- Hitler and Hollywood
As the editor of this journal and I agreed when talking about this review, every savvy academic knows that one good way of enlarging the enrollment of any class you teach is by adding the name “Hitler” to the course title. The word “Hollywood” may not work quite as well, but over the years I have found that it can stir more than a little excitement among students. Now we have two works showing that apparently the same strategy applies to scholarly publications. Not that either of these two books that link Hitler and Hollywood in their titles devotes a great deal of time to the German dictator. Both are largely concerned with the actions of bureaucrats in the Nazi regime toward the American film industry and the various kinds of responses these actions brought forth in Hollywood. Both also deal extensively with the film capital’s products and power brokers, though they do so in dissimilar ways and with different results in regard to the meaning of the relationship between the U.S. film industry and Germany in the years between 1933, when the Nazi leader came to power, and the onset of the Second World War.
The backstory is not unfamiliar to anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the history of the motion picture industry. From the early twenties on, Germany was the major world competitor to the United States in terms of film production; it was also Hollywood’s second largest foreign market, with a population that had an apparently voracious appetite for American films. Even before the onset of the Third Reich, German diplomats occasionally objected to the depiction of their countrymen on screen, particularly in films about the (first) World War, in which the brutal German soldier was a stereotypical figure. As might be expected, within a few weeks of the onset of the Third Reich, and under its Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, new policies with regard to film were instituted. In the first of them, the German film industry purged itself of virtually all its Jewish personnel, which meant [End Page 143] a large number of talented people—directors, producers, actors, cinematographers, and others who worked behind the scenes in a variety of technical positions. Berlin’s loss was, to a large extent, Hollywood’s gain: many of those who fled the country were among the most famous names in the German film world. A number—including directors Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang, producer Ernest Pommer, and composer Erich Korngold—ended up not only working in Hollywood but in creating some of its finest films from the mid-Thirties on.
The Nazi regime was not content with erasing all traces of Jews from its own industry. Soon enough it enacted a series of measures and practices that would affect Hollywood and help to limit the contents of American productions with regard to depictions of Germany, past and present. These included the demand that all Jewish studio representatives working in Berlin be fired; that films with positive Jewish characters be barred from German screens; that those with Jewish personnel (directors, producers, composers, actors) be prevented from screening in Germany unless their names were removed from the credits; and that any sequences that showed Germany in less than positive light also be cut. This naturally included any images that showed Nazi attitudes towards or treatment of Jews.
To obtain licenses to exhibit in Germany, as in other countries, Hollywood films had to pass through a censorship office capable of cutting works or banning them entirely. In the Thirties, Germany went beyond this normal practice, indulged in by other countries such as France, Mexico, and England, in at least two ways. First, by instituting a regulation establishing that, if officials did not like a film from a particular studio, they could ban all of that studio’s productions from German screens. Second, rather than passively waiting to...