Kultfilm: Escapism as Propaganda in Die Feuerzangenbowle
The winter holidays and dawn of the new year are usually times of community and self-reflection. We look back onto the waning year, considering the resolutions that weren’t kept, goals that weren’t accomplished, but try to confidently enter the new year grateful for that which did happen. We imagine how we might be able to make up for our shortcomings and make do with what we have. Unsurprisingly, it has become a popular German holiday tradition for communities and students to get together and collectively watch a film that speaks to these shared feelings and sentiments, all the while sharing a good laugh at familiar jokes. The film in question is Die Feuerzangenbowle (The Punch Bowl. dir. Helmut Weiss, 1944) and is emblematic of the sentimentality, nostalgia, and escapism many indulge in. The experience of watching the film with a crowd is oddly comparable to a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and, similarly to Rocky Horror, has cemented its status as a cult classic. Instead of throwing rice, stretching rubber gloves, and shooting water guns, crowds that go to see The Punch Bowl will raise a toast, set off alarm clocks, and shine flashlights synchronously with scenes in the film; all while, of course, quoting the film back to itself and drinking the infamous punch. All of this seems like harmless jubilation and an effective vehicle for catharsis and community engagement; that is, however, if you can remove the film out of its original context.
In the swell of drunken laughter, it is easily forgotten or suppressed that Die Feuerzangenbowle was produced and approved by the Nazi regime as part of its entertainment strategy. As Germany banned all import of international films during the period of the Third Reich, the country’s domestic film output successfully kept the nation’s citizens glued to the screen. Instead of producing only overt propaganda films, of which there were quite a few, Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels, as well as Hitler, believed it was imperative to keep people entertained as a means of motivation. Crowds swarmed to the cinemas in the hopes of being distracted and inspired by the quixotic visions put before them. As Goebbels writes “in his diary: “in this time of highest tension film and radio should give the people relaxation. People have to stay in a good mood. Because a war as big as this can only be won with optimism.” (Brockmann).” The escapist content generated during this time, although attempting to be subtle with its political messaging, was nonetheless guided by Nazi ideology as it holds up and glorifies the standards and mores of the regime. Many films of the time portray characters telling themselves that things are not as bad as they seem, that even with momentary tribulations things are looking up, that life is still full of romance, joy, music, dance, honor, and, most importantly, hope; many of these films end with characters confidently looking up into the distance; towards a bright future. In seeing propaganda as an intentional falsification of information, it becomes easily recognized how even the most seemingly harmless flight of fancy acts as a cover-up for something much more nefarious.
The film itself centers around a group of older men at the height of their careers who come together one evening to share a few glasses of the titular hot spiked punch and reminisce over childhood memories. Whilst laughing over the stories of their school days, it comes to everyone’s attention that one member of the group, the humorless writer Johannes Pfeiffer, was homeschooled and never experienced the scholastic hijinks that the other men hold so fondly in their memory. To rectify this, they propose that he should assume the identity of a student and go to a traditional school, at least for a few weeks. This farcical plan, which is eventually carried out, already requires a serious suspension of disbelief on behalf of the audience. We are to believe that no one recognizes the age difference between Pfieffer and the other students, that no one questions where he comes from, and that he can simply leave unannounced. Pfeiffer removes himself from all of his responsibilities–he doesn’t inform his girlfriend or anyone else of his specific plans–and indulges in a, more or less, carefree adolescent lifestyle. As the film plays out, we see Pfeiffer don the uniform of a schoolboy, warm up to the pedagogical environment, participate in juvenile pranks with his cohort of newfound friends, and even start a relationship with the headmaster’s daughter. Nothing bears consequence for Pfeffer as his expulsion would simply send him back to his life as a writer in Berlin.
However, as time passes, Pfeiffer, satisfied with his new life and relationship, receives the inevitable visit from his dumbfounded girlfriend, Marion. Marion tries to convince Pfeiffer to return to Berlin with her, but Pfeiffer laments about how much more difficult his life is back home. Marion’s intrusion into Pfeiffer’s blissful life acts, in this case, as a metaphor for the audience’s real-life responsibilities outside the walls of the cinema. Nevertheless, he recognizes Marion’s argument and concedes to return with her; just as the audience will have to leave the cinema. This scene seems to speak to that which Nazi cinema was trying to cover up: the recognition that real life is not as wonderful as the life presented on the screen. But, of course, this is quickly undercut in the film moments later as Pfeiffer, already feeling nostalgic about his time at school, decides to let Marion go back to Berlin on her own as he stays and commits to a new, glorious life. He is able to convince his new girlfriend to marry him and subsequently reveals his true identity to the school’s teachers and headmaster. He has a fresh start that grants him to live in the fantasy forever.
All of this seems in line with much of Nazi cinema’s aims and the false hope of opportunity and liberation it consoled its viewers with; however, the film has one final trick up its sleeve. In the final minute of the film, we return to Pfeiffer as we met him in the beginning: as a writer in the room with the punch bowl. Pfeiffer looks into the camera and speaks to the audience. He admits that what they have been shown was all a lie: the school, teachers, his girlfriend, and even he himself. He goes on to confess that the only truth was in the beginning: the round of men around the punch bowl. Once again, the film comes dangerously close to disillusioning cinema-goers; it also serves to excuse the logical gaps in the plot. However, within the last thirty seconds of the film, Pfieffer concludes his speech by proclaiming that the only real things are “the memories we hold dear, the dreams we make up, and the desires that motivate us. These are the things that shall define us.” Ideology, once again, trumps reality. All is well and good in the cinema of propaganda.
Watching the film today raises a question that we find ourselves asking all the more frequently in recent years: can we separate the art from the artist? Or, in this case, separate the entertainment from its producers and context. The film makes no explicit mention of the politics of the time it was created in. Without the history of its production and intention, the film is nothing more than a farce with a timeless and universal message. German audiences, TV broadcasters, and schools surely have been attempting to look past this for decades. It’s still considered a classic, specifically a cult classic that holds a sentimental place in the hearts of many contemporary German audience members. It has generated traditions and memories but ones that can only be upheld with the conscious ignorance of the film’s past. With this in mind, the film raises even more questions for modern viewers: is the enjoyment of watching Die Feuerzangenbowle complicit in covering up a devastating and difficult past? Is the film therefore still achieving the goal set out by its fascist creators? How much is each viewing suppressing a reckoning with a dangerous ideology that still exists today? These are questions that no one can answer other than the viewer themselves.