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  • Prima facie Deception:The Immediacy of the Face in Two Nazi Propaganda Films
  • Daniel Gilfillan (bio)

The picture in all its forms up to the film has greater possibilities. Here a man needs to use his brains even less; it suffices to look, or at most to read extremely brief texts, and thus many will more readily accept a pictorial presentation than read an article of any length. The picture brings them in a much briefer time, I might almost say at one stroke, the enlightenment which they obtain from written matter only after arduous reading.1

During the Third Reich, National Socialist propaganda invaded the medium of film and its production at all levels. It cut across the different genres and/or subgenres comprising entertainment, documentary, and newsreel film; and it did so, according to Adolf Hitler, precisely for its fundamental nature as image and its ability to be read "at one stroke" in its immediacy as prima facie evidence. In Hitler's description of propaganda, truth established through visual immediacy minimizes the "arduousness" of reading by removing the need for deep critical thought on the part of the viewer. It is a type of truth that can easily be taken at face value, and consequently one that can easily be distorted to suit the needs of its producers. In terms of its efficacy, post-1939 Nazi propaganda film was reliant on each respective filmic form working in concert to produce a seamless narrative that supported the regime's sociocultural, racial, and economic policies and its wartime agenda. The politics of deception wrapped up in these films shifts between insidious opacity and aggressive transparency, according to their varying degrees of propagandistic subtlety. Feature film offered either distraction in the form of pure entertainment or fictional frameworks for engaging ethical/moral questions (e.g. the 1941 film Ich klage an (I Accuse) and its exploration of euthanasia as a solution for the physically or mentally disabled).2 And following the invasion of Poland in September 1939, footage captured by propaganda companies embedded within the Wehrmacht provided "almost live" visual coverage of German war victories for the weekly newsreel series Die deutsche Wochenschau (The German Weekly Review) and for film documentaries focused on campaigns in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. Although these propaganda companies were formed as specific units [End Page 217] connected to the various branches of the German military and the Waffen-SS, their professional directives were initiated from the Reich Ministry for Propaganda.3

As a direct result of the seizure of Poland, these propaganda companies were instructed to acquire film and still image footage of Jews for use in a range of print and film-based propaganda. This Nazi archive of photographs and film images captures an idea of Jewish life that was already being deceptively staged for the camera. It includes footage taken prior to the Nazi-enforced practice of Jewish ghettoization, as well as footage from inside a handful of Nazi-controlled Jewish ghettos and camps in Eastern Europe. The pre-ghettoization footage was used in antisemitic documentary films such as the notorious 1940 film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) to substantiate Nazi claims about the sub-human life of the Jews.4 While such footage is rare, there are two other Nazi-era propaganda films depicting Jewish victimization that this article will explore in the context of the filmic close-up, and the role of the face as a screen of embodied cognition, a site where one's perceptual and affective experience becomes embodied and displayed visà-vis the physical features of the face.5 The Ghetto (1942) and Theresienstadt: A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settlement Area (1944) are similar in their propagandistic audiovisual capture of Jewish life in Nazi-controlled ghettos and camps—Warsaw and Theresienstadt—and for their respective use of close-ups.6 Drawing on cultural-theoretical discourses about the role of the face in the work of Judith Butler and Giorgio Agamben, this article seeks to understand the immediate filmic encounter with these victims' faces within a politics of deception, where deception reflects both the National Socialist intent in producing these films and the traces of...


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