Germans in Hollywood Films: The Changing Image, 1914-1939
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 3, Number 2, May 1973
- pp. 1-26
- Additional Information
Germans in Hollywood Films THE CHANGING IMAGE, 1914-1939^ ^^.^ °ehling ' Dowlmg College Many Americans see the outside world in a series of stereotyped images. Although all Americans do not share the same image of foreigners, none the less some generalized images do exist. Where have these images come from? What institutions in our society have reinforced and fed these concepts? Newspapers, books, radio, television, and motion pictures have all played a part both in forming value judgements about foreigners and foreign groups and in reinforcing attitudes already established. This essay should be seen as a kind of prologemena to a larger, pressing need of research; a sweeping investigation of the way in which 20th century Americans have viewed the outside world. Perhaps by using a case-study approach on material with which most adult Americans would have some familiarity, namely the image of Germans in Hollywood films from World War I to World War II -perhaps through this means we can explore the potentialities of this problem, the immensity of the materials and the pressing need for the historians' perspective. "Movies" are not the only cause or reflector of such attitudes, nor can we assert that it was even first among the media in image formation . However, for four decades, millions of Americans regularly attended motion pictures - often at least once or twice a week - and that much exposure must have had an effect. Such exposure, also reveals values already existing, for it seems unreasonable to assume that millions of people would continue to pay to see pictures which consistently ran against their values. At its peak, motion picture production was most impressive. In the years between 1915 and 1944, major American film producers created and released for public consumption over 20,000 films!1 In one year alone, 1944, Hollywood produced 340 feature films - and this during a world-wide conflagration. Average weekly attendance for the same year was 95,000,000; and the gross receipts that year reached Richard A. Oehllng Is assistant dean at Vowling College In Oakdale, W. V. On. Oehllng Is the authon o fa Martin Luther, one ofa the fatimistudy guides pnepaned bu the Amenican Hlstonlcal Association's Featune ViIm Pnoject. Tliis Is the fainst o fa a two- pant article. 1 $1,350,1)00,000, making the film industry one of the largest businesses in the United States.2 As historians, we cannot continue to disregard the question of the impact of a social phenomena of this magnitude. In this century, American relations with, and attitudes toward, Germany and Germans have been at the least as important as our perceptions and relations with any other single country or group of countries. To consider the American image of Germans during the first World War, we must first of all remember that the United States remained officially neutral for three years, entering the war only in 1917. Was American opinion truly neutral during that time? What was the image of the German at the beginning of the war, and was that image the same in 1917 when we declared war, ostensibly over the issue of submarine activity? The United States had a very sizeable Germanderived and often German-speaking population. German language newspapers were published in many of our major cities. American universities openly copied their German counterparts. Many Americans were impressed by Germany's industrial, educational, and technological advancement . It must also be said, however, that Americans had also begun to criticize Germany's aggressiveness in foreign affairs in the Wilhelmian era, and had noted with increasing uneasiness the signs of German militarism. Pro-German sentiment never obscured or over-rode our Pro-English attitudes. Books on Pan-Germanism, German sea power, and modern German politics influenced a small but significant strata of the American reading public. Thus all was not Pro-German nor even strictly neutral when war broke out in the summer of 1914.3 By 1915 the first films involving issues of war and peace, and containing images of the combatants, reached an ever-increasing number of theatres. At first they seemed to be neutral, one even being called Neutrality.4 Civilization, directed by Thomas Ince and released in 1916...