German filmmaker Felix Moeller stopped by the New York Jewish Film Festival yesterday afternoon to hold a brief Q&A after the screening of his latest project, Forbidden Films. The documentary film examines the potential threat of releasing propaganda film used by the Nazis in WWII to the public today. While over 40 such films continue to be banned and are confined to the archives, works like "I Accuse" can be accessed with a simple YouTube search.
(Left: Jud Süss, a Nazi propaganda film from 1940 about a German-Jewish financier. Created under Joseph Goebbels.)
Forbidden Films began with shots of what appeared to be a storage room, filled with columns of original media from the 1940s. Their content is wide in scope, ranging from rallies to support the Fuhrer to tearjerkers condoning euthanasia through a love story: if Thomas really and truly loves Hanna, he will kill her should she become crippled by disease.
What makes these films so particular, Moeller comments, is the fact that they have been recorded on nitrate film, a sort of film with a delicate chemical arrangement making it such that, should they be burned, they will behave like bombs and unleash destruction. These films are, quite literally, explosive.
It is because they are so delicate in a very dangerous regard that they have remained off-limits to the public; Moeller and a team of historians also believe that another major issue with these pieces of propaganda is that they are frighteningly well-made. Joseph Goebbels has spoken on the effectiveness of film as a tool for propaganda, as it is far easier for audiences to succumb to the emotional pull of a character. Indeed, many films used tropes like damsels in distress being stoned by Polish children, quietly depicted as being inherently evil from birth. Because of the many subtleties in visual narration, films can sweetly deliver a bitter message, through a musical number or a child's birthday party, for instance.
Does this mean, then, that since these films have the potential to influence us even today—perhaps not to the extent that they influenced the German people several decades ago—that we ought to keep them secluded? This, according to Moeller, is not the answer. It may be that we still are not fully cognizant of the fact that such films exist today all around us; certain races have been cast into stereotypical roles, such as the Arab terrorist or villain in many action or adventure films. Keeping the propaganda films hidden from the public eye does not allow for a full understanding of events. We must, Moeller states, open up a much-needed and very important dialogue about art, politics, and the value of educating the public. If images are worth a thousand words, then we're simply going to have to do a lot of talking.