Laura Heins. Nazi Film Melodrama. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013. 256 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-07935-1.
Reviewed by Anjeana Hans (Wellesley College)
Published on H-German (October, 2014)
Commissioned by Chad Ross
Women in Nazi Film: Transgressing Morality as an Ideological Tool
Laura Heins reveals a previously under-studied side of Nazi cinema in this meticulously researched work on the Nazi melodrama. Challenging assumptions about its ideological function in the Third Reich and refining and redefining our understanding of Nazi ideals of family, gender, and reproduction, Heins opens up a new way to address film of the era, with an eye to the specific function of women in melodrama and an awareness of the radical nature of the Nazis’ goals for new familial and national structures. Far from revealing the kind of regressive desire for a return to traditional familial forms and gender roles that might seem an extension of Nazi gender politics, the melodramas that Heins analyzes point toward an ideological agenda that drew on images of ostensibly liberated women in furtherance of the aim of ultimately dissolving monogamous marriage, separating sexuality from marriage, and figuring reproduction as the exclusive purview of women in order to enable men the freedom to serve the nation. Heins lays out the basis for her argument in her introduction, emphasizing that cinematic moments that have hitherto been interpreted as contradictions to Nazi policy—moments that “appear to be spaces of freedom, moments of subversion, or ideological inconsistencies in films of the Third Reich” (p. 9)—are actually part and parcel of the larger Nazi project. In the four body chapters of the book, Heins compellingly constructs her argument, grounding it in careful readings of a range of films and supporting it with ample sources, both from within the Third Reich and from contemporary scholarship. While her argument is wide ranging and might have run the risk of becoming unclear, Heins structures the book with an eye for clarity, presenting concise summaries of her argument at the end of each chapter and paying careful attention to the clarity of transitions.
Chapter 1 lays the groundwork for the more detailed analyses of genres of melodrama that the following chapters address, presenting statistics that support the broader arguments and outlining the fundamental distinctions between American and Nazi melodramas, as well as, to a lesser degree, between Italian and German fascist films. Heins traces the limited sensibility for generic types that characterizes films of the Third Reich, suggesting that these films were aimed less clearly at specific segments of the audience than were those produced in the United States. Indeed, where Hollywood at the time already had a clear sense of the melodrama as a genre that would appeal most strongly to women, the Nazis produced films that would be classified as melodramas, but were intended for a mixed audience or even spoke primarily to the idealized masculine viewer. Heins notes the large proportion of such films: about 30 percent (p. 15), a proportion that makes clear how significant the melodrama would be to a regime that aimed to endow all of its cinematic output with ideological import. She offers much evidence to support the preeminence of the melodrama in the cinematic program of the Third Reich: these were films that were given major budgets and filled with the stars of the Nazi cinema; perhaps more important, Joseph Goebbels believed that the genre evoked “the most intense and most politically desirable spectator effects” and “had the highest aesthetic potential” (p. 17). Goebbels believed that the melodrama would appeal to both women and men, and the preferred narratives, as Heins traces in detail, thus played to the Nazi ideal of a strong, virile, male spectator, constructing fantasies of female self-sacrifice and male domination that supported Nazi ideology.
And yet, melodrama as a genre was dangerous, for its potential for “excess” could quickly undermine a film’s ideological intent. Heins points to Italian fascist films as examples of instances in which ideology was presented too blatantly, leading to a rejection by the German audience. The lack of success of these films—coupled with the general admiration held by German audiences for Hollywood productions—undermines, Heins suggests, the notion of a specifically fascist aesthetic. Indeed, what some scholars have viewed as an intentional aesthetic in films of the Third Reich, Heins instead sees as largely “a function of genre and financial constraints” (p. 27). Qualifying Eric Rentschler’s summation of Nazi style in The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife (1996), Heins draws attention to the constraints imposed by budget, genre, and, at times, lack of technical expertise. Thus, a tendency toward studio (rather than location) shots, a relatively immobile camera, and an emphasis on the body over the face and on dialogue over gesture is, Heins argues, not so much evidence of a consistent style as it is a function of the far less well-funded film business and of the emphasis on melodrama as a domestic genre. She counters other assumptions about Third Reich film, as well: the notion that music was used in an effectively manipulative way as well as one of the central qualities ascribed to Nazi cinema, namely, that it is characterized by “the privileged place that the geometrically ordered mass holds” (p. 30). The latter element, which has been viewed as characteristic of Nazi film, is, Heins suggests, actually the exception rather than the rule: “overall the spaces of the Nazi narrative film are tight rather than monumental, characterized more by a mediocre rigidity of style than by a grandiose rigidity of ornamental movement, and bodies are much more commonly grouped in couples than in masses” (p. 31).
