The World War II era might be considered the “golden age” of propaganda films. While silent films (such as the 1915 US film Birth of a Nation and the 1925 Russian film Battleship Potemkin) could be effective in advancing reactionary or revolutionary agendas, sound-on-film could be more effectively used to play on emotions and deceive audiences.
A classic of the propaganda genre is Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, made to glorify the Nazi Party in 1935 and celebrate Germany’s return to power after its defeat in World War I. Using long tracking shots, triumphal music and masterful montage, the film depicted the 1934 Nazi party rally at Nuremburg. Given theNazi control of all German media at the time, Triumph of the Will was more or less the only image German people had of the Nazi party, and helped Hitler to consolidate power in the years beforeWorld War II.
Riefenstahl later claimed that she had no choice in making the film, and that she had no knowledge of Nazi concentration camps. She also claimed that artists should not be held responsible for the political problems their art causes. She spent several years in detention after the war but was never convicted of war crimes. Even so, there are many who do not like her.
“Leni Riefenstahl is a monster,” the New Republic said in reviewing a documentary about her life. We can admire her work, the magazine said, in the same way that we admire Soviet masterworks of film “for their art despite the heavy irony of their now blood-drenched enthusiasm.”
Even more monstrous was the 1940 Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew, a violently anti-Semitic pseudo-documentary that provoked racial hatred in Germany with its comparisons of Jews to rats and other vermin. It was made by the Nazi propaganda ministry, but the extent of film director Fritz Hippler’s involvement is in question. Hippler was a proponent of film as propaganda: “If one compares the directness and intensity of the effect that the various means of propaganda have on the great masses, film is without question the most powerful” (Hippler, 1937). But months before his death in 2002, he said: “If it were possible to annul everything (about the film) I would. Terrible things happened and I had many sleepless nights because of this.”
Fritz Hippler, The Eternal Jew (Nazi Germany, 1940) – Monstrous and venomous propaganda that led to a two-year jail sentence at Nuremberg in 1946.
By depicting Jewish people as sub-human, Nazi film artists like Hippler made the genocide of the Holocaust possible. Similar dehumanization paved the way for genocide in Serbia and Rwanda in the 1990s.
Counterpropaganda involved both comedy and serious documentary work in the US and Britain during the time around World War II. In 1940, Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Great Dictator” used biting sarcasm and hilarious slapstick to attack the cruelty of the Nazi regime. At one point, dictator Adenoid Hinkle of Tomania carelessly tosses a balloon globe into the air, only to have it pop at the end.
Hinkle gives a speech in fractured German. Hilarious.
But later in the film, Hinkle’s look-alike, a Jewish barber, is mistaken as the dictator and gives a radio speech that reverses fascist ideology. “We are coming out of the darkness into the light,” Chaplin’s character says at the end of the film. “We are coming into a new world, a kindlier world, where men will rise above their hate, their greed and brutality.”
Chaplin’s moral courage in satirizing Hitler and defending Jewish people should not be underestimated. Few people in 1940 would
have predicted the end of Nazi rule only five years later. Asked around that time whether (as the Nazis claimed) he was Jewish himself, Chaplin said, “I do not have that honor.”
Prelude to War was the first film of famed Hollywood film director Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. It was originally intended to explain the war to the troops, but after President Roosevelt saw it, the film was released to the public and shown in theaters across the country in 1942. The propaganda techniques were rather obvious, but that was seen as one of the film’s virtues — that it was taking a direct approach. Disney collaborated on the animations.