- The American Marshall Plan Film Campaign and the Europeans: A Captivated Audience? by Maria Fritsche
by Maria Fritsche
As the investigation into the vast field of sponsored filmmaking evolves, the films that promoted the European Recovery Program (ERP) constitute one of the more well-established terrains. Owing both to the enduring afterlife in popular memory and the political imagination of the Marshall Plan (as the ERP is better known), and because of the astounding scale and time frame (1948–52) of the American economic aid program and its promotional efforts, Marshall Plan films have been the subject of relatively healthy scholarly exploration. They also have been well represented in film programming and increased online access over the last two decades.1
Despite this existing research, there are still a lot of blank spots to fill in. Maria Fritsche's new study, The American Marshall Plan Film Campaign and the Europeans, is not merely an effort at synthesis and completion but an undertaking of substantial reconsideration. Whereas other scholars have explored Marshall Plan films in different thematic and national contexts, Fritsche, a historian at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, is the first to rise to the occasion of the film campaign's resolutely transnational framework. The move toward economic and political integration of the participating European countries was one of the aims of the ERP, as the United States expected it to reduce national trade imbalances, boost inter-European trade, and help contain the risk of westward Communist expansion. As Fritsche asserts, the promotional efforts were themselves European in scope, for reasons pragmatic as well as programmatic. While many of the approximately two hundred Marshall Plan films commissioned by the information offices of the European Cooperation Administration (ECA) and, succeeding from 1952 to summer 1953, the Mutual Security Agency (MSA) were geared toward different national audiences, political circumstances, and economic priorities, [End Page 168] most of them were earmarked for use across national borders.
Tracing the "travels" of these films, Fritsche teases out minute recalibrations of tone (accomplished mostly by dubbing) as well as shifts in context and failures of communication. While a documentary addressed to Greek farmers (The Story of Koula, 1951) was well received by West German audiences in the national Kulturfilm tradition of documentary shorts on exotic locations, a French cartoon about European integration (L'histoire d'un sauvetage, 1949) was rejected by the Dutch information officer because the narrator of the Dutch synchronization had a Flemish accent "much resented by the Dutch" (40). A similar mixture of deft, performative transnationalism and occasional ignorance about cultural differences was already characteristic of the films' commissioning, as Fritsche points out. The information offices' "working philosophy" was to have the films produced "by Europeans exclusively for Europeans" (48) rather than by American filmmakers and production companies, presupposing a shared European culture transgressing national boundaries (but of course excluding the Eastern Bloc states). Above all, this European transnationalism was part of U.S. officials' efforts not to stoke anti-American sentiment by advertising their attempts at restructuring European economies in too brazen a fashion.
As the book's subtitle, A Captivated Audience?, already suggests, the European audiences Fritsche tracks emerge not as enthusiastic recipients of the U.S. propaganda effort but rather, for the most part, as fickle and elusive, despite strong attendance numbers for commercial and noncommercial screenings of Marshall Plan films. Paradoxically, Fritsche's emphasis on the agency of European audiences—fatigued by dry educational formulas, suspicious of propagandistic fervor—is partly due to her dependence on American archival documents. Drawing on the extensive records of the ECA and MSA held at the National Archives and Records Administration, Fritsche paints a sober if generally sympathetic picture of the information offices. The administrators were bound to ERP policy tenets but alert to the pressures of local politics and the aversions of recovering populations (against costly rearmament efforts, for instance). All the while, the officers were constantly under pressure to prove the efficacy of their efforts to the American taxpayer.
The sequencing of the chapters mostly follows...