As a young soldier in Germany at the end of the war I was dropped head first into two manifestations of the Third Reich which half a century later continue to exert a peculiar fascination. After two months in what became the Russian occupied zone, the field company to which I belonged was moved back to the Harz Mountains area. We were told we would henceforth be located in somewhere called Lebenstedt. Lebenstedt turned out to be like nothing any of us had seen before: instead of the familiar shattered towns, and the villages of old crooked houses with Gothic texts carved into their timbers and farmhouses fronted by open manure pits, it stretched away unscarred, uniform and seemingly endless. The roads were laid out in a rectilinear grid and lined on each side by long apartment blocks with steep roofs and rows of double windows. There were trim paths, strips of grass. All was orderly, well-built but featureless, and there was altogether too much of it. When we started holding dances, officially for young females from the displaced persons camps in the area, but very soon frequented by Germans, the abschnitt, or sector of the town in which a local charmer lived, was her most important statistic. Abschnitt 5 meant a long, long walk to see her home, plus the same distance back to billets.
With neighbouring Salzgitter, where our sister company was stationed, Lebenstedt existed solely to house workers at the enormous Hermann Göring steelworks. It had no discernible town centre, few shops, not much identity at all. Apart from the rather opulent hotel which we had taken over, the sole amenity was the kino, and even that was an austere, echoing drill-hall of place. But I went a couple of times, probably illegally, with a German girl. The films were recent ones cleared for redistribution by the Allied military government. The one that startled me was Die Goldene Stadt, first released in 1943, about a country girl lured to the bright lights of the city. I couldn’t believe that such a civilian, decadent picture (as it seemed to me then) could have been made by the Germans, of all people, in the middle of a desperate war. The image I remembered most vividly, and cited thereafter as proof of the erotic content, was of the dark sweat patches under the arms of the heroine’s striped pyjamas at the end of the seduction scene. Alas, when I watched the film again, only last year, she was wearing a woollen dress: either two versions were made (which could happen) or memory had improved on what I actually saw in 1945.
Thus was I introduced to the Nazi cinema and, however unlikely it might seem in unlovely Lebenstedt, to Nazi architecture and town planning. Reproduced in Hitler’s State Architecture is the 1939 design by Habert Rimpl for ‘Die Stadt der Hermann-Göring-Werke’. Indeed it is still referred to as such in the text, which for a book published in 1990 is a bit dozy, like continuing to call Milton Keynes the ‘Projected New City for North Bucks’. It was in fact Salzgitter. Rimpl’s layout displays all the characteristics that Hitler demanded. There is the grid pattern, if softened slightly here by the odd curve towards the perimeter. There is the wide north-south axis cleaving the town as if were a carcass – Rimpl even drives it through the middle of the municipal stadium. There is the east-west axis, nearly as wide, and where the two thorough-fares intersect is the formal centre, with a forum and some pompous Neoclassical building: all the apparatus the Nazis needed for the parades and spectacles and open-air assemblies by which they demonstrated their rule. Poring over the illustration, I can’t be sure how much of all this was ever executed. I don’t remember any of the grander features. Lebenstedt, I guess, was built later in the war and had no frills at all.
It’s just as well that some other, more grandiose schemes were never realised, to judge by the plans Alex Scobie has assembled in Hitler’s State Architecture. He is a Classics don and his well-founded thesis is that Hitler’s Neoclassical passion was confined to Roman as opposed to Greek models. The aim was to impose order, to dominate, to intimidate. Berlin was to be dominated by a dome 250 metres in diameter and 290 metres high, atop a new Volkshalle. Munich was threatened with a bigger dome still, on a new railway station. Hitler himself was due to move (in 1950) into a Führerpalais even more intimidating than the Reich Chancellery Albert Speer built for him in 1938. Visiting statesmen would have had to march half a kilometre under the Führer’s eye before reaching his presence.
Thanks to Speer, what did get built is likely to be with us for a long time. He impressed Hitler with the need to build in traditional stone, no ferro-concrete or steel girders, because only stone would endure as the imperial Roman monuments had endured. He called this his Ruinengesetz, or ‘law of ruin value’, and even made little sketches of the Reich’s new buildings as they might look, picturesque and ivy-covered, a thousand years later. The irony is that Speer’s own Reich Chancellery had the briefest of spans as a ruin. It was demolished very promptly by the Russians, who used stone from it to make their equally intimidating Victory Monument in Berlin. Igor Golomstock saves the story for the end of Totalitarian Art, as a wry epilogue to his exhaustive, depressing survey of the affinities between the official art of the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and Communist China. Idealised portraits of leaders, happy domestic scenes under same, victorious battle paintings, triumphant statuary and hideous great buildings are – or were – interchangeable. Only in the glorification of the athlete was there one striking difference in Hitler’s Germany the statues were naked, in Stalin’s Russia they wore bathing-suits.
