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Enemies of the State: Jewish Filmmakers in Nazi Germany

Josef Goebbels

Although the rise to power in early 1933 of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party marked the start of twelve years of harrowing persecution for Germany’s Jews, the growth of anti-Semitism in Germany had mirrored the increasing popularity of the Nazi party in the early years of the 30s.   Hitler and Goebbels, who would quickly gain complete control of the German film industry, both possessed an innate understanding of the propagandistic power of the cinema.   Prior to their rise to power they therefore saw the cinema as a weapon of the Jew, and actively campaigned against the lengths to which the Jewish community had ‘infiltrated’ the national film industry.   Amongst the claims they and their supporters made were that 81% of the country’s film distribution companies were run by Jews, that Jews wrote 48% and directed 43% of all feature films, that they composed 62% of all music for films, and controlled 70% of all production companies.   It was inevitable, then, that once power was assured, the Nazi party introduced sweeping changes to the industry that would spell a period of contraction domestically while inadvertently contributing to what is today acknowledged as the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood cinema.

 On 28th March 1933, Josef Goebbels summoned the country’s foremost filmmakers to a meeting of DACHO (the Association of German Film Producers) at the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin so that he could outline the Nazi film policy to them.   According to the journalist Michel Gorel, who was present at the meeting, Goebbels wore a brown shirt and displayed a ‘Napoleonic air,’ while director Kurt Bernhardt who attended with his girlfriend, the actress Trude von Molo, recalled that the room in which the meeting was held was filled with Nazi stormtroopers.

Goebbels chastised the assembled filmmakers, claiming that they were sullying the purity of German film culture by employing the French and the Jews.   According to Gorel, Goebbels went on to accuse them of ‘sabotaging the German renaissance and all the work of the Fόhrer.’   He then warned them: ‘I've decided to keep a close eye on you and that is why I am grouping all the German film companies into one vast syndicate with myself in charge.’   Another contemporary report of the meeting quoted Goebbels as saying, ‘the cause of the crisis in film isn't economic, it is moral. The German cinema needs new men, new artists, new forces and new subjects. The cinema must evolve with the times.’

In his memoirs, Bernhardt recalls how he and von Molo, who had appeared in his film L’homme qui assassina, noticed that Goebbels was heading towards them so that he could greet the actress in person.   The couple made their exit before he could reach them, and Bernhardt soon became one of the early filmmakers to flee the country.

The effect of Goebbels words at that meeting was instantaneous.   The very next day, the board of directors of Ufa, one of the country’s biggest film studios, issued a statement which read, ‘With regard to the question raised by Germany's national revolution concerning Ufa's further engagement of Jewish workers and staff, the board of directors has resolved to revoke as far as possible its contracts with Jewish personnel.’

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