265: Love & Death in Cinema

Archival Spaces 265

Love and Death in “ism” Cinema

Uploaded 19 March 2021

I’m reading and reviewing for a German publication an excellent new book on Israeli cinema, Projecting the Nation. History and Ideology on the Israeli Screen (2020) by Eran Kaplan. I was particularly struck by a line in his chapter on Eros: “The real fulfillment of love and desire in the Zionist epic is death.” (p. 134) Kaplan describes “the New Hebrew” of the Zionist imaginary as having strong physical and masculine traits combined with “moral restraint: a saint with muscles,” – unlike the feminized, victimized and weak Diaspora Jew. The goal of nationhood consistently trumped private erotic happiness. Indeed, Kaplan characterizes all Israeli cinema’s depiction of sex and romance as inextricably linked to death, with only rare moments of tenderness and erotic pleasure.(p. 130)   

I instantly recognized “the pathology,” having in 1981 ascribed similar kinks in the national imaginary of proto-fascist and Nazi German films about the history of Prussia. “Love, Duty and the Eroticism of Death,” was indebted to both Sigmund Freud and Klaus Theweleit, whose seminal Männerphantasien, has been translated as Male Fantasies (1987). A German reviewer of the multi-volume exhibition catalog, Prussia. Attempt at a Reckoning) referenced my contribution, but was actually taking a swipe at Theweleit when he wrote: “With the help of the volume on “Prussia in the Cinema,” one can yet again be instructed in the relationship between Fascism and Sex…” (Die Zeit, 8-28-81) My essay constructed meta-narrative of German films, whereby the male hero falls in love with a woman, but then – despite the pleas of his love interest – realizes his duty to the nation/revolution and sacrifices himself in a Heldentod.

Does this mean, I’m equating Zionism with Nazism or Communism? Absolutely not, because I believe Zionism remained morally, if not always in practice, dedicated to democratic principles and has survived with democratically elected governments in Israel for 73 years;  i.e. it never entered a totalitarian phase. Totalitarian by design, on the other hand, were Communism and Fascism. Both enforced tight parameters on public eroticism and sexuality outside marriage. Zionism, too, apparently encouraged moral Puritanism.  But, think about it, why are Hollywood, French Cinema, Indian cinema obsessed with romance and erotic pleasure, while the cinemas of these three isms are machines of sexual sublimation?  

Zionist Histadrut Poster
Soviet Proaganda Poster

German films from Theodore Körner (1932, Carl Boese) to Kolberg (1945, Veit Harlan) propagated a fanatic patriotism, renunciation of individual happiness, total commitment to the state, the valiant and unflinching heroism of Teutonic men, the honor and rapture of a death for the Führer und Volk. Eros conquered by Thanatos; the life and death instinct, intertwined and always present, according to Freud. Narratives of sexual sublimation, of the organism surrendering to a death wish, of self-sacrifice for the Vaterland, permeate Prussian films, creating an idealized fascist German imaginary obsessed with death.

Kolberg (1945) the Movie
Kolberg, East Prussia, 1945

While the transformation of Prussian history into German myth was well underway in 19th-century German poetry and popular literature, German commercial cinema quickly appropriated both its narratives and ideology. Isolated in World War I from the French competition, which had dominated film distribution before 1914, German film producers rushed to make patriotic films. However, the incredible financial success of Arzen von Cserepy’s four-part epic, Fridericus Rex (1920-1922), made only two years after the end of a bitter world war, established the Prussian film genre. No less than ten films between 1927 and 1942 starred Otto Gebühr as the legendary Frederick the Great (1712-1786), while more than 300 German films touch on Prussian history, from the Napoleonic Wars to Germany’s reunification under Bismarck.

Otto Gebuehr as Frederick the Great

After 1933, Prussian films drew historical analogies to imply that the Third Reich constituted the next reawakening in German national power. Its heroes were invariably military men, who had fought valiantly on the battlefields, or great “men” who through their deeds had contributed to the growth of national consciousness, while women were relegated to making babies. After 1945, Prussian films lay dormant for a few years, only to be revived in the 1950s, during the period of reconstruction and rearmament under NATO. Less authoritarian than their predecessors, Prussian films under Adenauer nevertheless retained elements of “patriotic” anti-Communism and patriarchy.

Prussian and Nazi cinema was more invested in patriarchy than other male action genres, like the American western, addressing a male subject, while denying the existence of female subjectivity. Not only were women consistently removed from the narrative as figures of identification, but their gaze too was rarely acknowledged. Woman’s desire, as positioned in narratives of heterosexual romance and sexual union, is consistently denied and ultimately eliminated, privileging narratives of male bonding and violent aggression.

Besatzung Dora (1943) Male Bonding

My meta-narrative of Prussian films functioned this way: 1. A love story develops in the course of which woman is revealed to be in conflict with the male hero’s military aspirations; 2. the hero realizes that his true duty lies in his sacrifice to the nation; 3. through the group dynamics of male-bonding, the hero experiences true brotherhood; 4. the hero finds the strength to embrace his fate as a martyr. Such a meta-narrative aspired to trace the imaginary trajectory of the German male’s sexual sublimation, from a renunciation of heterosexual union via an only barely repressed homoeroticism to an ultimate death wish. By positioning the male subject in this drama of Thanatos, Prussian films, especially those produced in the Third Reich, prepared young men for their imminent death on the battlefields, and thus represented an overt ideological manifestation of Fascism.


The abandonment of sexual desire and heterosexual union promised in the fascist cinema imaginary a higher, spiritual form of bliss, dissolved within the national body politic. The individual body was robbed of its physicality and sensuality, co-opted into an idealized, fetishized Übermensch, integrated in the geometry of the Nazi masses. Eternal life guaranteed through ethereal union with the Nation, seen over and over in Nazi cinema images of fallen military heroes marching through the heavens. The trope is repeated in Zionist cinema, but with a twist: the Sabra masses are pioneers, marching to build, not destroy, like those jackboot bodies. And maybe that juxtaposition succinctly captures the difference between the two.

For those wishing to read a revised  English translation of my essay: “Eros, Thanatos, and the Will to Myth: Prussian Films in German Cinema,” in: Bruce Murray and Christopher Wickham (eds.): Framing the Past: The Historiography of German Cinema and Television (Carbondale: University of Southern Illinois Press

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: