Holiday on Sylt (Annelie and Andrew Thorndike, 1959, East Germany)
Hitler Gives a Town to the Jews (1941, Germany)
These films pose in the style of the documentary. In actuality, they are bereft of idealized objectivity. Moreover, they were produced using the indecorous qualities of a bankrupt aesthetic that parasitically erodes any artistry.
The sole raison d’etre of these films is to instill within the viewer the values conductive to the specific Weltanschauung of the filmmakers and/or their backers. They are composed of the most complex element interpolated within the cinematic medium: the grand "art" and inexact science of psychological and emotional persuasion that is propaganda. Here, "truth" springs from the narrow perspective of a drunken tunnel vision; no differing opinions are allowed to compete or conflict with these myopic visions.
It’s prudent, if not unreasonable, to dispel the popular prejudice that propaganda by definition is unethical and misanthropic, thereby rendering all those who labor within this discipline guilty of malevolent inhumanity by association. Not all propagandists are disciples of the infamous Dr. Goebels and his ilk. Surely, the act of propagating ideals cannot be condemned as unscrupulous. Rather, the ideals themselves may be deemed odious. Not every propagandist works toward the manifestations of a totalitarian regime.
Filmmakers Annelie and Andrew Thorndike devote the majority of Holiday on Sylt to exposing the Mayor of Sylt-a popular German vacation island in the North Sea-as a former S.S. man (Gruppenfuhrer Heinz Reinefahrt) guilty of crimes against humanity. Damning testimony and documents are submitted in a purposeful manner. Viewers are informed of Reinfahrt’s July 1944 vacation to Sylt as his smiling visage shares the screen with the beach. The narrator proclaims, "It is not the first time you had rested I the dunes gathering strength for a new task." During this vacation, Reinfahrt was placed in charge of the S.S. forces sent to suppress the Warsaw uprising. Here we see scenes of the fantastic destruction followed by a close-up of the future mayor. "Warsaw was full of silent witnesses to Mayor Reinfahrt’s greatest hour." Shots of heaped corpses and mourners eventually dissolve to the Mayor as we hear, "As in the past, he awaits from Sylt the summons of new deeds. How long will he wait this time?"
The film shortly strays from the story of Reinfahrt to show its hand. "The old guard of the S.S. has formed its ranks again and drummed up its supporters." We see a group of men of military bearing standing in formation, beating on drums. "Here is an S.S. rally in July 1957... Eight thousand S.S. men rallied here... Nearly all of them drove to the rally in their own cars. For the second time the big financiers have taken Hitler’s old guard into the business... Countless Reinfahrts have taken over posts of command in West Germany; in the government, industry, and army. They are waiting to go into action again." With these somber words we finally take our leave of Herr Gruppenfuhrer Mayor Reinfahrt as he waves and smiles into the camera-his wave is frozen into the familiar fascist salute as the narrator threateningly intones, "You have been warned!"
What Holiday on Sylt lacks in subtlety, it commands in effectively associating the proffered imagery of brutality with Mayor Reinefahrt. Often a loud, slowly descending trumpet note accompanies the transition from death scenes to the alleged perpetrator. Though this may sound like cheap theatrics, the audio cue serves masterfully as a hook which reels the wandering mind-awed by violent imagery-back to the person who the Thorndikes hold responsible.
The film systematically manufactures a sense of outrage toward an easy target-a Nazi war criminal who escaped the world’s wrath via the Polish courts only to attain another position of prominence in the government. These emotions are then capitalized upon as the focus shifts association quickly from the microcosm of the individual to include all those who participated in the former government-not just lone entities directly responsible for mass murder. With this addition of a human macrocosm, the viewer is meant to feel not only anger but a growing paranoia as well. Such a volatile synthesis of emotion seeks an outlet not conductive to mere vigilance but action. Ironically, these are the same emotions that were once whipped into a frenzy by the men who perpetrated the Jewish pogroms and orchestrated the Holocaust. This film is not meant merely to inform but to incite.
Beware the political creatures that seem to seek justice through the same seductive tactics as those who are guilty of fruiting the most enormous moral catastrophe in human history. "You have been warned!"
Originally a propaganda film for the Third Reich, Hitler Gives a Town to the Jews has been reclaimed via a new introduction which puts the film in a new context: "During the summer of 1944, the Nazis produced a film about Terezin, a ‘model’ ghetto established in 1941. The film was created to deceive the world about the true plight of the Jews in Nazi occupied lands."
"A few fragments of this insidious film survive, reconstructed here to provide a historical document. The film purports to depict daily life in the camp. Eye witnesses attest to the fact that many scenes are staged and others grossly distort the reality-the misery, hunger, overcrowding, and death."
140,000 Jews were brought to Terezin.
33,430 died in Terezin.
87,000 were deported to death camps in the east.
The propagandists of the Third Reich were faced with an ideological dilemma here-how to show the world that the Jews were not mistreated under German rule while simultaneously adhering to the anti-Semitic rhetoric that was part and parcel of the Nazi’s belief system. First, the Jews must be shown as content in their surroundings. Secondly, they must also be shown as a subhuman species in order to coincide with existing Nazi dogma.
The filmmakers chose to acknowledge both of these demands by exhibiting the Jews in normal, everyday activities while concomitantly portraying these same Jews in an unfavorable light. It’s exceedingly difficult to succeed in such a task for these two disparate objectives are inherently opposed. Recording their everyday routines hopelessly humanizes a people. To highlight the similarities between "us" and "them" is to overshadow the difference a racist strives to emphasize. Well aware of this, the filmmakers reassert their principles by showing the Jews as culturally and spiritually lifeless; only displaying enthusiasm when decadence (by Nazi standards) rears its head.
Jews sit somnambulistic in a dayroom while swing music plays. (This music was derided by the Nazis as symptomatic of moral decay and vice. While a soccer game plays, the sidelines are dispassionate. Some younger women exercise together; as a woman high kicks one naked leg skyward in Rockette fashion, we finally see a smiling face. The viewer is to designate this image as sexual in nature. Anti-Semitic literature from that era often related tales of Jewish promiscuity-Jews were seducers of unwitting Gentiles whose blood was subsequently poisoned by intercourse. Also shown smiling are hospital patients. Since everyone in this film looks healthy, the viewer may relate these prostrate forms in bed not only as symbolic sexually but emblematic of laziness as well.
By the time this film was released, the Third Reich was beginning its wearisome collapse. Increasingly, facts became known; the true predicament of the Jews was being seen firsthand. A last ditch effort at convincing the world of Nazi benevolence would fall on deaf ears for the most part. Hitler Gives a Town to the Jews is a terrible assault upon truth and a horrendous insult to all who suffered under the hellish conditions that were omnipresent in the Nazi concentration camp system.