Here, Heins turns to the first of her analyses of specific films, examining Der Postmeister (The stationmaster) (1940) and comparing it to Hollywood’s Anna Karenina (1935) in order to illustrate her general argument. This close reading, like the others that form the basis of the following chapters, demonstrates Heins’s particular strength: she has an eye for the details of camera work, mise-en-scène, and editing that provides nuanced readings, and an ability to discuss the films in a way that enables even those readers unfamiliar with them to follow her argumentation. The comparison in this first chapter emphasizes a fundamental difference in the dynamics of identification evoked by melodramas of Hollywood versus those of the Third Reich: whereas the former constructs the primary figure of identification as the woman at the center of the narrative—here Greta Garbo’s Anna—the latter shifts identification to a strong, even dictatorial male protagonist. Female suffering, in the former, is bound up with the maternal, and the sexual violence that qualifies the melodrama is refigured as masochism. In contrast, Der Postmeister eradicates the maternal and instead “supports the father’s aggressive phallic power” (p. 40), and circulates around a sadism that Heins sees as characteristic of Nazi melodrama. What is ultimately elided, Heins suggests, is the victimization of the woman at the center of the narrative. Instead, the aggressive, punitive father is constructed as the figure of sympathy and as protagonist and victim.
In the remaining chapters, Heins focuses on what she delineates as the major subgenres of Nazi melodrama, beginning, in chapter 2, with the romance melodrama. Heins suggests that “the erotic drive can be considered the main motor of German fascist cinema” (p. 45), a pattern that she notes is parallel to that in Hollywood. However, the way in which eroticism was deployed was specific to Nazi cinema, as she makes clear in her analyses of exemplary films. Fundamentally, where Hollywood limited the openness of its depictions of sexuality and eroticism and emphasized “the domestication of the male partner through a recognition of the woman’s virtue,” Nazi romance melodrama reversed this trajectory, emphasizing instead the process by which an independent, liberated woman is “tamed” by the male protagonist, who represents an ideal of the “colonial master” (pp. 53, 52). Heins notes that romance melodramas aimed to shape changing gender roles and to support the expansionist aspirations of the Third Reich. Perhaps the most striking feature that Heins identifies in Nazi romance melodrama is its tendency to privilege not the “pure,” virginal, and chaste ideal of femininity, but rather exotic, markedly cosmopolitan women perceived, at least initially, as transgressive, sexually active, experienced, and powerful. This apparent contradiction—this privileging of an active and liberated ideal of femininity that shares little in common with the stereotype of the “German Hausfrau”—is ultimately resolved through female self-sacrifice and/or masculine mastery of the dangerous woman: “Third Reich romances often end their battles of the sexes in vicious forms of capitulation of the female partner” (p. 53). Nevertheless, the tendency to valorize what is apparently a liberated femininity, freed from constraints of “bourgeois” social mores, recurs throughout Nazi cinema. Heins suggests that this tendency is in fact an essential part of Nazi political ideology. On the one hand, the construction of an ideal of beauty that tended toward the exotic, rather than what might be considered more “German,” points to “the extent to which eroticism was consciously instrumentalized by Nazi culture producers,” even as it demonstrates the function of romance melodrama as “picturing the spaces of war and suggesting the sexual possibilities of wartime conquest while setting standards for gender roles at home” (pp. 57, 60). These films, in other words, suggested the promise of sexual adventure that would come with fascism and its expansion eastward. On the other hand, the valorization of sexually experienced women, whose fertility was often emphasized through their status as single mothers, served ultimately the chief goal of Nazi gender politics: to emphasize a woman’s reproductive role, her primary duty of bearing children even—or perhaps preferably—outside of the context of the nuclear family.
