Is There Any Similarity Between Nazi and Zionist Propaganda Films?

Avner Shapira
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Avner Shapira

When Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” was screened at the 1935 Venice Biennale, it earned the director an award. But another propaganda film was shown at the same biennial, one that also made clever use of cinematic aesthetics to propound an ideological message. That film was “Labor” ‏(“Avoda”‏), a Zionist film produced by the United Israel Appeal ‏(Keren Hayesod in Hebrew‏) and directed by Helmar Lerski, a Jew who immigrated to Palestine following an illustrious career as a cinematographer in Weimar Germany’s movie industry.

Several critics noted the parallels between the Nazi and Zionist documentaries, says historian Dr. Ofer Ashkenazi of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But he says the picture is more complex than that. All these years later, we can take another look at “Labor” and reevaluate its connection not only to Nazi propaganda films, but to other, earlier works as well − particularly considering the sources of inspiration drawn upon by Lerski, whose previous credits included the special effects in Fritz Lang’s highly influential 1927 movie “Metropolis.”

“Labor,” 48 minutes long, will be shown this Sunday ‏(November 3‏) at the opening of the academic conference “The Triumph of Nazi Cinema: 1933-2013,” organized by the Hebrew University’s Richard Koebner Minerva Center for German History. The conference will examine the diverse and surprising influences of movies produced in the Third Reich, effects that still endure many decades after the curtain fell on the big star of “Triumph of the Will” − Adolf Hitler.
Ashkenazi will give a talk prior to the screening of “Labor,” in which he will survey the various interpretations the film has been given and suggest a new view of his own. “The movie was filmed in Mandatory Palestine by a group of Jewish immigrants from Germany,” he says. “And even though its creators were bourgeois Berliners with a critical attitude toward Jewish nationalism, the movie was constructed as a paean to socialist Zionism. Through close-up shots of man and machine, unusually high or low filming angles and editing to fit the intricate soundtrack by the composer Paul Dessau, the movie glorifies the principles of the Zionist Labor movement: manual labor and activity; bringing intellectual and technological progress to a backward land; the birth of the ‘New Man’ in Eretz Israel and of a new kind of Jewish community; even the erotic dimension of the Zionist project. When the movie came out, some critics raved that it was ‘the poetic version of Eretz Israel’ and that it marked a victory for ‘the Zionist aesthetic.’”

However, adds Ashkenazi, there were also some who complained that the movie was too strange and complicated: “The United Israel Appeal people, who financed the production, were disappointed with the result. They thought the movie failed in its attempt to present effective propaganda for the Zionist vision. At the time, and for many years afterward, too, many critics and scholars pointed out ‘fascist’ elements in the movie and saw a disturbing resemblance to documentary short subjects produced in the 1930s by the Nazi Party. Not just to Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will,’ but mainly to ‘simpler’ productions of the Kulturfilm genre, which aspired to offer an ‘authentic’ portrayal of life in a resurgent Germany. One of these films, for example, was “Die Ehre der Arbeit” ‏(“The Honor of Work”‏), produced by Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels in the same year that ‘Labor’ was released, and depicting practically the same narrative, with visual imagery that seems like it could have come straight out of Lerski’s film.”

A careful viewing of “Labor” reveals, however, that it does not really correspond with the works of Goebbels and the Nazi filmmakers, but rather with the works of German-Jewish directors from the 1920s, Ashkenazi says. “I think ‘Labor’ is a fascinating and unique film that quotes again and again from movies that were written and directed by Jewish filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Karl Freund and Carl Mayer. By a clever use of fascist ‘cliches,’ Lerski reminds viewers of the anxieties and hopes that characterized the German-Jewish middle class in the years following World War I. He presents socialist Zionism as he would like it to be: an ideological answer to both the sense of crisis that preceded the Nazis and to Hitler’s fascist nationalism.”

Learning from the Germans

The conference in Jerusalem will offer an unusual standpoint from which to mark the 80th anniversary of the Nazis’ rise. Instead of directly discussing the Nazi Party, its rapid growth and entrenchment in power, the conference speakers will examine the ways in which the Nazis and their ideology and rise to power were depicted in German, European and Israeli cinema. They will show how the Nazis’ ambition to conquer the world went hand in hand with their ambition to conquer the movie theater.

“We’re hoping to learn new things about the secret of the attraction of Nazi ideology, the ways in which the party’s rise to power was experienced, and the ways in which it became encoded in the memory of the different sides within the paradigmatic frameworks after the end of World War II in 1945 − i.e., the Cold War, Zionism and more,” Ashkenazi explains. “The speakers will illuminate in a new light the attempts that were made in East and West Germany to define themselves against the Nazi past by means of artistic tools; and the ways in which Nazism and its success are perceived in Germany and Israel today.”

He notes that the title selected for the conference, “The Triumph of Nazi Cinema,” was meant not only as an allusion to Riefenstahl’s film, but also to hint at the use of a Nazi-influenced aesthetic by many German artists in a deliberate attempt to try to reckon with Germany’s past and their own past under the Hitler regime. In addition, the conference title refers to the role played by the Nazis − and the visual imagery related to them − in cinema from 1945 to the present.

Thus, for instance, the lecture by historian Prof. Na’ama Sheffi of Sapir College will be devoted to the question of how postwar German films about Nazism were received in Israel and how they helped shape the collective Israeli memory. “Since the end of the 1960s, and particularly in the 1970s and ‘80s, a change occurred in Israelis’ attitude toward the Holocaust, Nazism and Germany,” says Sheffi. “After the Eichmann trial and the change in attitude toward Holocaust survivors, who became an integral part of society, contrary to the disdain to which they were subject prior to that, there was a surge of interest in Nazism and in Germany.

“In those years, there were an abundance of translations from postwar German literature − including the books of Gunter Grass, Heinrich Boll and Siegfried Lenz − and Israelis became more tolerant toward ‏[West] Germany. This was manifested also in the translation of thrillers and science fiction from Germany, as well as in television broadcasts in Israel, including broadcasts of German movies and broadcasts from the Munich Olympics in 1972 and the World Cup matches in Germany in 1974.”

Sheffi adds that on the movie screen, the interest in the Nazi era was reflected in films such as Luchino Visconti’s “The Damned” ‏(1969‏) and Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” ‏(1972‏). “Both of these movies gave Israeli viewers a chance to get to know Nazism as an historical phenomenon, and beyond that − to enter into a basic discussion of the conditions that enabled such a dictatorial regime to come to power in a normative society.”

In her talk, Sheffi will focus on the myriad reactions aroused in Israel by three German films, based on books, that were all seen by Israeli audiences ‏(either in the cinema or on television‏) within a short period, between 1979 and 1981. The movies are “The Tin Drum,” Volker Schlondorf’s Oscar-winning 1979 film based on the book by Grass, which became one of the symbols of Germany’s tough confrontation with its Nazi past; “Jakob der Lugner” ‏(“Jakob the Liar”‏) a 1975 East German production directed by Frank Beyer, with a script by Jurek Becker ‏(who also adapted the screenplay into a novel‏). Becker, a Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor who settled in East Germany after the war, depicted in a fanciful and humorous way life in the ghetto from the perspective of a Jew who makes up optimistic reports and tells others that the war is nearing its end and the Germans are about to lose, until his lies are ultimately revealed.

The third film to be discussed is “Mephisto,” a West German-Austrian-Hungarian co-production directed by the Hungarian-Jewish director Istvan Szabo, based on the famous book by Klaus Mann. Sheffi says that reviews in the Israeli press drew a link between the Oscar-winning film, which centered on an artist who ingratiates himself with the Nazi regime for the sake of personal gain, and current events: “The movie debuted at the end of 1981, shortly after the stormy Knesset election and the controversial comments by entertainer Dudu Topaz about the ‘chakhchakhim’ who vote for Likud. The critics also interpreted the film in light of artists’ involvement in the election campaign and the political pressures that were being exerted upon cultural institutions at the time − for instance, the threat to withhold government support for the Israel Philharmonic for having played the ‘Liebestod’ from Richard Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ as an encore. The threat subsequently compelled the orchestra to avoid including the controversial composer in its performances. The question of limits of freedom of expression for artists in different regimes was seen as particularly relevant.”

Sheffi believes the responses to these three films exemplify the growing curiosity in Israel during that period about Nazism and Germany: “Surprisingly, the reviews raised the question of how we Israelis can learn from the Germans how to be wary of ourselves. They noted the ease with which an evil regime like that of the Nazis can arise in other places, and they warned of the danger in submitting to it.”

The man behind the monster

While Sheffi will examine the way in which cinema helped increase Israelis’ tolerance for Germans, Hilla Lavie’s talk will show how Israeli cinema recreates and copies old stereotypes about the Germans. Lavie, a doctoral student in history at the Hebrew University and a filmmaker herself, will look at how Nazi characters are portrayed in Israeli films.

“Just as Israeli historiography about the Holocaust focused for many years on the victims and incorporated the Shoah into Israel’s national narrative, Israeli cinema did the same,” says Lavie. “Israeli directors presented characters who were Holocaust survivors, but there were hardly any depictions of the Nazi criminals and of what turned them from ‘ordinary people’ into executioners and collaborators in the extermination apparatus. In my talk, I will call for Israeli cinema to grapple with Nazism in a way that deviates from the routine conceptions.”

Lavie acknowledges that since 2000, there has been a much greater openness toward Germany in Israeli society, a trend that is also reflected in local filmmaking: “A lot of movies deal with encounters between Israelis and Germans ‏(including romantic encounters‏), with travel to Germany, and so on. Nazi characters often appear in these films − take, for example, Ari Folman’s 2001 satire ‘Made in Israel,’ in which the world’s last remaining Nazi war criminal is brought to trial in Israel in his old age. The movie takes a mocking view of the Israeli concept of ‘a Nazi monster,’ but doesn’t go deeper than that. Other examples are Eytan Fox’s ‘Walk on Water’ from 2004 and Assaf Bernstein’s 2007 ‘The Debt,’ both of which are about attempts by the Mossad to capture aging Nazi war criminals.

“These films and others are critical of Israeli myths and their place in the country’s Holocaust memory,” Lavie continues, “but they don’t take a serious look at the Nazism of the character, which serves mostly to project onto the Israelis.

In other words, these movies do not propose an alternative to the standard notions that say every elderly German is a monster, and they don’t examine the psychological process undergone by the ordinary person, by the individual who becomes a Nazi in the time of the Third Reich. Israeli cinema does not tackle this challenging question in the way some German and British films from the past decade do; or novels like Jonathan Littell’s ‘The Kindly Ones’ and Nir Baram’s ‘Good People’; or the writings of scholars and philosophers like Raul Hilberg, Hannah Arendt, Zygmunt Bauman and Christopher Browning, who investigate the mechanisms and bureaucracy and soldiers in Nazi Germany.”

Despite the surge of interest here in German culture and history, Lavie thinks these issues still pose sensitive dilemmas for local filmmakers. Trying to explain their failure to take on the subject of Nazism more boldly, she cites historians’ arguments about an Israeli fear of a more complex understanding of the events of the Holocaust in the context of the Nazi apparatus − a fear deriving from the idea that the political and cultural ties that existed in this apparatus might seem to resemble existing frameworks in the current local reality. In her talk, she will urge the adoption of a cinematic language that expresses the complexity of Israeli engagement with this issue.

The conference at Hebrew University will take place on Sunday, November 3, beginning at 4:30 P.M. and continue on Monday, beginning at 9:30 A.M., at the Mount Scopus campus ‏(Bloomfield Library, Media Department, Room 32‏). Entrance to the lectures, to be given in English, is free. Other scheduled speakers include Prof. Gertrud Koch, Prof. Stephen Brockmann, Prof. Johannes von Moltke, Dr. Daniel Uziel, Dr. Yvonne Kozlovsky Golan, Dr. Hanno Loewy, Dr. Daniel Wildmann, Dr. Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann and Prof. Moshe Zimmermann, who will deliver the closing address.

Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous “Triumph of the Will” (1935). Glorification of Nazism.
A scene from the Zionist film “Labor” (1935). Some critics compared it to Nazi propaganda films.
“Mephisto” (1981). A link with current events in Israel.