Propaganda or Romance?
Kracauer correctly conceives of Nazi entertainment films as a component of a larger program of Nazi propaganda; however, a successful propaganda program need not achieve its mission unequivocally as Kracauer claims. Instead, Nazi films may achieve their ideological goals by channeling the desires and shaping the identities of moviegoers. Nazi feature films created an illusion of a romanticized private life that allowed German citizens to briefly indulge their desires in escapist fantasies while keeping them firmly committed to Nazi ideology. The idea that film inhabited a private sphere beyond the reach of the Nazi political machine is another Ufa illusion; the ProMi used film to further its political program.
Kracauer's hypothesis that �all Nazi films were more or less propaganda� is aligned with the central theses of Witte, Rentschler, and Schulte-Sasse. Witte viewed Nazi Propaganda as a functional whole claiming, �One either accepts it as a whole or misunderstands it altogether� (NGC 30). Rentschler agrees that �the [Nazi] era's many genre films maintained the appearance of escapist vehicles and innocent recreations while functioning within a larger program� (16). Similarly, Schulte-Sasse finds that �film may have been more useful to the state in its management of desire than its management of idea� (11). Like Kracauer, these three leading German scholars are convinced of the propagandist nature of German entertainment films of the Third Reich.
However, these scholars do not require Nazi films to �unequivocally� achieve their propagandistic mission and do not assume that seemingly subversive elements of Nazi cinema reflect Goebbels� failure to master the art of propaganda. Schulte-Sasse suggests that Nazi film was effective �less because of its ideological homogeneity than because � of the inconsistencies and contradictions that give films a �human� face� (11).
Stephen Lowry in �Ideology and Excess� further expands upon the idea that Nazi film need not present a homogenous ideological agenda. Quoting Lowry: �Films and other cultural artifacts contain and channel desires. Ideology, however, must first activate an audience's dispositions and emotions, motivating viewers to follow its transformation and closure. These real desires always transcend the limits of any given ideology, for they seek a fulfillment that is impossible or forbidden under the given social conditions� (131). Ideology must be complemented with the desires and wishes it seeks to contain. Film is a safe way to both provide the illusion of desire fulfillment and to simultaneously contain the desires through ideological mechanisms. Films like La Habanera and Romance in a Minor Key will be shown to make potentially subversive desires conform to societal mores. These films punish characters for giving in to anti-Nazi desires, thereby simultaneously advising moviegoers to continue repressing their desires for ideological reasons while at the same time satisfying their desires vicariously through Astree in La Habanera and Madeleine in Romance in a Minor Key.
While Sirk and Zarah Leander might have considered themselves subversive elements of a Nazi film industry, La Habanera was just another tool in Goebbels� propaganda program (Rentschler 135). We must not be so na�ve as to believe like Sirk that La Habanera is a Nazi film because it equates capitalism with the tyrannical character of Don Pedro, who would allow a plague to decimate his people so long as his coffers continue to grow (Sourcebook 129). This film would certainly be lacking in ideological content were this vague analogy its only goal, especially given that the movie stated that the Rockefeller foundation, a foundation began by the world's foremost capitalist, commissioned a health project to Puerto Rico with the goal of curing the fever. Sirk either feigns ignorance or is actually ignorant of the more important propagandist themes of La Habanera.
Zarah Leander's character Astree Sternhjelm sees in Puerto Rico the promise of erotic love and an escape from the oppression of her native Stockholm with its stable, but sexless men and its cold, barren landscape. Despite Theweleit's discussion of the good white nurse and the evil red nurse, Sirk has the audience hoping that the erotic, red nurse Astree leaves her boring Aunt Ana for the promise of a better life as the wife of a wealthy matador. Her Aunt becomes enraged when her car is stopped for a few seconds on a Puerto Rican road, thus revealing her inability to enjoy the beauty around her or to identify with life outside the rules of Stockholm's society. Not at all a role model to Astree or to the audience, the aunt returns to Stockholm where she fits in while Astree finds her romantic bull fighter and takes a chance at living a life worth living.
As a result of rejecting her role as a domesticated Aryan wife and daughter, Astree is punished. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Astree grows nostalgic for her life in Sweden. The promise of a paradise in Puerto Rico quickly became an inescapable hell that punishes Astree for her status as an erotic red nurse. Only the Aryan doctor Sven Nagel can rescue her and domesticate her. In the end, despite her desire for an erotic lover and a life in paradise, she must return to her homeland and follow its rules lest she be continually punished. Social convention triumphs over her desires (NGC 137).
At the end of the film. Astree stares dreamily at the island, hearing �La Habanera� play for the last time, while Sven grabs her arm and pulls her away from the island towards the motherland. Female viewers, whom Nazism relegated to a purely domesticated existence as wife and mother, are left in the same mental state as Astree: dreaming of an existence that can never be. Astree discovered the hard way that such a life is a sham, but Sweden does not present a much better alternative. Destined for a place that is sexless and cold, Astree is left longing for something better. The movie thus provides a forum for vicarious desire-satisfaction while simultaneously suggesting in its closure that the desire is misplaced. La Habanera is a propaganda film whose goal is both to ease female guilt of having the desires of a red nurse and to communicate that those desires must never be acted upon for fear of suffering the torment of Astree. In this way, the problematic ending of a woman nostalgic for a life outside of Nazism fits within the larger framework of Nazi propaganda.
