the spectacle of mass ornament, dissolving the individual into the collective, while propagating individual desire as mass political will. Other writers have moved further to the right, e.g. Antje Ascheid’s Hitler’ s Heroines. Stardom and Womanhood in Nazi Cinema (Temple University Press, 2003), which postulates a gendered and free-thinking audience capable of reading oppositional messages in the texts of certain Nazi starlets, thanks to the ideological contradictions produced by Nazi film publicists and Nazi ideologues.

Meanwhile, the 1980s saw the development of a wholly different quadrant of historical inquiry into German cinema, fostered by the realization that between 1933 and 1945 there were indeed other sites for the production of German cinema than Berlin. A German exile cinema came into being in the years after the National Socialist ascendancy of power, because almost two thousand German film directors, producers, scriptwriters, cinematographers, set designers, actors/actresses and technicians were no longer permitted to produce films in their homeland. Almost exclusively members of the Jewish faith or of Jewish ancestry, they were denied their professional competence by the German Minister of Propaganda. It was the first step in an ever intensifying political campaign of ghettoization, deportation, persecution, and lastly, mass-murder, culminating in the Holocaust and the death of six million human beings.

Much of my own work in the last twenty years has sought to explicate the concept of a German exile cinema, including the influence of German speaking émigrés on the production of Hollywood anti-Nazi films, musical comedies at Universal, and melodramas at Warner Brothers. Other important German contributions have been made by such diverse authors as Gunther Agde, Helmut G. Asper, Hans-Michael Bock, Kathinka Dittrich, Jeanpaul Goergen, Ulli Jung, Heike Klapdor, Armin Loacker, and Jörg Schöning, all of whom have helped define the biographical, geographical, generic, socio-political, aesthetic, and economic parameters of this specific historical phenomenon. But German exile cinema studies has occurred largely in a space separate from Nazi cinema studies. With the exception of Marlene Dietrich, the exiles were declared invisible after their departure, and so they remained until long after the War ended. What was there to connect the two?

In an essay first published in a general history of German cinema, Geschichte des deutschen films (1993), edited by Wolfgang Jacobsen, Anton Kaes, and Hans-Helmut Prinzler, I called for the construction of a German film history between 1933 and at least the end of the Third Reich that would incorporate filmmaking inside and outside Germany:

German exile cinema should not be seen as a marginal phenomenon in a host country’s national production, but rather should be read as German cinema history, parallel to a film history of the Third Reich. It is, in this sense, a piece of anti-fascist culture, produced by the ‘other Germany’, to employ the terminology of German exiles. [2]

Lutz Koepnick not only heeds this call in The Dark Mirror. German Cinema between Hitler and Hollywood, but actually raises the discussion to a whole new level, demonstrating both the points of contact between the two, and the ways in fact both, in very different ways, worked through issues of German national identity and modernity. Indeed, while other historians have commented on the legacy of German national cinema, the migration of its expressionist style and iconography from Weimar to Hitler to American film noirs and melodramas, Koepnick for the first time pays particular attention to sound and music. Having begun his career as a Wagnerian scholar, Koepnick argues persuasively that German cinema at least since the coming of synchronous sound can be identified as much by its instrumentalization of language and music, as by its utilization of iconic images. Koepnick writes:

Whether they worked in Berlin or Hollywood, German film practitioners embraced synchronous sound as a means to reinforce, modernize, or reject the prominent role of the acoustical in conventional constructions of German identity. By examining the relationship between sounds and images we can best understand how German cinema negotiated the tensions between romanticism and twentieth-century modernism, between autonomous art and the popular. (10)

Indeed, it is the differing relationships between sound and images in Nazi cinema and in German Hollywood exile cinema that allows Koepnick to identify the tools whereby Nazi cinema constructed unambiguous views of modern life under Fascism as naturalized states, even while seemingly offering alternative visions; exile filmmakers meanwhile promoted curiously fragmented sound/images of modernity that offered contemporary audiences narrative ambiguity and freedom of choice. Moving beyond both the historical determinism of classical texts on German cinema and the post-structuralist and psychoanalytic models of 1970s film theory, the author brings cultural studies into play, in order to reconstruct film texts and their reception in an historical context, allowing us to see how meanings could be produced or repressed in the larger space of public culture.

