Nazism and the impact of World War II as depicted on Film

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, come and see! And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him

John 6. 7-8 (New Testament)

Recent events in the US have put the spotlight on neo-Nazism – a repulsive movement that seemingly empowers itself on sympathies with the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s and the subsequent horrific events of the holocaust in World War II. The swastika of the Nazi Regime of Germany is the insignia that these incubuses have tattooed across their bodies and on their flags as they march in public places decrying the removal of their confederate heroes who proudly wore white supremacy as their defining moral in life. This, I find, to be projectile sickening. And even more so when one has become familiar with the actual atrocities that were inflicted upon humanity during the years of Hitler. Now I am not one for extensively reading historical accounts of what happened during World War II. Nor do I have a true connection with that time given the fact that I am Irish and none of my ancestors that I know of directly engaged in that war (Ireland being neutral). But it was, and continues to be for many people, a time of considerable and significant interest. Being a film enthusiast, I have encountered many works that have a connection with the events before, during and after the war. I refer to here feature films and documentaries that purport to expand on the actual events of the times, through actual footage or through reconstructions. It may not be fair to present to you my knowledge of the time through these mediums but this is a film blog after all. I can only imagine too that many people these days who were not born then speak to their knowledge of war times from films they have seen. This is why there are always the pitfalls of propaganda to slip into and therefore in some people’s eyes, it makes all that knowledge flawed or irrelevant. Well, whether all of this is relevant or not, I hope at least that some of this is entirely relevant to the current moronic happenings in this world.

The Rise of Fascism and Hitler

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The teacher addresses the children of Eichwald village in The White Ribbon

The Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke attempted an understanding of where fascism and Nazism all began in Europe in his black and white film The White Ribbon (2009). His theories may have been presented here in deeply abstract and vague verses, and they have no doubt prompted more questions than answers, but his main hypothesis was that ritual humiliations carried out by religious institutions as punishment exercises so as to keep order in the wider community was in fact the root of the evil that spread to political spheres in Germany from the late 1910s onward. The film carries a hefty weight because of this and it is a very uneasy if enthralling watch. It is truly elusive in its functions, there is minimal exctement on show and there is rarely any indication that a bigger picture is being exposed. It is all about your burgeoning thoughts after the credits finish rolling that you find its true power taking hold. Haneke allows the mantra of ‘all evil is ordinary’ to unfold before our eyes. The Nazis may not be present during proceedings here but there are aspects of that evil on show in many of the characters, set as it is in a puritanical protestant village in North Germany in the mid-1910s. Considering the hindsight that viewers have inherited, it is no surprise that the effect of the Nazis on this modern world penetrates in every scene.

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Klaus Maria Brandauer dressed as the devil from the play Doctor Faustus (in Mephisto)

István Szabó’s Mephisto, a German-based film set before and during World War II, was made in Hungary in 1981. By then, West Germany had mostly rebuilt itself and had begun to re-visit that desperate time of their history in more reflective and ruminative tints. The film focuses on the life of a German actor (played by Klaus Maria Brandauer) during the 1930s whose career appears to grow in tandem with his close associations with the Nazi party. The context of the impending war is hugely important to the film but we are never truly afforded a peak at the outer world as it is unfolding. We see everything through the eyes of the main character and are enclosed within the sycophantic world of individuals who control the realms of power. The film subsequently follows the desperate and intoxicating fervour for social acceptance of the lead character as he attempts to curry favour with the Nazis by doing anything that is asked of him. By overlooking any moral dilemma in associating himself with evil racist maniacs, he instead focuses more on what he sees as his true calling in life: being the greatest Shakespeare actor in Germany. The rise of the Nazis and the eventual descent into war is only ever really alluded to as a by-product but its symbolism is critical. All of those who turned their back on the horrors that was to eventuate before and during the war, is under Szabo’s microscope here. In Mephisto, he presents a clear metaphor for the great many humans who were happy to sell their souls to the devil in order to maintain their expressive freedoms during the Nazi regime and who did not speak out against the atrocities.