Ferdinand Marian, who plays the greedy, powerful, virile, corrupt Don Pedro in La Habanera plays a similar role in Jew Suss, a hate film rich in propaganda. While it has been objected that the movie casts Jews in a positive light by painting Herr Oppenheimer as a virile, capable man and Aryans as sexless, dull men, there can be no doubt that this effect was secondary. Schulte-Sasse has suggested that by so exaggerating the �otherness� of the Jew, the Jew engenders sympathy and respect (4). However, in a society that rounded Jews up to send them to gas chambers in concentration camps hundreds of miles from home, this exaggeration is irrelevant as the anti-Semitism of the time period was itself an exaggeration. Shown to concentration camp guards who would then maltreat prisoners and to non-Jewish populations in areas of pending Jewish deportation (Rentschler 165), Jew Suss is the prototypical propaganda entertainment film.
Ideologically, Schulte-Sasse believes Jew Suss is aimed at maintaining the illusion of a cohesive German society. Since society is an imaginary construct for Schulte-Sasse, societies require an ideological framework. For German society, the anti-Semitic conception of the Jew provided Germans with the �Other� whose gaze fosters cohesiveness of the non-Others. By painting such a stark picture of the Jew, the Jew can be hated as a destroyer of society who must be himself destroyed (NGC 92; Schulte-Sasse 6).
However, the notion of Suss as a romantic figure does problematize the propaganda. Ferdinand Marion received �baskets of love letters from every city in Germany� (Friedman 97) for his role as Herr Oppenheimer. By casting Jew Suss as a virile character who exercises a spell over women and by making the rape scene so muted thereby leaving open the question of whether or not Dorothea enjoyed the sex with Oppenheimer, the director Harlan created a sex object. While this might be considered by Kracauer an instance of a film not achieving �its propagandistic mission unequivocally,� we might also consider it as achieving its propagandistic mission perfectly. Marcia Klotz argues that Jew Suss draws its �affective powers from the very inconsistencies that would seem to destabilize it, the places where its message seems most contradictory� (NGC 122). While the sexualized Jew resists Nazi racial ideology, the point of resistance is created within Nazi ideology itself and may have been useful to effecting the eventual genocide. �Faber and the other Swabian men cannot compensate for their own lack of virility except by keeping their women out of harm's way � by eliminating the Jewish competitor� (NGC 122). By portraying Jews as unstoppable sexual predators, Harlan has given German men another reason to eliminate the Jewish race.
Two years after the premier of Jew Suss, Ferdinand Marion stepped back onto the screen as Michael in Romance in a Minor Key. Far from following Rentschler's interpretation of Romance in a Minor Key as lacking ideological content and offering aesthetic resistance to the Nazi regime, the film seems to share much in common with La Habanera: another melodrama where female desire leads to destruction. Astree is punished for ten years for her erotic desire for a Puerto Rican matador. Dorothea is punished for picking Oppenheimer up after his carriage crashed. Madeleine is punished for wanting something more than a boring, number-crunching husband and an overly domestic life. While her husband appears to be a good man who cares about her and who only gambles on Tuesday nights, which is important only because she cheats on him each night he goes out, she is not satisfied and wants to live a life in a beautiful countryside with romantic lovers and ornate mansions. As a result of this desire, she dies. Similar to La Habanera, the film's ideological message is to provide women a harmless space for their fantasy of romance and a better life and to warn them against leaving their dutiful husbands, who in 1942 are likely enlisted in the army and concerned about the loyalty of their wives. Similar to The Golden City in which Anna runs away from her father and her sexless courtier to a distant city where she has sex with a stranger and drowns herself in despair, Romance in a Minor Key argues for passive femininity and is thus a propaganda film (NGC 135).
While these arguments for the propagandist nature of all Nazi entertainment films suggest the correctness of the Kracauer / Witte / Schulte-Sasse / Rentschler theses, if films as disparate as American Beauty or Bridges of Madison County were made in Nazi Germany, critics could position them within a Nazi ideological framework. In American Beauty, Kevin Spacey's desire for a better job and for the bodies of his daughter's high school friends puts him on a path that leads to his death. Meanwhile, in Bridges of Madison County, Meryl Streep who is married to a dutiful husband but desires Clint Eastwood decided to suppress her desires for Eastwood and to stay with her husband until they both die. The fact that it is easy to invent a speculative explanation for how an entertainment film reflects Nazi ideology suggests that research should concentrate less on analyzing movies and more on uncovering material from the time period that might actually prove that Goebbels made movies like La Habanera and Romance in a Minor Key to warn against and feed unrestrained desire.
Kreimeier, Klaus. The Ufa Story.
Lowry, Stephen. New German Critique.
Rentschler, Eric. The Ministry of Illusion.
Schulte-Sasse. Entertaining the Third Reich.
Sourcebook 2000. Foreign Cultures 76.
Witte, Karsten. New German Critique.