F orbidden Films studiously recounts the history of propaganda in the film industry of Nazi Germany. Titles like Jud Süssor Triumph of the Will ring a bell among many film historians, though many more are discussed here using a panel of various historians, film scholars, and art curators. Forty of these films are currently banned, locked away in a vault that prevents their highly flammable nitrate composition from causing explosions and their content from instigating even worse societal harm. Occasionally, some of the worst are still shown to the public for educational purposes. Aside from clips of the films and talking heads of experts, a fair amount of footage capturing these screenings and the reaction of individual audience members illustrates their lasting impact.
Starting off strong, the film cuts to the chase in laying out the case for propaganda’s power. A figure comparing audience numbers shows a staggering 8 billion viewers during the Third reich versus the comparatively low 170 million, today. Not only does the scope of the propaganda’s influence astound, but the attraction that it had, amassing an audience for one small country that excelled the US then and today. While the more straightforward and explicit anti-semitic clips from the films are appalling and haunting to contemplate when considering their later effects, the more subtle instances illustrate the potency of implied messages. One of them, Homecoming, an anti-polish film markedly less virulent when addressing Judaism, depicts ethnic germans in Poland living in poverty and repeatedly facing humiliation and debasement from Polish oppressors. Some are killed or maimed while the rest are imprisoned. In captivity, the saintly protagonist, Marie, gives an emotional and hopeful speech, maintaining that they will one day be able to return to their native Germany. She declares that they will no longer hear Polish nor Yiddish, but only german, as though she were Dorothy yearning to get back to the real and sane world of Kansas. Their salvation at the end of the film comes as a result of the Nazi invasion, releasing them from rabid intimidation and harm from animalistic Poles.
The most shocking moment in the documentary comes after a screening of Homecoming. While most audience members agree on the film’s impressive craft, they expound upon their assessment by saying how equally terrifying its strength proves to be in light of the goal. One man, however, seems to have been swayed by the film’s message. He marvels over the poignancy of the characters’ struggles and praises how the Polish are portrayed, placing culpability on the Polish people for their own downfall, dismissing the term” invasion” in favor of “counterattack” when referring to the Nazi’s takeover of their country. Despite attending a screening meant to facilitate understanding of the propaganda’s insidiousness, this particular viewer forgot the context in the wake of his implicit bias and the film’s persuasiveness.
Disappointingly, while the content certainly holds weight, the presentation of the separate elements amounts to a documentary that feels somewhat plodding and unimaginative. There’s something to be said for letting something as horrible as Nazi propaganda speak for itself, but the interspersal of mostly generic professional opinions and unsubstantial public dialog (aside from the good examples previously mentioned) dilutes the effect. A more spirited investigation of the films’ history in addition to selectivity in public screening footage so as to portray the most compelling reactions would have worked much better. As it stands, Forbidden Films feels more like an overly-long seminar video than something that could hold a candle to other films dealing with similar subjects. | Nic Champion
Forbidden Films is being released on DVD on May 15th by Kino Lorber with no special features.