A mother lode of archival imagery culled from newsreels, feature films, propaganda tracts, educational shorts, cartoons and home movies, “Hitler’s Hit Parade” promises an unprecedented look at the Third Reich as seen by the German citizenry of the time. Structured both thematically and musically via a hit parade of then-trendy pop tunes, Oliver Axer and Susanne Benze’s docu begins brilliantly but soon flounders as it focuses on on minutely detailed image-to-image editing and loses its emotional arc and overall rhythm. Still, rare film-clips of what passed for Nazi normality do not materialize every day, and pic is decidedly worth a look-see.
Far from recycling the same old “Jude Suess”-type snippets of blatantly anti-Semitic German cinema, the filmmakers sample glossy musicals that seem to assure that Germany has developed a shinier, more glamorous, jazz-age society to sweep away the poverty of the post-WWI homeland. Indeed, the sumptuous production numbers emulate Busby Berkeley better than do many of Berkeley’s Hollywood contemporaries, only here, in a Third Reich context, the militaristic regimentation of chorus lines assumes a more sinister connotation.
The celebration of physicality and health and the display of sleek modernity reflected in a wealth of gleaming art deco merchandise would not look out of place elsewhere in the civilized 1930s world. “Hit Parade’s'” cleverest clip selections are uncannily normal-looking. The fact that a surprising number of them are in color further upends the black-and-white world of typical History Channel-style depictions of Nazi Germany.
Axer and Benze first allow incongruities to slip in subtly and startlingly. In what looks to be wholly innocent home movie footage of a child and her toys, a little girl walks through a fully furnished playhouse, the picture-perfect set complete with a miniature portrait of Der Fuhrer on the wall.
Under the song “You Walk Through All My Dreams,” images of Hitler are grotesquely superimposed over a sleeping teenage soldier. Color footage of a fiery, stage-set Spanish dance, replete with flashing fans, leads to swastika-branded red banners in a military procession in Spain and from there to newsreel images of mass production and mass mobilization.
Other contrasts, however, seem forced. The Jewish question, introduced through familiar official footage as well as through rarely-seen, virulently anti-Semitic cartoons, pops up arbitrarily. Often what seems like a good idea — a segue from the loading of Jews onto cattle cars to promotional paeans advertising the efficiency of modern German railroads, for instance — cannot be sustained visually.
At the conclusion of a lyrical section entitled “Under the Shelter of Night,” disparate images are unconvincingly cobbled together for a dramatic summoning of the Gestapo while, all unknowing, average men and women sleep soundly. Indeed, pic’s most controversial aspect for American auds will be its implicit contention that everyday Germans were largely unaware of what was transpiring while they were under Hitler’s spell.
Proudly eschewing all narration or intertitled explanations, Axer and Benze nonetheless are very much married to documentarian point-making, relying on visual linkages to hammer home their lessons. Pic might have profited, however, from occasional text inserts and/or a freer flow of imagery.