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Films in the Third Reich: The Power of Images and Illusions Screenings

Adolf Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, were keenly aware of cinema’s ability to mobilize emotions and to immobilize minds. The Nazi leadership also knew well that profound and lasting political effects could not derive from political expressions alone. As the films in this continuing series bear out, standardized mass culture would become the Nazis’ secret formula for successful mass manipulation. Mass culture also served as a crucial precondition for mass m urder. The Third Reich’s production of death and devastation would not have been possible without the Nazi dream machinery.


March 6 (Monday) 9 pm

Kautschuk

Directed by Eduard von Borsody
Germany 1938, 16mm, b/w, 104 min.
With René Deltgen, Gustav Diessl, Roman Bahn
German with English subtitles

An adventure film produced by the Ufa studio, Kautschuk was released in the United States as Green Hell. It blends elaborate location footage from an Amazon expedition (including tableaux of voracious crocodiles and greedy piranhas as well as a ferocious tropical storm) and interiors shot in the Babelsberg studio to create the historical drama of an English entrepreneur. Henry Wickham, a heroic forerunner of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, travels to Brazil in 1876, posing as a butterfly collector as he seeks to elude Portuguese officials and procure rubber seeds for the British colonies.

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March 7 (Tuesday) 9 pm

The Emperor of California (Der Kaiser von Kalifornien)

Directed by Luis Trenker
Germany 1936, 16mm, b/w, 100 min.
With Luis Trenker, Viktoria von Ballasko, Werner Kunig
German with English subtitles

The Emperor of California was originally to have been a Hollywood project for Sergei Eisenstein. Instead, German actor-director Luis Trenker scripted a political allegory about a European revolutionary who flees to America in 1834, where he becomes the leader of an immigrant community and later gains power as a senator and a U.S. army general before he is finally brought down. Winner of the Best Film award at Venice in 1936, the film was banned by both the Americans and Russians after World War II as a result of Trenker’s work for the Third Reich.

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March 14 (Tuesday) 9 pm

The Broken Jug (Der zerbrochene Krug)

Directed by Gustav Ucicky and Emil Jannings
Germany 1937, 16mm, b/w, 85 min.
With Emil Jannings, Friedrich Kayssler, Lina Carstens
German with English subtitles

Reputed to be Hitler’s favorite film, The Broken Jug revolves around a judge’s attempts to conceal his drunken midnight ramblings. Try as he might, however, his bruises, blunders, and malapropisms betray him. The Nazi adaptation of Kleist’s classical play focuses its attentions on how justice and civil society have been undermined by a servant of the state who has allowed his private pursuits to interfere with his public duties.


March 20 (Monday) 9 pm

Germany Awake

Directed by Erwin Leiser
Germany 1968, 16mm, b/w, 90 min.
English and German with English subtitles

This absorbing documentary on the German motion picture industry and its use as a tool for propaganda was produced by the great German film historian Erwin Leiser. Among the many feature film excerpts included are Dawn (1933), Jud Süss (1940), The Rothschilds (1940), and The Great King (1942). This critical compilation was instrumental in exposing, for the first time, the productions and methods of the Third Reich to a worldwide audience.

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March 21 (Tuesday) 9 pm

UFA: Myth and Truth

Directed by Erwin Leiser
Germany 1993, 16mm, b/w, 135 min.
English and German with English subtitles

The Ufa (Universum Film AG), Germany’s preeminent commercial studio during the years that spanned the two World Wars, played a central role in the history of German film. In this documentary, Erwin Leiser offers a critical examination of the German film industry from a modern perspective. The first section of this three-part series explores the period from the establishment of the Ufa in 1917 through the Weimar years, utilizing a number of clips from successful films of the time, including Bombs on Monte Carlo and The Blue Angel. The second section, which covers the period from 1932 to 1945, reviews Nazi policies and productions. The final segment describes the years after 1945 and the collapse of the Third Reich, when the East German Defa took over the Ufa studios and personnel.

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April 3 (Monday) 9 pm

Effi Briest (Der Schritt vom Wege)

Directed by Gustaf Gründgens
Germany 1939, 16mm, b/w, 101 min.
With Marianne Hoppe, Karl Ludwig Diehl, Paul Hartman
German with English subtitles

Theodore Fontane’s tale of a woman who forsakes respectability and obligation in the name of personal happiness, famously remade by Fassbinder in the 1970s, indicts the strict codes of an unbending Prussian order. The film represented a challenge for Nazi observers since party logic dictated that the tragic figure must be the betrayed officer-husband; but Marianne Hoppe’s performance as Effi was so engagingly sympathetic one had no problem understanding why she had strayed.

