Films, Eugenics

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Films, Eugenics

Eugenics, "the wellborn science," was a staple of sociologic and intellectual inquiry during the late nineteenth century. Springing from social Darwinism and the social theories of Sir Francis Galton in England, eugenics became first a philosophy and then a movement. One of its foundations was a belief in human perfectablity. As a discipline, eugenics overlapped with many other disciplines. Eugenics-related discourse took in discussion of criminal behavior, anthropology, immigration policy, IQ testing, and racial theory. In approximately thirty countries in which a burgeoning eugenics movement took root, government policy came under the sway of the movement's basic principles of racial superiority, which in turn would provide a philosophic rationale for genocide. Clarence Darrow, Helen Keller, John D. Rockfeller, Andrew Carnegie, and E. H. Harriman were unable to see the implications of eugenics principles and to recognize the slippery slope onto which they had climbed when they espoused some of these principles.

Films that strove to indoctrinate audiences with a eugenics way of thinking would document and rein-force—but eventually expose as pseudoscience—eugenics ideologies and practices. In the United States the films of this kind that were produced during the height of that country's eugenics movement (the first two decades of the twentieth century) brought to the national fore the controversial issues of mandatory sterilization and euthanasia. In Germany the Third Reich, building on the eugenics-related research and new legislation that were happening in the United States, would use the medium of film to propagate the claim of Aryan superiority and biological perfectability and to advocate that the infirm and the disabled were a burden on societies. In the 1980s and 1990s in the United States, a new focus on eugenics history was becoming evident, and eugenics history became popularized; during that period several documentary films that delineated this history were made.

One of the first U.S. films to promote a eugenics philosophy and to advocate "euthanasia" for disabled persons was The Black Stork (1917), written by Hearst Corporation reporter Jack Lait. The film was aggressively promoted by Chicago surgeon Dr. Harry Haiselden (who plays a eugenics-oriented doctor much like himself in the film), one of the most ardent advocates of eugenics in the United States at that time. Prior to the making of the film Haiselden had gained notoriety when he refused to operate on a sick child who had been classified as "defective." Although Haiselden was never found guilty of charges of homicide that had been brought against him for his medical "euthanizing" of infants with disabilities, he was expelled from the Chicago Medical Society.

In the film that is based on Lait's "photoplay," Dr. Dickey (Haiselden) counsels Claude and his wife Anne. Claude has "tainted blood" (a sexually transmitted disease). Anne has just given birth to a severely disabled child. Dr. Dickey advises euthanasia for the child. The child's mother has a dream in which the child grows up, becomes a criminal, and kills the doctor who allowed him to live. The couple allows the child to die. The unequivocal message of The Black Stork (which ends with the child's soul being welcomed into heaven by Jesus Christ) is stated in the film by Dr. Dickey: "There are times when saving a life is a greater crime than taking one."

The Black Stork was a popular sensation in 1917 and played in movie houses throughout the United States. It is perhaps worth noting that the film was released almost on the heels of the appearance in theaters of D. W. Griffith's racist Birth of a Nation (1915). Martin Pernick, in his volume The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of "Defective" Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915, expounds on the historical and moral climates in which this eugenics film (which is both fiction and documentary) was created.

An unusual film made in the United States in the 1930s (a time when the eugenics movement was waning in that country) is producer Brian Foy's Tomorrow's Children (1934). In the film the Mason family is composed of mental and physical "misfits"—with its alcoholic, club-footed, and retarded members (as judged by society and the law). Alice, one of the healthier members of the Mason family, wishes to marry Jeff, but a court rules that she must first be sterilized. Advocates for Alice's sterilization cite the infamous phrase, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough"—part of the U.S. Supreme Court decision (delivered by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes) in Buck v. Bell (1927), in which the decision by another judge that "feebleminded" Carrie Buck was required to undergo surgical sterilization was upheld. At the last minute Alice is spared sterilization because Mrs. Mason confesses that Alice is not her biological daughter. The film dealt with the topic of involuntary sterilization at a time when twenty-seven U.S. states had passed laws permitting the involuntary sterilization of individuals deemed "socially unfit." Although Alice is saved from sterilization, the film asserts that sterilization is morally acceptable and legal because of the threats to society that sterilization eliminates.