In Part 1 Koepnick analyzes Hollywood in Berlin, i.e. the ways that Nazi cinema reformulated Weimar Americanism and the Hollywood star system to construct a seemingly classless ideology of consumerism and German national identity, promoting fantasies of wholeness and harmony. Ironically, and in contradistinction to the image of Nazi culture in Hollywood’s 1940s anti-Nazi films, Nazi cinema embraced modern technologies, consumerism, and mass mediated entertainment, much as Hollywood had. While taking his cues from Adorno’s theory of mass industrial culture, which conflated Nazism and Hollywood, Koepnick warns that there were essential differences between the two systems, both in terms of ideology and style. As Koepnick postulates in his first chapter, Nazi cinema accomplished its ideological goals primarily by paying careful attention to the use of sound, and particularly music:

Revamping Wagner’s longings with the help of industrial culture, Nazi sound film set out to fuse acting, dialogue, and music into a seamless total work of art, an audiovisual cocoon that stirred German emotions and forged contradictory experiences into fantasies of reconciliation.(25)

Language itself promoted ideology not so much by what was said than by how it was said, the voice and timbre functioning to de-eroticize bodies and channel audience desire into shared commonalities. Rather than a mere backdrop to diegetic construction, as in Hollywood films, Nazi film music foregrounded performances in what Koepnick calls “a cinema of sonic attractions” (40), which privileged spectacle, in order to bind the viewer in a sensuous environment of volk und vaterland, of fixed national identities.

Meanwhile, Hollywood Wagnerism, most often supplied by German exile composers, such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, Hans Salter or Bronislau Kaper, conceived of film music as a means of suturing narrative discontinuities and intensifying a given film’s dramaturgy, much like Nazi cinema. However, Koepnick also argues that Hollywood’s romantic musical idioms, far from containing audience desire as did Nazi cinema, intensified individual subjectivity, promising “cultural transformation and mobility” (153), even creating a popular modernism that incorporated atonality and dissonance. In other words, Koepnick postulates a kind of democratic modernism in Hollywood, that was embraced by the German exiles, leading them to project complex and often contradictory narratives on modernity, consumer culture, and the role of the individual in that system.

While the opening chapters offer readings of Hollywood style Nazi films in Berlin, the latter half of the book analyzes German exile films in Hollywood. In what to this reviewer’s sensibilities is Koepnick’s most audacious move, he opens his case by discussing an early Nazi science fiction film in chapter two, The Tunnel (1933), directed by Kurt Bernhardt, a German Jew who would soon after be exiled and eventually land in Hollywood, where as Curtis Bernhardt he would later direct  Interrupted Melody (1955), Koepnick’s film example in chapter eight. Chapters three and seven are likewise mirror images, reading Detlev Sierk’s films with Zarah Leander in Berlin and Douglas Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas. The author has therefore consciously chosen genre films from the Third Reich, which have not usually been discussed in terms of their propaganda value. Similarly, at the level of genre, Koepnick juxtaposes German Nazi westerns in chapter four and an American western by Fritz Lang in chapter seven, allowing Koepnick again to gauge shifting relations to Americanism and modernity in Berlin and Hollywood.

The tunnel, based on a 1913 popular novel by Bernhard Kellermann, affords Koepnick the opportunity to introduce the subject of Germany’s continued fascination with Americanism and technological progress, since the film illustrates the construction of a tunnel under the Atlantic Ocean. Valorizing the German work ethic, while damning American Jewish capital and greed, Bernhardt’s film is striking for its construction of space through sound and image:

In accord with the majority of later Nazi features, the film valorizes display over movement, well-defined sets over shifting perspectives and alternating focal lengths. Although offering a narrative of spatial conquest and technological triumph, The Tunnel transforms action into stasis…

Meanwhile, the film articulates highly ambiguous attitudes towards modern forms of communication, privileging direct human contact with a charismatic leader, and, secondly, the cinema and newsreels, which are capable of producing naturalized (seemingly unmediated) fantasies of reconciliation between workers and engineers, hands and hearts. Radios and telephones, on the other hand, are stigmatized as technologies serving outmoded notions of bourgeois individuality and private space, which counter the new ideology of national collectivity. Koepnick concludes with a discussion of Nazi cinema’s typical construction for the male audience of the all-male group, freed from the shackles of messy female sensibilities and sensualities; sublimating homoerotic desire, the male body becomes an automaton, in harmony with his technological tools and ready for the World War to come. All individual subjectivity is eliminated, the point of view remains one of cosmic justice; even the authoritarian hero is spiritualized (the final shots inevitably depicting him marching through the heavens), rather than an object for audience identification. These tropes will reappear in many of the propaganda films, like Hitlerjunge Quex (1933) or The Great King(1942), but also in adventure films and westerns.

Another genre addressed to male audiences, then, is the Nazi’s take on that quintessential American genre, the western, which likewise “stimulated desire so as to make people desire repression” (114). The Nazi western’s battles are not fought with guns in public spaces, the outcome visible to all, but rather with oratory, i.e. with the sound of the hero’s voice, while the hero’s gaze (and with it the cinematic apparatus) functions to establish his mastery over the landscape and its peoples. Unlike the nearly silent American cowboy, the Nazi cowboy talks his way to power, his quest is spiritual, rather than material, a symbolic authority figure for national unity, not a loner riding off into the sunset. In contrast, Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1950), is seen as a Brechtian reworking of the western, especially its non-diegetic theme song, which nudges the viewer into a position which oscillates between identification and distanciation.