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Adolf Hitler with Leni Riefenstahl in the mid 1930s

But let’s move back to Germany in real time now, when the country was the model of cinematic expressionism after World War I and there were many amazing films that were being created then. A key figure in all of this was Leni Riefenstahl – a talented athlete and dancer who began acting in German films during the 1920s before embarking on directing in the 1930s. Her first film in 1932, The Blue Light, in which she starred also, apparently caught the eye of Hitler himself. As a star, he claimed that she fitted perfectly with his vision of ‘Aryan womanhood’. Riefenstahl herself reciprocated the admiration, as she had become mesmerised with his powerful rally speeches and thus, upon a request from the Nazis she quickly became a part of his movement as a propaganda director, working closely with the Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Extraordinary given the fact that many Hollywood executives at the time were keen for her to head overseas to work in the film industry there instead. Indeed, with all the bells and whistles from the technical advancements made in the expressionist era available to Riefenstahl and with much revenue streaming her way, it was likely that naivety played a large part in her decision. It is no doubt that her propaganda films for the Nazis (such as Olympia in 1938) were of a remarkable quality and this is why many cineastes trumpet their aesthetic and technical wizardry to this day. However, the same cannot be said of their raison d’etre or their rhetoric. Riefenstahl’s naivety aside, these films were just toxic mouthpieces for racist and sinister outlooks on the world and no doubt increased support for the party towards unimaginable levels.

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Screenshot of the 1934 Nazi rally at Nuremberg from Riefenstahl’s documentary Triumph of the Will

As Nazism spewed forth across Germany in the 1930s and it became clear that there was something not quite right with the way in which it was happening, there was an unstoppable force gripping everyone and everything that got caught up in it. Having filmed an hour long documentary of the Nazi Party’s Nuremberg rally in 1933 in The Victory of Faith, Riefenstahl was now heavily involved in Hitler and Goebbels’s propaganda activities. The projects grew evermore larger and sinister and the focus moved to capturing on screen a gigantic support that the Nazis were developing across the country and to present it to the rest of the world as a warning – something akin to North Korean propaganda these days. In 1934, she filmed another Nuremberg rally for her documentary Triumph of the Will, which terrifyingly pinpointed the moment in Hitler’s rise that truly sent shockwaves around the world. 700,000 people attended the rally to hear the promise of Germany’s return to world power and this was following the recent ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in which a series of political extrajudicial executions were carried out by the Nazis in order to consolidate their power. The anticipation of Hitler’s arrival at the rally and the subsequent lead-up to his speech is filmed with an adept hand by Riefenstahl through spellbinding music, magnificent cinematography and astounding composition sequences for the time. Hitler’s oration and toxic words about pure races and bringing the whole of the country under his power is surely the most sickening thing one can watch on film, particularly given hindsight of what was to follow. The horror on show here is not anything that is graphically grotesque. It is seen more in the organisation, the set-up, the structure of his orations and the crowds with their wilful cheering at everything he says. Fundamentally, it is the fear of what would happen if one was not to show support. Riefenstahl herself was embodiment of this and since declared her situation as such during trials after the war.

The War As It Was

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David Niven and Gregory Peck disguised as SS soldiers in The Guns of Navarone

There have been countless movies made about the events of World War II since 1945. Many are about the myth and the legend of the various armies who fought there, the D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan or the evacuation at Dunkirk in Christopher Nolan’s recent film for example, while others focus on the effect of the war on countries who were under attack during that time, fire-bombed Japan in the anime Grave of the Fireflies (1988) or growing up in London during the blitz in Hope and Glory (1987) for example. There are a whole series of filmic approaches to World War II that have been undertaken over the years: the perspectives of fleeing Jews (The Pianist, Defiance and Europa Europa), imprisoned Jews (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Counterfeiters), the holocaust (Schindler’s List), prisoners of war (Von Ryan’s Express, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape), life inside submarines (Das Boot and U571), the fight in the Pacific (The Thin Red Line and Letters from Iwo Jima) or just full-on patriotic fighting from the Allied forces (Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navorone and Flags of our Fathers).

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Screenshot from John Huston’s documentary The Battle for San Pietro

Many documentaries about the war also exist but there are few examples that were actually filmed during the war itself. The Battle for San Pietro (1945) is an anomaly. Filmed on the frontlines of war in Italy by John Huston in late 1943, the documentary was commissioned by the United States War Department as a response to the Nazi propaganda machine. Huston’s unique Trans-Atlantic accent narrates the fierce battle for land outside of Naples between the Allied forces and the Italian Nazi forces. Needless to say, the footage here is very different to what one sees in feature films such as Patton (1970) or A Bridge Too Far (1977), but given that the camera was rolling well behind the combat and some material thought too disturbing to include was cut from the release (the US suffered thousands of casualties), there is a distinct feeling of horror and anger to be extracted from this. Actual people are dying in those moments when there are explosions, and the aftermath of the battle where villagers of San Pietro rummage through the rubble is as real as you can get. It is devastating despite all the bullshit rhetoric that spews forth from Huston’s mouth.

