Table of Contents
2. The Early 1940s and the Immediate Post-War Era
3. The 1960s andthe 1970s
4. The 1980s andthe 1990s
5. The 2000s and the Present
6. Normalization and the Problem with Holocaust Humor
8. Works Cited
Even sixty-seven years after World War II has ended, the horrible deeds of the Nazi regime still cast a shadow over German history and can be regarded as a sore spot that is fearfully remembered all over the world. Some people would like to blind out that chapter of history completely, others urge to keep the memory alive in order to avoid the repetition of such a reign of terror and violence. However, from an academic point of view, it is not only interesting to analyze and evaluate the actual events of the past, but also how and where instances of Nazism and Nazi symbols as well as imagery are being used in modern media today. Especially due to the fact that media has always been said to heavily influence particularly younger people, it is vital to take a look at how modern productions work with National Socialism and how the perception of it may have changed over time and therefore might convey a distorted image of what actually happened.
Representations of Nazism and the general setting of movies, series and comic books in Germany during the time of World War II have been incredibly popular ever since the war ended. The number of productions made has not faded and the fascination with fascism does not seem do decrease, as well, even though the temporal distance to the war increases - if anything, the topic still seems to get more and more prominent. Thus Eva Kingsepp states that
[i]t is hard to find any other conflict that can compete with the Second World War in our historical consciousness and, not the least, in the number of mediated representations available about it. It seems that this war has something that makes it outstanding and especially attractive (29).
The Nazi as the carnation of evil has rather unnoticed sneaked into our mindset, Hitler is "the modern world's equivalent of the Devil" (Kingsepp 38). Certain symbols and triggers subconsciously evoke feelings that we do not question, because medial productions try to influence their audience in a certain way, in order to make particular strategies work, which are vital to the understanding of their narratives: the evocation of sympathy, empathy or antipathy for a single character or a group: "'Almost any combination of swastikas, black uniforms, and German accents will ensure instant drama by providing an immediately accessible good-versus-bad set up with little need for further elaboration'" (Masson 179). Moreover,
[i]t seems that Neo-Nazism has become the fashion of late. This makes perfect sense, as hate groups are becoming increasingly visible the world over. While these groups do have one thing in common, hatred, the basis for that hatred can stem from a variety of sources. In some countries religion is the catalyst for hate crimes. In other countries, race and ethnicity are the culprits. Sexuality is a prominent one here in America, and, as strange as it may sound, something as seemingly benign as a sporting event can ignite in a riot where you may be killed because you rooted for the wrong team (Shreve 2).
Hence it is obvious that although the actual point of origin of all these representations is long gone, the occupation with the topic is still highly relevant for contemporary culture.
Since the American film industry has always been regarded as one of the great pioneers concerning film and popular culture, this paper focuses mainly on the American view of Nazism in movies and how its evaluation has changed over time. Even though the Holocaust did not take place in the USA, "American popular culture is a preeminent site of cultural dissemination in the contemporary world. What America collectively and Americans individually think about the Holocaust matters for the way the Holocaust is and will be understood in the world" (Rapaport 124). This chronological analysis will start with examining productions that were shot before or directly after the end of World War II, ending with contemporary works.
