|Media Study - Nazism in feature films|
This guide has been written to help you study feature films with a common theme. It is specifically written for students in England and Wales, studying media for assessed work in English in Key Stage 4 of the National Curriculum (GCSE). It may be of interest to students of film generally.
Study of feature films is one of the things you have to do as part of the National Curriculum programmes of study for reading at Key Stages 3 and 4. Your teacher should give you general information about film study. A few basic points will be introduced here, but this guide is mostly directed at episodes from three specific films with a common subject. These are Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), directed by Leni Riefenstahl (1934); Cabaret (1972), dir. Bob Fosse and Schindler's List (1993), dir. Steven Spielberg. The guide also looks at one episode from The Lion King (1994), dir. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. All these films in some way look at the subject of Nazism, except for The Lion King which refers explicitly to Triumph of the Will. You may wish to study other films with the same theme. Some of these are listed in an appendix to this guide. You may choose other films, but check with your teacher to see if they are suitable (are there things in them about which you can write?)
What do I have to do?
If your work is being done for GCSE or a Level 2 diploma course (Key Stage 4 in England and Wales), you should try to follow the criteria given by your exam board. At Key Stage 3 you have more freedom. One thing you are not required to do, is to tell the story of the films (life is too short for this - if it takes the film-maker hours, how long will it take you? You are required to look at the film-makers' techniques (ways of doing things), what the films are about (theme, character and so on) and their significance (making a judgement of how good they are).
In England, Northern Ireland and Wales the National Curriculum and GCSE or Diploma specifications indicate what students should do in order to achieve particular grades/levels of attainment. Your teacher should make this information available to you, to help you do appropriate work. Most of the tasks which are suggested in this guide are suitable for speaking and listening or writing tasks; all of them should enable your teacher to assess you for reading and/or writing.
The AQA's Specification A, for example, has a compulsory piece of written coursework on media, which is assessed for writing, but not for reading. Here is the exam board's own guidance, as this appears in a recent published version of the exam specification:
You cannot write about everything, but should focus on selected episodes in the films covered in this guide - your teacher will show you some of these, but may suggest others for independent study. You should try to compare the films. Some things you will write about are these:
These headings will be explained in reference to details of the films later.
Triumph of the Will - the opening
Triumph of the Will is a documentary film, written and directed by Leni Riefenstahl, a former actress. The film is a record of the 1934 Nazi Party Rally at Nuremberg. Triumph of the Will is rarely seen today, because it celebrates Nazism and glorifies Hitler. It is important, however, to understand how Hitler rose to power and became popular. Leni Riefenstahl claimed after the war not to have known about the treatment of Jews in Germany. She may not have known about the Holocaust (the attempted genocide), but must have seen how Jewish people were persecuted, as this was public policy (and mostly popular with the German people). However, Triumph of the Will was made in 1934, five years before war broke out, at a time when Germany was on good terms with the UK - among the Nazis' guests at the party conference we see representatives of the British government.
In the opening frames of the film, we see a view of clouds from an aeroplane. We see shots of the mediaeval city of Nuremberg, and then the shadow of an aeroplane passing over it. In the plane is Hitler, and we see crowds marching in formation beneath it, ready to meet him and line the route of his drive to the hotel where he is to stay. We see cheering crowds of people, young and old. One woman with a child is allowed to step out of the crowd, to shake hands with the Führer. This scene ends when Hitler arrives at his hotel and steps out on the balcony to wave to the crowd. Notice that lightbulbs have been arranged on the side of the hotel to spell out Heil Hitler.
In discussing this part of the film, you should briefly summarize what you see (as above) then comment on some of the following things:
Although we know that Hitler created a totalitarian state (where people obeyed the Nazi Party's rules) this does not obviously appear in the film. Do the crowd's responses to Hitler look forced or natural and spontaneous? (You may think they look like neither of these - if so give your own view). It is almost impossible for us (because we know too much about Hitler) to see the film as it must have appeared to German cinema-goers in 1934. Try, if you can, to imagine the effect it might have had.
