Theatres of Occupation. Hollywood and the Reeducation of Postwar Germany

Jennifer Fay,
Theatres of Occupation. Hollywood and the Reeducation of Postwar Germany.
London / Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008
ISBN-13: 978-0-8166-4744-6
US$22.50 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

The history of German film culture in the immediate post-World War II period, when the defeated nation was occupied by American, British, French, and Soviet armed forces, is still pretty much a tabula rasa. While Weimar Cinema, the Nazi era, and New German Cinema have received an adequate share of critical attention in Anglo-American scholarship, German film historiography has covered the century plus of German cinema much more evenly, though much of it written outside the academy. Newer work is focusing on the separate but equal status of film in the former German Democratic Republic, and German genre studies.

Strangely, the period between the capitulation of the Third Reich and the formation of two German states in May-June 1949, remains intriguingly neglected in both German and English language film history. There is Peter Pleyer’s classic German text, Deutscher Nachkriegsfilm 1946-1948 (German Postwar Cinema, Münster, 1965), which offers an introduction to the socio-political environment, close analyses of many East and West German films of the period, as well as an empirical content analysis and reception study. Heide Fehrenbach’s Cinema in Democratizing Germany: Reconstructing National Identity After Hitler (Greensboro: 1995) addresses the immediate post-war period, as well as the reconstruction of German cinema in the 1950s. Brigitte J. Hahn’s Umerziehung durch Dokumentarfilm? Ein Instrument amerikanischer Kulturpolitik im Nachkreigsdeutschland(Reeducation through Documentary. An Instrument of American Cultural Politics, Münster, 1995) offers an extended analysis of American military policy in the film sector, specifically in regards to documentary.

Inexplicably, Jennifer Fay’s Theatres of Occupation. Hollywood and the Reeducation of Postwar Germany, not only fails to mention Hahn’s book, even though she covers much the same territory in analyzing American military policy, but also virtually eschews the use of German language sources altogether, the exception being some scattered references to contemporary film reviews. This is somewhat odd, given the fact that she starts her book with a lesson in German semantics, leading one to believe that she is a German reader/speaker. But there are virtually no references to German secondary sources and even Pleyer’s book merits only a single reference to quote an American document. Certainly, Fay notes that she is not interested in tracking anti-Semitism and Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Overcoming the Nazi past), as are Wolfgang Becker and Norbert Schöll’s In jenen Tagen… Wie der deutsche Nachkriegsfilm die Vergangenteit bewältigte (How Postwar German Cinema Overcame the Past, Opladen, 1995) or Robert Shandley’s German Cinema in the Shadow of the Third Reich (Philadelphia, 2001), two other sources she dismisses with a flick of a footnote.

Fay is “concerned with theorizing occupation subjectivity through German filmmaking and spectatorship,” (p. xxi) which she attempts to ascertain through close readings of mostly American films (released in Germany), utilizing recent feminist inflected methodologies. Reading Fay’s epilogue, which spends pages discussing the Iraq War, confirms then the suspicion that the English professor’s real agenda is exposing contradictions in American democratic ideology, especially when faced with reeducating a society without democratic traditions, an issue she refers to repeatedly in her historical analysis. Indeed, Chapter one articulates the following goal, which demotes postwar German history to a test case, a filter with which to interrogate “…American liberalism in the context of occupation and what its German imitations reveal about so-called assimilating (often dissimulating) democratic culture.” (p. 38)

The first chapter, “Germany is a Boy in Trouble,” effectively reads Tomorrow the World (USA 1944), one of over 180 anti-Nazi films produced in Hollywood during the War, Siegfried Kracauer’s wartime analysis of German film propaganda, and Gregory Bateson’s equally interesting film review of Hans Steinhoff’s Hitlerjunge Quex (Germany 1933), mining for the rhetoric of liberal democracy, images of assimilation and whiteness, and their inherent racism. Such a reading tells us much about American liberalism’s take on German fascism, but does it reveal anything about the actual occupation under OMGUS (Office of the Military Government for Germany, United States)? Was OMGUS an instrument of American liberalism? Possibly, but, the historical record is more complex. As Brigitte Hahn conclusively demonstrates, OMGUS was dominated by competing agendas from liberals and conservatives in the State Department and Congress, leading to continual changes in policy; OMGUS also maintained a far from cooperative relationship with Hollywood, which may be why Tomorrow the World was not released in Germany until 1979. Fay claims it was the first film “to provide the narrative contours of German postwar rehabilitation,” (p. 1) but that honor surely goes to Fred Zinnemann’s The Seventh Cross(USA 1944), released five months earlier.

