Nazi Berlin: The Politicisation of the City?

In this installment in our series on the history of Berlin cinema we explore the impact of the Nazi party on both Berlin’s film industry and the films made about the city during their rule.

Loss of International Prestige

Despite the international success of the films produced at Babelsberg during the Weimar period (discussed in Weimar Berlin Part 1), the growing costs associated with producing epics such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), meant that Ufa also began to suffer from financial problems. Initially, the studio’s management tried to solve these issues by entering into a distribution agreement with the Hollywood companies of Paramount and MGM. Together they established the Parufamet subsidiary, which loaned Ufa four million dollars in exchange for guaranteed screen time and distribution within Germany for films made by the American studios.

However, this agreement proved of little benefit to Ufa, as it simply opened up the German market to the Americans. Therefore, the ongoing financial problems for Ufa meant that the company, along with the studio complex at Babelsberg, was taken over in 1927 by the German media mogul Alfred Hugenberg, who looked to streamline the company in order to bring it back into some form of profitability.

Hugenberg may have seemed like a natural enough fit for Ufa, given his already large portfolio of media businesses, but he was also a well-known nationalist, which meant that his growing influence at Babelsberg also marked the beginning of a period of increased politicisation at the studio.

Although initially this growing politicisation of Berlin cinema did not directly influence the image of the city on screen, by the early 1930s this was noticeably changing, especially as the Nazi party gained more and more power within Germany. The left-wing film Kuhle Wampe (Slatan Dudow, 1932), which explored the problems of Berlin’s working class and the importance of class solidarity, was heavily censored by the authorities and was only allowed to be released in a shortened form. Then in 1933 Fritz Lang’s second Dr Mabuse film, Das Testament des Dr Mabuse (The Testament of Dr Mabuse), was banned completely for fear it would incite a lack of trust in figures of authority.

This situation only increased once the Nazi party seized control of Germany. Ufa was nationalised, whilst at the same time all film professionals had to be registered with the Reichsfilmkammer, an organisation which prohibited membership for those with a non-Aryan Background or considered politically unreliable. As a result, many of those film professionals who had helped to build Weimar Berlin into a thriving centre of filmmaking, such as Fritz Lang, left the country and, along with them, Berlin lost its reputation as an inventive film city.

However, this did not mean that the level of film production in the city went into decline. In actual fact the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, took a personal interest in the activities of Ufa. Goebbels recognised the power which cinema’s escapist, entertainment qualities could add to the Nazi scheme. This was because, as a popular art form, film could provide both the population with a means to relax and be diverted from the problems of daily life and a mouthpiece for the state and its beliefs – a so-called hearts and mind approach.

Hence, Berlin remained the centre of film production within Germany under the Nazis, as Ufa continued to produce a high number of films throughout the period of Hitler’s reign, albeit with a decidedly nationalist slant. Yet, the politically tinged narratives of these Babelsberg-produced films hit the popularity of the city’s films abroad, as the nationalist overtures of these narratives made them almost impossible to sell abroad (even before the Second World War).

Consequently, as well as losing its reputation as an innovative hub for filmmaking, the rise of the Nazi party also saw Berlin’s film industry lose its position as a global film location. Instead, the city became infamous for nationalist, propaganda-laced cinema.

The Politicisation of Berlin’s Image on Screen

The biggest influence which the Nazification of cultural policy had on the depiction of Berlin in cinema came from the fact that the party had a dislike of anything linked to modernism, a view which was in stark opposition to the image of Berlin found in many films made during the Weimar period (see Weimar Berlin Part 2).

This extended to the work of cultural theorists such as Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin. Consequently, the critical engagement between cinema and ideas surround the flâneur and the blasé attitude of the crowd, which had dominated cinema only a few years before, disappeared from films set in Berlin, as the image of the city as a vibrant centre of modernism was repressed by the Nazi authorities.

Although scenes set in the city’s cabarets and shots of Berlin’s busy streets remained a feature of the Nazi’s engagement with the city, the construction of these images became sanitised, as any possibility for subversion was removed from the films of this period. Berlin may have been constructed as a progressive mecca of the golden twenties in Weimar films, albeit with a gritty dark side, but under the Nazis such a view of the city soon stagnated.

Instead, the films supported by the Nazis saw Berlin used either as a site for propaganda narratives, such as in Hitlerjunge Quex (Our Flags Lead Us Forward, Hans Steinhoff, 1932) and the Olympia films (Olympia 1. Teil – Fest der Völker (Olympia Part 1 – Festival of Nations), Olympia 2. Teil – Fest der Schönheit (Olympia Part 2 – Festival of Beauty), both Leni Riefenstahl, 1938), or as a backdrop to escapist entertainment films, such as Carl Frölich’s Die vier Gesellen (The Four Companions, 1938) and Der Gasmann (The Gas Man, 1941), as well as Helmut Käutner’s Unter den Brückern (Under the Bridges, 1944).

The hearts and minds approach of these all films meant that they were heavily laced with Nazi ideology, regardless of their genre. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the changing role women played in these films. In many Weimar films the liberal arts scene in Berlin in the 1920s had been shown to be a liberating force for women but Nazi cinema promoted a very different view of female emancipation.

Berlin’s creative society is shown to be a threat to the city’s female population, with the safety of the home offering a more accepting environment. Therefore, in Unter den Brückern Anna (Hannalore Schroth) reacts with disgust following her experiences as an artist’s model, but finds solace in her relationship with Hendrik (Carl Raddatz). Similarly, in Die vier Gesellen Marianne (Ingrid Bergman) and her college friends see establishing their own design agency as a way of furthering themselves. However, the friends find that it is only through marriage, not a career, that they are able to find true happiness.

Berlin became a sterile space on screen, shaped by the Nazi’s beliefs. Yet, the limitations of this approach became more acute as the Second World War went on, with the Nazi’s control of the film industry meaning that the image of Berlin during this period failed to engage with the realities of the city as a wartime capital. For example, although the Second World War was well underway at the time of production, the street scenes in Der Gasmann are noticeably devoid of people in uniform.

This disjunction between the reality of wartime Berlin and the city disseminated on screen can also be seen in Unter den Brückern. Anna’s apartment looks out over the city. However, the image of Berlin’s skyline offered by the film does not contain any reference to the bomb-damage which afflicted much of inner-city Berlin at the time. This was largely because the authorities were keen to avoid a realistic depiction of the destruction now found within the nation’s capital for the benefit of the war-weary nation’s morale. However this also meant that the image of Berlin projected on screen during Hitler’s reign bore an ever decreasing correlation to the reality found in the actual city.

Whilst not overtly political in the kind of images shown on screen, the cinema of Nazi Berlin was dominated by the wider ideology of the Government. This offered both a clean break from those films which came before, and created a situation which the city, both in reality and on screen struggled to overcome in the decades which followed Hitler’s downfall.

This post is adapted from my PhD thesis which is available in full at etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/10758/

Further Reading

Stephen Brockmann, 2010: A Critical History of German Film (2010)

Sabine Hake, German Nation Cinema (2008)

Eric Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife (1996)

Roel Vande Winkel and David Welch, Introduction: Cinema and the Swastika: The International Expansion of Third Reich Cinema: Eds. Roel Vande Winkel and David Welch (2007)

Chris Wahl, Drittes Reich (1933-1945): 100 Years Studio Babelsberg: The Art of Filmmaking: Eds. Michael Wedel, Chris Wahl and Ralf Schenk (2012)

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