This is perhaps the most famous Nazi anti Jew film. In this unrelenting piece of propaganda, we are given a Nazi history of the Jewish people, a description of how they have attained positions of influence, numerous examples of Jews in senior positions, a segment against kosher slaughtering methods, finishing with clips of a Nazi rally.
I feel I should say a few words about my decision to watch and write about a film of this nature. I’m not writing a review here in the conventional sense. I think to do that would be in bad taste, and I’m also not in the least bit qualified to do so. This fact may lead one to the very reasonable position that if this can’t be reviewed like a normal film, does it belong on a film blog? It’s certainly acceptable to hold that a film like this should find itself only in a history class, if anywhere at all, but let me explain my reasons for writing about it here.
I recently wrote an article on representations of the mentally ill in films, and whether or not it is acceptable to present a grotesque stereotype for the cinematic benefits that yield; in the case of the examples I gave it was the fear of someone with certain serious mental conditions, and the attributes this can lend to a character. Considering the prevalence of movie psychopaths, we’re tempted to say it is acceptable, or risk losing many-a brilliant movie villain. I then suggested that we may not be as keen to accept other forms of stereotyping on these grounds. To compare, I thought it may be interesting to look at a film which exploits a stereotype in a way we feel is unacceptable and see what the difference is. This led me to the idea of watching a Nazi propaganda film, the most extreme example of stereotyping in film. This is very much a continuation of that post, which I recommend you read now if you haven’t already.
I should say this immediately: I do not consider The Silence of the Lambs – the film I presented as one of the worst major representation of the mentally ill – to be remotely comparable to a Nazi propaganda film. The film I have watched here is in an entirely different classification to any work of modern fiction; certainly anything we’ve looked at on this blog. But similarly I don’t feel that propaganda should be off limits. The Battleship Potemkin is a popular piece amongst film buffs despite being a propaganda movie for an oppressive, totalitarian regime. Again I feel that Der erwige Jude is significantly different, in the sense that it’s not a dramatic representation of a battle written by the winners, as is Potemkin, which is comparable to some American war films that have a similar effect on their audiences.
Der erwige Jude is presented as a documentary, created with a combination of real and staged footage, with a highly fictionalized version of history designed specifically to turn the audience against a single group of people. Yet I still feel it can be of interest in terms of the way we view films, the way we consume information and in how we view minority groups in society. Yes, nothing is similar to this film other than equivalent films of the time, but in some ways this is more interesting. If we have a starting position that everything about this film is lies and propaganda from one of the most unequivocally bad schools of thought in history we can learn all the more from picking out comparisons with our world.
We can, for example, look at the way certain groups such as Muslims, the poor or the disabled are represented by the media or in the rhetoric of politicians. In this film, the Jews are presented as people who live off others and take from them without giving, similar to the rhetoric against “scroungers” or immigrants who live off the state and others in Britain today. Once again I will emphasise I am not saying any group in modern Britain is treated like a Jew under the Nazis, but certainly media manipulation and scapegoating goes on which are tactics used in this film, which we can see occurring in our society and condemn. Seeing the extremes of these forms of government activity can help us see their negative consequences that may be less obvious on the smaller scale on which they occur in this country in the 21st century. It’s not to equate the two, but to realise the harm this kind of behaviour can lead to. Watching a film like this can also help us challenge ourselves and our own views. Do we unfairly stereotype people, or accept generalisations or scapegoating to support our own political ends? If we are completely honest with ourselves, are we completely innocent of the crimes on display here?
As I have mentioned, this film, and others like it, can help us question how we consume information too. This is certainly a powerful piece of propaganda, comparable to internet conspiracy videos in the way it presents absolute mistruth as solid fact, constantly reinforcing that its message is true regardless of how it appears. In this film, images of impoverished Jews in the Warsaw ghetto are shown while a voice over talks of their secret wealth. The appearance to the contrary is simply evidence of a greater conspiracy. Convincing people in spite of the immediate evidence to the contrary is perhaps the highest aim of any propaganda film, which is what many conspiracy videos seek to do, whether about 9/11, the moon landings or the Illuminati.
Watching this we are also forced to ask ourselves whether, were we unfortunate enough to have found ourselves in a German cinema in 1940, would we have been persuaded? Certainly, unless we want to condemn the German people as especially weak or foolish we have to acknowledge the possibility that we too may have bought into this poisonous rhetoric, presented as public information. How many times have we accepted, unquestioningly, the contents of a newspaper article, documentary or book? Might the creators of these not also have agendas and views towards which they aim to influence us? Once again these examples are on a far smaller scale than the Nazi propaganda machine, but the extreme example presented in this film can motivate serious introspection.
But above all else, it’s important to keep in mind a piece of history that shouldn’t be forgotten. The truth of events in Germany between 1934 and 1945 will remain in our collective consciousness for a long time, but seeing the hatred of the Nazis laid out in such clear and explicit terms as in this film refreshes the sheer horror of it for us. By hiding it away and refusing to acknowledge its existence we eliminate any chance of debate, and if we can’t debate it how can we learn from it?
My starting point with this was as a comparison to movie representations of the mentally ill. Now while I rejected this film as a comparison point due to it being pure propaganda presented as public information, as opposed to being simply a negative fictional representation, what if the way Jews are represented in this film was done in a piece of fiction? What if there was a slasher film where the killer was the evil, manipulative, greedy, deceptive Jew of this film? What if this was portrayed in such a way as to create a great movie villain after Hannibal Lecter or the Joker? And what if this happened time and time again in cinema? I suspect most people wouldn’t find this acceptable, so in a sense this write-up (I’m hesitant to call it a review) is an extension of my previous blog post.
Is this an appropriate analogy? Mentally ill people who commit heinous crimes certainly exist, there’s no denying that. The problem with films is that the group is overrepresented in this way. Similarly there are presumably some Jews who have the some of the aforementioned characteristics of the Nazi stereotype, but if they were consistently represented this way in films it would obviously be problematic.
How about the fear of the “other”? Whether Jews, the mentally ill, gays or foreigners the simple fear of those who are different is one that has been exploited throughout history, by religions, governments and entertainment. One could argue that the mentally ill in the films I have mentioned are appealing to that fear rather than a narrow prejudice against people with mental problems. But Der erwige Jude shows how dangerous this fear is. As footage of Jews going about their day-to-day life is overlaid with sinister music and poisonous narration, ordinary people who are superficially different from the Nazi ideal are held up as something to be feared and hated. Within this context, fear of the “other” hardly seems like something we should exploit. Although perhaps an exception can be made for a fictional “other” like the alien in Alien, for example, as this is unlikely to spill over into real world prejudice.
Perhaps you disagree with my decision to watch and write about this film, but to not do so would be to make a judgement and carry it through with no discussion which is, I think, worse than drawing attention to it. I believe it is a worthwhile area of examination, even on a film blog. I believe in the power of film to challenge us and make us think, and that is something that’s possible whether in a silent movie, a CGI-laden piece of popcorn entertainment or a propaganda film.