Controversial Films (Part Two)

Nazis, Newborns & Nuts

“We built that!”

When I was ten, I got into an advanced education program and began attending a different school where most of my classmates were Jewish.  The benefit of being immersed and welcomed into Jewish culture was at least as valuable as anything I learned in class.  It was so much richer in every good way than my previous lower-middle class experience had been.  So much comedy, regard for music and literature, and a world of wonderful new foods.  My friends had organized lives.  Their parents encouraged their achievements and nurtured their talents.  I saw a different, better way of approaching life, valuing wisdom and restraint and intense discussion, but always with a joke or two.  I learned so much.  It changed me permanently.

Something else happened over one holiday weekend when the school was closed that changed me permanently.  When we returned for classes, the entire side of the gym building, where there were no windows, was covered with anti-Semitic graffiti.  I had never seen anything like that.  There were obscene caricatures.  There were extended, shocking, foul expressions of racist hatred.  I still remember some of the exact wording, which I won’t print here.  How could someone put this in view of ten year-olds?  Our teachers discussed the Nazi holocaust with us throughout the day as workmen removed the graffiti, but we were in shock.

Whoever the perpetrators were, they underestimated their intended victims.  Before that incident I was an enthusiastic exchange student, a minority Christian.  Afterwards my friends viewed me as a member of the tribe.  Because of what “they” did to try to intimidate us, I spent years studying racism, ethnic cleansing, the nature of evil and other topics that helped me understand bigotry.  It facilitated my ability to make friends with people from other ethnicities and ultimately to seek common ground everywhere, even with other animals besides humans.

If someone approaches you with hate, you can respond either with hate or with compassion.  The road to compassion lies in having a greater understanding of those who need it, which is everyone.  Wisdom solves everything, and a little humor gets it across better.  That is a gift I was given by the Jews. By the time we studied Nazi propaganda as teens, it had little potential to shock me.  I had seen it before.  I was able to separate technique from idea content.

During the twelve years of the Third Reich, the German film industry was nationalized under direct supervision of the Ministry of Propaganda.  All scripts had to be pre-approved before shooting.  Filmmakers were not given governmental subsidies, however.  This allowed the appearance of a normal industry to the outside world, and encouraged producers to make movies audiences would like.  1100 films were made in those years, the vast majority of which were non-controversial, escapist entertainment.  Those scripts chosen for propaganda were mostly historical stories that supported the Aryan myths believed by the Nazis.

Though Hitler himself preferred crude and obvious “documentaries” like Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew -1940), his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, understood that Germans would accept racist ideas more easily if they were imbedded within stories that had popular appeal and high production values.  That was the attitude behind the box office hit Jud Suss (The Jew Suss – 1940), seen by 20 million people during the war.

Jud Suss was one of a series of remakes produced where the Nazis would take an earlier film sympathetic to Jews and re-write the events in reverse, to make them the villains.  The original story was based on a historical Jewish financier, Joseph Süß Oppenheimer.  There were two previous German novels based on his life.  The 1925 novel by Lion Feuchtwanger was translated and adapted into an English play in 1929, then a film directed by Lothar Mendes (1934).  The historical Oppenheimer had been a successful adviser to the Duke of Württemberg, but he made enemies of the corrupt courtiers he exposed.  When the Duke died, he was framed on false charges, sentenced to death, and offered amnesty if he converted to Christianity.  He refused and was hanged, an innocent man.

In the earlier novel and film, Suss works his way out of the ghetto by aiding an evil duke to grow rich.  Suss discovers he’s actually the illegitimate son of a Gentile, but he decides to retain his loyalty to, and identity as, a Jew.  The duke rapes his niece, and Suss plots the downfall of the duke.  News of Suss’ betrayal causes the duke to die of a seizure, and Suss endures his execution crying out the Shema Yisrael.  It’s a morality tale about the costs of pursuing personal vengeance and violating your own ethics.  But in the Nazi version, Suss aids the duke solely in order to enrich himself, then HE rapes a beautiful Aryan woman, and tortures her father.  The men Suss unfairly ruined at court see to it he is brought to justice, and he is executed after being broken in spirit.

