Friday, September 04, 2015

Propaganda Films

I stumbled on the WWII propaganda film, Why We Fight, a few days ago and it got me thinking. I grew up during the hottest part of the Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam, so I saw more than my share of propaganda films in school and on television. I don't recommend watching any of the films I'll link to. Propaganda is invariably over long, over repetitive, and over boring. Still it can be a fascinating study for a history nerd.

Triumph of the Will (1935 - 1 hr, 40 min)
Generally considered the greatest propaganda film of all time. Leni Riefenstahl was commissioned to film the 1934 Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg and she produced a masterpiece. She makes none of the mistakes propagandists usually make. 

There is no narration and no long repetitive speeches. The film shows, wordlessly, grand vistas of the massive, 700,000 strong rally. It shows laughing children, stern faced Aryan men, half naked Hitler Youth frolicking homo-erotically in a huge tent city, and women swooning orgasmically at the sight of der Fuhrer. And there are enough sieg heils to make you want to stick a pencil in your ear. There are clips of speeches by the likes of Joseph Goebbels and Rudolf Hess. The only long speeches are given by Hitler including an eight minute speech that closes the film. It was required viewing in German schools to the end of WWII.

Just about any modern documentary about the Nazis will use parts of this film. It is the only foreign language propaganda film you can buy from Amazon. You will feel inspired, disgusted, and profaned by watching it.

Why We Fight (1942-1945 - seven 1hr films)
In 1941, Oscar winning director Frank Capra enlisted in the US Army to head their domestic propaganda efforts. This opus was his crowning achievement. I haven't watched all of them because, you know, I have a life. I've only seen episode 5, the Battle of Russia.

They are narrated by Walter Huston. They use enemy film footage (including clips from Triumph of the Will), actual combat footage, Hollywood action sequences, and animation by Disney Studios. There is lots of sugarcoating such as totally ignoring the Nazi-Soviet Pact that divided Poland between them. But they do mention things like the mass starvation of the Siege of Leningrad.

You can also find this series on DVD. There is some good history in these films if you can ignore the overly martial music and excessively trite narration.

Prophets and Lessons (circa 1960 - 9 min)
The Soviet Union had a love of animated propaganda and this is a good, and watchable, example. Each time the fat capitalist (who morphs into Hitler at one point) predicts or tried to bring down the Soviet Union the heroic Communist worker (above) raises his hammer and smites their efforts. In the end the fat capitalist throws a blithering fit and morphs into a general frantically waving his atomic bomb. The great Soviet people brings the hammer down to end this last threat. There is sort of a Thor theme to this short film.

The Thrifty Pig (1941 - 4 min)
The Canadian Film Board took the Disney film, the Three Little Pigs, and turned it into a propaganda film. The only changes they made was adding a Nazi armband to the Big Bad Wolf and the third pig didn't build his sturdy house from bricks but out of Canadian war bonds.

Duck and Cover (1951 - 9 min)
This is the only propaganda film I clearly remember watching as a child. It was 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and schools were showing this film and films like it constantly in schools so we children would know how to survive a nuclear holocaust. I remember watching this film and talking about it with my schoolmates at lunch. We all agreed it was the stupidest thing we had ever seen.

We all agreed that if a nuclear bomb went off hiding under our desks would not save us if the school was blown to pieces like the film showed. We also agreed that we all would rather die than live in a post-apocalypse America. Ten year-olds are a lot smarter than adults believe and extremely fatalistic.

Red Nightmare (1962 - 28 min)
A classic Red Scare film from the Defense Department notable because it was produced by the head of Warner Bros. Studios. As such it had an array of WB contract players, so fans of 1960's television stand by.

The narrator is Jack Webb (Dragnet). The star, Jack Kelly (Maverick) is your average American family man blissfully unaware of the looming Red Menace. There is also Commandant Peter Breck (The Big Valley), shop foreman Robert Conrad (Wild Wild West), boyfriend/soldier Peter Brown (Lawman), and judge Andrew Duggan (Bourbon Street Beat).

The story is told Twilight Zone style. Kelly falls asleep and wakes up in Communist America. His beautiful daughter has volunteered to work for the state on a farming collective. His wife tells him he is required by the state to speak at a public meeting where he will be told what to say. His foreman tells him to work harder or he will be reported to the labor commissar. He takes his protesting children to church only to find it has been turned into a state museum of Soviet inventions (mostly telephones). His young son turns him into the state to be charged with anti-Soviet behavior. At his trial even his wife testifies against him and he is sentenced to death.

He wakes up relieved to find out it was only a dream but he is a changed man. He is now dedicated to being a good citizen actively seeking out and turning in Communist sympathizers.

1 comment: said...

As for me Russia was the best in producing propaganda films. Sometimes it is an absurdity