This paper examines the discursive production of risk and its management in the German “enlightenment film” of the interwar period. From the sexual enlightenment films of the immediate postwar era to the Nazi-era sterilization films, public health campaigns mobilized new ideas about hygiene and the new resources of the mass media. Depicting a world composed of discrete risks (venereal disease, hereditary illness), on the one hand, and supplying information on how to manage such risks, on the other, public officials and experts invested considerable resources in this project of public education. Yet insofar as this project addressed controversial aspects of human behavior, and often proposed controversial solutions, this campaign of state-sponsored enlightenment remained an ambivalent one. Particularly in campaigns against venereal disease, leading advocates were frequently drawn into debates both about film’s value as medium of mass instruction and the nature of the public they sought to address, a public perceived in fundamental ways as “at risk.” Their efforts routinely provoked charges that enlightenment films on sexual conduct could incite the very behaviors they strove to warn audiences against. By the end of the 1920s, the hopes placed in public enlightenment campaigns seemed to have waned. And yet the enlightenment film underwent a significant revival during the Nazi era. The paper concludes by examining the interconnections between the Nazis’ reconceptualization of public enlightenment, risk, and strategies for managing it.


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pp. 107-127
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