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April 4 (Tuesday) 9 pm

La Habañera

Directed by Detlef Sierck (Douglas Sirk)
Germany 1937, 16mm, b/w, 100 min.
With Zarah Leander, Karl Martell, Ferdinand Marian
German with English subtitles

La Habañera portrays a Scandinavian woman’s foreign affair, a romance with an exotic landscape, a seductive song, and a Latin lover. Astrée goes astray and surrenders to a reckless moment. The paradise quickly loses its luster as she becomes a veritable hostage, bound to a tyrant who torments her. Her only solace is her young son, with whom she imagines life back in the snow of Sweden. La Habañera is a consummate example of Nazi cinema’s own foreign affair: its conscious attempt to appropriate the Hollywood melodrama for domestic audiences.

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April 11 (Tuesday) 9 pm

Titanic

Directed by Herbert Selpin and Werner Klinger
Germany 1943, 16mm, b/w, 85 min.
With Sibylle Schmitz, Kirsten Heiberg, Otto Wernicke
German with English subtitles

A spectacular depiction of the Titanic’s disastrous voyage, this anti-British propaganda film was banned by Goebbels in Germany to avoid a panic. The film presents the stories of many of the passengers, including the British ship owner whose greed is responsible for the disaster and the ship’s German first officer, who tries to forestall it. Scenes of the sinking were used uncredited in the 1958 British film, A Night to Remember.

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April 16 (Sunday) 3 pm

The Great Sacrifice (Opfergang)

Directed by Veit Harlan
Germany 1944, 16mm, color, 98 min.
With Carl Raddatz, Kristina Söderbaum, Irene von Meyendorff
German with English subtitles

Veit Harlan undeniably deserves Karsten Witte’s epithet "the baroque fascist." He made the loudest, most colorful, most expensive films in the Third Reich as well as Jud Süss, the era’s most offensive feature. He remains a director known for crowd scenes, grand parades, bombastic spectacles, and monumental settings. He was also the Reich’s ultimate melodramatist. Here, a well situated husband strays from a life of privilege and a picture-book marriage to pursue an affair with a mysterious and sickly woman. With its ennui, melancholy, and fatalism, the film becomes a full-blown exercise in morbid abandon, culminating in a hypnotic demonstration of sickness unto death as another transgressive heroine takes her place in Nazi cinema’s gallery of female martyrs.

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April 18 (Tuesday) 9 pm

Münchhausen

Directed by Josef von Baky
Germany 1943, 16mm, b/w, 100 min.
With Hans Albers, Brigitte Horney, Ferdinand Marian
German with English subtitles

As the centerpiece for Ufa’s 25th anniversary celebration, Münchhausen offered Germans reeling from news of defeat in Stalingrad a welcome escape. Created in conjunction with the Ministry of Propaganda, the film enacts the definitive Aryan fantasy in this tale of a man who masters his own destiny and marshals the march of time. The protagonist’s legendary powers become employed in Hitler’s war effort, literally cast in the role of a wonder weapon—the illusory means by which the Ministry of Propaganda sought to reanimate a paralyzed nation. A popular vehicle and the product of a world war, Münchhausen represents one of the Third Reich’s consummate cinematic achievements.

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April 23 (Sunday) 3 pm

Under the Bridges (Unter den Brücken)

Directed by Helmut Käutner
Germany 1945, 16mm, b/w, 92 min.
With Hannelore Schroth, Carl Raddatz, Gustav Knuth

German with English subtitles

Under the Bridges is one of a number of transitional endeavors—so called "carryovers" (Überläufer)—which, although produced during the Third Reich, were not premiered until after the war. Its narrative recalls Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, just as its style brings to mind the poetic realism of the early Renoir’s Boudu and Toni. A romantic triangle unfolds on a small boat that wends its way up and down the Havel near Berlin. Käutner took leave of the artifice of studios and, while bombs continued to fall on the Reich, shot on location. His film also took leave of Ufa production values and departed from the Nazi era’s script-bound predilections, rediscovering the wonder of immediacy and physical reality and, in so doing, intimating new directions for a postwar German cinema.

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April 25 (Tuesday) 9 pm

Romance in a Minor Key (Romanze in Moll)

Directed by Helmut Käutner
Germany 1943, 16mm, b/w, 100 min.
With Marianne Hoppe, Paul Dahlke, Ferdinand Marian
German with English subtitles

Based on Guy de Maupassant’s novella and set in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century, Romance revolves around Madeleine, the wife of a respectable but conservative bank clerk, who has an affair with a young composer. The opening sequence is a cinematic tour-de-force: the camera moves from the roofs of Paris into Madeleine’s bedroom, where she lies like a corpse, suddenly brought back to life in narrative flashbacks that show her desperate and vain attempts to find fulfillment outside her home. Nearly banned by Goebbels as too defeatist, it is surely the most nuanced and sympathetic of the Third Reich–era films by virtue of its reflections on a woman who dreams of a more vibrant life.

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