At the beginning of Forbidden Films, documentarian Felix Moeller's camera warily contemplates a fortified bunker. The contents are, a curator warns, "literally explosive" — Nazi propaganda films on highly flammable nitrocelluloid stock.
The sequence is suitably ominous, but it turns out that the storage facility's thick walls and earthen berm cannot contain its noxious content. Of the 300 films banned by the Allies after World War II, only 40 are still quarantined by the German government. Even these are available for screening in certain scholarly venues and circulated freely via the Internet and bootleg DVDs. Liberal good intentions are no match for file-sharing technology.
For viewers who haven't skulked though the Web's back alleys in search of Third Reich comedies, dramas and adventure flicks, Forbidden Films offers fascinating clips from such notorious efforts as The Eternal Jew, Jew Suss and The Rothschilds. All were made to incite anti-Semitic passions and justify Nazi atrocities.
The protagonist of Jew Suss is an 18th century financier (and rapist) who plans to transform part of Germany into a new Israel. He may embody the most abhorrent of Nazi fantasies, but the Hitler-era German film industry also turned out movies that demonized Britain, Poland, Russia, France and out-of-it Germans. In a snippet from one of many dramas that promoted the Hitler Youth, a cranky leftie dad tries to force his noble blond son to sing "The Internationale." Later, of course, the kid happily joins the chorus of a hymn to Hitler.
There's a whole lot of singing in these movies. Happy Stuka pilots become a flying choir during a bombing run, and Austrians in Tyrolean get-ups turn to music while held in what's identified as a "British concentration camp." Imprisoned by their Polish tormentors, ethnic Germans yearn musically for "oh, dear homeland." It's something like Dorothy's revelation in the contemporaneous Wizard of Oz, except that in Nazi films singing tends to be a communal activity. The tunes extolled nationalist socialism, after all, not bourgeois individualism.
In his memoir, Luis Bunuel recalls that people in Hollywood weren't too scared by their first exposure to Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's epic ode to Hitler and Nazism. It had too much folk dancing and oom-pah-pah music to be threatening. The excerpts assembled in Forbidden Films are similarly jolly and even goofy. Yet they're from movies that conveyed their message to Europe with grim effectiveness.
Does Nazi cinema now appear too silly to censor? Moeller talks to scholars in Germany and Israel, most of whom think the films should be available, but only in a limited way. He also interviews people who have just attended screenings, whose opinions vary widely. Viewers in Jerusalem seem the least bothered; those in Paris the most.
Two German men whose faces remain in shadow recount various reactions to these movies from their former colleagues in the neo-Nazi movement. Even people who subscribed to Hitler's views, one says, would "laugh out loud" at the cartoonish stereotypes in The Eternal Jew, which explicitly compares Jews to rats.
Other recent viewers, however, express surprise that some of the Nazi movies are well-crafted, involving and even persuasive. Having seen — and believed — the anti-Polish Homecoming, a German announces that the 1939 invasion of Poland was justified.
No wonder that when a group of mostly college-age French viewers is asked whether Jew Suss should be shown on TV, not a single hand is raised in agreement.