Sunday, May 10, 2015

Felix Moeller's FORBIDDEN FILMS, the still-hidden legacy of Nazi cinema, gets a week's theatrical release -- free! -- at NYC's Film Forum

Felix Moeller is at it again. This German filmmaker and documentarian (I believe he is German but can find no city of birth listed for him anywhere) who in 2010 gave us the interesting documentary, Harlan -- In the Shadow of Jew Süss (all about the director of Jew Süss, one of the more infamous anti-Semitic German films made during World War II), has now gifted us with an even more interesting and important documentary that sheds light on the output of Nazi cinema during this fraught time.

His new work, FORBIDDEN FILMS: The Hidden Legacy of Nazi Film, tackles the what, why and how of this "charged" cinema. As Moeller tells us at the start of his doc, "Between 1933 and 1945, 1200 feature films were made in Germany. After the war, the Allies banned 300 of these as 'propaganda,' and 40 of them remain restricted today." Why this is so, and what could or should be done about it is Moeller's subject, and he offers up a number of worthwhile viewpoints -- from damn-the-torpedoes-and-just-show-these-films to a philosophy of keep-them-censored to something in between.

The bits and pieces we see of several of the movies -- in which the anti-Semitism and pseudo-history is said to be so well executed that the films need to stay censored -- simply make us even more interested in seeing the entire film, while the various talking heads (each of them intelligent, thoughtful and convincing) disagree on how best to handle the archive. (That's a still from The Rothschilds, above, and from Homecoming, below -- the latter of which actually manages to blame Poland for its conquest by the Nazis.

In addition to seeing clips from several of these "forbidden films," we also see and hear a series of talking heads (and sometimes complete bodies) that explain what the films accomplish and why, in some cases, their public screenings need to be at least "monitored." (Some, pirated, are already available to watch on YouTube, and are used to garner new members by various "hate" groups.)

One of the more disturbing sections of Moeller's movie lets us hear comments from viewers -- some informed by history, others not at all -- about their reactions to the films. Much of this is scary enough to make us better understand why the films have been out of circulation for so long. A French screening of the most notorious of the films (Jew Süss, 'natch) brings out a lot of smart comments from audiences young and old. Notes one person, "Capitalism is hidden behind this image, and then globalization."

We also are faced with the notion of how to "de-Nazify" the movies by editing them -- a very big mistake, I believe. By taking out certain portions, speeches or symbols, the films are de-balled, so to speak, leaving audiences to wonder what the fuss was all about and perhaps even more able to embrace their remaining muffled prejudices.

We learn something about the famous German movie stars of the period, including Emile Jannings (shown far left, of The Blue Angel fame) and his role in Uncle Krüger, and especially an actor less known to us Americans named Heinrich George, shown near left. Perhaps the most interesting portion of the film is devoted to a movie titled I Accuse, and how it was made to pave the way for the Nazi's use of euthanasia.

"Even the Nazis had pre-conditioned 'Christian' consciences," notes one interviewee, regarding the euthanasia push, "so immediately shoving all the 'crazies' into gas chambers would have been too much, even for them." It is quite moving and unsettling to hear the daughter of the late director of I Accuse talk about her father and the film itself before a modern audience of very mixed opinions! Finally, the response of the film's last interviewee will make you think hard.

No lesser "light" than the Nazi's Joseph Goebbels perfectly understood how movies could be the state's most effective form of propaganda, and he saw to it that this propaganda was created and executed on a populace that embraced it whole-hog -- a reaction not unlike America's to the recent Clint Eastwood movie, American Sniper. Back in the time of WWII, audiences of all ages flocked to film the way they do today to TV and (for younger folks, at least) the internet. Give uninformed and somewhat frightened audiences the chance to root for their own country -- whatever foul endeavor in which it might be engaged -- and you can be certain the majority will do just that. (Shown below is the archive where these Nazi films are currently kept.)

Overall, Forbidden Films  -- from Zeitgeist Films and running 94 minutes -- opens up so many disparate but necessary avenues of thought about what censorship is and when, if ever, it might be worthwhile, that it's a must-see. How very fine it is that this documentary (along with three screenings of the complete Jew Süss) will make its theatrical debut this Wednesday, May 13, at New York City's Film Forum, with free admission for all audiences -- including the special screenings of Jew Süss -- on a first-come/first served basis for its entire one-week run. This is thanks to both the Ostrovsky Family Fund and to the Joan S. Constantiner Fund for Jewish and Holocaust Films.

Special note: 
For Los Angeles-based viewers, the Laemmle chain 
will screen the documentary at all six of its venues 
at 7:30 PM on Monday, June 1, and at 1 PM on Tuesday, 
June 2, as part of its weekly series Culture Vulture.

For more information, click here.

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