Lately I have become something of a movie groupie. Partly this is because I like popcorn—the cinema is where one is most likely to find it. But a better reason to enjoy the movies is the fact that they are educational. Nowhere else can you find so dependable a guide to the imaginative life of contemporary people. What you see at the movies is a surer guide to your neighbors' thoughts and tastes than 4,000 pages of the Congressional Record. No doubt, some of what you learn is superfluous: the crowds swooning at Saturday Night Fever show that women still like dancing with men in tight pants; Jaws II tells us that our sensibilities have been so coarsened that sharp teeth elicit a more dependable emotional response than refined dialogues; The Cheap Detective tells us that we are fascinated by the characters from movies of the past even if we do not have the nerve to re-create the circumstances and actions we admire. And to see the matter more fairly, Warren Beatty's splendid re-creation of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, titled Heaven Can Wait, proves that we may now be ready for stories that are well written.
There does seem to be evidence—witness the increasing popularity of movies from the 1930s and '40s—that the public is interested in entertainment that reflects a higher level of dramatic and literary accomplishment. But be that as it may, the political sensibilities reflected in the movies continue to be of the most naive sort. Almost never is the contest between the State and society reflected cinematically. Even a masterpiece like Heaven Can Wait relies in some measure upon the outdated identification between "free enterprise" and the ruthless manipulations of a mercantilist tycoon. The abstract categories of economic judgment, which enable more sophisticated analysts to distinguish between those actions which take place in a market context and those which are political (or mercantilist), has not yet reached the screen. This is not because it would be impossible to create a cinematic treatment celebrating liberty or other political themes. Such has been done in the past. It could be done again. In some measure the evolution of political thought may turn upon the effective use of cinema.
That movies are an effective medium for swaying popular opinion has been known since the early days of this century. D.W. Griffith, who was among the first masters of film, was also among the first to realize its potential political applications. Griffith's Birth of a Nation was a powerful statement of the segregationist worldview. And this was by no means an unconscious exposition of Griffith's opinions. He knew what he was doing. And others did also. Woodrow Wilson brought Birth of a Nation to the White House for private showings to boost enthusiasm for his directives to segregate the federal government. Even today, in California, Ku Klux Klan groups have been showing Birth of a Nation as part of a membership drive. The film's romantic portrayal of the Klan's role during reconstruction is undoubtedly more appealing for prospective members than an oration muttered through a sheet.
During the 1920s, the Bolsheviks used film to create dramatic and highly effective tributes to communist revolution. Young film makers such as Eisenstein stirred the crowds with blatantly propagandistc depictions of revolutionaries battling corrupt landlords and "capitalists." The creative epoch in Soviet cinema was soon over. Many of the most talented film makers were disillusioned or purged. And those who survived found their creative impulses stymied both by the poverty of the Soviet economy and by Uncle Joe Stalin's bad taste.
While propagandistic uses of the film in Communist-ruled countries declined after Eisenstein, the Nazis in the '30s made widespread use of film for propaganda purposes. Leni Riefenstahl, for example, produced the much-heralded crowd spectaculars Triumph of the Will (1934) and Olympiad (1936). She employed carefully orchestrated crowd scenes to convey on film the mass hysteria of a Hitler rally and the triumph of the "pure race" in athletic achievements.
Almost any survey of politics in film says as much. But there is more to the story. The propaganda use of German cinema had begun in the 1920s during the silent era, when many of the "classics" of German film making were produced by UVA, a production company owned by Alfred Hugenburg. He was also a leader of the right-wing German National People's Party, which later allied with the Nazis to bring Hitler to power. Hugenburg used the cinema effectively to promote the ideas in which he believed. He was also instrumental in organizing a cartel known as the SPIO Commission that later became the Reich Chamber of Film—a bureau under the direct control of the Reich Ministry of Enlightenment and Propaganda. Goebbels himself stood at the head of this agency.
To appreciate the subtlety and insidiousness of Nazi propaganda—and thus to learn a lesson for our own day—consider, not the documentary films of Riefenstahl, but a more typical Nazi work of entertainment, such as Friedrich Schiller. It is a story of the 18th-century romantic playwright and poet who is trapped in a military academy in Swabia. From the beginning of the film, he is clearly a spirit in revolt. He is oppressed by the asininity of military life. He does not like parades. He does not enjoy standing at attention. He is perfectly capable of talking back to his commanding officer and dashing out of formation to place a poem in the hands of his lover. Quite clearly, Fritz is a liberal spirit.
All of the petty stupidities of arbitrary power are associated with Schiller's nemesis the Duke of Swabia, a corpulent gentleman played by an actor with a strong resemblance to Churchill. As the Duke proceeds through the streets, he is greeted by crowds of shouting subjects whose gestures and salutes are clearly reminiscent of the Nazis themselves. The resemblance between the cinematic expressions of support for the apparently evil Duke of Swabia and Hitler almost make one suspect that anti-Nazi subversives produced the film. But wait. Friedrich Schiller is not an anti-Nazi film. Its libertarian and anti-militaristic elements are spliced into a larger German nationalist show.
Schiller shouts "death to tyrants" and openly rebels against the evil Duke. He shows the audience that resistance is possible and even provides details on how it is done. That the Nazis did not fear this kind of demonstration shows their confidence that the liberal elements in popular culture could be transformed into an antiliberal statement. Friedrich Schiller, for all its treatment of liberal rebellion, is really a propaganda piece about the destiny of the German nation.
That makes it rather a back number as far as today's causes go and thus a good study in the current circumstances—when the need for liberty is felt everywhere but the media that contribute to the imaginative life of the public are largely under the control of persons with illiberal sentiments. At times when the lack of liberty becomes a deeply felt grievance, as it surely was in the days when the Ministry of Enlightenment and Propaganda tossed out its offerings to the German people, the emotive power of freedom can be transformed and harnessed to a totalitarian purpose. The Nazi regime, arguably the most militaristic and tyrannical in modern times, could make films attacking militarists and ending with the appeal "death to tyrants." Antilibertarian elements today could perform the same kind of political gymnastics and thus harness the presently neglected emotional demands for freedom in some new celluloid propaganda.
Then we would have nothing to go to the movies for but popcorn.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: Films and Freedom".