Veit Harlan, the director of Jud Suss, was the only filmmaker tried for war crimes, and he was acquitted because he convinced the court he had been coerced, but even members of his own family disbelieve this.  There have been two recent documentaries about Harlan, the making of the most successful anti-Semitic propaganda film, and the effect of that legacy on his family.

Back in the USA as the war ended, one of the strangest successes in film history was shot in six days, for $62,000.  It was exhibited carnival-style, traveling from town to town, for the next 20 years.  Net profits were estimated to be in excess of 50 million dollars.  The marketing genius behind this was one Howard W. “Kroger” Babb.

Kroger Babb was a salesman his whole life.  As a young man he had invented gimmicks to promote films, like giving away bags of groceries to raffle winners.  In Babb’s vision of humanity, you had to “Tell ‘em to sell ‘em.”  He became a specialist in buying the rights to grade-Z films about prurient subjects, then creating buzz about them to increase ticket sales.  He repackaged a 1938 film called “Child Bride” and was opposed in print by an Indiana film critic named Mildred Horn.  His solution?  He made love to her, and Mildred became his partner for life.  She wrote the screenplay for the 1945 film “Mom and Dad”, one of the most profitable films of all time.

“Our story is a simple one! It happens every night, somewhere. It is the story of Joan Blake — a sweet, innocent girl growing up in this fast moving age. The temptations which she faces are as old as Time itself. But Joan is no better fortified against them than was the girl of yesteryear, because her mother — like many mothers — still thinks that ignorance is a guarantee of virtue.”

from the opening credits of “Mom and Dad”

The movie itself is a complete scam.  A young girl is refused “hygiene books” by her parents because she’s “not married.”  She had dated a handsome young pilot.  Her father reads in the paper that the pilot has died in combat.  Joan’s clothes begin to fit badly and her belly swells.  She doesn’t know what has happened!  The girl confesses to a sympathetic teacher, who advises her parents that she needs to know the facts of life.  Then, medical footage of two live births, one vaginal, one Caesarean, is tacked onto the movie, and that’s how it ends.  It was the marketing that created the hit, though.

Press kits supplied by Babb provided a template for creating controversy weeks before the film would be shown in each town.  Babb and his employees would write emotional letters to the editor of local papers using pseudonyms, about how seeing “Mom and Dad” had changed their lives or saved them from unwanted pregnancy.  Leaflets were given free to local churches to distribute.  Some were in support, and others portrayed moral outrage that the film would be shown.  It created tremendous local interest in whether or not SEX (gasp) was going on between young people, innocent and ignorant of the risks of pregnancy and disease.

The film was shown only to all-male or all-female audiences.  A special feature was a short in-person lecture given at mid-point of the film by “Fearless Hygiene Commentator Elliot Forbes”.  Since hundreds of copies of the film were in different towns at the same time, there were a lot of different guys hired to play “Elliot Forbes”.  Or you might see Olympic Medalist Jesse Owens, who gave the talk to black audiences.  They sold sex information pamphlets (written by Mildred, Babb’s wife) similar to the pamphlets shown onscreen.  It must have been an amazing carnival ride.  I wish I could have seen it in theaters, but I was about eleven when the show stopped touring.  Babb was sued for obscenity more than 400 times over this film, and he won again and again on the basis of “educational value”.

Now let me tell you a tale of two British-born directors who had been friends for 30 years.  They each made films about insane murderers released in the same year, 1960.  For the first, hostile reaction to his film caused the end of a distinguished career.  The other’s film became the biggest hit of his career.  The first film was Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell.  The second was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

There’s always been a strange thematic dichotomy onscreen.  Violence has always been more acceptable on film than sex.  The violence in films is an expression of sexual repression in western cultures.  Phallic weapons, blasting and slashing away in slow motion.  Breaking glass and blood and ricochets and fireballs.  Isn’t it like another kind of explosion?  What these two films from great artists did was to marry the two, crafting murder stories about men in arrested development, unable to complete the normal act, who had to kill to satisfy the sexual urge.  That theme hadn’t been portrayed explicitly before in mainstream, A-budget pictures.  It had been territory exclusive to B-movies.

