Propaganda Bested By History

Propaganda Bested By History

The uphill fight to finance an exploration of Nazi kitsch pays off

A cartoon Jew out of Julius Streicher’s ferociously anti-Semitic newspaper, Der Sturmer—only this is an animated cartoon, or a brief fragment of one—a hook-nosed, humpbacked caricature Jew, clumps into some dark, conspiratorial woods as the sound track bizarrely supplements that image with the patched-in lyric of a soupy, sentimental German song of that era: “A star that has fallen from heaven, straight into the human heart…”

This is one of the dozens or maybe hundreds of striking moments, underplayed ironies, in “Hitler’s Hit Parade,” a superbly edited, 76-minute German-made documentary playing through January 18 at the Film Forum.

The film took a dozen years to make, or—more precisely—to finance.

When Hannah Arendt wrote “The Banality of Evil,” chronicling the evidence of the Holocaust that emerged from Adolph Eichman’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem, she wasn’t talking about animated cartoons, sappy movies or sloshy songs—but all those things, and many other elements of what is now called pop culture, unearthed and re-examined here, supplied the background music, German-style, as it were to the banal terror of cattle cars, railroad tracks, “Arbeit Macht Frei” and Zyklon B.

Farmers, fat pigs and pretty girls with hoops; a female archer on horseback galloping down a beach; mountain climbers planting a swastika; amusement-park rides; nude mannequins glorifying the Aryan female form; tap-dancing chorus lines; a lonely lady dancing with her coat; campers in a mass exercise; beauty queens; Hitler in his touring car pushing its way through jam-packed streets, amid girls and banners; a tiny Fuhrer in a long-distance overhead shot strutting between the massed hundreds of thousands of storm troopers at Nuremberg—all this is set to actual background music, culled from German films and records of the era, that clearly owed a great deal to 1930s American jazz.

“Except that it is very German, that music, very composed, no improvisation whatsoever,” said C. Cay Wesnigk, the 46-year-old producer of “Hitler’s Hit Parade,” who has come to New York for its American premiere at Film Forum. Wesnigk’s key role has been the decade-plus effort to raise the money to put the whole thing together.

The film itself was conceived, researched, assembled and directed by two other Germans of his generation—Oliver Axer, who is fundamentally a designer, and Susanne Benze, a historian whose work at the University of Hanover has focused on anti-Semitism, National Socialism and film music of the Third Reich.

“Oliver Axer came to me 12 years ago,” said producer Wesnigk, “because I had made one full-length film called ‘Strictly Propaganda.’ I was 30 and so was he. He said, ‘We would like to make a film called “Hitler’s Hit Parade.”’ I was really very suspicious. They came to my house. How they got me—they put on this tape of a song, ‘The little town will go to rest…’

“I said, ‘Okay, but this film will be very hard to finance. You can’t even calculate it. You don’t know what you are going to use.’”

Before the trio was through, their “collage film” had embraced archival footage, commercials, political propaganda, educational films, animations, home movies and just plain movies.

“They had a grant to write a screenplay,” Wesnigk explained. “I told them, ‘Use this money to make a raw cut.’ They went away and came back a year later with that raw cut, which is 70 or 80 percent of the film as it stands today. I watched it. Amazing. It made me laugh and made me cry.

“This film was a quest for the truth, a look back, a very personal look back by two people of today trying to figure out what went on in that time. Oliver and Susanne were driving through northern Germany, for instance, when they heard on the radio that song, ‘Ein Stern ist vom Himmel gefallen’—‘A star which has fallen from heaven…’

“Oliver is also a singer just for the fun of it. In fact he sings two of the songs in the film. We used the old sound tracks and dubbed him into it, and remixed it, and nobody notices.”

His opponents always underestimated Hitler, Wesnigk observed.

“They thought him ridiculous. He looked ridiculous, and he was ridiculous. The music emphasizes it. It is much better to laugh at the beginning of the film, and then be shattered at the end.

“We seduce the audience. When they watch, they start tapping to the music. And at one point the tapping freezes—just freezes.”

A very scary sequence that may be unclear to Americans—certainly to this one—is when an otherwise unidentified young man and young woman, with cardboard signs dangling from around their necks, are being pushed around and forcibly having their hair sheared off.

Wesnigk clarified the scene.

“The young man and the young woman are a loving couple. He is German. She is Polish. Her sign says: ‘I am a Polish pig.’ His sign says: ‘I am a traitor to the German race.’”

C. Cay Wesnigk was born in Bad Schwartau, near Lubeck, Germany, close to the border with the former East Germany, on November 4, 1962. The “C” is for Christian, and Wesnigk in Russian comes out Yesnick, which means, the filmmaker portentously admitted—“I couldn’t have made it up”—something like “the messenger who brings the true message.”

His paternal grandfather, a Berlin patent attorney, “raised the wrong flag”—for former Chancellor Hindenburg, not Hitler—was informed on and brought to trial. He died of an ulcer. That grandfather’s son, Wesnigk’s father, was 15 when World War II ended, at which point he jumped on his bike and pedaled west as fast as he could, to get away from the Russians.

The other grandfather, a farmer, was a Nazi Party member who had fought in World War I.

“Hitler was good to the farmers,” said Wesnigk.

That grandfather’s daughter, Wesnigk’s mother, was herself a party member in her youth, and in fact worked in the library at S.S. headquarters in Berlin, translating foreign newspapers. It was some years later that she would translate several of the lyrics used in this film.

In short, she changed her mind?

“Oh yes,” said her son. “Definitely. The most anti-Nazi person I ever knew.”

Wesnigk was himself a kid in the revolutionary 1960s.

“All this,” he said, meaning the Hitler years, “happened 20 years before I was born. It felt like 1,000 years ago. Self-righteous like everyone else, I was sure I would never have been a Nazi. I wasn’t born then.” Short pause. “If I had been, of course I’d have been a Nazi. I’d have been in the Hitler Youth.”

When, 11 years ago, Wesnigk started trying to raise the money to make the film, “nobody wanted to do it.” It was only when he went to Hans Peter Kochenrath, an editor at German television’s ZDF, that he found an ear willing to listen, even if Kochenrath said: “I only have ten minutes.”

The ten minutes stretched to three hours as Kochenrath watched the raw cut, back and forth, and then went to work helping them to raise that money. In the end, Wenigk says, a million-dollar film was made for 180,000 euros, or about $200,000. It is dedicated to the late Hans Peter Kochenrath.

It was only cleared for one broadcast, on the German cultural channel ARTE, but Karen Cooper, who runs Film Forum, saw it at an International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.

One small, incidental bonus. To watch “Hitler’s Hit Parade” with all its kitsch and all its terror is to realize, once again, how great, how prescient, and how percipient was and is the 1972 Kander & Ebb and Isherwood & Van Drutenand & Masteroff & Prince musical of quite nearly the same name.