Subtitled "A Composition in Picture and Tone," this artful and altogether chilling cinematic collage of films and songs from Nazi Germany bypasses the usual newsreel footage found in most documentaries to delve into the peripheral films of the era — home movies, educational and military training films, song-and-dance sequences culled from rarely seen Nazi...read more
Subtitled "A Composition in Picture and Tone," this artful and altogether chilling cinematic collage of films and songs from Nazi Germany bypasses the usual newsreel footage found in most documentaries to delve into the peripheral films of the era — home movies, educational and military training films, song-and-dance sequences culled from rarely seen Nazi musicals — for whatever insight they can provide into Nazi popular culture. Rather than the ugly reality of Hitler's Germany seen elsewhere, we get something a bit more unusual and, because these films were designed primarily for domestic consumption, even more revealing: the smiling, Aryan mask Hitler's propaganda machine attempted to plaster across the nightmarish skull of the Third Reich. Instead of providing any kind of narration, German filmmakers Oliver Axer and Susanne Benze divide their material into thematically cohesive chapters with titles like "To You We Belong," in which Hitler Youth dream of their Fuhrer as if he were a pop idol, and "A Country in Bloom," in which robust German volk reap the benefits of country living and Aryan ancestry. Using the usual montage-makes-meaning techniques, Axer and Benze edit this fascinating footage to the peppy rhythms of the era's pop songs, and make several incisive points: UFA chorines twirl between images of goose-stepping Nazis; architectural models for future German cities immediately follow footage of scientists measuring the head of a blond, angelic-looking child — all blueprints for Hitler's thousand-year Reich. As the film progresses, however, the grim reality seeps through. In "Starry Night," Jews forced to wear the yellow Star of David appear alongside a cartoon demonstrating how Jews infiltrate and corrupt German culture; in "Millions Travel German Rail," the glory of the country's railroad is undercut by images of deported Jews loaded into boxcars. Without any narration or even identifying subtitles, however, we can never be exactly sure of what we're seeing or when during the Reich's rise and fall it was produced. What is striking, however, is just how awful so much of this pop detritus seems alongside the contemporaneous cultural product of other countries: The musical numbers are sub-Poverty Row productions, while the songs are mostly pale imitations of the kind of Tin Pan Alley pop and jazz created by black and Jewish American composers. Also telling are those chilling moments that dictate good German behavior, such as the film clip in which a man, after overhearing a phone call between lovers, dutifully calls the Gestapo, and later, when a commentator laughingly threatens to send any musicians who admit foreign influences into their German music to a "concert camp." Never has kitsch seemed so creepy.
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