I walked out of the Film Forum mind abuzz and guts churning. I was chewing on a whole lot of food for thought as well as the ice cream melt I bought to soothe my emotion roiled innards. I’d just seen “Forbidden Films”, the documentary about Nazi propaganda movies that are still deemed too toxic to release unrestricted to general audiences. The Film Forum in Manhattan is showing it this week, and most unusually you can see it free of charge. However, like me, you may purchase comfort food at their in-house bakery afterward.
I don’t know what is more awful, the horrific Nazi propaganda – anti-semitic, anti-Polish, anti-English etc. – writ large in the scenes I saw, or the artistry with which they were made. Truly awful in both senses at times. I will not soon forget the beautifully lit, beautifully acted scene of the tear-stained girl giving a heartfelt plea for living in a German village surrounded only by Germans, not having to listen to Yiddish or Polish anymore. Awful. But cinematically as beautifully made as Ingrid Bergman crying in Casablanca.
I should not describe more. It gets worse, much worse. And these scenes are best viewed in the context of this documentary, which delves deeply into the debate of why these movies remain forbidden, only occasionally allowed to be seen within the context of a curated screening. Experts and audiences and ex-Neo-Nazis (who had engaged in an underground market of these films) in Germany, France and Israel react to and debate the wisdom of keeping these films restricted or allowing them to be more widely seen and discussed. People on all sides of the issue make compelling arguments. If you don’t see “Forbidden Films”, I recommend reading the New York Times article on the subject and its review of the documentary.
1200 movies were made under the Nazi regime. Only 40 are still “forbidden”. I remember growing up in Berlin seeing several German movies made between 1933-1945. For example “Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war” (The Man who was Sherlock Holmes) and “Die Feuerzangenbowle” (The Fire Tongs Bowl), two hugely popular Heinz Rühman comedies that don’t appear to have any objectionable propaganda content (in fact “Die Feuerzangenbowle” was almost forbidden by the Nazis because an official thought all the tomfoolery the schoolboys engage in was too disrespectful of authority). Yet my strongest memory of “Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war” is the moment a German boy’s stamp expertise is what allows the movie’s (fake) Sherlock Holmes to solve the case. Why was that plot twist added in a film that otherwise had nothing to do with Germany? And I still remember with discomfort the moment when the “cool” teacher, the only adult in “Die Feuerzangenbowle” who is sympathetic, gives a speech at the end of the movie about how best to mold the minds and character of young men, a moment that raised mental alarm bells when I saw this film at sixteen with my friends at a sold out screening at the Waldbühne Amphitheater. Even in movies designed as non-political escapism, the tenor and prejudice of the time and place of their making would creep in.
It is not just certain movies of the Nazi era that are forbidden. There is also music. The music and lyrics of The Horst-Wessel-Lied, the Nazi Party anthem, are illegal in Germany and Austria, except for educational purposes. I guess it must have been the educational exemption that allowed me to read and play a copy of the score of The Horst-Wessel-Lied, as I remember doing at fifteen. Imagine that, a Jewish-American kid in West-Berlin, who had relatives who were killed in the Holocaust, playing and singing the Horst-Wessel-Lied on his mother’s Steinway, appreciating the beauty and power of the music while also appreciating its malevolence. I was studying the song as part of my term paper on Music in the Third Reich for my history class. We all had to choose to write and report on one aspect of Nazi Germany for class, and I of course chose music. I wish I had my paper with me now as I write this post in New York, so I could remember in more detail what I learned and wrote about Entartete Musik (the Nazi persecution of “Degenerate Music”), how music was used in propaganda, the banning of Mendelssohn and all other Jewish composers, and how some German composers like Kurt Weill fled the Reich, while others like Hindemith initially stayed but suffered, and others like Egk and Orff flourished in Nazi Germany. Which reminds me of my father telling me that a favorite phrase amongst musicians in post-war Germany was “Egk mich am Orff”, a riff on that most famous cusses in the German language “Leck mich am Arsch” (lick my arse).
(Speaking of the Horst-Wessel-Lied, last March there was a bit of a scandal when the New York Youth Symphony in a panic removed the piece “Marsh u Nebuttya” (“March to Oblivion,” in Ukrainian) from its program at Carnegie Hall after discovering that the Nazi anthem was quoted (among other anthems) in the piece it had commissioned from the young Ukranian composer Jonas Tarm. That was a teaching moment, but not a well handled one for the New York Youth Symphony.)
I also remember my German beginner piano book: “Der Junge Pianist”, the book my 70 year old piano teacher Herr Wolff used to teach me piano when I was 5. I still consider it the best beginner piano book ever produced. It is still in print and I use it with my beginner piano students. But I recently noticed it was first published in 1937. And all but 5 of the 95 piano pieces in the book are a German folk song or by a German composer. Is that a coincidence? Is it a conscious bow to the prejudices of the day? Does that matter, if the content that is in the book is unobjectionable in and of itself, and it also happens to be the best designed beginner piano book out there (and believe me I have looked around)?
These are some of the thoughts and memories that rattled about in my head after seeing “Forbidden Films”. If you are in the NYC area this week you can check the documentary out at the Film Forum, for free. And see what ideas and memories about art and propaganda, artistry and message, overt and subtle may occupy your thoughts and feelings afterwards.