'Hitler's Hollywood': New Documentary on Nazi Propaganda Films Chills Yet Thrills American Critics

Movie showcases more than 1,000 German films made between 1933 and 1945, in pretty much every genre – including the notoriously anti-Semitic 'Jew Suss'

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FILE - In this Oct. 30 1938 file photo, Nazi propaganda minister Dr. Joseph Goebbels speaks to members of the National Socialist party on the 10th anniversary of their foundation in the  overcrowded sport palast in Berlin. The lakeside property in the German capital once owned by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels is up for sale at auction.  Bids are now being taken for the 70,000-square foot (6,440-square meter) plot on Schwanenwerder island, an exclusive area in western Berlin where Goebbels and his family lived from 1936 to 1943, spokeswoman Irina Daehne for the real estate agency selling the property for the city said Wednesday. The Goebbels family returned in 1945 before moving into Hitler's bunker complex in the capital's downtown area.  The Goebbels villa, which he purchased from a Deutsche Bank board member, was destroyed after the war and a 7,650-square foot (710-square meter) brick bungalow built in the 1950s now sits on the site.  (AP Photo,File)
Nazi Propaganda Minister Dr. Joseph Goebbels speaking to members of the National Socialist Party in 1938.Credit: AP

A German documentary about Nazi propaganda films is earning rave reviews ahead of its release in New York this week.

Rüdiger Suchsland's "Hitler's Hollywood" shines a spotlight on the more than 1,000 films made by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 under the auspices of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.

Reviewing the film in The Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck notes that the documentary "has the perverse effect of making you want to watch many of the films under discussion."

He adds, "Providing important historical and sociological context, 'Hitler's Hollywood' emerges as a compelling cinematic essay that should be essential viewing for cinephiles and history buffs alike."

The documentary includes scenes from several blatantly anti-Semitic films, Scheck writes, "from the notorious 'Jew Suss' and 'The Rothschilds' to a drama about the Titanic in which its sinking is blamed on Jewish greed."

The documentary premiered in Germany last year, where the Kino Critics website noted that films such as "Jew Suss" and "The Eternal Jew" are part of a list of 22 Nazi-produced films still banned in Germany. They can only be seen "with an assistant who will explain the symbolic propaganda" to the viewer.

The film is Suchsland's follow-up to his acclaimed 2014 documentary "From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses," which analysed the impact of German cinema during the Weimar Republic era.

Writing in The New York Times, Ben Kenigsberg poses an interesting question about the new documentary.

"Is it immoral to watch this material?" he asks. "Part of what's alarming about 'Hitler's Hollywood' is that it's easier to be seduced by these comedies and melodramas, at least in excerpts, than it is to endure Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda film 'Triumph of the Will' today. The most charged implication of 'Hitler's Hollywood' is that artistry enabled the Third Reich."

Slate reviewer Diego Semerene writes that "throughout the film, we learn that Nazi cinema was bigger than life and consisted of many genres, including musicals, romances, thrillers and courtroom dramas. But no horror, as that was too close to reality."

Semerene adds that "reenacted voices by Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Siegfried Kracauer and Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels help us make sense of the archival footage, which seamlessly builds the case for the film’s main thesis: that cinema knows something we don’t."

Finally, two reviews in The Tablet offer effusive praise, although Thomas Doherty warns in his otherwise rave review, "Viewers not used to hearing a critic gush over Nazi cinema, praising its aesthetic virtues, even its charms, may find some of the enthusiastic thumbs-upping tough going."

Simone Sonekh, meanwhile, writes: "'Hitler’s Hollywood' captures a moment in history and serves as a reminder of the power of art and imagery in propaganda. When students learn about Nazism and wonder: 'How was it possible?' their teachers could use this documentary as one possible answer."

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