Antje Ascheid. Hitler's Heroines: Stardom and Womanhood in Nazi Cinema (Culture and the Moving Image). Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003. x + 274 pp. $66.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-56639-983-8; $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-56639-984-5.
Reviewed by Jana Bruns (C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University)
Published on H-German (October, 2003)
Antje Ascheid, whose new book Hitler's Heroines investigates the screen images of three of Nazi cinema's most famous movie actresses (Zarah Leander, Lilian Harvey, and Kristina Soederbaum), has interesting things to say about the relationship of National Socialism to consumer culture and the Nazis' strained attempt to enlist stars and movies as propaganda vehicles.
Ascheid's work belongs to a body of scholarship that has overturned the conventional view that Nazi cinema was the perfect embodiment of Nazi dogma--a giant machine dedicated to turning out heavy-handed political indoctrination, which was spoon-fed to an enthusiastic population. Traditional examinations of Nazi cinema probe political films for evidence of anti-Semitism, racism, militarism, and anti-feminism, while largely ignoring "apolitical" light entertainment. By contrast, the new school of Nazi cinema studies, which is spearheaded by the literary scholars Linda Schulte-Sasse and Eric Rentschler, argues that the film industry avoided straightforward indoctrination in order not to deter viewers, and that comedies, musicals, and romantic tearjerkers could be political without showing overt propaganda. In addition, this scholarship stresses the semiotic complexity of films and their importance as vehicles of pleasure and fantasy. By paying greater attention to formal aspects, such as lighting, organization of space, image sequencing, and body language, the new school of Nazi film studies is able to highlight ruptures and ambiguities in a film's structure and to develop a more subtle, nuanced picture of the construction of ideological meanings.
While Rentschler's and Schulte-Sasse's works have attracted a large following among literary and film scholars, most historians consider their findings too speculative, because they are based predominantly on close readings of individual films and leave many historical questions unanswered. This criticism may also be leveled against Antje Ascheid's study, which tells us a great deal about the aesthetic construction of "star texts" on the screen and in popular magazines, but reveals little about the historical milieu in which these stars and their films resonated. Because Ascheid treats her actresses as aesthetic constructs rather than historical agents, this book does not present concrete insights into the Nazis' struggle to bind mass culture to their political agenda, or the impact of stars on everyday life and popular attitudes towards Nazism. However, the author's overarching thesis--that images of womanhood in Nazi cinema are ambiguous and highlight a fundamental dilemma of National Socialism between the need to promote political correctness and appeal to consumers--is worth considering and will hopefully draw historians' attention to an important subject about which we know very little.
In her introductory chapter, Ascheid summarizes the academic debates about Nazi culture and the role of women in the Third Reich and sets up an analytic frame for the three middle chapters, which examine the actresses in greater detail. Readers familiar with this scholarship might find her survey somewhat cursory and tedious, and one wishes she had spent more time describing the institutional transformation of the film industry during Nazi rule and its impact on artists and audiences. Moreover, the three parts that make up this chapter do not hang together well: the discussion jumps from "Film Culture and the Popular" to "Women in the Third Reich" and finally to "Nazi Stardom and Female Representation" without making clear the logic behind these transitions, or why female movie stars are especially important for understanding the quandaries of National Socialism. This problem recurs to a lesser degree in the following chapters, whose structure is not always entirely logical. In addition, one has to read between the lines to realize that Ascheid focuses on actresses because she believes that images of womanhood constitute an area of special contestation in the Third Reich's popular culture. She explains, making ample use of literary jargon, that the Nazis found it especially difficult to reconcile women to their circumscribed role as "Aryan" mothers whose foremost duty was to cater to their husband and children, while addressing their desires as modern consumers who had developed a taste for more progressive models of womanhood during the 1920s.
The book's second chapter examines Kristina Soederbaum, a star whose career was, according to Ascheid, "a specifically National Socialist success story" (p. 44). With her golden hair, blue eyes, and unaffected, modest demeanor, she appeared to be the perfect incarnation of "Aryan" womanhood. However, because her star image was intimately tied to melodramatic narratives that foregrounded female suffering and helplessness and often ended with the protagonist's death, Soederbaum inadvertently became "the tragic embodiment of fascist misogyny" rather than "an idealized super female" (p. 49). While the melodramatic qualities of her films--their emphasis of private conflicts, "heightened emotion, hysteria, [and] excess" (p. 67)--appealed especially to female audiences, they also impeded the Nazis' objective to obliterate the distance between public and private spaces and to fashion a positive role model.