My thesis is that representations of Nazism in post-war popular culture have always shown a strangely "schizophrenic American consciousness" (Bathrick 288). That is to say: I suggest that although the devil and the forces of hell have been substituted with Hitler and his henchmen in recent times, these characters still find very inconsistent and divergent realizations in film. On the one hand there are fictional films presenting Nazis as brutal, purely evil and inhumane forces, gifted with an extreme precision and effectivity, on the other hand then followed by comedies showing Hitler and the Nazis as incapable idiots and, more recently, movies that try to take a look at the human side behind cold-blooded Nazi characters. Especially because every time segment that is discussed in this examination shows these very contradictive representations, this paper will not try the impossibility to link a particular era with one specific movie genre and style, but rather hint at the general trend that is recognizable within that period of time. One question to be answered will then be, whether the trends that are outlined are sufficiently unambiguous to deduce a tendency towards more comedy and lightheartedness about the Nazis and the atrocities they committed the more we temporally move away from World War II or whether it was there all along. The paper will also present historical events and changes in the mindset of society that may have influenced the different ways in which artists were able to use notions ofNazism within their respective pieces of work. However, the thesis at hand does not claim to give a complete and extensive overview, because the number of films made in the sixty-seven years between 1945 and 2012is simply too large to be totally covered within this scope. That is why it will give examples of representative movies which can serve as a showcase for the respective trend of every period, in order to answer the question how a regime that was responsible for one of the darkest chapters in human history can be treated and presented in such completely different ways. The 1975 movie lisa: She Wolf of the SS will be analyzed in more depth as an example of a very frank and explicit movie about Nazi concentration camps. In addition to that the 1989 adventure film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade by Steven Spielberg will be analyzed as an example of light fare including Nazi characters. The 1993 movie Schindler's List, which was also directed by Spielberg, will be consulted as a paradigm for the attempt of a serious and honest treatise about the Holocaust. Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (2009) will wind up the list of movies discussed in depth as a showcase of a post-modern production that fuses many styles and can be classified as alternate history. The findings of those analyses will be compared among each other as well as to some more movies that will only be briefly referred to.
Hayden White’s thoughts about Metahistory are the theoretical basis to this paper. Metahistory is the process of writing about history and was thus originally applied to literary texts. As films tell stories and have a script, as well - a well-organized, written agenda that is the basis of the movie - it can be applied to films, too. These histories, fictitious stories, manifest something that we cannot grasp, they structure the past for us. The basis of a history is a potentially timeless chronicle with an endless pool of stories to chose from. These stories that are being selected for a history have a fixed beginning and ending. In the step from chronicle to story, the mere facts are chosen, connected and structured according to their relevance and the time-sequence. In the next step, a so called mode of emplotment is selected. The four possible modes of emplotment are romance, satire, comedy and tragedy (cf. White 5). They represent the genres of the movies that will be discussed. The emplotment adds flesh to the bones of the historical facts; cause and effect as well as the motivation of the agents involved are defined. The mere facts are blurred by this last insertion, because a lot of fictional action, conversation and more are added to them. As stated before, it is amongst other things the aim of this paper, to show that all different kinds of films about Nazism and the Holocaust have been made, although only the mode of tragedy would, at first sight, fit the historical reality of these events: a tragedy has a really bad outcome and is supposed to lead to an understanding that helps the audience to avoid a similar fate for the future (cf. White 10-11).
2.The early 1940s and the Postwar Era
According to the saying ‘time heals everything’ a greater distance to traumatic events seems to suggest a certain change in attitude towards what happened or a reduction of the emotional burden. Even laughter and comic relief are regarded as psychological means to come to terms with incidents that may have been painful to the ones who suffered when they occurred. Can this scheme be applied to World War II and the Holocaust? The spontaneous answer is no. The deliberate extermination of minorities is nothing to laugh about, not even over fifty years later - or is it? The representation of the Holocaust itself in film is a very special case, anyway. In most fictional movies that deal with the Nazi past, the Holocaust is completely blanked out: "They avoid representing the Holocaust at all; instead they use well-known tropes of evil (for example, caricatures of Mengele) as devices to allude to the Holocaust without having to show it" (Hieronimus 88). The obvious problem that arises for uneducated audiences of such films is that Nazi characters are being introduced with a total neglect of the historical context. "It is this disconnect between the Nazi past, its legacies (most notably the Holocaust), and their popular representations that is at the root of the confusion" (Buttersworth 16). The problem of the frequent disentanglement of the Holocaust and Nazi perpetrators will be discussed later on. This part of the paper will take a look at the filmic representation of Germans in the early 1940s and the immediate postwar era in order to find out whether the image of the Nazi as pure evil character in film is deeply rooted in its actual historic background or whether this image developed over the years.
"Early in the war the Germans could even be the butt of comedies ..." (Koppes 281). These early movies such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) already used humor to make fun of Hitler and the Nazis, however, without really knowing, then, what was happening in Europe. That is why, after the war had ended, Charlie Chaplin reconsidered the suitability of his movie, stating [h]ad I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis. However, I was determined to ridicule their mystic bilge about pureblooded race (Manvell 38).
