William John Niven. Hitler and Film: The Führer's Hidden Passion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018. 312 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-20036-2.
Reviewed by Rachel E. Boaz (Baldwin Wallace College)
Published on H-War (December, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
The secondary literature examining Hitler’s interest in the arts is extensive, and immediately brings to mind “Germanic” art, Wagnerian opera, and, of course, their “degenerate” versions as interpreted by the Nazis. Bill Niven, the author of Hitler and Film: The Führer’s Hidden Passion, himself references how the historiography on the Nazis and film has been “exhaustively documented” (p. 1), though there have been comparatively few works focusing solely on Hitler and his intervention in the film industry during the Third Reich. Niven’s monograph sets out to fill this gap in the secondary literature and makes an entirely unique contribution in demonstrating how “Hitler’s interventions in film matters reflect his self-appointed political role as head diplomat, chief racial policymaker and master-builder” (p. 51). As has indeed been “reflected implicitly” in the numerous studies on film in the Third Reich, Hitler did not leave the exploitation of film all to minister of propaganda Josef Goebbels (p. 1). In exacting detail, Niven closely examines Hitler’s involvement in film more closely, which results in a fresh perspective on the film industry and personnel during the Third Reich but also the larger picture of Nazi propaganda and construction of a Führer state. Who knew, given Hitler’s warmongering and mass atrocities, that he even had time to dabble in film—much less involve himself to the extent detailed by Nevin? As one might expect, film was “trivia and entertainment on the one hand, yet a vehicle for supporting Nazi ideology on the other” (p. 3).
Hitler enjoyed watching movies—a well-known hobby that may conjure up images of the Führer unwinding with guests in the privacy of the Berghof; Niven shows readers that Hitler was far from simply a “passive consumer” of films. This dynamic applied whether Hitler was viewing films in public or meddling behind the scenes in their production and release. Whether overt or implicit, Hitler calculated how his support of a film reinforced the Führerprinzip, and Niven points to examples of the dictator visiting cinemas specifically to have the audience associate him with a specific film. In fact, Hitler’s attendance was noted and could be reported in all of the national newspapers, as was the case in his viewing of the World War I feature Dawn (1928), or his routine viewing of the military’s Wochenschau—both of which worked to his advantage in support of Great War veterans and the current activities of the Wehrmacht, respectively. Strengthening a sense of Volksgemeinschaft did not always have to involve a sobering political message. Niven describes Hitler also attending films which seemed nothing less than a “harmless comedy”—in fact, there was an ulterior motive even here with the Führer’s intent to make a connection with ordinary Germans by “mixing with them, showing himself to be close to them, and apparently sharing in their leisure activities and their collective amusement” (p. 100). In time, Hitler adjusted his viewing habits, with regard to both their content and frequency, to be appropriate in a nation at war. For this reason, Niven has divided the book between prewar and wartime film developments, and therein provides a solid thematic and chronological framework for the reader to work from.
Through personal intervention in film production and release, Hitler went beyond employing simple consumption of film to shape his public persona and further his political agenda; dictating the narrative of a film, or perhaps even banning it altogether, was not beyond his purview. Directors found themselves tasked with accommodating Hitler’s demands to communicate a specific message—ranging from the justification of a major military maneuver to the subtleties of a political decision—or perhaps the necessity of catering to Hitler’s fascination with Frederick the Great. Constant pressure was applied on the film industry to frame the Führer in a positive light. Films were produced to promote ideologies such as eugenics, anti-Bolshevism, and anti-Semitisim, with the ulterior motive of garnering public complicity, or favor, for the respective state actions of the sterilization laws, Operation Barbarossa, and the expulsion of the Jews.
Niven’s work is notable for the diversity of his archival research and the reliability of the primary sources he has consulted, such as contemporary news reports and interviews with various adjutants of Hitler who could testify to the Führer’s activities and behavior behind closed doors. The intensity of Niven’s subject matter and analysis leaves little subject to criticism. Hitler in Film addresses key Nazi anti-Semitic films such as The Rothschilds (1940), Jud Süss (1940), and The Eternal Jew (1940), which begs the question: were there any films produced about the modern, assimilated Jew? After all, the vast majority of Germans were unfamiliar with the minority of Orthodox Jews in their population. Niven also neglects to touch on the film Ich klage an (I Accuse) (1941), even though this production was intended to reinforce support for euthanasia killing, and ultimately the so-called T4 Program—which was the very template upon which the death camps were based. Niven further mentions the need to know more about the effects the rabidly anti-Semitic films had on audiences—perhaps further research could trace connections between film showings and anti-Semitic acts.
Throughout Hitler in Film, Niven reinforces themes evident in the overarching historiography of the Third Reich. Intraparty tensions, misuse of funds, and the drama and backstabbing so characteristic of the bureaucracy of Hitler’s state plagued the film industry as well. Niven convinces the reader that, based on his actions, “Hitler well understood the persuasive power of film” (p. 2), and he does so in an engaging style. This book is recommended for any readers interested in the history of the Third Reich and would be particularly valuable in supplementing a college-level course on Nazism.
. One exception would be Michael Munn’s Hitler and the Nazi Cult of Film and Fame (London: Skyhorse Publishing, 2012), in which he contends that Hitler’s control of German cinema was driven by his desire to become famous (p. 1).
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Rachel E. Boaz. Review of Niven, William John, Hitler and Film: The Führer's Hidden Passion.
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