The Power of Film Propaganda: Myth or Reality. .

The Power of Film Propaganda: Myth or Reality. . – book review

Alan Rosenthal

The Power of Film Propaganda Myth or Reality By Nicholas Reeves. London: Cassell, 1999. $29.95.

We all know the films because we grew up with them: The Battleship Potemkin, Triumph of the Will, Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started, Rome: Open City, Ossessione. Taken together, they represent some of the greatest achievements of world cinema. At film school we dissected Eisenstein’s montage, Riefenstahl’s theatrics, Jennings’ use of drama documentary, and Visconti’s social realism. In short, we asked every single question except possibly the most important ones: Did these films achieve their underlying objectives? Did they succeed in altering attitudes and opinions? Yes, they may be fine as art, but did they work as propaganda?

Most of us automatically assumed they did, for hadn’t we imbibed Lenin and Lunacharsky’s easy sayings on the power and ability of film to reach out to the masses. And some of the brighter scholars even quoted Trotsky’s dictum, “This weapon [film] which cries out to be used, is the best instrument for propaganda.” Lenin, Lunacharsky, Trotsky, and Goebbels were not alone in their beliefs. In the years before television, governments, revolutionary intellectuals, party politicians, and individual filmmakers all believed that film offered a uniquely effective means of manipulating the ideology of the masses. Potemkin, Triumph of the Will, and the other films cited above were all products of this assumption. So much for accepted gospel. In his riveting The Power of Film Propaganda, Nicholas Reeves argues, however, that this basic assumption, if not fatally flawed, at least needs drastic reexamination.

Drawing on recent historical scholarship, Reeves examines five different case studies of Russian, German, Italian, and British propaganda films to explore four different questions: Why were the films made? Under what conditions? Did they reach their target audiences? Did they have the impact on the audiences that the propagandists expected? The answers are, in all cases, fascinating–and in a few cases quite startling.

Take Russia. Reeves gives a wonderful picture of the difficulties and policies involved in the creation of the Soviet film industry after the First World War. He also provides a very good analysis of Soviet ideology and attitude to film, the creation of the agit-prop trains, and the birth pangs of Potemkin. So far all is familiar. Then come the shocks. The films totally failed to reach the intended audience of illiterate millions. If and when they were shown, in a few scattered villages and towns, they were seen as incomprehensible, and in any case could in no way match the popularity of the Hollywood imports. But while the films may have bombed in Bialystok, their overwhelming reception in the West created an enduring myth regarding the power of film as a medium of propaganda.

Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda after 1933, certainly believed in the myth, and spared no effort in linking the German film industry to his aims. In this he was tremendously successful. Costs were kept down. The required number of pictures were produced. Furthermore, and in contrast to the Soviet situation, the important fiction and factual films that were supervised by Goebbels and carried the burden of the propaganda message actually reached a mass audience that grew constantly in the Nazi years. But how far did the films transform the attitudes and ideology of the masses?

As Reeves tells it, the propaganda films aimed at winning support for euthanasia action encountered significant opposition. Propaganda films made to counter the growing pessimism about the outcome of the war were even less successful. And even the achievements of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, discussed at length in one of the most interesting sections of the book, are open to question. What Reeves makes clear is that Goebbels’ apparent dislike of the film was just part of Riefenstahl’s campaign to rehabilitate her reputation. Goebbels loved the film and praised it in public for its “steel-like conviction and passionate artistry.” In the short term, it gave him what he wanted. It reaffirmed unity in the wake of the Roehm purge; it delivered a powerful portrait of the new Nazi nation; and it offered a dynamic presentation of the all-powerful Fuehrer. Yet how far was it responsible for creating “the Hitler myth”?

Triumph of the Will was released on May 1, 1935, and was very widely seen in the following months. Theoretically that is when its potential impact should have been the largest, and yet, in that very period, there was a marked decline in Hitler’s popularity. The Nuremberg anti-Jewish laws were one source of unease. Mounting economic problems were an even more important source of dissatisfaction, much of which now focused on Hitler. The crisis was brief, and when German troops marched into the Rhineland, Hitler’s popularity again soared. But what this all demonstrates is the marginal role played by Triumph of the Will in shaping attitudes to Hitler. And for all the publicity, notoriety, and shock surrounding The Eternal Jew, the impact of this vicious 1940s film also seems to have been minor.

The fanatical anti-Semitism central to Nazi ideology had excluded Jews from the film industry, but the Nazis only embarked on the production of mainstream anti-Semitic films in 1939. Reeves goes into some depth in explaining why this was. The only thing he omits to mention is that the immediate reason for the change can probably be attributed to Hitler’s January 1939 Reichstag speech, in which world Jewry was threatened with annihilation if war broke out. Robert and Bertram and Linen from Ireland, made in 1939, were mild anti-Jewish comedies. The Rothschilds, Jew Suss, and The Eternal Jew, all made in the following year, all backed by Goebbels, were of a different ilk: they were powerfully and disgustingly anti-Semitic. Did they work as propaganda?