Sonja Schultz supports the thesis that the making of such a humoristic film about the Nazis was only possible due to the fact that back then it was not known what exact measures they used in order to create a world according to their conviction:
Beide Regisseure [Chaplin, Lubitsch] persiflierten den deutschen Faschismus und seinen Führerkult, was, nachdem das Ausmaß der nationalsozialistischen Verbrechen offensichtlich geworden war, zunächst für längere Zeit nicht mehr möglich sein sollte (Schultz 28).
But where did this ignorance come from? It is a well-known stereotype and cliché that Americans are not very well-informed when it comes to geographical or political knowledge outside their own country. These stereotypes do not hold true for all Americans, of course, still there is always a bit of truth to them. Films like The Great Dictator could be made during that time of war, because the actual horrors that were happening in Germany were little-known in America. However, this lack of knowledge did not merely result from American disinterest, but from a clever concealment of facts by the Nazis, as well. Still, no matter what exactly the reasons for it may have been, fact remains that "[m]any Americans found it hard to believe the worst about the Nazis - until the worst turned out to be the truth. They also doubted that Hitler really enjoyed popular support" (Koppes 282). A certain naivety and a latent indifference towards European affairs generated an underestimation of what Hitler and the Nazis were capable of. In the American public opinion, there was even a partial agreement to political issues that Hitler addressed, which made it the more difficult to spot and realize the actual threat to humanity that emanated from the National Socialist’s drastic opinions:
A 1942 public opinion poll indicated that 40 percent of Americans believed Jews had too much power in the United States. Eighteen percent agreed with Hitler’s measures against the Jews, to the extent that those measures were known at that time. . . . With shared prejudices it somehow seemed easier to regard Germany as a temporary enemy, its people redeemable once the Nazis were overthrown (Koppes 283).
It is therefore not surprising that many movies from the early 1940s do not doom the Nazis as harsh as it was the case later on. The movie The Moon is Down (1943) by Irving Pichel presents an ambiguous picture of Germans. The film deals with the German invasion of Norway and the way the members of the occupying force treat the locals and vice versa (cf. Koppes 279). The German lieutenant Tonder is portrayed as a very humane being and we come to know the lieutenant as a flesh-and-blood character; no coldblooded killer, he can’t even stand being shunned by the locals in the bar. The German war-machine has not corrupted him, and he doubts the Third Reich’s vaunted invincibility (Koppes 279).
Still, the German force is not presented as a unit made up of philanthropic good guys only, as "[t]he lieutenant is the softest of the German officers. The others are brutal, to be sure. Although they abide by the forms of legal procedure in holding a trial. . ., the proceedings are cynical, the verdict fore-ordained" (Koppes 279). Hence it has to be stressed that movies describing the invasion and take-over of a country by a military strike were not presenting a friendly gathering of invaders and the suppressed:
Occupation films contrasted idyllic prewar conditions with Nazi ruthlessness. Before the war the countries were peaceful, prosperous democracies. The wartime occupiers trample everything held dear and impose a brutal regime in which refusal to cooperate often means death. But the people cannot be conquered. Although some individuals collaborate . . . , common citizens keep alive the torch of resistance (Koppes 290).
However, at that time, there was still a clear distinction between the average German people and the ones in power; the assumption of a global condemnation such as ‘All Germans are Nazis’ is not at all evident, neither in the public opinion, nor in the movies. "Many Germans were disaffected from Nazism; in turn, qualities of fanaticism and arrogance were ascribed and restricted to Gestapo or SS officials. In short, there were Nazis, and there were also good Germans" (Koppes 282). In the 1942 classic Casablanca by Michael Curtiz, this supposition finds affirmation, "[t]he film used understatement and emotion to establish the point that the people - in Germany as well as in the occupied nations - continued to resist Nazi rule. The German officers were painted as evil, but there were plenty of good Germans" (Koppes 290).