If Nazi romance melodramas with a colonialist subtext utilize images of sexually liberated women in service of a politics of expansion and conquest, films that Heins categorizes as “work romances” functionalize apparent female “liberation” in different ways. Often, these films that center on ambitious working women resolve the crisis through marriage, although this “most conventional form of narrative closure” is treated with characteristic ambivalence in Nazi films (p. 70), as Heins discusses in detail in a later chapter. However, the figure of the career woman was, Heins asserts, far from rare in Third Reich cinema. Heins suggests that this emphasis on career women in many of the films demonstrates a pragmatic concern: with ongoing war came the likelihood that women would need to enter the workforce in large numbers. Even where marriage was the outcome, many of these films positioned the institution not as one in which a woman would give up her work and become immersed in the domestic sphere, but as an extension of her professional work: thence the talented career woman who, as in Die Frau am Scheideweg (The woman at the crossroads) (1938), divorces her unsuitable husband in order to enable his relationship with her sister, who has borne his child, and instead marries the doctor who is her supervisor, allowing both Nazi aims—reproduction and productivity—to move forward.
But romance melodrama served another purpose in the Nazi state, as well: staging an eroticism that suggested Nazi ideology’s liberating function. At the heart of the Nazis’ appeal to the population was its suggestion that it would allow for pleasure viewed as incommensurate with the “bourgeois morality” against which Nazism defined itself. The fantasies of sexual and erotic liberation that were presented on screen and stage served a very specific aim, namely, “to replace critical thought ... and to stifle expressions of discontent in the political realm” (p. 85). This was an aim that was not necessarily easily achieved. Heins notes the fine line that these films walked, at times unsuccessfully—thence the moments of excess that “continually threatened romance melodrama’s demonstrations of control” (p. 90). Nevertheless, many of the moments in Nazi romance melodrama that appear transgressive actually served the regime: cosmopolitan, exotic ideals of femininity spoke to the vague promise of Nazi imperialism, while “liberated” career women served the regime by filling gaps in the labor market and embodying “yet another form of feminine sacrifice and subordination” (p. 93). And, of course, these films served as the ultimate distraction, disguising the impossibility of political dissent and the increasing functionalization of the individual with the spectacle of eroticism and sexual liberation.
In chapter 3, Heins expands on the ambivalence toward marriage through an examination of the domestic melodrama. She emphasizes that, however much Nazi ideology might have asserted the fundamental significance of the family, its true interest lay in reproduction, while the family itself actually functioned as “an impediment to the building of a militarist nation” (p. 97). Where Hollywood films staged weddings as defining spectacles and emphasized the naturalness of marriage as an institution, Nazi cinema often instead focused on unsuccessful unions. Heins points to “Nazi ‘genius’ or ‘leader’ films” (p. 98), films focused on biographical accounts of “great men,” as particularly illuminating in this regard. Films like Diesel (1942) and Das unsterbliche Herz (The immortal heart) (1939) demonstrate, Heins argues, the way in which marriage was often constructed as an obstacle to productivity, even to genius. Rather than extol the marital relationship as a regenerative space, as Hollywood films did, Nazi cinema instead frequently figured premarital and extramarital relationships as more satisfying. Heins suggests that this stems not from a move toward gender equality or liberation, but rather from a very pragmatic concern with reproduction: “The raising of the birthrate was of course the Nazis’ most obsessive domestic policy after genocide, and extramarital romances ... worked principally on loosening the law of lifelong fidelity, especially in the case of sterile marital relationships” (p. 106). Thence the development, as well, of “divorce films,” focused on a topic that seems to have garnered far more interest than successful marriages.
Even in those few films in which the triangular relationship between wife, husband, and husband’s more desirable lover is resolved in favor of the wife, the gender politics do not by any means point toward a valorization of traditional marriage. Heins analyzes Harlan’s Opfergang (Sacrifice) (1944) to demonstrate the way in which even a film that resolves “conventionally,” with the death of the lover and the “triumph” of the wife, actually served to further the Nazis’ attempt to redefine morality and marriage. Because it is only the presence of a rival that spurs the wife to become less rigid and more sexually liberated (and thus more appealing to her husband), Heins suggests that “Opfergang seems to covertly argue for bigamy” (p. 119), a policy that the Nazis specifically planned to pursue after the war. She argues not that the death of the rival serves as representation for repressed sexuality, but rather “that the risk of death facilitates a more intense and more militaristic form of life that in turn intensifies erotic experience” (p. 122). In other words, the intense and liberated eroticism that the dying woman experiences represents a type of reward for the spectator, who was confronted, in war, with the real possibility of death.
