President Truman once said that “the only new thing new in the world is the history you don’t know,” and this year’s third Selling Democracy program at Berlin ends with more “new” history unearthed and brought to light.
This year is the final installment of the series that began in 2004, after American producer Sandra Schulberg became aware of the Marshall Plan films when contacted by someone writing a biography of her father. He had headed the Marshall Plan film office in Paris in the years after WWII.
The Marshall Plan was implemented to help rebuild Europe after the war and the films were made as part of that effort. From seven minutes to 40 minutes, they range from morale-boosting pics to pragmatic looks at banal topics such as new technology and management techniques.
The pics were made by American and European directors, and unspooled in cinemas before the main program, schools, clubs and professional groups.
When Schulberg began looking at the films in the National Archive in Washington, D.C., she was “floored by how relevant they were” and a discussion about them with Berlinale topper Dieter Kosslick some months later lead to the Selling Democracy series.
According to Rainer Rother, who has curated the second two installments, Kosslick was interested in the films as a lost chapter of film history that obviously had a resonance to Berlin.
However, America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent conflict put the films in a more immediate context.
“The first year (of the series) was just after the Iraq war and we had the Marshall Plan to say ‘here are other ways to sell democracy. It doesn’t have to be with a gun,’ ” says Kosslick.
The first program attracted attention from various programmers Stateside and made its debut at the New York Film Festival later that year. Since then, Schulberg has screened the films in various American cities, attracting enthusiastic audiences and press.
“When they see these films, audiences immediately want to start asking about Iraq and Afghanistan,” notes Schulberg, “because they realize these films are dealing with the same issues. I think (the interest) is most profoundly fueled by the Bush administration and this notion of what started out as a war on terrorism and morphed into an effort to ‘sell democracy.’ I don’t have to point (audiences) in that direction,” she adds, “and I try not to because the films sort of make the point themselves.”
Good intentioned and optimistic as they were, “they were all clearly propaganda films,” Schulberg adds, “and they were terribly self-aware, and the way in which they chose to propagate their information showed such creativity and variety.
“You can look back on the historical context and they have one meaning. But now the whole question of dissemination of information vs. manipulation of information is an issue that is in the forefront in America. The Marshall Plan films help people to focus on that issue in a way that is not just rhetoric and verbiage.”
In Berlin, the programs have been evolving away from the original films themselves — the 2005 series contrasted various Marshall Plan films with explicitly anti-Marshall Plan films being made at the same time in Germany’s Soviet sector, raising questions of how that propaganda was received and how the American presence in Europe was portrayed by the other side.
With this year’s final program, Rother is taking a more freestyle approach, using humor and irony to illuminate the response of the people at whom these films, and the Marshall Plan policies, were aimed.
They react, and sometimes collide, with the postwar influx of Americanization — be it Jacques Tati’s “modernized” postman in “Jour de Fete” or townspeople plotting how to get their hands on Marshall Plan loot, as in “The Mouse That Roared” or “Welcome Mr. Marshall.”
These, and other more serious films dealing with failures and disappointments arising from the American presence — such as “A Meeting by the Volga” and “Die goldene Pest” (The Golden Plague) — are paired with various Marshall and anti- Marshall shorts. The effect is satirical and ironic..
But probably the greatest irony is that postwar generations of Americans know relatively little about the Marshall Plan and basically nothing about these films, which, Schulberg believes, offer a unique insight into this important, and positive, chapter in American history.
Shortly after a screening in Washington, D.C., Schulberg was contacted by the Defense Dept. and State Dept., who wanted to see the films, ignorant of the fact the films belong to the government and are housed at the National Archive.
“It never occurred to them to go look for these films and try to screen them,” says Schulberg. “This is highly ironic, but of course it confirmed the importance of the mission that I’m on, to see them brought out of the closet, or out of the vault, after all these years.”