Nazi films are, or were, less in evidence, but over the years since that first exposure I have managed to see about twenty, and added another five that were new to me at a three-day Goethe Institut seminar on ‘Film Propaganda in the Third Reich’. There were quite a few people there who had come to this country as child refugees, or been born here to refugee parents, one or two of whom were upset at first that propaganda manifestly evil in intent should be examined without reference to the consequences of the hatred it was designed to whip up. Such direct rabble-rousing was not, in fact, really representative of the output, and it certainly wasn’t what gave the Nazi cinema its dangerous sophistication.
That came from Josef Goebbels, who was either remarkably subtle or remarkably divided in his manipulation of the German film industry. He was an arch-propagandist, of course: as a censor, he intervened in finicky detail. At the same time he was a film fan whose favourite pictures included Gone with the Wind and The Thief of Baghdad, and a film theorist who planned one day to write a cinema companion to Lessing’s Dramaturgie. He was perfectly capable of engineering such gross nasties as Jud Suss and Der Ewige Jude, but fiercely resisted demands from other Nazi leaders, notably Rosenberg, for generally tougher propaganda and more of it. The UFA studios continued to the end to churn out a great deal of basic entertainment, especially low-budget police thrillers so timeless, harmless and mindless that for years they were a staple of German television.
Among the classier films, which claimed more of Goebbels’ attention, some ideology was always required, but this might still be quite flimsy. At the seminar we saw Die Grosse Liebe, Rolf Hansen’s popular 1942 love story involving a fighter pilot and a celebrated singer. It could have as easily been made in Hollywood, starring Grace Moore and, say, Ronald Reagan, and have come to the same tiny moral that in time of war no woman – whether great star or ordinary housewife – is entitled to make demands of her man. When the message was important in Goebbels’s eyes, the striking and sinister feature, I believe, was the way in which, so often, he let it be concealed in a scenario which seemed to advance quite unexpected, even contrary views.
Herbert Maisch’s romantic treatment of the young Schiller in Friedrich Schiller der Triumph eines Genius, appeared to champion free speech and tilt at authority. It is only on reflection that you notice the Nietzschean subtext: the genius is another version of the superman, licensed to break the rules because he is destined to draw up a fresh set. The ostensibly anti-British Titanic (1943) would until quite recently have delighted any anti-capitalist audience with its scenes of plutocrats filling the lifeboats while the steerage passengers drowned. Even Veit Harlan’s vile Jud Suss, as Jerry Kuehl pointed out, is ready any day now to be hailed as the brave story of an elected assembly finally standing up to an autocratic ruler.
As for the same director’s Die Goldene Stadt which I first saw in Lebenstedt as a soldier – ah, that sleazy, erotic, rather beautiful movie was all the time an affirmation of the sacredness of blood and soil. It was not because she had been seduced in the city that the heroine had to be punished, but because she had been seduced by it; she had deserted life in the country for its shallow excitements. Goebbels himself insisted that she must drown herself, forgetting perhaps that the actress in the part, Harlan’s wife Kristina Soderbaum, had already suffered that fate in two of his films and narrowly escaped it in yet another. She became known to Berlin wags as die Reichswas-serleiche, the national water-corpse.
If Nazi building embodied Hitler’s personal obsessions as a failed artist, frustrated architect and would-be master of the world, and Nazi cinema faithfully represented the complex passions of his propaganda minister, the Nuremberg rallies combined these forces in one package. The setting was designed by Speer in his most imperially Roman style, and the whole spectacle was stage-managed for the camera. At the seminar we sat once again through Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 account, Triumph of the Will, and – with hindsight – marvelled that an entire people could be taken in by such absurd posturers. Attempting to snap into the goosestep at the head of his SS cohorts, Himmler lasts just five paces. Hess is barking mad for all to see, eyes burning and little muscles twitching in his cheek. Hitler waddles. ‘But who knows?’ cried Lutz Becker, who has himself made a film about Hitler. ‘What was evil a few years ago and now seems undangerous may be evil again in another few years.’