Rüdiger Suchsland’s recent documentary Hitler’s Hollywood is being released in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD by Eureka, and is being packaged with his earlier film From Caligari to Hitler. The packaging only mentions the extra film in a sticker on the cover and in the features on the back, but I figured it was worth a full review alongside Hitler’s Hollywood, so I’ve provided my thoughts on both below. I watched and reviewed them in chronological order, which made great sense, seeing as they are studies of back-to-back eras in German film history.
From Caligari to Hitler
Director: Rüdiger Suchsland
Screenplay: Rüdiger Suchsland
Based on a Book by: Siegfried Kracauer
Starring: Rüdiger Suchsland, Hans Henrik Wöhler, Fritz Lang, Volker Schlöndorff, Fatih Akin
Running Time: 119 min
It’s often the case that great hardship and trying times can lead to great works of art. The concept of the ‘tortured artist’ is a classic one, but it can also work on a larger scale. Late 1918 saw the end of WWI and the defeat of Germany and its allies. During the period beginning around this time and ending with the Nazi’s taking control of the country in 1933, when Germany has often been referred to as the Weimar Republic, it struggled to rebuild whilst keeping up with war reparations. Political turmoil, hyperinflation and other troubles plagued the country, yet this time brought about a cultural renaissance. Many great works of literature, theatre and music developed in Germany out of the ashes of the Great War, but possibly the most widely acknowledged cultural revolution of the time (to a film buff like me at least) came in German cinema.
German Expressionist cinema blossomed at the time with titles like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu wowing audiences with their powerful visual style. Fritz Lang hit the scene too and directed several classics, such as the Mabuse films, Metropolis, M and the epic two-part Die Nibelungen. G. W. Pabst and F. W. Murnau also made numerous classics that remain highly regarded close to 100 years later and we were introduced to names such as Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, who would go on to great things elsewhere. Some of history’s greatest actors got their start in the Weimar Republic too, with Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich, and Louise Brooks emerging at this time.
Rüdiger Suchsland’s film From Caligari to Hitler, based on Siegfried Kracauer’s book from 1947, examines this incredible period and place in cinematic history, matching films and filmmakers with events going on in the country at the time. Contemporary theorists and directors such as Fatih Akin give their thoughts on the films in question and how they came about during such a turbulent time in German history. For the most part though, Suchsland lets the films do the talking. He digs out an endless stream of clips from notable titles that play under his own narration, which explains their relevance and place in the story he is telling.
As such, the film reminded me quite a bit of Mark Cousins’ Story of Film. Like that, it works as an incredibly rich dissection of films and film history and relies heavily on clips to demonstrate what is being discussed. It didn’t capture me in quite the same way (I chose Story of Film as my favourite film of 2012) as Suchsland’s approach is a little more dry, lacking Cousins’ infectious passion for the films being examined. However, From Caligari to Hitler still had me scribbling down titles to add to my wish list.
In terms of presentation, it’s fairly straightforward, relying largely on film excerpts and a few talking heads, but split screen techniques are occasionally used to show several clips at once and add a little visual flourish here and there.
It is quite an academic film though, so I wouldn’t recommend it to casual moviegoers. You need to have an interest in early cinema or history to appreciate and enjoy it. Although I know a little about the former, my historical knowledge of the period is limited to what I can remember in high school. However, I knew enough to appreciate the context and Suchsland briefly covers the important aspects and milestones, so I didn’t get lost. Personally, I found it intriguing to hear how the films reflected what was going on in Germany at the time and the psychology and politics of its people.
If like me then, you are the target audience, you’ll find it well-researched, packed with great clips and offering an interesting insight into a hugely important time and place in the foundation of cinema.
Director: Rüdiger Suchsland
Screenplay: Rüdiger Suchsland
Starring: Hans Albers, Udo Kier, Heinz Rühmann, Adolf Hitler, Zarah Leander, Ilse Werner
Running Time: 105 min
Hitler’s Hollywood continues the story told in From Caligari to Hitler, covering the period when Hitler and the Nazi Party ruled Germany, between 1933 and 1945. This was a very different time in the country’s history and had a very different effect on its films.
As you might expect, under Hitler’s dictatorship and Goebbels’ Minister of Propaganda, German cinema was under strict Nazi control at the time. Filmmakers were not allowed the same freedom of expression they enjoyed in the Weimar Republic. Also, many of the key filmmakers from that golden age fled the country before or just after Hitler came to power, either due to their political beliefs, race or a call from Hollywood. Lang (who was offered a position as head of the German film studio UFA by Goebbels himself) left, as did Marlene Dietrich, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder. Pabst was probably the biggest name to stay, although he reportedly planned to leave before being set back and forced to remain in the country.
The cinematic output in Germany during this period then was almost solely Nazi propaganda in some form or another. Suchsland describes the various ways films were used to embed Hitler’s worldview into the minds of the public, and not always through obvious means. Ich klage an for instance, could be seen as using its pro-euthanasia message as a soft-sell for the ‘Final Solution’. A more blatant example would be Jud Süss, which sees a Jewish villain swindling his way to the side of a Duke for his own means and culminating in him raping a wholesome German girl before being sentenced to death by the German people. It was a clear rallying call to murder the Jews ‘infecting’ the country.
Suchsland tells of filmmakers who managed to produce some great work within this mould though. Leni Riefenstahl is the most obvious example. She made the most famous German propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, which extolled the virtues of Nazism to triumphant levels, but did so with an undeniable level of visual artistry.
Some filmmakers also tried to speak out or rebel against the system, although this was nigh on impossible to do to any large degree. Helmut Käutner is the director Suchsland comes to most frequently in this documentary. He made a number of highly regarded films but is largely forgotten these days, possibly due to him finding his feet under the watchful eye of the Nazis. A couple of his films were banned or held back from release, not because they spoke out against Nazism, but because they ignored it. He described himself as apolitical and didn’t want politics to invade his simple, human stories. This may have rubbed Goebbels up the wrong way occasionally, but his quiet form of protest allowed him to get away with it, for the most part, remaining in work throughout the period.
So, although Hitler’s Hollywood follows a similar style to From Caligari to Hitler, in using film clips and narration to describe how cinema shaped Germany (and vise versa) during a notable period in history, it’s less a celebration of great cinema and more a fascinating dissection of the power of film in the hands of a dictatorship. There’s still a quiet sort of celebration going on here though, as Suchsland unearths some gems or at least describes aspects of some of the propagandist films that are admirable. It may not have had me reaching for the wish list quite as often, but the discussion running under the clips was possibly more interesting than in the previous documentary.
As such, it’s another thought-provoking journey through a fascinating time and place in cinematic history. Again, it’s rather academic and is probably only of interest to film buffs and historians, but that’s not necessarily a problem. I did find it a little repetitive perhaps as it went on – there are only so many examples of propaganda I can watch in one sitting, but for the most part, I found the film compelling. It’s also heartening to see forgotten films given a second chance too, despite their backgrounds in propaganda. Although they often contained toxic messages, there was also artistry to appreciate and it’s worthwhile examining how and why the films were successful in shaping a nation in such a disturbingly powerful way so that hopefully it won’t happen again.
Hitler’s Hollywood (with From Caligari to Hitler also included) is out on 5th November on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Eureka. The films both look and sound great, with the old film excerpts looking remarkably good for the most part, although the variety and age of clips used means some show their age more than others.
Unless you count the inclusion of From Calgary to Hitler as an extra, the only bonus feature is the option to watch Hitler’s Hollywood with the original German language version with optional English subtitles OR with English language narration by Udo Kier. Although I’d usually always opt for the former, because it’s an audio-only narration and because I had to write notes while watching, I actually opted to watch with the Udo Kier narration. With his performance background and inimitable technique, he gives the film a dramatic boost, although he verges on sounding over-the-top at times.