Film as Propaganda

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Film as Propaganda

Visual media have been exploited to serve genocide and crimes against humanity. They have perpetuated racial and ethnic hatreds, targeted political opponents, aggrandized the national image of regimes, and portrayed the nation as a victim of evil, outside forces. The Nazis were the penultimate masters in this regard—usurping the German film industry, creating a ministry to assure that films served the Reich, and recruiting film directors to enhance Hitler's power and present frightening images of Germany's perceived enemies. Similarly, other nations have employed visual media to support the political values of genocidal and criminal regimes. They also routinely use censorship to guarantee the absence of countervailing visual images.

Nazi control of the German film industry is the most extreme example of the use of film in the service of a fascist national program. Prior to Hitler's rise to power, Germany had a lively, creative film community in which many Jewish actors, directors, and producers were active participants. However, in 1933 Hitler created the Reich Ministry for People's Enlightenment and Propaganda and appointed the youthful Joseph Goebbels as its head. He had the authority to decide which films could be produced; the ministry reviewed scripts, decided which actors, directors, and screenwriters worked, and controlled the content and imagery of films. Film criticism was banned, and Jews were forbidden to work in the film industry. In the Nazi's media dictatorship film was its most important tool.

Early films promoted the consolidation of the German people in the service of the Nazi state. One of the first productions in 1933, Hitler Youth Quex, depicted a young man's transformation from a communist sympathizer to a servant of the Hitler Youth movement and the "new" Germany. In a visceral sense he became the political property of the state, no longer needing to be an autonomous individual.

Triumph of the Will, the 1935 documentary by Leni Riefenstahl, was created in the same vein. The film eschews references to Jews, Romani, homosexuals, or political opponents that the Nazis would be jailing and murdering in the coming years. Instead, the film focuses on visual imagery of a united, joyful German people and the powerful control of public space exerted by the Third Reich. The film, utilizing thirty-six cinematographers, captured the drama and triumph of the 1934 Nazi Party meetings in Nuremberg. In its repetitive images of smiling, young Aryan men, perfectly aligned marching German soldiers, fluttering swastika flags, and Adolf Hitler, alighting from the sky as a godlike figure, Triumph conveys a powerful, seductive message on the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the revitalized, collective whole, as represented in the person of Hitler.

In the years that followed Nazi film production shifted its focus to overt propaganda against perceived enemies. Perhaps the most profound exemplar was the 1940 production of Jud Suss, a viciously anti-Semitic film, directed by Viet Harlan. It was screened for SS commandos before missions against the Jews and for concentration camp guards; over twenty million people are said to have seen the film. Its story—set in the eighteenth century—was billed as history. The protagonist, Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, is portrayed as a deceitful, treacherous Jew, who lusts after power, money, and sex. At the film's finale Oppenheimer's final defeat and public execution are a prelude to the film's cautionary message, urging its audience to heed the film's lessons in order to spare future generations from exploitation by the Jews. The documentary The Eternal Jew mirrored similar themes of Jews as duplicitous and toxic. At the end of World War II Harlan was the only German film director to be charged with crimes against humanity. Although the film was condemned, the director was exonerated, his defense successfully arguing that in making such a film, he was only following Goebbels's orders.

Since the Nazi period other abusive regimes have utilized visual media in the service of criminal ends. In Yugoslavia the 1989 film The Battle of Kosovo, commemorating the battle's six hundredth anniversary, portrayed a Serbian hero sacrificing his own life, but simultaneously taking that of the Turkish sultan. Dark, scary images of Muslim invaders are pervasive. The Bulgarian film Time of Violence traded on similar violent, cruel images of the Turkish invasion and the suffering of the Slavs. Documentaries, such as the 1994 The Truth Is a Victim in Croatia, were thinly disguised propaganda films on Croatian victimization of the Serbs. Television also was utilized to these ends by masters of media manipulation and control, such as Slobodan Milosevic. In regular television appearances Milosevic and other Serbian leaders usurped and inverted the language of genocide—decrying that their kinsfolk in Kosovo were the victims—even as they covertly planned their own genocidal campaign in Bosnia.

In El Salvador, under military control in the 1980s, the lack of a film industry made television the medium of choice for labeling regime opponents. Roberto D'Aubuisson, a former major in the Salvadoran military, procured the dossiers of hundreds of political activists subject to government surveillance. In early 1980 he staged a series of dramatic television appearances in which he denounced these academics, clergymen, trade unionists, and others as guerrilla sympathizers, subversives, and communists. He used these appearances to launch his own political career as the demagogic voice of the extreme right wing. And in the weeks following his appearances, many of those named were assassinated.

Censorship has also assisted such regimes in obscuring truthful histories, objective realities, and the genocidal actions of the government. For example, soon after the 1973 military coup in Chile, a censorship decree led to the banning of hundreds of films. In his documentary The Battle of Chile, Patricio Guzman, the Chilean filmmaker, realistically captured the increasing violence of right-wing opposition to Salvador Allende, the military takeover, and the final words of the democratically elected president. But Guzman was forced to smuggle the film out of the country, and it was not shown until after Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship ended.

The precise impact of propagandistic imagery on the popular imagination can never be fully measured. Nevertheless, there is no question that the media play an important role in sustaining criminal regimes and fostering cultures that support the commission of crimes against humanity and genocide.

SEE ALSO Advertising; Art as Propaganda; Deception, Perpetrators; Goebbels, Joseph; Propaganda; Television


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Carolyn Patty Blum