On taking power in 1933, the Nazis brought all aspects of production together under the Reichsministerium fu Volksaufklär̈rung und Propaganda (Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda), led by propaganda minister Goebbels. Filmmakers, together with all writers, artists, musicians, and so on, had to belong to the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber for Cultural Affairs). Consolidation of production companies meant that the studios Ufa, Tobis, Bavaria, and Terra soon came to produce more than 80 percent of all features. Prominent names, like so many anonymous individuals, had to leave or were threatened with literal destruction. Billy Wilder (1906–2002), Max Ophüls (1902–1957), Robert Siodmak, Erich Pommer, Detlef Sierck (Douglas Sirk; 1897–1987), Alexander Korda (1893–1956), and Arnold Pressburger (1885–1951) joined those who had earlier emigrated to other European countries or to Hollywood; but now they were in exile, with no guarantee of ever returning home. Those who stayed, like the actors Emil Jannings, Hans Albers (1925–1999), Kristina Söderbaum (1912–2001), Brigitte Horney (1911–1988), and Heinz Rühmann (1902–1994), or the directors Veit Harlan (1899–1964), Wolfgang Liebeneiner (1905–1987), and Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003), could have successful careers if they obeyed the rules.
The onset of Nazi rule, like its downfall in 1945, marks a crucial shift in German history. But it did not happen overnight; rather, it was a transition to circumstances long foreseeable and thus meant a degree of continuity, at least initially. Possibly the world's most sophisticated industry lost much of that indeterminate factor vital in all filmmaking—talent—but it could still produce impressive films for its popular market, propagandistic tracts as features or as pseudo-newsreels, and some of the most vicious imagery ever screened. The Reich also carried on the Weimar Republic's assessment policy, granting films conducive to its ideology tax breaks, although these could not compensate for the loss of export markets, especially in the United States, which immediately declined. There were, however, some advantages, as foreign film imports declined, although never disappeared completely, with the major competitor, Hollywood, banned only in 1939. And, of course, from the later 1930s the expanding Reich brought captive audiences. By 1937 major parts of the industry were nationalized, and any independent filmmaking was banned in 1941, when the final consolidation created
an Ufa monopoly and meant direct rule by Goebbels from his ministry.
Popular entertainment continued with dependable genre films, comedies, musicals, and exotic adventures, all keeping to the classic conventions and styles of Hollywood while incorporating specifically German folklore, popular literature, and music. A satirical comedy such as Amphitryon (Reinhold Schünzel, 1935) could even imply social criticism, but was protected by its origin in a play by Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811), a literary icon. Heimat ( Homeland , Carl Froelich, 1938) starred Heinrich George in a melodrama of family relations. The film musical found an extreme form in Wir tanzen um die Welt (We Are Dancing Around the World, Karl Anton, 1939), combining revue, "back-stage" musical, and love story with mass choreography reminiscent of Busby Berkeley spectaculars. The most successful popular entertainment was Veit Harlan's Die goldene Stadt (The Golden City, 1942), set in occupied Prague, a melodrama of betrayal and suicide with a strong message of local patriotism. Yet perhaps the high point came with Josef von Báky's (1902–1966) Münchhausen ( The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen , 1943), an opulent fantasy adventure based on the "Baron of Lies" from popular German literature and intended to celebrate Ufa's twenty-fifth anniversary while displaying to the embattled Germans, and the world at large, the German industry's prowess, not least in color photography.
Epic filmmaking had already come in for nationalist exploitation in the "Prussia Films." It continued into the Third Reich, as Harlan produced Der grosse König ( The Great King , 1942), in which a Germany at war in the seventeenth century parallels contemporary circumstances. The epic genre expanded to encompass various sorts of "great men" and "leaders" like the playwright
Friedrich Schiller (1940), the inventor Rudolf Diesel (1942), and the physician Robert Koch (1939). However, the climax of this propagandistic adaptation of history came with Harlan's Kolberg (1945), a retelling of the defense of a Baltic port city against the French in the early nineteenth century. As the advancing Red Army took the actual town in 1944, Goebbels diverted resources of money, men, and materials—even interfering in the scriptwriting—to a spectacular war film designed to bolster the Germans' will to resist. The film itself, with its message of endless sacrifice and its production history, provides many insights into the self-destructive megalomania at the heart of Nazism.