Indeed, Heins notes that even such a radical redefinition of marital conventions as the suggestion of polygamy did not fully satisfy Nazi ambivalence toward familial structures. Again and again, Nazi melodramas display a fundamental distrust of the family unit, arguing for its complete breakdown and for the removal of reproduction from its setting. Thus the maternal ideal is not the mother at the heart of the domestic space, caring for children and husband, but the single mother, sacrificing herself in return for an illusion of power: “The principle of maternal sacrifice came with falsified guarantees of female power over fascist men” (p. 136). It served the interest of the state best to situate reproduction as the exclusive purview of women, with men freed from the obligations of family life imposed by traditional marriage. And yet, this “liberating” ideology, ostensibly freeing the population from the constraints of “bourgeois morality,” seems to have been less than popular with much of the audience. Heins draws attention to the continued resistance to such imagery, resistance that limited the extent to which the regime could directly promote its ideal of polygamy and of single motherhood.
In the final chapter, Heins returns to a more direct comparison between American and German cinematic production, focusing on examples of the home front melodrama. Analyzing first Hollywood’s Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Since You Went Away (1944), then comparing these to a range of films from the Third Reich, including Auf Wiedersehen, Franziska (Goodbye Franziska) (1941) and Die groβe Liebe (The great love) (1942), Heins traces the very different ways in which war was staged in the two nations. Some of the differences are quite natural: Hollywood had to bring the war to the audience, thus chose to stage imagery of war, while Nazi cinema, playing to an audience directly experiencing the effects of war, exhibited a “refusal to imagine the true nature of combat [and] a tendency towards romanticization and trivialization” (p. 177). But other elements of the (rare) Nazi melodramas that thematized war are particularly telling. In keeping with the party’s ideology, the significance of the domestic space—coded as female and maternally dominated—was generally undermined. Crucial space was given to staging objects of desire—dancing women in revue films and similarly erotic imagery integrated into other genres. Heins notes that this was part and parcel of the larger Nazi project: “the male-centered consumption of sexuality was offered as an incentive to fascist militarism” (p. 164). In the context of the home front melodrama, it was not war, but the domestic space that threatened the individual and the nation. The resolution to this problem lies not in a greater investment from the husband in his family, but in the woman’s recognition that he must commit his energies to the public sphere and her concomitant sacrifice: “the wife in the Nazi melodrama retards the male energy that would otherwise be applied to creative production or conquest. And here it is clear that it is not sexual relations themselves that act as the retardant on production, but rather other familial duties and dependencies” (p. 173).
In other words, what the Nazi home front melodramas again aimed at is the dissolution of marital bonds and traditional familial structures and the simultaneous elevation of more loosely regulated sexual relationships that further the ever-primary goal of reproduction. And yet, again, the regime here ran up against the desires of the real spectators. Particularly in the last years of the Third Reich, new concerns arose that the campaign against bourgeois morality had in fact backfired, leading to dissatisfaction among women and conservatives, a wave of illegitimate children fathered by foreigners, and anger among soldiers about the decadent lifestyles of their officers and the unfaithful behavior of wives and girlfriends at home.
It is perhaps no surprise that, in the end, precisely that “excessive sexuality” modeled and extolled by the cinema of the Third Reich was blamed for the downfall of the Third Reich (p. 193). In her epilogue, Heins suggests briefly the ways in which we might see postwar melodrama as a reaction to the tendencies that she traces in Nazi films. Thus, she notes that the emphasis on traditional social structures and morality that we see in films of the 1950s was not a continuation of a Nazi tradition that has often been misunderstood as “prudish and preoccupied with petty bourgeois family values” (p. 196), but rather a reaction against the attack on the family and on traditional sexual and social mores that Nazi film actually represented. She touches briefly on Harlan's Ich werde dich auf Händen tragen (I'll carry you on my hands) (1958), noting how the melodramatist of the Nazis here resolved the problematic in a way fundamentally opposed to his earlier films, focusing on a valorization of the family unit. Heins also suggests that the development of melodrama in the postwar years differed fundamentally in East Germany, where the genre itself simply did not serve the goals of the socialist ideology.
Heins leaves us with a new understanding of the complexity of gender dynamics in melodramas of the Third Reich. She counters any simplistic understanding of gender roles in Nazi Germany, working particularly against a simplified sense of woman’s role as mother and Hausfrau. Grounding her argument in the melodrama, many of which are less known by all but specialists in the era, Heins further allows for a broader understanding of cinematic output of the Third Reich, and points toward a necessary broadening of the “canon” of Nazi cinema. Nazi Film Melodrama is an important addition to scholarship on film of the Third Reich, and promises to open up new interest in the complexities of gender and cinematic production of the era.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Anjeana Hans. Review of Heins, Laura, Nazi Film Melodrama.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|