You may wish to comment on other episodes in the film. Use the model above to think of your own headings for comment. A number of possible scenes are suggested below:
Cabaret - Tomorrow Belongs to Me
Cabaret is a musical drama released in 1972, and directed by Bob Fosse. The film is about a young English writer, Brian Roberts (Michael York), who befriends an American artiste, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) who performs at the Kit Kat nightclub in Berlin. The year is 1931, shortly before Triumph of the Will was made. They are joined by another friend, a wealthy aristocrat, Maximilian (Helmut Griem). A second strand of the plot concerns Fritz, a young gigolo, (Fritz Wepper) who is in love with Natalia Landauer, a beautiful Jewess (Marisa Berenson). Fritz is also of Jewish descent, although he conceals this fact until finally he makes the certainly courageous decision to tell Natalia that he is Jewish so that he can marry her. Effectively he discards a dishonest safety and accepts love and danger. Throughout the film, as the Nazis come to power, we see the knowing face of the cabaret's Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey, who won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role).
Perhaps the most memorable scene in the film is one which is not strictly necessary to the plot, but tells us everything about the political and historical background. It occurs when Brian and Max go to a large country inn, to discuss their plans for the future. Sally is drunk, and sleeps in the back of Max's car, so she does not witness this scene. As Brian and Max sit and talk a young man begins to sing.
At first we see only his face - he is handsome and blond. Then the camera moves down to show his uniform, swastika armband and belt buckle. The song he is singing is about the beauties of the natural world, but each verse ends with a rousing chorus "Tomorrow belongs to me". As he sings, other people in the inn begin to listen, then to join in or stand up to show approval. The young man becomes more animated as the song moves to a rousing crescendo - almost everyone in the inn is standing and singing along (except for Brian, Max and one old man, who looks disgusted). The singer puts on his uniform cap and gives the Nazi salute, while Brian and Maximilian leave.
This is a very powerful and disturbing scene, as the audience is likely to be swayed by the song, almost joining in with the catchy melody and rousing chorus line.
In discussing this part of the film, you should briefly summarize what you see (as above) then comment on some of the following things:
You may wish to comment on other episodes in the film. Use the model above to think of your own headings for comment. Two possible scenes are suggested below:
Mike Field, of the Western Review, summarizes the film in this way:
"What Cabaret is about is the the Nazification of Germany society, what drove it, and how different people responded to it. The chief point of the story...is that it shows how the Nazis unscrupulously exploited the desire of traditional Germans for some kind of moral order and rebirth when their actual agenda departed very far from that principle...The likelihood is, most Germans looked at excesses of the Nazis as street thuggery and political theater which would be brought quickly in check if the Nazis ever achieved power. Of course, they were half right. The brown shirts were put out of business quickly, but that was because they were being replaced by a more enduring and elitist organization, the SS."
Schindler's List - the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto
Schindler's List (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993) is based on Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark, a fictional reworking of the true story of Oskar Schindler. Schindler was a Nazi who set out to make his fortune through employing Jews as cheap skilled labour, producing munitions for the German army during the Second World War. By the end of the war he was risking his life to save his workers from the death camp of Auschwitz. To this day the Jews saved by Schindler and their descendants, who number some 6,000, are known as the Schindlerjüden in his honour.
As this film is very long (over 3 hours) you may wish to study one long episode - this is the cleansing of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow, which took place in March 1943. The most active character here is Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the Nazi Commandant of the labour camp to which many of the Jews were to be moved. He is contrasted with Schindler, who sees what is happening from a hill outside the city, as he rides with a girlfriend. Goeth thinks he is making history, but it is Schindler - wholly changed by what he sees - who is remembered today.
The episode opens with images of both men shaving, as they prepare for the day, followed by a voice-over of Goeth's speech as he tries to inspire his men. We see Schindler (Liam Neeson) on horseback looking down on the city, followed by a series of scenes in which the Krakow Jews try to save themselves. A family takes out its jewels, places them in slices of bread and each member swallows some - their only way of saving their valuables. A man hides in a sewer but has to leave as the Germans have discovered this hiding place. A young boy runs from the soldiers and is shot, as is a man who tries to help him. A doctor takes poison from a pharmacy to kill his patients before the Nazis can shoot them. A Jewish boy, working for the Nazis, risks his life to help a neighbour and her daughter into the "good line".