This ambiguity very nicely pinpoints the antagonism in which the Americans found themselves. On the one hand, the general public still seemed to believe in the good of the German people and did not see them as "cruel or sadistic. They were a people temporarily ruled by a brutal, aggressive regime" (Koppes 282). Still, the government and the military insisted on the dangerousness of the Germans as enemies in war and regulatory institutions even exerted influence on the filmmakers in order to raise the public awareness:
The propagandists also worried that Johnson’s screenplay advanced the idea that ‘if ten particular German heads were looped off, they’d be destroyed.’ This sounded too much like the notion that once you got rid of Hitler and his immediate circle, the Germans could be brought back into the fold of civilization. The bureau insisted the corruption went deeper, necessitating unconditional surrender (Koppes, 280).
Despite the concern of the United States Office of War Information (OWI) the bulk of movies showed German officers with surprisingly positive traits and abilities. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 movie Lifeboat looks at a group of survivors of an American ship that sunk in battle with a German submarine; they also pull a German officer out of the water.
Part of the contemporary criticism of the film was that the treacherous Nazi was by far the most resourceful person in the boat. The film, photographed largely in close-shot, was meant to prove that the Nazis were not film villains, but real people, efficient and difficult to beat (Manvell 201).
Due to the current fascination with fascism and the sheer endless pool of pop-cultural productions on Nazism, one tends to forget that the starting point of World War II for America actually was the attack of Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941. Considering the incredible trauma that was caused by this military strike and the fact that Nazi Germany was no direct threat to the USA, then, it seems quite obvious that the Japanese rather than the Germans were regarded as the villains. Going back to the movie The Moon is Down and the portrayal of the German lieutenant Tonder, one can assume that "[virtually no Japanese has been shown to us in so sympathetic a fashion. . . . Seki knows only the power of a bayonet; the cultured German knows and exploits the power of Heine" (Koppes 279). While German officers, though mostly cold and calculating, are always equipped with some sort of highborn sophistication, the Japanese are portrayed as inhumane beasts. "Most Nazi officers were portrayed smooth, brutal, pseudo-cultured, and given to liking classical music, anticipating a later taste for setting murder to Bach" (Manvell 198). Although this is not at all a positive description, there is still a clear-cut separation between the German and the Japanese evil nature as "German officers were usually ‘gentlemen with whom it would be possible to treat as an equal’; by contrast the Japanese ‘can only be killed’" (Koppes 282). Moreover, the absolutely negative descriptions were, in the case of Germany, still restricted to Nazi officials and not the common people, while there was no will to belief that there was anything good left in the Japanese people. This model continues throughout the movies. There are many examples in which a comparable German and Japanese war-activity experiences a completely different interpretation, although the military measures are the same:
Hollywood, while showing instances of Nazi brutality, still presents a balanced picture of the German occupation of Norway. Contrast this with the manner in which it usually portrayed a Japanese occupation, that of China for example.
The Japanese occupation forces turn at once to opium to keep the population quiet, and bayonet babies for sport. German brutality is real but rational; it serves the larger goal of conquest. The Japanese actions are little more than a mindless lapse into barbarism (Koppes 279-280).
Similar to the partially shared opinion about the influence of the Jews on their societies mentioned earlier, the mutual origins and cultural relatedness of Americans and Germans also played a role in accepting the Germans rather than the Japanese, nevertheless still remembering that the military strike of Pearl Harbor was the most important reason for the negative sentiments towards the empire of the Rising Sun, of course.
Germans were - well, more like Americans. They were Europeans and many Americans had German ancestors. Their forms of religion, culture and social organization were recognizable. ... If Germans were ruled by a maniacal or slightly comic dictator - Americans had not yet entirely decided how to think about Hitler - they also had a democratic past, however truncated it may have been. To most Americans the Japanese government represented an unrelieved militarism (Koppes 282).
The result of this swooning hatred and contempt towards the Japanese was also reflected in the choice of movie genres at that time. As mentioned before, The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin was produced and screened in the early 1940s and even though the complete dimension of what the Nazis were doing in Europe had not been clear yet, the movie faced critical reception, too:
Satire had been effective in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator in 1940. Ernst Lubitsch asked audiences to laugh at the Nazis in To Be or Not to Be ... . But by the time of its release, 1942, some critics were questioning whether we should ‘laugh at some broad anti-Nazi satire while we are weeping over the sad fate of stricken Poland’ (Koppes, 297).