Appearing in over a dozen films by such renowned directors of the day as Maurice Tourneur, Curtis Bernhardt, and Alexander Korda, Marlene Dietrich achieved international stardom when, as the dance-hall girl Lola Lola, she stole Der Blaue Engel ( The Blue Angel , 1930) from star Emil Jannings. In the film's final scene she scans the cabaret audience with a knowing smile and a provocative stance that established the outline of the iconic star she was to play all her life.
In 1930 she followed Josef von Sternberg, the director of The Blue Angel , to Hollywood. For five years at Paramount, von Sternberg and Dietrich collaborated on six films, from Morocco (1930) to The Devil Is a Woman (1935), establishing her as a screen goddess. The films experiment with expressionist lighting and texture even as they explore the nature of femininity. Dietrich learned a great deal from von Sternberg about constructing her own image, and although she could devise her own lighting arrangements for the most suitable effects, she could mock it too, as in Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious (1952) and, memorably, in Orson Welles's noir masterpiece, Touch of Evil (1958).
Dietrich was approached by the Nazis but did not return to German filmmaking, becoming instead an American citizen and taking a public stance against fascism as a celebrated entertainer of Allied troops. She returned to Germany in 1945 for her mother's funeral but was unpopular because of her wartime allegiances. She appeared in a key role in Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), for which she worked again briefly in Germany. However, she did not attend the Berlin premiere, which was a disaster, with the film opening and closing that same night. It was her last major film role, although she maintained a career in cabaret until an accident in 1973. Her last appearance on film was as a madame managing gigolos in post-1918 Berlin in Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo ( Just a Gigolo , 1979). Not long before the end of her life, France awarded her its most prestigious decoration, the Légion d'Honneur, and the city paid for the Paris apartment where she lived for over twenty years. In Joseph Vilsmaier's Marlene (2000), a biopic with elements of pure invention, Katja Flint vainly tries to capture something of Dietrich's aura. Dietrich and her legend are remembered not only in her films but in Dietrich Square, off Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, and an archive devoted to her in the nearby Stiftung deutscher Kinemathek.
Der Blaue Engel ( The Blue Angel , 1930), Morocco (1930), Blonde Venus (1932), Shanghai Express (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), Desire (1936), Destry Rides Again (1939), Rancho Notorious (1952), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Touch of Evil (1958), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Bach, Steven. Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend . Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2000.
Riva, Maria, ed. Marlene Dietrich: Photographs and Memories: From the Marlene Dietrich Collection of the Film Museum, Berlin . London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.
Spoto, David. Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich . New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 2000.
Although far from Kolberg in style, Leni Riefenstahl's work, which is certainly better known today, is equally revealing of the Third Reich. Her pseudodocumentary, Triumph des Willens ( Triumph of the Will , 1935) can still exert a dubious fascination with its narrative montage of the Nazis' annual rally in Nuremberg, for which Riefenstahl commanded significant resources to create an
eerily operatic celebration of the mystical union of Führer and Volk (people) as if it were staged precisely for her cameras. Nazi filmic propaganda reached its malevolent depths with depictions of the Jews. Die Rothschilds (The Rothschilds, Erich Waschneck, 1940) on the history of the famous financiers in England, was not a commercial success, but Harlan's Jud Süss ( Jew Süss ) of the same year brought the racist message very close to home by recounting the history of the eighteenth-century German financier Oppenheim via a bourgeois melodrama. Der ewige Jude ( The Eternal Jew , 1940) shifts to pseudodocumentary to compile at the behest of the ministry a horrendous montage of allusions, false allegories, and arguments to convince viewers of a Jewish conspiracy for world domination. These films are straight propaganda, as the Nazis had by that time decided on the Final Solution to exterminate the Jews and all other undesirable groups and individuals. The propaganda pitch continued when the German-Jewish director Kurt Gerron (1897–1944), having been arrested by the Nazi SS and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, was ordered to shoot a pseudodocumentary on the camp. Der Führer schenkhrer Gives a City to the Jews , also known as Theresienstadt , 1944) presents the camp as a model community as a smokescreen for international den Juden eine Stadt ( The Fu opinion. Having delivered the product, Gerron and his team were duly murdered.