Tensions also surfaced in the star images of Zarah Leander and Lilian Harvey, whom Ascheid discusses in the third and fourth chapters. Leander, Harvey, and Soederbaum had much in common despite their different appearance and association with a variety of film genres. Leander and Soederbaum were melodramatic stars and played women who suffered harsh punishment (death, emotional isolation, physical confinement) for seeking self-fulfillment outside their "natural" feminine habitat. The comedienne Harvey adhered to a lighter version of this formula, playing mischievous tomboys who eventually abandoned their unruly behavior in favor of conventional romance. Their star personae attempted to communicate political correctness and worldly charm: Soederbaum's demure exterior hid a rebellious streak and a passion for self-abandonment, while Leander combined a sophisticated, sultry visage with a virtuous, sacrificing interior. In Lilian Harvey's image, Weimar splendor and Hollywood professionalism coalesced with asexual (and thus unthreatening) cuteness, jolly acquiescence, and comradeship.
By closely examining a series of films, Ascheid shows that filmmakers found it almost impossible to keep the conformist and transgressive elements of Leander's, Soederbaum's, and Harvey's star persona from disintegrating into a series of contradictions--a circumstance that casts doubt on the author's assumption that National Socialism was capable of envisioning a consumer-friendly, well-adjusted, modern "super female" and suggests instead that female movie stars inadvertently exposed a fundamental paradox inherent in Nazism's concept of womanhood, rendering it unattainable and perhaps less desirable. This line of reasoning, in turn, raises important questions about the potentially disruptive effects of mass culture for the state's socio-political agenda and its relationship with the (female) population. Is it conceivable, for example, that stars like Leander, Soederbaum, and Harvey damaged the regime by unraveling Nazi gender essentialism and allowing viewers to align with different identities?
Ascheid's take on these issues is vague. While she acknowledges that Nazism may have failed to conceive of and communicate a positive image of femininity and that her actresses may have destabilized the regime by exposing National Socialism's troubled fusion of reactionary and modern, cosmopolitan and chauvinistic, populist and elitist discourses, her investigation of these possibilities is purely textual and limited to film analyses. At the end of her book, she reaffirms her fundamental premise that "femininity was a problem in the National Socialist ideological domain," and that "Nazi film divas [!] assumed a highly oxymoronic position in the overall cultural system" (pp. 214-215), adding somewhat cryptically that these incongruities make one "wonder if the Nazi state was really as solid at its core as Hitler and Goebbels liked to think" (p. 219). These statements inadvertently expose the greatest shortcoming of Hitler's Heroines, namely its failure to probe the relationship of films to developments outside the screen and the impact of female movie icons on life and politics in the Third Reich. As a result, this study is unlikely to alter our understanding of Nazi Germany.
. Traditional examinations of Nazi film include David Steward Hull, Film in the Third Reich: Art and Propaganda in Nazi Germany (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969); David Welch, Propaganda and the German Cinema 1933-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), and Nazi Propaganda: The Power and the Limitations (London: Croom Helm, 1992); and Hilmar Hoffman, The Triumph of Propaganda: Film and National Socialism, 1933-1945 (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1992).
. Eric Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusions: Nazi Cinema and Its Aftermath (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995); and Linda Schulte-Sasse, Entertaining the Third Reich: Illusions of Wholeness in Nazi Cinema (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996).
. For recent examinations of Nazi film which follow Rentschler and Schulte-Sasse's argument, see, for example, Lutz Koepnick, The Dark Mirror: German Cinema between Hitler and Hollywood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); and Sabine Hake, Popular Cinema of the Third Reich (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001).
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Jana Bruns. Review of Ascheid, Antje, Hitler's Heroines: Stardom and Womanhood in Nazi Cinema (Culture and the Moving Image).
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.