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)
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)
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 Thrifty Pig (1941 - 4 min)
Duck and Cover (1951 - 9 min)
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)
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.