Felix Moeller’s documentary “Forbidden Films” questions whether or not 40-odd Nazi propaganda films still banned by German authorities should be released. Pros and cons are tossed around by historians, filmmakers and audience members at restricted showings in Germany, France and Israel, and in shadowy rooms by neo-Nazi recruiters. But contemporary issues pale before the fascination exerted by the generously sampled films themselves, executed throughout with masterful classical film vocabulary: As shocking as the pics’ virulently anti-Semitic, anti-British or anti-Polish sentiments is the expertise with which they are embedded in traditional entertainment genres. Set to open theatrically in May, Moeller’s doc is must-see viewing for cinephiles of all persuasions.
Moeller’s interest here lies less in the films themselves than in their potential impact on contemporary audiences. Up until now, these films have screened in controlled contexts, preceded by expert commentary and followed by discussions, many of which figure largely in Moeller’s documentary. Moeller himself carefully surrounds his clips with explanations and pigeonholes the films into categories through various graphic devices; actual excerpts of Nazi films occupy only a frustratingly partial portion of Moeller’s documentary. But what they lack in duration they make up for in intensity.
Some films hit over-the-top caricature in their obvious propaganda. Endless streams of scuttling rats embody the “crafty, cowardly and cruel” mongrel race of “The Eternal Jew.” But most function more subtly within recognizable movie genres: “Hitler Youth Quex” hews to a familiarly heroic generation-gap pattern as a clean-cut Nazi youth is bullied by his brutish left-wing father, the kid’s later martyrdom celebrated by huge marching crowds of “Heil Hitler”-ing faithful. “Stukas” features ecstatic Luftwasse pilots deliriously flushed with the power of destruction, the usual bravado of Hollywood’s Air Force movies pumped up to quasi-maniacal heights.
The Boer War-set Emil Jannings vehicle “Uncle Kruger” couches its anti-British rant in images reminiscent of Russian revolutionary propaganda films as British soldiers hang a valiant German, shoot his protesting wife and march in serried ranks to mow down scores of defenseless women and children.
The infamous (and hugely popular) “Jew Suss,” a handsome, big-budget 17th-century costumer, presents the hated Ethnic Other as a slick, richly garbed opportunist who insinuates himself into a position of power in the Stuttgart court to further his people’s conspiracy to rule the world, raping his patron’s innocent daughter in the process. “The Rothschilds” literalizes the conspiracy, as the fat-cat banker pinpoints his various relatives’ branches on a map of Europe, then connects the dots to form a Star of David.
But the real jaw-dropper proves to be Gustav Ucicky’s extremely well-directed “Homecoming” (1941), in which all the atrocities that Germans inflicted on the Poles are reversed and then some. Polish commandants with vicious dogs incarcerate, torture and kill innocent Germans; a brutish Polish simpleton tears a delicate gold swastika from the neck of a young German peasant, who is then stoned to death by Polish children; imprisoned Germans defiantly sing patriotic anthems as the camera slowly pans past row after row of hands desperately gripping jailhouse bars.
Audience reactions to the films vary widely. Many express horror at their artistry and effectiveness given their monstrous messages, and oppose any general release. Some find them ridiculously outdated and therefore harmless, particularly since many are available on the Internet. Yet neo-Nazis still consider them timely and highly useful in recruiting new members. And one viewer in Germany is highly impressed, not having realized how the Poles tortured the Germans and that the “invasion” of Poland was in fact a counter-attack.