As is the case today, Hollywood films have long been the most ubiquitous cinema in the world. The global dominance of the American film can be largely attributed to large budgets that permit the realization of ambitious ideas replete with costly special effects, sets, and costumes. Satisfying narrative structures, genre conventions, Hollywood stars, and prolific output all contributed to their international appeal. As Hollywood reached its “Golden Age” in the 1930s and 40s, the domestic cinema of other countries became eclipsed by the glamour of the Americans. The demand for Hollywood productions overseas resulted in trade deals that were desirable to Hollywood studios as they managed to reach other profitable markets. As was the case in deals with Nazi Germany and their major production company, UFA, Hollywood was desperate to maintain a good cinematic relationship with these powers in order to secure the significant German market. This resulted in a self-censorship on behalf of the American studios which eliminated virtually all anti-Nazi sentiment from their pictures. But in 1940, Hollywood took interest in catering to the relatively larger French and British markets. It produced its first anti-Nazi picture and were subsequently banned from distributing in Germany. Although a majority of German filmmakers fled for the U.S. at the start of the war, the Nazi party hired the remaining domestic filmmakers to make up for the substantial cinematic loss. The films that were generated appropriated Hollywood aesthetics and attempted to match the escapism offered by its expelled competitor. This escapism, however, became politicized in the function it served. A seemingly harmless, reassuring romance like The Great Love (Die Grosse Liebe, 1942) was part of a fascist entertainment strategy to keep German citizens loyal to their nationalism. The pieces of the successful Hollywood picture were reassembled to build ideological trojan horses.
The Great Love (1942, dir. Rolf Hansen) is a film about a wartime romance between a fighter pilot and a singer. Much like its Hollywood counterparts, the plot is constructed to feature moments of musical spectacle, suspense, melodrama, comedy, and hope. To no surprise, Hansen’s film became the most successful German film of the 1940s. It offered its audience an idealistic view of their reality under the guise of addressing the all-too-real precarities of daily life. The fighter pilot, Paul, is constantly torn away from his beloved, Hannah, as the army needs him on the front lines. Hannah, worried about Paul’s life, continues to perform on stage to massive crowds across Europe in hopes of their reunion. However, just as the war is keeping them apart, it is also what brought them together. After first seeing her on stage in Berlin for the first time, Paul follows Hannah and introduces himself at a party she attends. While Paul walks Hannah home, air raids force them to take shelter in the basement of her apartment complex. There, they begin to fall in love. Although Hannah is in a loveless relationship with a composer, Paul sweeps her off her feet. Paul’s patriotism and duty juxtaposes the “weakness” of Hanna’s composer boyfriend. As scholar Stephen Brockman points out, “the film suggests that it is not just [Hanna] but Germany itself that is saved from the crisis of lovelessness by the appearance of the military hero.” The film posits that only the most loyal and nationalistic can be the heroes in a state of crisis; these are the people audiences should aspire to be.
Although the film doesn’t ignore the troubles brought about by the state of war, it nevertheless glorifies and necessitates their proceedings. Scenes that portray the fighter pilots in action are tense, yet they never result in any drastic ramifications. Paul’s landing of a plane with faulty wheels leaves him unscathed; when oil from another plane obscures his vision, his crash only leaves him with minor injuries. Regardless of the mentions of death surrounding the characters, all physical trauma remains off-screen. The patriotic duo survives the tumultuous period, finally marries, and looks on to the horizon with hopeful prospects. The film’s message is most transparent in the lyrics Hanna sings to her audiences: “I know some day a miracle will happen” or “the world won’t end because of this.”
In jettisoning the Hollywood picture and reverting to domestic means of production, the Nazi-run UFA was able to apply the narrative and visual appeal of the American melodrama to nation-specific issues. Although Hollywood used its narratives as vehicles for their own implicit messaging, UFA employed these formal devices to gaslight German audiences. Their cinematic romanticizations of wartime were in clear contradistinction to the realities of wartime. In coaxing viewers to see the upside — potential for romance, honor, and future — it discredited their fears and complaints about the dire conditions outside of the theater — guilting them for being “unpatriotic.”
This messaging, however, was tolerated — even celebrated and profitable. The cinema provided respite from atrocity; its glorious visions manipulating and distracting its viewers. The weaponization of entertainment gains power through subtlety and opacity. In fact, many people still enjoy watching The Great Love to this day without concerns or, potentially, awareness of its intended function and implicit politics. Its aesthetics attempt to disavow a critical reading; its positivity disarming a viewer’s doubt. It leads us to question the escapist content we accept without question today. The desire for “escapism” today is evidenced in its profitability. But is there an implicit message at play and what is it distracting from? Is it falsely engaging with contemporary issues or is there earnestness undermined by frivolous handling? When watching any film, from romantic comedy to awards drama, it is important to read closely. Otherwise, the aesthetics of escapist film will always take advantage of passivity, for better or worse.
Brockmann, Stephen. A Critical History of German Film. Camden House, 2020.