WW2 Anniversary

|   26 November 2010

The most appalling film in history

The hate-filled Der ewige Jude (‘The Eternal Jew’) had its premiere 70 years ago this month.

Next Monday, 29 November, is the 70th anniversary of the first public showing of what is, I believe, the most appalling film ever made – Der ewige Jude (‘The Eternal Jew’)

This is the film that subsequently became infamous for scenes intercutting footage of Jews in the Polish ghettos with film of rats. It is a disgusting and crude piece of work that demonstrates the Nazis’ anti-Semitic beliefs at their most base. But, as I discovered when I researched the origins and production of the film some years ago, ‘Der ewige Jude’ offers us an insight into the propaganda process of the Nazis that is more revealing than the film itself.

About twenty years ago, I met the director of ‘ewige Jude’, a man called Fritz Hippler. He told me that the whole production of the film had been fraught with arguments between Goebbels (Hippler’s direct boss) and Hitler. It had been Hitler who, after each successive viewing, had insisted on the film becoming more and more violent in its attack on the Jews. (Hippler’s interpretation of events was something that a close reading of Goebbels’ diaries for the period seemed to confirm).

This isn’t to say, of course, that either Hippler or Goebbels were necessarily any less anti-Semitic than Hitler. Hippler was still disparaging of Jews when I met him in 1990 and Goebbels was one of the most virulent Jew-haters in the whole of the Nazi party. The disagreement with Hitler was not one of principle, but of tactics.

Goebbels believed passionately in the power of film to influence people. But his understanding of the power of medium was sophisticated (and at odds with the way Hitler saw it). Goebbels hugely admired Hollywood films like ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’, and wanted to make film propaganda that worked as entertainment first and foremost. Only once a film was entertaining could it then carry a propaganda message, and only then so long as the viewers subsequently thought that they had thought up the propaganda message themselves as a result of seeing the film. That way the message had infinitely more power than if it was simply explicitly stated and, in effect, rammed down the viewer’s throat.┬áSo, ironically, the film that Goebbels is probably most infamous for – ewige Jude – is one that doesn’t really represent his propaganda beliefs at all.

In order to see the insidious way in which Goebbels preferred to work, you should look at a feature film like ‘Jud Suss’, also released in 1940. This historical drama, set in 18th century Wurttemberg, tells the story of a Jew who rapes a beautiful German maiden. It was a great success with the German wartime public, and so successful a piece of hate-filled (but comparatively subtle) anti-Semitic propaganda, that Himmler ordered his SS underlings to watch it.

One of the most important lessons I learnt from a study of all this, is how – if another Goebbels walks the earth today – he won’t be making obvious crass pieces of propaganda like ewige Jude, but craftily placing his propaganda message in soap operas or feature films, in the hope that the audience subsequently think they have thought up the propaganda message themselves…

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