Those who doubt the explosive power of cinema should watch Felix Moeller’s “Forbidden Films: The Hidden Legacy of Nazi Films,” one of several fascinating documentaries offered by Jewishfilm.2015 (April 30-May 15), the National Center for Jewish Films’ 18th annual festival. Moeller’s movie opens with a shot of the German Federal Film Archive at Hoppegarden. Built like a bunker, the facility has blast-absorbing walls and is surrounded by thick berms. This is not to protect it from threats from without, but to contain the danger within. As the curator explains, the structure holds thousands of reels of films shot on highly combustible nitrocelluloid film stock. If ignited, it would set off a blast the equivalent of five tons of nitroglycerin.
But such a literal explosion would not approach the metaphorical destructiveness of some of the films preserved there. They include hundreds of Nazi propaganda features, 40 of which are considered so volatile that they remain restricted from public viewing 70 years after the end of World War II. Credit film lovers Adolf Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who recognized cinema’s potential for poisoning minds.
Watching state-sponsored propaganda might not sound like a fun date, but among the many surprising revelations in Moeller’s documentary is how popular these films actually were. The Third Reich was the Golden Age of German cinema, at least in terms of production and box office. Between 1933 and 1945, 1,200 features were made. In 1943, a billion tickets were sold. Compare that to 120 million in 2012.
The sad truth is that some of these films were skillfully made, emotionally compelling, and entertaining. As the snippets from “Jud Süss” (1940) and Goebbels’s personal favorite, “Homecoming” (1941), demonstrate, though they don’t approach the genius of D.W. Griffith’s pro-Ku Klux Klan “Birth of a Nation” (1915), they were still stylish and seductive. One of the questions “Forbidden Films” raises is whether the 40 banned films should finally be released to the public. Are they still capable of selling their lies decades after the cataclysm that those lies helped bring about?
In one disturbing scene in “Forbidden Films” a viewer offers his opinion of “Homecoming” after watching it at a special Berlin screening. The film, a slickly manipulative melodrama, inverts the truth about the invasion of Poland; in it Poland invades Germany and Poles persecute and murder Germans.
The viewer, a well-spoken young man, says that “the film showed something we should remember, how the Poles mercilessly terrorized minorities and mobilized for war two days before the war began.”
Responses like that suggest that the credulity of the public has, if anything, increased over the past seven decades. Maybe it’s best to keep a lid on these films rather than risk another explosion.
“Forbidden Films” screens May 6 at 7:30 p.m. at the MFA followed by a conversation with NCJF directors Sharon Pucker Rivo and Lisa Rivo and historian Ann Millin of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. For more information go to www.jewishfilm.org.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.