As Schindler looks down he notices a little girl, picked out by the camera in her red coat, who walks freely, as if the Germans cannot see her. The soundtrack mixes Jewish choral singing with faint gunfire. Later in the day, many Jews who think they have escaped discovery emerge - only to be found by the Germans and shot. One man is discovered as he steps onto a piano keyboard - while his soldiers kill more of the Jews, an officer sits at the piano, playing a piece of Mozart's music.
In discussing this scene, try to be selective, but you may wish to comment on some or all of the following.
The most important detail in this episode is the girl in the red coat. For Schindler, she suggests the idea that escape is possible - it is as if, watching her, he sees what he must do for the Jews he employs.
This detail is also a cinema reference (a tribute or homage) to Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 Rumble Fish, a film about disaffected teenagers. Like Schindler's List, this film is in monochrome, except for one scene in which two boys look through a pet shop window, at some Siamese fighting fish, which are coloured red.
The scene in Schindler's List itself became the subject of a celebrated reference - this time in a 1990s UK television advertisement for the Peugeot 406. This advertisement was partly monochrome and showed a series of images of heroism, among which a girl in a red dress stands in the path of a speeding truck, but is saved by the actions of a car driver. Comment on how Spielberg uses the image of the girl in red. If you can, refer to some of the following things:
You could comment also on possible references to Triumph of the Will. These appear in Goeth's sense of Germany's historic destiny and in Schindler's looking down on the rooftops of the mediaeval town.
The Lion King - Be Prepared
This short episode from The Lion King (dir. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994) refers explicitly to Triumph of the Will. Walt Disney is believed to have been sympathetic to some of the aims and policies of Nazism, but once the USA declared war on the Axis (German, Japanese and Italian) powers in 1940, the Disney studios made propaganda cartoons ridiculing Hitler.
As the evil lion Scar plans to seize power from his brother (a theme taken from Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet) he tells his hyena followers, in a song, to Be Prepared. The animation of this song should suggest Triumph of the Will in a number of ways. It is appropriate to the theme of this episode, as we see a dictator coming to power. But it looks like Leni Riefenstahl's film, too.
In explaining this, you could comment on the following things:
Clearly most of the intended audience for The Lion King would be unaware of Triumph of the Will. Why might the animators have included all these references to it in this episode?
Comparing the films
There are many ways in which you can compare these films, but you may wish to focus on the central thing they have in common, and look at it in ways suggested by the criteria for your exam specification.
In three of these films we see a depiction of Hitler's Germany and Nazism. Explain what you think the directors' attitudes are. If you are not sure of this, see if you agree with these suggestions:
Of all these films perhaps only The Lion King is a film one can enjoy simply: all of the others are films with dark and sinister elements. Try to give an opinion of the parts of each film which you have seen. You may consider some of the following:
*You should judge for yourself, as you are part of an audience, although you may not have seen the films in the cinema, or in a single showing. The most well regarded film guide is Halliwell's Film and Video Guide. This has a star rating for films: "four stars indicate a film outstanding in many ways, a milestone in cinema history…three stars indicate a very high standard of professional excellence or great historical interest…two stars indicate a good level of competence and a generally entertaining film." According to this grading system all of these films rate four stars, except for The Lion King, which rates three. Would you agree with this? Say why.
Finally, make a judgement - how good are these films, and what do they have to say to the viewer at the start of a new century?
Some other films about Nazism
In each case, the directors and writers have different stories to tell - how far they want to depict Nazism explicitly will vary.
This is not an exhaustive list. Ask your teacher if you wish to write about other films. Star ratings are from Halliwell's Film and Video Guide, 1998.
Exam boards publish guidelines (descriptions, called criteria) for teachers, to help them award marks for speaking and listening, reading and writing. Oral coursework may be marked for speaking and listening, and for reading. Written coursework may be marked for reading and for writing.
For reading, your mark depends upon how well you do, but you must look at three things:
For writing your mark depends upon how well you do in two respects:
© Andrew Moore, 2000; Contact me