Archival Spaces 267
The „Aryanization“ of the Ufa
Uploaded 16 April 2021
Some historians have always understood the Third Reich as a dictatorship that suppressed democratic institutions and oppressed, even murdered its citizenry without due process, but as the example of Germany’s largest film company, the Universum Film A.G. (Ufa) demonstrated, a significant portion of the population, including the business community, the military and the judiciary were willing conspirators in the establishment of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party, before Hitler was legally named Chancellor in January 1933. Even before the Nazi government passed anti-Semitic legislation, banning Jewish people from public life, the Ufa’s Board of Directors, in what the Germans call „voraus eilendende Gehorsamkeit” (anticipatory obedience) declared contracts with their German-Jewish employees to be null and void.
When the Nazis declared a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses on 1 April 1933, it resulted in the destruction and looting of Jewish businesses by Brown Shirts, while innocent Jews were beaten and humiliated in the streets. Obviously, the Ufa’s Board of Directors could not have known that the fascist disregard for law would manifest itself in violence and death when they met on the morning of 29 March – the same morning the papers announced the boycott . But they did vote to fire no less than twenty-four prominent film directors, writers, and actors. Attending the meeting were Ludwig Klitzsch (CEO), Ernst Hugo Correll (Production chief), Alexander Grau (Film Theatre Dept.), Hermann Grieving (Studio Operations, Accounting), Paul Lehmann (Newsreels, Advertising Films) and Wilhelm Meydam (Distribution), as well as some non-Board members and company lawyers, the latter responsible for dissolving contracts.
Although the company’s majority stockholder, Dr. Alfred Hugenberg, was a member of Hitler‘s cabinet, the Board minutes reflect a certain guilty reticence on the Board’s part, probably because the talent involved were their biggest moneymakers. Then there was the uncomfortable fact that one of their own, Meydam, was a so-called „half-Jew,“ who was not forced out until 1941. But, in fact, Joseph Goebbels had informed Klitzsch of Nazi plans for the 1 April Jewish boycott, before the papers announced it, so the CEO was prepared. As a result, Jewish Board members Salomon Marx and Curt Sobernheim were not even invited to the meeting and were officially removed shortly thereafter, „due to the national revolution in Germany.“ Marx, who had been a member of the Board since its founding in 1917, died in October 1936, after his private bank had been confiscated, while Sobernheim fled to Paris, where he was murdered by German occupation forces in June 1940, days after the Fall of France.
On 29 March fifteen of Ufa‘s most important filmmakers were sacked, while the fate of nine others was tabled in the hopes of quietly keeping them, a hope that proved illusory. Except for the head of UFA Distribution, Hermann Kahlenberg and five secretaries, all the axed employees were prominent film talent: two producers (Erich Pommer, Fritz Wechsler), four directors (Ludwig Berger, Erik Charell, Erich Engel, Vikor Gertler), four scriptwriters (Robert Liebmann, Hans Müller, Otto Hein, Fritz Zeckendorf), two composers (Werner Richard Heymann, Gérard Jacobson), three actors (Rosy Barsony, Julius Falkenstein, Otto Wallburg), a set designer (Rudi Feld) und two technical department heads (Gerhard Goldbaum, Georg Engel).
Most were, at that moment, in production: Erik Charell was in pre-production on an Odyssey film, while Pommer, Berger, Liebmann, Müller and Barsony were making War of the Waltzes (1933), and Heymann and Jacobson were in post-production on Season in Cairo (1933). The latter was directed by Reinhold Schünzel, another „Halbjude“, whose contract had been renewed to finish the film before the end of April. Schünzel was able to continue working for Ufa as an „honorary Aryan“ (Goebbels) until 1937, then got into political hot water over the supposed anti-Hitler satire, The Land of Love (1937).Only Erich Engel, who was on the list for leftist sympathies, rather than racial „impurity,“ was able to continue his career in Nazi Germany after that fateful Ufa Board meeting.