Selling Murder: The Killing Films of the Third Reich (1991) is a documentary film, written by Michael Burleigh, on the Nazi euthanasia programs of the 1930s; it opens and closes with tributes to the victims of those programs. The film was inspired by the then-recent discovery of a cache of Nazi propaganda films of the 1930s—films that strove to be didactic about the racial and biological rationales that the Nazis had used to justify the elimination of the "unfit," the disabled, and others who had received the classification "life unworthy of life." Was du Erbst (What You Inherit), Erb Krank (The Hereditarily Ill), Opfer der Vergangenheit (Victims of the Past), and Das Erbe (The Inheritance) were films that showed actual images of disabled persons and promoted the thesis that the disabled are economic burdens to societies. In the United States Harry Laughlin, a biologist and a powerful figure in the U.S. eugenics movement (and for twenty years the director of the Cold Spring Harbor Eugenics Center) would take these German eugenics films on the road, showing them to the American public (including high school audiences)—among whom he found great support and admiration for the ideas contained therein.

Included in the film Selling Murder is a segment on two German films that were commissioned in 1939 as part of the Reich's pursuit of euthanasia practices at six extermination centers. Dasein ohne Leben (Existence without Life) and Geisterkrank (The Mentally Ill) advocate for euthanasia and attempt to provide justification for euthanasia policy. Also included in Selling Murder is a discussion of the sentimentally propagandistic Ich klage an (I Accuse). A German feature film, it was made in 1941 by German actor and director Wolfang Liebeneiner. It is about the decision of an established pianist to be euthanized at a time when her physical condition is rapidly deteriorating. The film, however, did not distinguish between voluntary euthanasia and euthanasia mandated by state policy.

With film clips and on-site visits by survivors, Selling Murder provides many insights into the pseudoscience and eugenics-related policies of the Third Reich. The leaders of the Reich, having installed their programs of sterilization, forced euthanasia, and genocide (many of which were under the sponsorship of Operation T-4), hoped to create a biocentric state in which the disabled would have no recourse to any kind of protection and no inherent value.

Stephen Trombley's film The Lynchburg Story (1994) was in part a product of the aforementioned interest in eugenics history that came into being in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. The film tells the story of the Lynchburg Colony for the Epileptic and the Feebleminded in Lynchburg, Virginia. From 1927 to 1972 more than 70,000 Americans were sterilized in the 27 U.S. states in which forcible sterilization was permitted. Of these, more than 8,000 persons (deemed "unfit to reproduce") were sterilized at the Lynchburg Colony. The film makes clear that it was the United States (and not Germany) which devised the original blueprint of eugenics-related policy in the Third Reich. In Trombley's film, which includes testimony from survivors, the tragic stories of the victims of the Lynchburg Colony unfold.

A documentary film by the author of this entry, In the Shadow of the Reich: Nazi Medicine (1996), describes the many connections between the eugenics movement in the United States and the Third Reich's campaign against "undesirables." As German medical scientists and bureaucrats built on U.S. eugenicist theory and practice, scientists and intellectuals of both nations praised one another for the "advances" each country was making for the betterment of their respective societies.

Peter Cohen's documentary film Architecture of Doom (1991) provides a striking account of how subjective standards of physical beauty became a criterion of the selection process that was part of the German agenda of "cleansing" society of those whom German political leaders judged to be alien to their utopian vision. His Homo Sapiens 1900 (2000), another documentary film, is an indictment of the Nazi concept of racial purity—and of similar concepts that were once present in the United States, Sweden, and Russia. Cohen's historical and sociological analyses of concepts of racial superiority are most insightful, as is his argument that modern science can sometimes become science in the service of state policy, which is no longer science.

The documentary film After Darwin: Genetics, Eugenics, and the Human Genome (1999), produced by Arnie Gelbert of Mundo Vision, exposes the dark side of many scientific and technological advances. The film delves into the history of the collective fascination with eugenics principles, and then brings the viewer up to date as it raises ethical concerns that attach to contemporary advances in science and technology.

These films dealing with eugenics not only provide a window into the all too inglorious past, but also provoke one to raise a cautious eye when technology may advance more rapidly than morality.

SEE ALSO Film as Propaganda; Films, Dramatizations in; Films, Eugenics; Films, Holocaust Documentary


Adams, Paul (1990). The Wellborn Science. New York: Oxford University Press.

Black, Edwin (2003). War against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create A Master Race. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.

Burleigh, Michael (1994). Death and Deliverance: "Euthanasia" in Germany 1900–1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Michalczyk, John J. (1994). Medicine, Ethics, and the Third Reich: Historical and Contemporary Issues. Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed & Ward.

Pernick, Martin S. (1996). The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of "Defective" Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915. New York: Oxford University Press.

Proctor, Robert (1998). Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Smith, J. David (1993). The Eugenic Assault on America: Scenes in Red, White, and Black. Fairfax, Va.: George Mason University Press.

John J. Michalczyk