“Hollywood’s Democratic Unconscious,” Chapter two, juxtaposes American policy expectations regarding the importation of Hollywood films and their German reception, but only to a point, as she writes: “I am also interested in what these films tells us about America as a democratic state, independent of any specifically German interpretation.” (p. 41) Fay goes on to analyze several of the films chosen for initial distribution in postwar Germany, including The Human Comedy (USA 1943), privileging their view of American assimilationist ideology and sentimental patriotism, but concluding that these films failed to have a measurable impact on German audiences, including the American-made newsreel, World on Film. Fay mentions the tendency of German audiences to arrive at the theatre after the newsreel, without realizing that this same strategy had been used by audiences in the Third Reich to avoid Nazi propaganda. In the rest of the chapter she analyzes “the myth of Immigrant America,” which she rightfully critiques as an ideology of Caucasian assimilation, noting that John Huston’s film Across the Pacific (USA 1942) displayed racist images of the Japanese, which parallel Nazi images of Jews. She also discusses several American westerns, arguing that the reception of these films may have backfired, because postwar Germans identified with the Indians, rather than the settlers. Fay characterizes this as a specifically “postwar, postoccupation phenomenon” (p. 81), but in fact there was a rich tradition of identifying with Native Americans in Germany, going back to the incredibly popular, 19thcentury Western novels of Karl May (read by virtually every German child even today) and a substantial tradition of western films made in Weimar Germany.

“Garbo Laughs and Germans Eat” begins with Ninotchka (USA 1939), interpreted as a Cold War propaganda piece and signaling OMGUS’s 1947 switch from anti-Nazism to anti-Communism, and ends with a newsreel of the Berlin Airlift, making the same points about consumer Capitalism’s benefits. Sandwiched between these film analyses is a reading of Helmut Käutner’s Der Apfel ist ab ([The Apple has fallen] Germany 1948) as a political, rather than a religious allegory, critiquing the Allies enforced binary choice for Germans between Capitalism and Communism. Interestingly, in regards to the Federal Republic’s eventual “third path”, Käutner’s film spelled box office failure, possibly because its reception was dominated by accusations of blasphemy. In contrast, Ninotchka was “the biggest moneymaker in Berlin since the currency reform” (p. 91), but, contrary to Fay’s implication, its success did not necessarily translate as propaganda value. Rather, Garbo’s massive popularity in Germany before the war (even in Nazi Germany she was one of the most popular actresses) must be taken into account. Furthermore, as Fay acknowledges, Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka can also be read as a biting satire on all ideological systems claiming totality, thus obliterating its propaganda value as either anti-Communist or pro-Capitalist, a reading that would have been particularly appealing to German audiences in 1948, fresh off a totalitarian system.

In the final two chapters, then, Fay analyzes 1) the way Blackness is drained from the German jazz musical, Hallo, Fräulein (1949), mimicking similar operations in American musicals, thus making the film acceptable to German audiences fearful of the racial other, as represented by African-American G.I.’s, and 2) the utilization of the female Gothic film, namely Gaslight (USA 1944), to capture the plight of German women under military occupation, often war-widowed or otherwise abandoned: “The gothic, perhaps more than any other genre, captures the interpretive and epistemological ambiguity and terror that accompanies the occupied subject’s loss of sovereign identity, as well as her libration from tyranny.” (p. 147) To a far greater degree than in previous chapters, Fay manages here to connect the analysis of a film with its German reception, noting that Gaslight’s heroine, skeptical of male authority, could function as a role model for German women, attempting to survive American military occupation. Ironically, then, the most successful American film in postwar Germany explicitly worked against the policy of OMGUS and America’s reeducation policy.

Thus, parts of this book have much to recommend them, but the overall goals of the work, as indicated by the epilogue’s Iraqi War debate, are unclear. As a critique of Hollywood’s often muddled and/or racist ideology, which also reflects blind spots in American liberalism in mid 20th Century, Fay hits the mark. However, as an historical analysis of German cinema culture in the immediate post Nazi era, the work’s parameters are too narrow.

Jan-Christopher Horak,
Pasadena, California, UCLA.

Created on: Saturday, 18 April 2009

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 →