In the case of Japanese representations, though, it was completely out of question to use comedy or satire.
The Japanese, however, were evidently too repulsive to laugh at. There were no comparable pictures about the empire of the Rising Sun, unless one counted the unintentionally farcical plots of Hollywood’s early Japanese pictures. The Germans really were different from the Japanese, the movies seemed to say. . . . German soldiers were generally shown as being efficient and obedient, but rarely ‘cruel and barbarous’ like the Japanese (Koppes 282).
To sum it up one can say that the Nazis were not so much in the focus of villainy in the films of the early 1940s, because "[t]he Germans were not, as the Japanese became, the Other" (Koppes 283). With time progressing and more and more knowledge of what the Nazis really did became available, the tendency of these representations changed, though. In movies like The Seventh Cross (1944) by Fred Zinnemann, [t]he narrator says Germany is a nation of ‘beasts’ but that a few good Germans are still left. The seven discover there are all too few. Seven crosses are erected at Westoven [a concentration camp full of political prisoners, 1936] to crucify the escapees, all of whom are easily captured The people of Germany, even children, make a game out of turning in the men. A crowd watches with great delight as one man is chased by the police across the rooftops of a series of buildings. He leaps to his death rather than submit to a return to the camp.
The crowd seems disappointed (Koppes 297-298).
With even the innocence of children broken by cruel and barbarous behavior, there is not a big margin left, to find some form of decency within the depiction of the German characters. The fact that these evil attributes had been limited to soldiers and SS officers had changed, too. "Germany has been exposed as a sick nation, but there are still some Germans who are willing to risk certain death to help someone in trouble. These people are the future of Germany" (Koppes 298). Still, no matter how bad it gets, the films always try to stress that there are at least some or few good people left. The deep belief in the good of humankind can be traced throughout almost every single one of these movies. Even in a scenario that is devoid of any hope, faith is never fading. This is a clear parallel to the American Dream which is never given up even if the dystopian scenario of a movie is seemingly hopeless. However, in this context, it is not totally applicable, because the setting is transferred to Germany and the German people; a nation that is not like America based on the belief that it is a utopia.
The 1940s also generated a few movies featuring Nazi characters that completely removed them from the historic background of the war. In Enemy Agents Meet Ellery Queen (1942), Nazi spies hunt a Dutch diamond, which has no direct relevance for war activities. It can only be explained by the Nazi’s interest in the occult and supernatural phenomena. This complexity of the Nazis made them suitable for almost every movie context, because even if these things never really happened, it was still not completely farfetched that Hitler would send his troops into any corner of the world in order to discover treasures or powerful ancient artifacts that could be useful to win the war. Comparably, in Yukon Patrol (1942) Nazis search the Northwest Rocky Mountains for a secret ingredient that would help them build a new weapon. As these movies did not attach much importance to realism and seriousness, anyway, the Nazi characters are portrayed as rather incompetent, so, in most cases, the final conclusion is that they are defeated and get beaten up by American soldiers (cf. Koppes 281). Thus these movies can be categorized as a rather light and uncomplicated way to bash the enemies of war and show American superiority to keep up the morale during war-time.
It was already late in the war then and "the public’s obvious desire for escapist movies undercut interest in German battle movies" (Koppes 281). People were fed up with seeing movies about the war, because it had been all around for many years. Filmmakers turned to other settings, because war movies did not seem to be a promising source of income, anymore.
For the American film industry the war could not be over too quickly - the subject was virtually dropped cold. . . . Some interest was shown, however, in trials of the Nazi war criminals, especially that of the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, which received full-scale newsreel coverage (Manvell 241).
Documentaries about Nazi Germany including historic footage were the only productions made about that topic directly after war.
As Hollywood took a more serious look at Nazi reality, the industry focused on the obvious and sensational aspects of the regime. The deeper questions of what lay behind Nazism and its success, which were admittedly harder to show cinematically, received little analysis (Koppes 297).
