Documentarian Rüdiger Suchsland follows From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses, his 2014 analysis of the impact of German cinema during the Weimar Republic, with Hitler’s Hollywood, a primer on German film as Nazism’s greatest propaganda device during World War II. More than a lesson on the intricacies between German history and cinema, Suchsland’s latest is a master class in the relationship between image production and ideology writ large. That is, how cinema—Nazi or otherwise—is a space where the most calculated intentions coexist with the least conscious of desires. The film is interested in what an image inevitably carries beyond its diligently curated contents, in the unintended meanings and symptoms that snuck into motion pictures despite the Third Reich’s airtight messaging.
Throughout the film, we learn that Nazi cinema was bigger than life and consisted of many genres, including musicals, romances, thrillers, and courtroom dramas. But no horror, as that was too close to reality. In private, Hitler watched Mickey Mouse cartoons, musicals, and Frank Capra films, which led the Germans to copy the Americans by producing screwball comedies. The Third Reich, then, wanted to craft a second Hollywood, driven by monumental distraction, fantasy, spectacle, and desire. But the German cinema of this time, which was ultimately controlled entirely by the state, also celebrated a call for dying, not living, namely self-sacrificing in the name of the group—often in the form of female characters in agony in order to woo, and shape, female audiences perhaps eager to take one for the team during wartime.
Reenacted voices by Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Siegfried Kracauer, and Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels help us make sense of the archival footage, which seamlessly builds the case for the film’s main thesis: that cinema knows something that we don’t. Or that—echoing the old fallacious line of defense that “Most people didn’t know what was happening,” which the film “reads” to filth—cinema knows something that we, or Germans, do know but could only bear to express through “absurdly kitsch” musicals and the romanticization of absolutely everything, including air raids.
Udo Kier, with his pleasantly strong German accent, serves as the narrator of Hitler’s Hollywood. The actor’s voice is free to react to the contents of the narration, and Kier even dares to throw shade at the Third Reich through minute changes in tone. Throughout, Kier becomes a character in his own right, connecting the film clips, which never linger longer than they have to, in order to illustrate Suchsland’s thesis. It’s precisely the narrator’s license to rejoice in his interpretations that renders the film such a pleasurable cinematic experience and not simply a critical document.