Jew Suss was tremendously successful at the box office, but Reeves argues that the film, full of major stars, sex, and violence, was possibly popular not because of its anti-Semitism but in spite of it. Here I am not totally convinced. But what about The Eternal Jew? Fritz Hippler’s film, closely supervised by Goebbels, used both archive footage and footage shot in the ghettoes of Poland. Its object was to portray the Jew as diseased, depraved, criminal, and the source of most of the evil in the world. For years, discussions of The Eternal Jew started from the assumption that the film was totally successful in its aims. Recent scholarship reaches a different conclusion. While the film’s initial promotion provoked interest, and it was liked by the SS, the mass audience was deeply alienated by it and gave the film a wide berth. Reeves argues that this unequivocal rejection of the film suggests that the mass of the German people had not been persuaded to accept Goebbels’ ideology. I think Reeves is wrong. According to historian Saul Friedlander, by 1939, anti-Semitism had become very widely accepted in Germany. (1) But even so, the Germans may have found Hippler’s grotesque exaggerations and blatant lies just too much to swallow. Jew Suss was entertainment. The Eternal Jew was just boring rubbish.

Reeves argues that there can be little doubt that the propaganda films produced in Britain during WWII–in contrast to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany–did achieve a great deal of success. Documentaries like Listen to Britain and London Can Take It and features like Fires Were Started and In Which We Serve seemed to meet the directives of the Government Film Division. Not only did they reach their target audiences, but the audiences seemed to accept the messages that the propagandists had set out to communicate. The only important exception was in the area of the newsreel, which, ironically, had been considered by the Ministry of Information, the arbiter of film policy, as the most important weapon in its film armory.

Success did not come easily, particularly after the WWI failures, which Reeves outlines at the beginning of his book. The men working in secret at the Ministry of Information misperceived the nature of the war, and they failed to see any role for Grierson’s documentary film graduates. In some wonderfully clear and absorbing writing, Reeves then takes us through the changes in England under Churchill, the growing nature of a people’s war, and the ultimate successes of men like Humphrey Jennings, Stewart McAllister, and Harry Watts in forging a new kind of film. At the same time, he shows how a new documentary realism also enhanced and enthused a rather creaking feature industry. But again one has to ask why these films succeeded when those of their German and Soviet counterparts failed. The answer goes to the heart of film propaganda.

First, the films must reach an audience. This the Soviet films failed to do. But even when the films meet the viewers, as in Germany, there must be more. Britain’s wartime films presented a view of her past and present that was both understood and accepted by the majority of the cinema audience. Films like Listen to Britain or Target for Tonight confirmed and reinforced an existing set of attitudes, self-perceptions, and ideas. By contrast, films that set out to radically change ideas and attitudes were the most unsuccessful.

Most of Reeves’ book is devoted to war and political propaganda, but he saves a few pages for a sad look at the messages and work of Italian neorealism. With the new cinema of realism, postwar directors like Rossellini, de Sica, and Visconti aimed to transform the attitude and aspirations of the Italian people. They failed, and after analyzing why, Reeves writes, “Not only did they fail to transform Italian cinema, … but only a very few of their films ever reached their target audience.” Yet as Reeves sets out very clearly, and as is apparent to all of us, though the Italian films failed in their propaganda aims, many of them, such as Bicycle Thieves, were cinematic masterpieces that will endure for generations. And that in fact is one of the striking things about the history of the genre. Faced with a propaganda directive, filmmakers from Eisenstein to Riefenstahl and Visconti and from Shub and Vertov to Jennings and McAllister responded with an imagination and creativity that changed the course of film history.

Because the book presents so many facts, figures, and engrossing stories, it takes time to absorb its central message, but by the end it is clear. During the last century many political leaders assumed that the new media presented them with enormously powerful tools to manipulate and control both ideology and the people they governed. In practice that power proved illusory. The myth of the power of film propaganda was more powerful than the propaganda itself. Whether that will stay true in the current century is another question.

I also realized after a while that Reeves is implicitly raising other questions which few of us are willing to face up to. Why do we make documentaries and what do we hope to achieve by them? The recent trend in documentary has been to try and make films that don’t merely inform but that, like Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, also try to change attitudes and opinions. But are we achieving anything? Are the audiences getting our messages? Are the films doing what we want them to do? We rarely ask these questions, but Reeves shows it is probably time we did.

Like all good books–and in this case a brilliant book–The Power of Film Propaganda leaves us wanting more. For example, I would have lapped up a chapter on the American war propaganda film, the findings of the Payne Fund studies, and the successes or otherwise of Memphis Belle and Capra’s Why We Fight series. But maybe that’s in the future. Meanwhile, Reeves has given us one of the most important books on cinema to have been written in the last decade.


(1.) Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995).

Alan Rosenthal is a writer and documentary filmmaker living in Israel. His most recent film is Adolf Eichmann: The Secret Memoirs.

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