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Actual firemen from Fires Were Started

Fires Were Started (1943) as another example, is a British film directed by Humphrey Jennings, which focused on firefighters during the Blitz of London in the early 1940s. Jennings conducted proceedings like a documentary even though the cast were all employed actors. Many of the actors, however, were nonprofessional and had personally experienced the atrocities of the war both at home and abroad (and it was still raging at the time of filming). Despite being filmed on a closed set at the now famous Pinewood Studios, Jennings also incorporated actual footage of burning buildings from the Blitz. This aspect is pivotal to the documentary feel of the film and elevates it above many others that were made around the same time or even subsequently. There is an authenticity to the people and the events in the film and its message about the effects of war on the human psyche is indeed very powerful and you can imagine how ground-breaking it was at the time.

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Charlie Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel of Tomania in The Great Dictator

Across the water in Hollywood, war was often more exploited than given any attempted understandings on the big screen. Prior to their involvement in World War II, which came in late 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbour, there were few films that directly dealt with what was going on in Europe at the time. The Great Dictator (1940), however, is an obvious exception. Charlie Chaplin, himself a British citizen, was a veritable and seasoned star in Hollywood at the time. Up to this point he was mainly working in the silent slapstick comedy canon but with The Great Dictator, his first true sound film, he offered an ingenious and powerful satirical comment on the war at large, specifically about the rise of Hitler and the Nazi incumbent (Chaplin parodied the Hitler he had seen in Triumph of the Will). With frequent nods to comedy, The Great Dictator focuses on the fundamental corruption of power, and is an enduring and endearing treatise, epitomised by his incredible, hair-raising climactic speech (given by his secondary character The Jewish Barber). The speech brilliantly sails from awkward comedy to absolute seriousness within a couple of seconds and it is a superb articulation of denouncing any such abhorrent political behaviour. Even now, it would not seem out of place if used to denounce the rise of Trump. At the time this was made, one must remember that the extent to the horrors being perpetrated by the Nazis was still unknown by the rest of the world.

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Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler ponders the end in Downfall

Downfall (2004), directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, and written by Bernd Eichinger, is probably the best film dealing with Hitler as a person, thanks mainly to the astute and vivid character acting of Swiss legend Bruno Ganz. It is based on many historical writings and deals with the last ten days of the Third Reich i.e. the lead-up to Hitler and his wife Eva Braun’s suicide in their Berlin bunker. The scene in which he loses his temper over the triumphing Allied armies across Europe has been much parodied in recent years but that only serves to diminish the importance of this film, and in particular this crucial scene, which is the moment Hitler realises that he cannot win the war. Downfall is mostly important because it is a German production. It takes an uncritical look at the Nazis at their most climactic moment of existence. The increased desperation of the Reich’s inner circle is palpable and it is played out with incredible suspense despite us knowing exactly of the outcome. Without showing any graphic depictions of war such as the genocide of the Jews or the twisted cruelty of Nazi soldiers, we are entreated to explore the workings of the inner headquarters. Hirschbiegel presents the viewer with humanity – the raw, ugly, and sometimes relatable, humanity: petulance, egotism, arrogance, ignorance, recklessness, violence. All of this is on show in Downfall and whether or not the viewer has any empathy to give while watching this, what is most inescapable is the acknowledgment of our collective flaws as human beings. If we allow ourselves to be, we can be as devastating as Goebbels, Himmler, or even Hitler. Because indeed, evil is ordinary – it is not the image of the horned and prong-tailed devil that Christianity refers to or even the grotesque figures that horror movies shows us. It is the face of human beings.

The Aftermath and Now

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The remains of the fences at Auschwitz as filmed in Nuit et Brouillard

Alan Resnais may be better known for his Nouvelle Vague affiliations from the late 1950s and 1960s (Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima, Mon Amour) but in his earlier workings he made shorts and documentaries, one of which was Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) from 1954. This is an unforgiving visual documentary that focuses its gaze on the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek as they were discovered after the war and also during the war. There is nothing much like this that I have ever seen before and I would be happy never to see it again. It is incredibly affecting and sickening. The base level in which humanity was reduced to by the Nazis is deeply scoped here and because there is real stock footage added, it hits you so much harder than any feature film. At first, Resnais utilises beautiful and rich technicolour footage of the grounds of the camps as they appear currently in the early 1950s – lush green grass and sunny weather. Michel Bouquet offers a matter-of-fact narration as we are then released into hell with black and white reels from various sources that depict the camps as they were in use. The footage of dead bodies in their thousands is just beyond horrific and it is no surprise to read that Resnais would wake up from his sleep screaming while he was making this. It certainly prompts one to ponder that basic of all statements about World War II – ‘what was it all for?’ Unfortunately you will not find your answer in this documentary, just a hollow sound that reverberates more like a warning for the future rather than resolution offer. Neither will you find the answer in the Russian film Come and See from 1985 – one of the greatest films of all time I believe.

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Aleksey Kravchenko as Florya observing a stork in Come and See

Come and See was an exceptional undertaking from Elem Klimov, a seasoned Soviet filmmaker who had been born to communist parents in Stalingrad (modern-day Volgograd) in the 1930s. One can only imagine what he had witnessed while growing up, considering that he would have lived through the siege of that city in 1942-43. In many ways he puts some of those childhood truths to work in his masterpiece here, and to devastating effect. The film covers the period of Nazi occupation of the Byelorussian territory of the Soviet Union, where it is set. The story is told in hindsight (this is why I am including it in the ‘aftermath’ section) and from an objective Russian point of view – a perspective of the war rarely considered by the West. It took eight years for the Soviet authorities to pass the film for public consumption because they believed the content to be divisive and complicatedly layered at times (I imagine Klimov considered this to be a compliment). In the end, Klimov somehow managed to get the film released without a cut.

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Florya ponders his existence in a forest from Come and See

The film depicts every grimy detail of the horrors that went with the Nazi cruelty and persecutions upon the Byelorussian people. Here, where hundreds of thousands of people were killed on the fringes of Russia, the camera is particularly focused on the utter dehumanisation that was meted out to innocent people, particularly children. In fact, the point of view we are given is through a teenage soldier’s eyes – through Florya’s horrendous ordeals of escape, fight and resilience. As much as it is a fabulous piece of filmmaking – beautifully shot, lyrically written – it is also at times indigestible due to its unflinching portrayal of Nazi barbarity. The film is 3 hours long but it is by no means a slog. It is worth it singularly for the profound ending (skip to the next paragraph if you shan’t know what it is). The young soldier sees a framed picture of Hitler on the muddied ground and imagines the war in reverse – all the way back to when Hitler was a child – as he shoots it to pieces in the naïve and innocent hope that maybe all of the inhumanity would not have happened otherwise.

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Neo-Nazi Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) confronts a team of Crips in American History X

American History X is a popular film coming long after World War II but is most relevant here when speaking about neo-Nazism. The film was written by David McKenna and directed by Tony Kaye in 1998 and it has Edward Norton playing a redemptive neo-Nazi in Los Angeles. The story takes a bold focus to the mindset of a racist and his subsequent change-of-nature after spending time in prison, while completely avoiding any allusions to the impact he has had on his victims or their families. The premise is clearly flawed but the attempt here in capturing the evil undertones of racial tensions in urban America from a white supremacist perspective is admirable nevertheless. It is the ‘other’ angle, so to speak, of Spike Lee’s racial tension dramas from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Kaye manages to succeed here for two reasons: it is accessible and it does not get caught up in extended moralising. He appears to suggest that neo-Nazis take on their ‘role’ in this world for miseducated and gender insecurity reasons and who could argue? These dangerous and violent morons grasp for legitimacy despite their clear path towards something so unimaginably awful. It is a sad and vicious world that these people want to be part of. For all its flaws, and it is really an edgy entertainment movie at the end of the day, American History X at least makes you shake your head in disbelief at the political organisation that occurs in these gangs, and the particular impact they impress upon young and vulnerable people.

Some 72 years after the war ended and we are still seeing these people emerge from the scums of the lake. But what is one to do? This, perhaps…

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Perhaps not! I will let Charlie have the last word on this instead…

Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….

Excerpt of Charlie Chaplin’s final speech from The Great Dictator

*The featured image of this post comes from a 2014 documentary by Felix Moeller called Forbidden Films, the subject of which are Nazi propaganda films that are still banned in Germany today.

5 thoughts on “Nazism and the impact of World War II as depicted on Film

  1. Robin Stevens says:

    JJ, this is a brilliant piece. So pleased to see you cover ‘The Great Dictator’, as well as ‘Come and See’ and so many other films; and that you picked up on the incredible propaganda film ‘Triumph of the Will’. That you put all these together in such a cohesive blog – the guts of each film in a paragraph or two – is really impressive, given the scale of some of these films. I think these are some of the best examples of film genius that really have something to say. There’s so much to say, but let’s leave that for a coffee chat.

    This is so great; my favourite blog.
    Robin

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Maxim says:

    80% of the war happened on the eastern front, but 99% of the films here shot in the west, with one exception Soviet and East European cinema ignored. Romm’s “Ordinary Fascism”, “Ballad of a Soldier”, “Today, At Night A City Will Die”, “The Cranes are Flying”.

    Like

    • JJ McDermott says:

      Thanks for the comment and appreciate you recommending these films. However, your % calculations are incorrect and I don’t think writing extensively about Come and See means that I’ve ignored Soviet cinema. Regards

      Like

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