The economic interests of the industry did not help to clearly outline the mechanisms beneath the surface of the regime, quite the contrary. The concentration on the sensational aspects helped to harden and foster the mystic aura that ever since encircles Hitler and Nazism. It must be clear that "’the Nazis had an undeniable theatricality about them. Their rallies and torchlight parades were grand visual spectacles, their banners and uniforms eyecatching, their ambitions seemingly unlimited, their use of media unparalleled’" (This 230). By highlighting mostly these features of Nazism "fanden die Nazis als Abziehbilder des Bösen früh Eingang in die Populärkultur. Diese Überzeichnung als Genre- und Horrorfiguren behinderte . . . von Anfang an ein tatsächliches Verstehen des Nationalsozialismus" (Schultz 30).
Although the Japanese had been the great enemy before, a certain drift towards the Germans became recognizable. As for the Japanese, "the antagonisms between the former enemies become relaxed into a form of mutual respect for prowess and dedication in war" (Manvell 322). This very simplified statement is not supposed to lead to the mistake that America and Japan only needed a few years to forgive and forget everything that had happened. Still, due to the reasons presented above, the Nazis were a lot more interesting for films, anyways, as visualizations of Nazism were inseparably linked with a certain pomp and the fetishized looks of the uniforms including a lot of leather. "It is the black SS regalia rather than a Wehrmacht or simple police uniform that caught on in motion pictures after 1945 as an emblematic visualization of National Socialism and its destructive power" (Mailänder 187).
As mentioned before, movies with the subject war became dull, so the Nazi as the new best enemy at least brought a bit of a change:
Combat pictures, which had been a natural for the Japanese phase of the war, were relatively rare. After all, American troops did not engage the Germans until a year after Pearl Harbor, and since an ‘A’ picture could take a year or more to produce, battle films about the European war came late in the conflict (Koppes 281).
Moreover, as the coverage of the Nuremberg trials had finally disclosed a lot of the Nazis’ experiments and their cruel, inhuman treatment of their captives in the concentration camps, the image of the sadistic, cold-blooded killer became an obvious choice and the shock and consternation about what people had suffered from in Europe was the more pressing and prevailing issue.
The examination of the first time span has shown that the opinion of the American public as well as its transformation into films shows contrasting projections. On the one hand, there are a few comical representations of Hitler and the Nazis that were probably only tolerated because the complete context of what the National Socialist regime was doing to people was not yet known, otherwise the etiquette and ethic concerns of filmmakers would probably have prevented the shooting of such movies. Very closely related to these movies are the quickly produced B-movies of spies and cowboys that completely removed Nazis from the historical background and portrayed them as very ambitious, yet incapable henchmen that stood no chance against the American forces. On the other hand, the Nazis are portrayed as very efficient and intelligent war machines that succeed in conquering foreign countries and bring them a reign of terror and fear. Still, there are exceptions to the rule that show very human Nazis that have not been completely corrupted by the system (as lieutenant Tonder from The Moon is Down). In addition to that, every single one of these movies leave the loophole of good German people that resist the Nazi rule and try to fight fascism. Altogether, the Japanese are depicted in a much worse way than the Nazis. As supported by the thesis of this paper, the representations of Nazism and the evaluation of Nazis in the early 1940s and the immediate postwar era are quite contradictory, and, mostly due to a lack of knowledge on the side of the American filmmakers and public in general, more positive than one would expect.
In the 1950s not many movies about Nazi Germany were produced in America, people were still oversaturated with the topic. The few exceptions rather focus on individual fate than showing fighting scenes as in typical combat movies. Marlon Brando’s film debut, The Men (1950) by Fred Zinnemann, for example, tells the story of a World War II lieutenant, who comes back home and finds himself confronted with problems trying to re-integrate into society. The trope of the "Heimkehrer" was even more prominent in German film and literature. One of the most remarkable movies in the context of personal fates is the treatise about Anne Frank, who was murdered in March 1945. Director George Stevens shot the movie (The Diary of Anne Frank) in 1959 after he had been accompanying the US-Army during the liberation of the concentration camps. Other movies like William Keighley’s Rocky Mountain (1950) or Robert Wise’s Two Flags West (1950) fell back to events of the past like the Civil War.
- Quote paper
- M.A. Martin Alexander Reinhart (Author), 2012, Changing Representations of Nazism in Post-War Popular Culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/336630