From Snow White to Nazi propaganda

Leni Riefenstahl is wheeled along by an assistant at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (Getty)

Hitler and Film: the Führer’s Hidden Passion
by Bill Niven, Yale, 312pp, £25

Bill Niven, the author of this new book on Hitler, is aware that his subject’s interest in the arts has been exhaustively documented. There have been books about what Hitler liked to read, his interest in architecture, and his passion for Wagnerian opera.

But Niven believes that Hitler’s interest in film has been either ignored or misrepresented by previous historians. Take the question of the Führer’s favourite film. Google suggests that it was Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a myth Niven believes began with a hoax: the director of a Norwegian museum claimed that he’d discovered cartoons of Snow White drawn by Hitler during the Second World War, and this entered into popular currency after Kate Atkinson wrote about Hitler enjoying the film in her novel Life after Life. In truth, although the film was ordered for Hitler’s home in February 1938, we have no evidence he ever actually watched it.

Another candidate is the 1933 RKO classic King Kong, a possibility so irresistible that a German critic wrote a book about it entitled Why Hitler Loved King Kong but Banned Mickey Mouse, and a Bavarian writer claimed Hitler saw the movie 300 times. But again, Niven points out, we have no solid evidence Hitler ever saw the film.

The most serious candidate for Hitler’s favourite movie, Niven believes, is Fritz Lang’s silent two-part epic, The Nibelungs, which Hitler’s photographer Heinrich Hoffmann claims he watched with Hitler at least 20 times. Niven makes a strong case for why Hitler would have liked this film, given his passion for Wagner’s Ring cycle and how “in the Third Reich, the Nibelung saga generally came to stand for the struggle between Judaism and Germanic strength”.

Niven notes that Lang had a Jewish mother and when Goebbels first saw the film, he dismissed it as a “typically Jewish concoction”. He also writes in passing about Lang emigrating in 1933. What he doesn’t get into, surprisingly, are the events surrounding Lang leaving Germany.

Lang famously liked to tell the story of meeting Goebbels, and how it was this meeting that prompted his flight from his home country. The story has been widely discussed by Lang biographers and war historians, who have taken different positions.

Some have argued that Lang exaggerated the threat from Goebbels. Others claim that he dramatised his flight by rolling several meetings into one and using the film-maker’s device of a ticking clock to maximise the excitement of his anecdote. What no one has questioned is the fact that the two of them met, and an event of such significance deserves a place in this account.

This story is more about Goebbels than Hitler, and a similar criticism could be made of much of Niven’s book: to give so little attention to Lang, perhaps the most famous and important director Hitler had any dealings with seems remiss.

The second most significant director written about here is Leni Riefenstahl, and here Niven’s coverage is more successful, with two chapters detailing the unusual relationship between the dictator and the female director.

Elsewhere, Niven seems to take a more data-driven approach, looking for clear records of what Hitler watched (the peak of Hitler’s movie-viewing took place, he suggests, between 1933 and 1939, when he would generally watch two movies a night at the Berghof, his Bavarian residence).

During the war, Niven suggests he had little time for watching films or interest in them. And his choice of viewing was no longer a private concern but a political statement, and therefore less likely to reveal much about his character.

A shadowy narrative slowly emerges in the book, as Hitler goes from passive viewer, often seeking out light comedies for escapism, to intervening in the film industry with favours and bans as he realises the importance of film as propaganda. This involved him both in commissioning large-scale projects such as Riefenstahl’s expensive documentaries Triumph of the Will and Olympia, and shaping the war narrative with his regular appearances in the newsreels that accompanied film screenings.

The darkest moments are Hitler’s attempts to prepare the way for genocide with the anti-Semitic films Jew Suss and The Eternal Jew.

Catholic readers will be most interested in the various points at which the Catholic Church expressed outright disapproval of Hitler, as when he promoted “sterilisation” films such as Victims of the Past.

Catholic film-makers also suffered censorship, as when Hitler refused to allow screenings of Augusto Genina’s film about the Spanish Civil War, The Siege of Alcazar, until scenes showing the church’s uplifting power had been removed.

While Niven’s book might have benefited from deeper knowledge of film history, what’s here is largely fascinating, increasing our understanding of how Hitler manipulated the masses via the silver screen.