During the Nazi era, the German film industry produced over 1,200 feature films. After the war, some 300 of them were banned by the Allied occupying forces. Today, 40 of those films are still banned in Germany. The only permitted screenings of them take place in scholarly settings, and unauthorized showings are punishable by law.
What is to be done with this poisonous legacy? That question is at the heart of Felix Moeller’s new documentary, “Forbidden Films,” which opens here next week.
Moeller’s previous films include a documentary on the legacy of the Nazi filmmaker Veit Harlan, whose “Jude Süss” is so scurrilous that he remains the only filmmaker ever indicted for crimes against humanity. Needless to say, Harlan’s film is on the banned list.
“Forbidden Films” is both troubling and fascinating. Strictly from a critical/aesthetic point of view, the film is a little shapeless, roaming from topic to topic in what often seems a random order. On the other hand, Moeller’s talking heads are uniformly smart, he uses the film clips tellingly and never backs away from implications of the discussion.
Moeller seems pretty certain that the banning of these films is counter-productive. The arguments on display here are familiar ones. The appeal of the films is probably enhanced for some audiences by the thrill of the forbidden. An audience’s understanding of the forces at work in these films can only be enhanced by placing them in a larger historical context; if they’re already out there, provided by adherents to the films’ point of view, we are losing the opportunity to do that. The most egregious of the films — “The Eternal Jew” is cited as an example — are so over-the-top that even contemporary Nazi supporters find them ludicrous. And so on.
At several points in “Forbidden Films,” Moeller shows us two neo-Nazis, shrouded in inky shadows, who affirm that more “soft” banned films like “Hitler Junge Quex” are useful recruiting tools for their movement, opening up the minds of those already disenchanted and looking for an outlet. Like cartoon-character drug pushers, they subsequently move the suckers on to the harder stuff like “Jude Süss” and “The Rothschilds.”
Does that make the case for banning stronger or does it undermine it? Frankly, I’m not entirely sure. As an old-fashioned advocate for free expression, I’ve always believed that the way to fight bad speech is with more speech, not suppression. As the underground availability of the banned films even in Germany seems to prove, people who want to propagate hate will usually find a way to do so outside the law, and the mistake of banning or ignoring their tools is that you forfeit the ability to reply effectively.
I know all those arguments, and I’ve used them frequently. But when presented with a film like “Heimkehr,” directed by Gustav Ucicky, a genuinely artful piece of propaganda that depicts the “persecution” of ethnic Germans by the Poles in the run-up to the war, I can’t help but see a really effective piece of polemic that stands reality on its head completely to justify the Nazi invasion of Poland, and I am brought up short. Do I really want people seeing this pack of lies?
There’s another aspect to this debate that “Forbidden Films” doesn’t touch on. The English film theorist Claire Johnston once wrote, “There is no such thing as unmediated discourse.” Wherever there is a speaker, there is a point of view. Films like “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” are as corrosively racist and as utterly fraudulent as “Jude Süss.”
The point is that all films, good or bad, reflect the ideology of the society in which they are made. They may take a position that opposes that ideology but they are responding to that view of the world regardless.
Of course such opposition was nearly impossible in Nazi Germany, where the state actually was producing all the films and the profit motive was pretty much ignored in favor of more political consideration. Even the light entertainment films of the Nazi era are marinated in the Nazi ideology, more so than in nearly any other film industry I have ever encountered (with the possible exceptions of Stalinist Russia and contemporary North Korea).
The necessity of opening up space in which an artist may counter a dominant ideology with an alternative viewpoint, however covertly, remains the main hope for humane discourse. Which means, I suppose, that I’m in agreement with the final thoughts of “Forbidden Films,” that the banning of Nazi cinema is pointless. And if that sounds like uncertainty, well, it probably is.
“Forbidden Films,” written and directed by Felix Moeller, will play at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) May 13-19. For this engagement, all showings will be free of charge. For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.