Sandwiched between these male genres is Koepnick’s discussion of Zarah Leander in La Habanera (1936) and To New Shores (1937), which demonstrates the way Nazi film culture constructed foreign born female stars in light entertainments free of overt Nazi symbolism, in order to project internationalism (for foreign film markets) and consumerism (for domestic audiences), allowing for “apolitical distraction amidst an otherwise highly political society.” (79). Furthermore, Leander and other stars are constructed as longing for the values of Heimat (homeland), blood and earth, the pillars of Nazi ideology, even as her star image fails to conform to the Nazi ideal for German womanhood. Consuming Leander and other stars thus gave female viewers the feeling of stealing a bit of unsanctioned desire in the safe confines of the cinema, but we know that desire was pre-programmed to support rather than threaten the political system.

Just as Koepnick places Sirk’s German melodramas in their proper political context, so too does he rebel against the widely accepted myth of Douglas Sirk as leftist critic of American 1950s consumerist culture. According to the author, Sirk’s independently produced The First Legion (1951) rails against American popular culture, “as a site of manipulation, materialism, and vacuity” (204), while postulating the recuperation of aesthetic standards, the reinvigoration of boundaries between high and low, and the establishment of the cinema as a place for high art aspirations, a goal also dear to Goebbels’ heart. Modernity, if it means the blurring of cultural standards, is seen as a threat to the social fabric of traditional communities.

Meanwhile in Hollywood in the 1940s, Robert Siodmak was constructing nightmare visions in film noirs, “promote (ing) more decentered forms of subjectivity that recognize lack, fragmentation, and nonidentity as peculiarly modern sources of meaning,” (168) that directly answered Nazi attempts to orchestrate cinematic audiovision into fantasies of wholeness. Reading Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944) and The Spiral Staircase (1945), Koepnick argues that both films are self-conscious meditations on fascist aesthetics and its attempt to contain sound and image in a harmonious totality. In the process, Koepnick underplays the expressionist roots of film noir, seeing Siodmak’s extreme angles and high key lighting as a “performative recollection of Weimar expressionism” (175), emphasizing instead the disjuncture between sound and image, voice and the corporeal body. Such strategies of fragmentation open up the films to multiple subjectivities, even as they present a fascist villain bent on suppressing all subjectivity other than his own.

Koepnick’s final chapter, then, analyzes Bernhardt’s Interrupted Melody as another Hollywood attempt to bridge the gap between high and low culture, between the popular and the avant-garde, thus picking up a theme that has resurfaced repeatedly throughout the book. In the post World War II age of television and participatory entertainments for middle class consumers, wide-screen technology and its interactive consumption of staged opera (formerly an elite activity) become the raison d’etre for Bernhardt’s musical melodrama of physical recuperation and redemption. Bernhardt constructs opera as a cinema of attractions, and once again Wagner and his music are center stage.

Koepnick consistently tracks the reception of the films under discussion, not only in their initial distribution, but also in postwar Germany, demonstrating that Nazi films were as popular after the war as the German exile films were ignored or misunderstood. The latter were most often decried as Hollywood trash or Kitsch with even rarer reference to their exiled creators, documenting the massive cultural repression by Germany’s post war society of any memory of the Third Reich, the Holocaust, or its exiled victims. Small wonder that returning German exiles usually failed to find a foothold in Adenauer’s Christian Democratic film industry.

Koepnick’s great accomplishment, then, is not only to bring together various aspects of German cinema in Berlin and in Hollywood, but also to not see these geographic poles as a simple dichotomy between fascist and anti-fascist, Nazi and “the other Germany”. Rather he nuances our view beyond such polarities. The other Germany of the exiles did indeed include representatives of all political persuasions from the former Nazi Otto Strasser on the extreme right to the Communist Gerhardt Eisler on the left, so it should not be surprising that German exile cinema included conservatives, like Bernhardt and Sirk, as well as democratic leftists, like Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmak.

In this sense, Koepnick provides a model for further studies of the German cinema in Berlin and in other parts of the world. Much work still needs to be done to examine various genres in Nazi cinema, as well as the production of exile films in American, French, English, and other national cinemas. How, for example, can we differentiate between the Nazi musicals of Georg Jacoby and the Universal musicals of Pasternak and Koster? How do exile sensibilities concerning modernity filter through the lenses of national cinemas other than American? Must we read Zarah Leander’s roles differently, now that it has been revealed she worked as a spy for Stalin?

Jan-Christopher Horak
United States.

[1] Jan-Christopher Horak, “German exile cinema, 1933-1950”, in: Film History, Vol. 8, No. 4, December 1996, p. 383
[2] Jan-Christopher Horak, “In der Fremde. Exilfilm 1933-1945”, in: Hans-Helmut Prinzler, Wolfgang Jacobsen, Anton Kaes (eds.): Geschichte des deutschen films (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 1993); English trans. “German exile cinema, 1933-1950”
Created on: Friday, 30 April 2004 | Last Updated: 30-Apr-04

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →