Hitler, Cineast

Examining the Movies That Fed the Fantasia of the Third Reich
The Wolf’s Lair, The Reality of War, Cold Kölsch, Brutal Saga as National Myth, Spectacularly Naive Politics, The Dire Lot of the Proles, Robotrixes, Natives of Skull Island, The Flaming Punchbowl, Roy Disney, Quintessential Narcissists, The Evils of Secular Atheism, Lessons from the Marx Brothers
by Michael Atkinson
Producer Günther Stapenhorst shows a film to Hitler and Goebbels, January 4, 1935. Courtesy of the Deutsches Bundesarchiv.

Hitler, Cineast

Michael Atkinson
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

Adolf ­Hitler liked to watch movies. ­During his ­ascension in the ’30s and then during the war, the first of many terrestrial conflicts to be fully reflected back onto itself from the world’s movie screens, Hitler became a full-fledged cinephile, a man who communicated with the dream-reality he himself was forging across the Eastern Hemisphere through the cinematic apparatus. Amid the almost 7.5 hours of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s grandiloquent yet threadbare experimental documentary Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977), it is pointed out that during the war Hitler never once journeyed to the front, and saw the war only on nightly newsreels in the various Führerhauptquartieres, from the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia to the final Führerbunker, nestled in his private screening rooms, gleaning the “reality” of the war he was orchestrating from movie images. Susan Sontag, writing about the Syberberg, called the resulting historical aggregate of power, atrocity, politics, celluloid, and inherited cinematic ideas “Germany, a Film by Hitler.”

Indeed, Syberberg’s monologue has Hitler declaring himself, at least to himself, “the greatest filmmaker of all time.” You see the poststructuralist sinkhole of reason sitting there, the tar baby of simulacral reflections, but we’re not approaching it just yet. Instead, let’s consider first the simple fact that very few, if any, world leaders visited “the front” at any time during either world war, and that they all watched newsreels and movies regularly; that Joseph Stalin was such an avid moviegoer that he kept the same faithful Kremlin projectionist, Alexander Ganshin, on the job for eighteen years, until the dictator’s death, an achievement in survival under Stalin so remarkable that Ganshin became the subject of a 1991 film by Andrey Konchalovskiy, The Inner Circle; that Mao Zedong became, in his cataract-ridden later years, a huge Bruce Lee enthusiast; that Benito Mussolini loved the notorious Hedy Lamarr debut Extase (1933) so much he reputedly owned his own print; that FDR watched three movies a week, corresponded with Myrna Loy, and personally converted an East Wing room in the White House into a screening room. And, of course, Woodrow Wilson, leading up to America’s entry into World War I, was sufficiently impressed by Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) to have pronounced that it was “like writing history with lightning,” a statement that (if true) suggests a warped relationship between power and cinema, between realpolitik and the edifice of simulacra, that staggers the imagination and darkens the heart.

The viral sorcery of cinema is such that it took almost no time at all for the new medium to change its viewers, to electrify their expectations and their attention spans, to mythify violence and beauty into visibly superhuman quantities, to mass-legitimate vicarious “excitement” as a cultural axiom, to define war and history and human business as a distant spectacle to be watched for entertainment, and so on. The invention of indoor plumbing altered our relationship with shit; the invention of the automobile changed our ideas of space and travel and landscape; embalming technology and the funerary industries have forever sundered our intimacy with death. But it’s arguable that nothing has shifted our essential perspectives—toward spectatorship and away from autonomy and responsibility—as much as movies have. The twentieth century brought many upheavals, but the conversion of the majority of the human race into habitual and willing passive observers, which we most certainly were not for many centuries prior, may be the most radical shift our consciousnesses have undergone.

The irony in the image is indelible: the world leader idly entranced by Hollywood’s silvery prevarications while at that very moment an army of men are killing and dying at that ­leader’s behest, in a war zone far away. But Hitler is of course a separate matter, a deathless ghost in modernity’s machine, a demiurge of recent history that we’d prefer not to imagine enjoying a steak or playing with a dog or calmly watching a movie, maybe with a cold Kölsch and fresh popcorn. In fact, he is by now more concept than man, more representation than fact; the aggregation of “Hitler” totals up to far more than the 175 pounds of flesh and bone, the 20,450 days lived, or the current of thoughts and language that emanated from his mouth and pen. But he was in fact just one medium-size, big-mouthed man with tastes and neuroses and talents, and the socio-cognitive dissonance between Hitler and “Hitler” can be scanned as a kind of Hollywoodization, a hologrammatic dream-state between “reality” and its expansion into the four dimensions of pure imagery, empathic desire, mythopoeia, and stereotyping.

Myth creation was an integral ingredient in the Third Reich worldview. This is hardly news, but the movies that fed the fantasia, in Hitler’s particular case, should be part of our understanding of the phenomenon. Or they would be, if in fact we knew exactly what movies Hitler watched. Shockingly, the Bundesarchiv in Berlin has not a single stitch of record-keeping documentation about what films Hitler watched in his private theaters, before or during the war. There were records kept, and historical testimony later gathered, about Hitler’s ­unsightly manicure, bad teeth, quack injections of bovine testosterone, treatment for Parkinson’s, coprophilia, penchant for staring contests, preferences for tea (how many teaspoons of sugar? seven), anal-compulsive habits, attachment to Karl May pulp novels, lapse-ridden vegetarianism, ­perspiration stains, pyromania, flatulence, passionate fondness for Franz von Stuck’s kitschy paintings of nudes entwined with fat snakes, and so forever on. But somehow what movies he had procured for his pleasure and watched in the evenings during the century’s darkest passage was a fact of daily life no one thought to document.

Syberberg’s documentary, amid its protracted flurry of speculations and not very obviously fictionalized “facts,” answers this hanging historical participle by offering up Hitler’s projectionist, one Fritz Ellerkamp, who was also an SS officer and, in the postwar years, a prolific director of porn and “schmaltz.” According to Ellerkamp, whose memories are recited by an actor, Hitler watched and enjoyed “two or three films a day,” among them Jud Süss (1933), Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940), Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), Kurt Hoffmann’s Quax the Pilot (1941), Murnau’s The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924), Curtis Bernhardt’s The Tunnel (1933), Gone with the Wind (1939), Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), some unverifiable ditty called The Flaming Punchbowl, and “anything” with Weiss-Ferdl, Heinz Rühmann, Anny Ondra, Jenny Jugo, and Margarete “Gretl” Slezak. The problem with this bounty of evocations is that Ellerkamp never existed; in lieu of a concrete screening list, Syberberg conjured him and his reasonable-sounding Hitlerian cinema menu out of his own sense of der Führer’s moviegoing taste buds and from what was hotly watched in the years of the Reich.

Still, “the greatest filmmaker of all time” and, arguably, cinema ­history’s single most important moviegoer, had favorites well known to Germany and the world, reported with no small amount of fascination in the press at home and internationally, while he lived, just beginning with the über-works of Fritz Lang. Always close to Hitler’s heart, Die Nibelungen is an almost-five-hour fusillade of Teutonic myth that could encapsulate the essential contradictions of Hitler himself (genocidal maniac and fervent animal lover and anti-vivisectionist) and of the entire Nazi program. In its unsoftened pre-Christianized form, the original Germanic epic Nibelungenlied, first transcribed from oral traditions as early as the thirteenth century, is a brutal saga of cross-purposes, betrayal, homicidal suspicions, and tragically relentless vengeance—an odd, feel-bad choice for a national myth, and one that was nevertheless used in a broad variety of symbolic ways as propaganda by the German empire during World War I as well as by the National Socialists two decades later. Naturally, what may look to us like berserk doom, bad fortune, and venality in such a story can easily be read by its natives as tests of loyalty and proofs of honor. According to Germanic lit scholar John G. Robertson, writing in 1902, “The Nibelungenlied is the representative national epic of the Germans; it is national in the sense that it mirrors not the ideas of a single poet, but of a whole race. Its theme was a common possession of that race; its ideals of loyalty, of nobility, of kingly virtue, its scorn of treason and deceit, and its firm faith in the implacableness of rightful vengeance—all this is flesh and blood of the Germanic peoples.” Clearly, it’s all in how you read the Rorschach blobs; Robertson also maintains that the tale “is built up upon a simple and fundamental idea, of which the poet never loses sight. This idea, the mysterious retribution which follows on the heels of all earthly happiness, sounds like a deep organ note through the Nibelungenlied from its opening words to its close.”

This cosmic comeuppance is itself, especially as dramatized by Lang, something of a buzzkill, you’d think. But the virus was there, waiting for the endocytosic entryway and a full-blown nationalist supremacist fantasy to bloom—insofar as the faithfulness among the Burgundian king and his vassals in the cycle, ranked higher than family bonds or life, came to be called “Nibelungentreue,” and became within the Third Reich an essential ­social more. This by itself was hardly remarkable—rampaging nation-states muster this kind of warped hyper-nationalistic attitude to some degree or another even today, and could hardly initiate a military campaign without it. But as a cultural blueprint, Lang’s Die Nibelungen has the primal cinematic advantages of spectacle (it’s most notable for its huge and expensive sets) and of fulfilling the dreams of every Teutonic boy who ever thrilled at bedtime to the many translations of the original epic poem during the nineteenth century.

We shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that Hitler was an especially astute analyst of film, or that movies during his reign were as heavily vetted, even by Goebbels, for “subversive” or otherwise uncooperative subtexts as they were in the Soviet Union, then and for decades thereafter. The Nazi way was less ideological than visceral, after all. This becomes even more of a nutcracker when you approach Hitler’s famous ardor for Lang’s Metropolis (1927). The first movie dystopia, this skyscraper of a film, according to Lang, helped compel Hitler and
Goebbels to ask him, in 1934, if he would head the national film industry under the Third Reich; Lang’s (possibly apocryphal) response was to get on a train that evening to Paris, ending up in Hollywood a year later.

Hitler’s desert-island ardor for Metropolis remains mysterious because the film’s politics are heinously messy, spectacularly naive, and not particularly fascist. In this city of the future, a hedonistic elite class cavorts in the sun and plays Olympic games and frequents decadent nightclubs as the vast majority of the city’s populace lives underground and works maintaining the city’s monstrous machinery. Famously, the inevitable rebellion is instigated (by rather Byzantine plotting), and we go from the cry “Death to the machines!” to the disastrous collapse of infrastructure to the unlikeliest resolution in dystopic history—the rise of a “Mediator,” who will act as the “heart” uniting the society’s “head” and “hands.”

Of course, this is the chintziest of world-leader daydreams. Lang, and his Nazi-sympathetic wife/screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, clearly felt that the elite’s power is immutable, that the proles’ dire lot is destiny, and that all that’s needed is acquiescent cooperation between the two. In a sense, the same paradigm was the source-water of the nineteenth-century ascension of trade unions, and the subsequent expansion of the labor movement. But Metropolis sells this fantasy with ecstatic fervor, no matter how much the statement about class warfare—made by the film’s visual gigantism and visions of humans fed into the furnaces (symbolically, into the “Moloch!”)—is at a radical disconnect with the story’s play-nice denouement. Will the workers just go back to the caverns and man-eating generators? In fact, when the villainous robotrix/rabble-rouser yowls, “Death to the machines!,” she speaks the people’s truth, in an acutely Marxist sense. The problem is, this was just ten years after the Russian Revolution shocked and horrified every government leader, CEO, and aristocrat on the globe. The Nazis, we may recall, were not an anti-class cohort. Metropolis had to be an anti-revolutionary narrative: in the shadow of the Bolshevik uprising, a dystopia that maintained heinous and clear class separation in a civil manner seemed to be a desirable alternative. For the filmmakers—and the Nazis who loved them—Metropolis was a massive turbine built to provide a negative charge against Soviet propaganda and to idealize the top-down social model quickly constructed by way of National Socialism.

But couldn’t the kind and reasonable king of Metropolis just as easily have been seen as a Lenin, as that leader was portrayed in Soviet media? Metropolis simply wasn’t terribly convincing as political discourse, and that may be why Germans in 1927 all but turned up their noses at it. Certainly, it was not effectively conceived as propaganda—and perhaps its popular failure was instructive, suggesting to Hitler and Goebbels that addressing class was taboo, and an emphasis on mythic and defensive nationalism would be the ideal big tent.

Perhaps Metropolis just dazzled. Perhaps Hitler, in the dark, was less der Führer and more the starry-eyed ur-cinephile, the ex-artist, captured more by the seduction of his eyeballs than by subtexts and thematic grist. Another favorite, released in America eight days after the Reichstag fire and sixteen days before the passage of the Enabling Act, giving Hitler full dictatorship powers, King Kong (1933) was in its day nothing if not an insane spectacle, an animus-powered ordeal of impossible natural chaos. But of course this all-American classic, as indelibly a part of our multicultural, race-battled culture as the blues, pizza, and the Ku Klux Klan, can be easily scanned as steamrolling xenophobia, the trauma inflicted upon white orthodoxy by a huge, uncontrollable black primitivity, the ape-monster explicitly manifesting as the incarnation of the dreaded precivilized sex practices of Skull Island’s natives (a giant black penis, essentially eating if not actually sexually using the tribe’s sacrificed virgins), and then, brought to the all-white citadel of Manhattan, wreaking haphazard destruction in search for the white ideal, a matter surely of the loins as much as the heart, until the beast dares to scale civilization’s larger, cleaner, more orderly, more dignified phallus, and dies in its attempt to surmount it.

A sex-fearing bigot’s birthday cupcake, King Kong also has a Rorschachian identity. Most American viewers over the decades have sympathized at least in part with the ape, more than have ever taken a liking to Bruce Cabot, and the expression of colonial imperialism, capturing Skull Island’s behemoth id for profit and shipping it to America with dire consequences, is difficult to overlook. We can only surmise that our Hitler managed it, siding with the imperialists, who in this story were also impulsive moviemakers, the kind who brave wildernesses and face down ferocious predators with their cameras. Hitler the moviemaker must’ve enjoyed that detail. So how much of what’s in the Kong saga, quasi-diegetically speaking, was only a movie within a movie, or an action initiated for the sole purpose of filming it? Can we see Kong’s final rampage as a movie that got out of control and invaded the “real” world? Baudrillard defined the Gulf War as real or not depending on how it was characterized to the world via media—as a movie, just as World War II was Hitler’s silver-screen alternate universe. The destruction of the Third Avenue El, then—and this is how several generations of New Yorkers have half-remembered that beloved subway line being demolished—could be just another scene from Kong: A Film from America, a piece of history that almost immediately stood outside questions of fiction and actuality, and became as “real” as any war footage or front-line newsreel.

Hitler’s reputed ardor for Henry Hathaway’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) picks up many of the same threads, if without the prehistoric primate or raging sex-death, but with a he-man women-hater’s clubbiness that may well have kicked off the next century’s fascination with the sublimated-gay bromance formula. In the Führerbunker, such beery masculinism might’ve played very well, or so we can assume, even in the light of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), so beloved and coveted by Hitler that when Roy Disney visited the Reich in 1938, a print he brought of the film went straight into Hitler’s personal collection. (In 2008, a Norwegian museum director happened upon color sketches of Bashful, Dopey, and Doc dated from 1940 and signed “A. H.”; most experts have agreed that they are at least possibly authentic.) Perhaps der Führer identified with Snow White herself somehow; perhaps the evil Queen (particularly in her hooked-nose hag persona) suggested a malevolent Jud Süss figure; perhaps the heretofore unthinkable technical achievement of the film simply knocked him out.

But what’s most likely, it seems, is that the Disney film glowed for Hitler because it is, like so many fairy tales, a narrative in a bell jar—insulated, underpopulated, hermetic, unspooling in a shadowy corner of sub-­medieval Eurasia, and to a hand-drawn extent never before seen in movies. This must’ve been irresistible: Hitler’s existence, especially once the war was thoroughly under way, was a form of cinematic hibernation, an über-geekhood idealizing the past. Hitler, who hated almost everything modern, was constantly immersed in the dream-fiction of film, and hiding in large part from the exigencies of the real world. He was, perhaps above all, an escapist. That this impacted sensibility, with its all-too-common persecution neuroses and capacity to mix delirium with reality, had attained immense political power was simply history’s bad fortune. This is what can happen, or at least could in the early century, if crude, neurotic cinephilia is allowed to grow virally in the hothouse of wild sociopolitical stress.

Wasn’t the Aryan dream itself a kind of movie, as much as any directed by Leni Riefenstahl, or even by Frank Capra or Dziga Vertov? A recent documentary, Garbo: The Spy (2009), tells the saga of World War II counterspy Juan Pujol, a Catalan rogue who for years fooled the Nazis into believing he was maintaining a network of dozens of completely fictional spies, in the end convincing them that the D-day invasion was a mere diversion from another beach landing that never happened, thereby encouraging them to under-arm at Normandy. The filmmaker Edmon Roch sees the whole duplicitous saga as a real-life movie—a magical tissue of illusions and drama and wish fulfillments, with Pujol as a kind of master cinematic fabricator, and literally responsible himself, at a remove, for an entire legacy of twentieth-century war and spy films. (This rhyming of espionage fabrication and moviemaking saw its consummation with the Iranian hostage crisis fake-movie plot cooked up by CIA operative Tony Mendez and Hollywood makeup maestro John Chambers, as dramatized in Argo.) A psychologist named Stan Vranckx, who appears as a bearded talking head in Garbo: The Spy, speculates on how exactly the Germans could have swallowed so much baloney. He suggests the larger idea, that the Germans under the Nazis, by definition an entire culture deluded and hypnotized by its own fantastical mythology, were like willing moviegoers, more than ready to accept tall tales and constructed fictions. By this logic, Pujol’s success was inevitable. (He eventually disappeared and then reappeared decades later in Venezuela, in possession of honorary medals from both the British and the German governments for his efforts.) Germany was merely a crusade of children at a matinee of their own devising.

And it is a juvenile paradigm, insofar as children are by definition the quintessential narcissists, and extreme nationalism, as Americans should well know, is a wholly narcissistic enterprise. As it happened, Hitler the narcissist, the movie fanatic, the habitual fantasizer, did go to the Western front more than once—traveling via train through depots with their town names removed, so his entourage would have to guess where they were and where they were going—like a game of blind man’s bluff, or a mystery-movie plot with a twist ending. He was moviegoer enough to find sanctuary in all kinds of films, German vehicles for Olga Chekhova, musicals and historical epics and “social issue” dramas like Cecil B. De-Mille’s 1929 cri de coeur about the evils of secular atheism, The Godless Girl. According to a November 1937 article in Photoplay magazine, Hitler would often go “into the censorship booth with Goering,” and that he especially enjoyed the Marx Brothers.


We may pause to contemplate this for a moment, to picture Hitler entranced by the most beguilingly irrational of Jewish Hollywood legends, as the brothers, say, skewer the empiric modes of statecraft and war-mongering that got Europe into World War I, in Duck Soup (1933), and in the process introduce gleeful, childish disorder into an adult world, like hornets piped into a locked room. (Duck Soup does not, as is often posited, mock the rise of fascistic governments and the contemporary nationalism of the ’30s; its targets are clearly aristocratic flummery and hair-trigger “Alliance” war declarations, no matter how much Rufus T. Firefly’s anthemic ballad “I’m Against It” evokes certain Depression-era European leaders.)

If but for a moment, we have a death match in progress between order and chaos, neither of which, as per Heraclitus’s unity of opposites (“The road up and the road down are the same”), can exist in real terms without the other. The film instructs us: the acceptance of chaos and disarray is a fundament of human existence. This is a lesson Hitler could’ve intuited from the brothers Marx, in their exultant and breathless irreverence. But he didn’t, remaining a poor student to natural radicalism, and becoming quickly thereafter the prime mover behind a plague of systemization and purity. What is the Holocaust if not a vast campaign to inflict fantastical orderliness onto a polyglot society? Most movies, because they’re made of shapely narratives, preach form, organization, and predictability, and this lesson Hitler learned all too well, in his special darkness. The Marxes—the other small, fast-talking man with the strange mustache, the sly immigrant, and the mutant man-child—had another, freer, more embracing, more anarchic vision to offer, and had a certain moviegoer paid closer attention, and allowed for an epiphany like Woody Allen’s suicidal, Duck Soup–bedazzled schlub in ­Hannah and Her Sisters, well, then, movies might’ve saved him, and millions more.

More Reads

Pitch Battles

Colin Dickey

In Defense of Book

Damion Searls

But Never a Lovely So Real

Colin Asher