The aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings has once again raised complex questions regarding the media censorship of aesthetic material deemed sensitive to certain cultures. Forbidden Films, Felix Moeller’s new documentary about the continued censorship in Germany of certain films produced by the Nazis during the Third Reich, thus comes as a timely and even vital exploration of a topic that continues to haunt our public discourse.
The Third Reich produced 1200 films, 300 of which were banned after WWII by the Allies as dangerous propaganda. Forbidden Films examines the 40 films that remain effectively banned to this day, locked inside a German federal film archive and only made available to researchers, and occasionally to a wider public, for educational purposes. In addition to some of the world’s most anti-Semitic films, which Moeller addressed more fully in Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, these banned works of cinematic propaganda include vile and inflammatory depictions of the French, British, Russians, Poles, communists, the Weimar Republic, and even euthanasia. Employing the testimonies of talking heads and test audiences in Europe and Israel, the documentary presents a balanced debate over the question of whether or not these films should continue to be banned in Germany. Perhaps due to its somewhat pedantic format, Forbidden Films maintains an objective and scholarly tone throughout, a welcome change from the simplistic polemics that characterize many recent political documentaries. The accumulated perspectives reveal that most contemporary viewers find many of these films laughable and ultimately harmless (especially, surprisingly enough, in Israel). However, the most aesthetically accomplished of these works continue to maintain the power to emotionally manipulate (and even convince) even the most experienced viewers of the viability of their noxious agendas.
The documentary also provides a brief but effective examination of the ambivalent impact of social media on the legacy of these Nazi cultural products. Interviews with neo-Nazis and film scholars reveal that while the sheer diversity of Internet material makes it difficult for any specific ideology to reign supreme in a particular place today, the Internet does enable forbidden material like these banned Nazi films to reach viewers across the globe. Although the most heinous Nazi films remain officially verboten in much of Europe, one scholar in the documentary describes YouTube as a hotbed of Nazi propaganda and asserts that the Internet enables right-wing film distributors to make good money off of these fascist films.
One of the documentary’s strongest qualities is its examination of the way these propaganda films reversed the dynamic of violator and victim between the Nazis and their prey. One film depicts the Poles engaging in brutal gestapo-like exterminations of local Germans in Poland. This cynical distortion of history was shown in the Third Reich to justify its invasion of Poland (rather like Russia’s recent propaganda war against the West to justify its invasion of Ukraine). And it’s not just uninformed youth that are liable to be swindled by such dangerous lies: The documentary shows educated German film scholars readily accepting the propaganda at face value, saying that the film reveals that the Nazi invasion was justified because it avenged Polish atrocities committed against the Germans.
As to the question of whether or not to continue censoring these vile cultural productions, the documentary takes an equivocal stance, implying that just because a film should not be shown doesn’t mean that it should be banned. One interviewee laments his inability to add these cultural curious to his film library, while another shutters at the thought of public screenings of these films attended by both Holocaust survivors and aggressive neo-Nazis. Regardless of one’s stance, Forbidden Films is a thoughtful and sensitive addition to the debate surrounding censorship that continues to complicate our ideas concerning freedom and self-expression in the modern world.