Ultimately, many other German-Jewish filmmakers were victims of the Ufa’s policies, not just those specifically named in the minutes. For example, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch were also under contract in 1933, the latter actually suing Ufa for breach of contract. Ditto Fritz Zeckendorf. Film director Kurt Gerron was fired after he finished his film in May 1933. Gerron, who was also a well-known character actor, co-starring in The Blue Angel (1930), worked for the Nazis again in 1944, when as an inmate of Theresienstadt Cocentration Camp, he was forced to direct a Nazi propaganda film about the happy communal life in Theresienstadt (1944), before being murdered in Auschwitz.
Ufa’s anti-Semitic blacklist, included other first tier talent, like producers Gregor Rabinowitsch, Arnold Pressburger and Alfred Zeisler, scriptwriters Irmgard von Cube, Otto Eis, Max Jungk, Felix Joachimson, the cameraman Otto Kanturek, composers Friedrich Hollaender, Bronislav Kaper and Franz Wachsmann, and actors Walter Rilla and Rose Stradner, and eventually Anton Walbrook, because he was gay.
One wonders how many lower level film technicians (not named in the credits), – painters, carpenters, plumbers, gaffers, camera assistants, drivers, etc. – lost their livelihood in this anti-Semitic purge? Since the movie theater business had literally been founded in Germany as elsewhere by a generation of Jewish pioneers, it stands to reason that literally hundreds of employees in Ufa’s extensive first run theater circuit were also fired. There are no statistics for Germany, but Klaus Christian Vögl has compiled figures for Austria after the so-called „Anschluss“ in 1938. In Vienna alone, the Nazis „aryanized“ over eighty cinemas, which had a value of 6.6. million Reichsmarks.
Of the eighteen filmmakers fired by the Ufa on 29 March, at least five are known to have perished in the Nazi German genocide, i.e. almost one third. While Fritz Gertler actually survived the camps, Wallburg, Goldbaum, Zeckendorf, Jacobson and Liebermann died at the hands of the Nazis. The others survived, with only some of them able to continue their careers in Hollywood or elsewhere. The Ufa’s decision to fire Jewish employees prior to any anti-Semitic government legislation sadly indicated the willingness of German private industry to accommodate the Nazis. Their action constituted literally the first shot in a war against European Jewry, genocide and confiscated Jewish wealth financing Nazi Germany’s ultimately failed wars of aggression.
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Archival Spaces 266
Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism
Uploaded 2 April 2021
Earlier this week, I participated in an online book launch at the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (https://www.ithaca.edu/finger-lakes-environmental-film-festival) for Terri Simone Francis’s book, Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism (Indiana University Press, 2021). I was invited to be on the panel, because as a young curator at George Eastman Museum in the late 1980s, I had helped preserve and make available to the African-American community several rare Josephine Baker films that seemingly only existed in unique copies in our archive. I noted that I had first encountered “La Bakaire” as a teenager in the 1960s in Germany where she appeared regularly on the type of Saturday night variety shows I detested. After the Archive preserved Zou Zou (1934, Marc Allégret) and Princess Tam Tam (1935, Edmund T. Gréville), as well as some of the Folies Bergère footage, I presented Josephine Baker programs in Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, Minneapolis, and Durham, NC; at Film Forum in October 1987 the crowds were so great that traffic came to a standstill in downtown Manhattan. Afterwards, Jean-Claude Baker invited Bruce Goldstein, the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, my wife and myself for dinner at his 42nd Street after-theatre brasserie, Chez Josephine, a little more than a year after it had opened. Jean-Claude, who was at the time writing his own biography of his adopted mother (published 1993), became an acquaintance, who we would see on subsequent visits to New York.
Unlike several biographies about Baker, Terri Francis’s book analyses for the first time Baker’s film career, rather than her life, mixing close textual analysis with historical contextualization. Baker was in fact unique in that she had starring roles in several French films, at a time when her career possibilities in Hollywood films would have been limited to playing stereotyped, walk-on roles as a domestic or mammy. Instead, Josephine Baker moved to Paris in 1925, where she became a huge star at the Folies Bergère, sustaining a career there as a dancer and singer for fifty years. That fame was based on her infamous semi nude banana dance, so that her public image vacillated between the demeaning stereotypes of black minstrelsy, the sexual allure of an ebony goddess, and liberated, independent womanhood. To explicate the many different sides of Baker, Terri Francis employs the metaphor of the prism, which, with the changing light, offers ever different views.
Francis begins with a lengthy discussion of Baker’s banana skirt routine, explicating it as a potent symbol for primitivist and colonialist ideologies signifying persons of color, connecting her to nature, but also to underdeveloped cultures in relationship to supposedly superior white, modern European civilizations. Francis argues that the banana dance is not just a performance, as captured on film, but also performative, in the sense that Baker is simultaneously and self-reflexively satirizing her position as an object for white man’s desire. Indeed, her cabaret performances continued to negotiate these ambiguities and contradictions.
In the following chapters, Terri Francis presents close textual analyses of her three main features, The Siren of the Tropics (1927, Henri Étiévant and Mario Nalpas), a silent, Zou Zou, and Princess Tam Tam, in which Baker speaks fluent if vernacular French. All three films offer a version of Baker’s own rags to riches biography, in which an untrained woman of color morphs into a European musical star. In her chapter on Zou Zou, Francis discusses the 18th century case of Alice Baartman, an African woman who was “exhibited” to British and French audiences, noting that Baker, like Baartman, was perceived as an exotic object, available to curious audiences for visual inspection. Significantly, while she is undoubtedly the star of these films, she is ultimately not the “love interest” for the white male hero. Indeed, Baker as Papitou, Zou Zou and Alwina, fantasizes about the European male object of her desire, but love remains unrequited, while the white male loves only whiteness. Francis demonstrates this mise en scene of gazes precisely by pointing to Jean Gabin in Zou Zou constantly looking away from Baker as she speaks to him towards her girlfriend, whom he desires. Thus, while her stage shows fore-grounded Baker as an object for white colonialist fantasy, her films visualize her subjectivity as a sexual woman of color, while keeping her within an ideological frame of European negrophilia. Politely kept in her place as other, Baker is left to continue her entertainment career or return to her roots, as she does in Princess Tam Tam. Clearly, while the French film industry was willing to have the dark-skinned Baker star in mainstream feature films, an impossibility in Hollywood, it, too, was worried about the specter of miscegenation, which remained a threat to white control of the colonialist imaginary.
Baker’s place in black film history, if mentioned at all, is usually that of a European outlier, divorced from the hard realities of white supremacist America, the race films produced at its periphery, or today’s more mainstream black films. Yet Francis, by focusing on the African-American press reception of Baker and her films, connects Baker directly to black film history, valorizing her as a hope for black cinema in America, but also demonstrating that she was consistently integrated into African-American social consciousness. In other words, Francis theorizes a bifurcated African-American cinema,. split between America and the African-American diaspora, where seminal figures like Paul Robeson and Melvin van Peebles worked.
Finally, a note that in no way diminishes Terri Francis’s critical achievement: it is curious that Francis avoids any discussion of Baker’s well-known queerness, although such a discussion could have been easily integrated into her prism analysis as just another facet, and may even be supported in the text, e.g. in Zou Zou’s relationship to Claire, and, more obtusely in the white-white-black relationship triangles in the other films. Francis’s Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism, by melding textual analysis with historical contextualization, even showing how Baker remains an icon for contemporary entertainers, like Beyoncé, makes a seminal contribution to African-American film history.
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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?
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.
While the transformation of Prussian history into German myth was well under way 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.
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.
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 battle fields, 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