Film Document and the Myth of Horst Wessel: A Sampler of Nazi Propaganda
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 5, Number 3, September 1975
- pp. 16-18
- Additional Information
FILM DOCUMENT AND THE MYTH OF HORST WESSEL: A SAMPLER OF NAZI PROPAGANDA LINDLEY P, HANLON Excerpts from three Nazi films, distributed by the Museum of Modern Art as their Propaganda Program II (27 min: $25; in German with no subtitles) provide excellent materials for courses dealing with the film as document, the myth and style of National Socialism, and the types, content, and form of German propaganda films. The film clips specifically illustrate the national myth built around Horst Wessel , a minor party member murdered in 1930. A newsreel clip of the actual funeral of Horst Wessel appears in Blutendes Deutschland, "the film of the national uprising." This first of the Nazi films was produced in 1933 by Terra Film Kunst, directed by Johannes Haussler, and released just two months after Hitler was made Chancellor (see Museum of Modern Art "Program Notes"). Students might be asked to determine what qualities of this film make it appear to be an authentic document (jostling and blocking of the camera, spectators who gaze at the lens, the natural quality of action during the procession and burial, the presence of uniformed officials, the use of the simple narrative lines of the event, the uneven texture of the stock) and which qualities call the authenticity of the document into question and suggest subtle manipulation (the interpretive narration which continues over the visual material, the solemn funeral music, the deliberately slow pace of the editing, the sentimental, cinematic coda and an overall attempt to evoke an emotional response). It becomes clear finally that rather than analyzing the complex political facts of the events, the narrator interprets the events, pointing out important members of the procession, speaking of the importance of Wessel to the Party, and of the eternal importance of his self-sacrifice as a call to the living to rout out Communist traitors Lindley P. Hanlon is a graduate student in Cinema Studies at New York University. 16 and villains. A final cut to a Nazi flag, accompanied by the Horst Wessel Song, further connects the single incident with the symbol of the Party as a whole. In the same year Horst Wessel 's story received more sophisticated treatment in a feature film Hans Westmar, Einer von Vielen (1933-34) which can be used to study the magnification and distortion of facts which the propagandists gradually undertook. In this second film excerpt, Wessel 's funeral has become a solemn, state occasion with ranks of faithful followers and squadrons swelling as each shot unfolds. High-angle long shots of masses of party men, two, short, close-up tracking shots past the end of a line of men, and a proliferation of Nazi flags are premonitions of the style Leni Riefenstahl would exploit in Triumph of the Will (1934-36). Intercut with mass shots are close-ups here and there to identify actors who play Wessel's parents and watchful girlfriend, giving a slick, narrative cast to a political message. There are significantly larger numbers and better organized processions of funeral carriages than were present in the newsreel footage of the actual funeral. Supporting the image of fighting anarchists, capped men disrupt the procession that SA men must control. No such violence was evident in the newsreel footage. Similar to the waving flag at the end of Blutendes Deutschland is the figure of Wessel's ghost walking along the clouds with a flag and a few shots later accompanying the marching men. Goebbels' call to action receives direct, visual translation: "He is marching within our ranks." More and more marchers join the thousands. Finally a group of Communists with fists raised gradually extend their arms into a Nazi salute. A superimposed figure in medium shot raises his hand also, staring out as if transfixed by the message of the Party. Again the transition to allegiance with the Party is given concise visual form. The third film, Fur Uns, was produced by the National Socialist Party in 1937 as a tribute to Hitler. Its style, derived from Triumph of the Will , shows to what extent the cult of heroism surrounding Horst Wessel had been eclipsed by Hitler's own myth builders and their stress on formal structures...