Why did one movie work out so well, and the other terribly?  I think it’s mostly because Powell was an artist first and a businessman second.  Hitchcock had an equal balance between the two.  He was the first star director, carefully managing his own screen persona as a character, something he had learned from introducing his story anthologies on TV.  Audiences didn’t even know what Powell looked like, whereas Hitch was already a beloved creepy uncle people trusted to tell them frightening stories.

Both the main characters in these films are repressed young men, victims of abuse by their parents.  Most of you probably already know about Norman Bates and his overbearing invalid mother.  In Peeping Tom, the poor man is Mark Lewis.  He lives in his dead father’s house.  His dad was a psychologist who specialized in fear studies.  He tortured his own son, and filmed it to make his professional reputation.  Now Mark is a voyeur/serial killer.  He seeks out women to spy on, invites or hires them to film soft-core porn in his studio, then kills them in order to film their reactions while dying.  It was way too far ahead of its time, and was universally reviled upon release, though it has since been re-evaluated as a masterpiece.

Hitchcock, by contrast, navigated a gauntlet in making Psycho.  When censors objected to the opening scene of illicit love in a hotel, saying one of Janet Leigh’s breasts was visible, he held back the scene and re-submitted it unchanged.  Each censor changed positions.  Those who couldn’t see the tit before now did, and those who did before, now didn’t.  He said he would re-film the scene with their attendance.  Since the censors didn’t show up, he left it intact.  Hitch suggested that he would excise a butt shot of Leigh’s body double in return for allowing the infamous “shower scene” to remain uncut.

Ahh, the shower scene.  It really is a stunning work of art and graphic design.  Hitchcock and his title designer, Saul Bass, planned it out shot-by-shot and storyboarded the whole thing.  It is Janet Leigh on camera, along with Anthony Perkins‘ stand-in.  The brilliant choice to break an ironclad rule by killing an established main character (played by the biggest “name” star in the production) had already been made by the screenwriter.  Audiences weren’t prepared for that, so it was especially upsetting.  Six days shooting, 77 camera angles, 50 cuts, 3 minutes.  They used chocolate syrup for the blood.  It looks better in black & white.  Though Hitch planned it without music, his composer Bernard Herrmann suggested letting him try some suggestive musical effects.  They worked well, and he got a salary increase.

Both films ushered in a decade of free expression in movies.

 Part Three (Finale) is in the pipeline!


Filed under Cinema, Emotions

13 responses to “Controversial Films (Part Two)

  1. Great post, you certainly did your homework. I have only ever seen very short sections of any of those Nazi movies in documentaries about the Holocaust. Still so hard to believe that all happened so recently. I always wonder what the psyche is like in Germany having been on the wrong side of the two world wars. Such an astoundingly, horrific history to have to reconcile. That psycho clip still freaks me the hell out! After everything we see in films these days, blood and guts and murder and mayhem and seriously scary movies, somehow that scene still hits home. I think it reaches into the deepest, darkest fears we all have and does it with only the faintest touches of gore!

    • Yep. The knife is never shown cutting flesh in that scene. It’s sort of a violation/disruption of the essence of life (water) illustrated by the cross-cut visuals, alternating the changing direction of the shower stream with the swings of the blade. Hitchcock learned by directing silent films. He always said it was the most important part of his apprenticeship.

      Film history was pretty easy to study in the ’70s, in the middle of Iowa, far away from the industry. It’s been my intent to write more about it. The current “film” riots provided a needed prod. Thanks, Steve. (Tee shirts now available at Steve’s site

  2. Looks like the German references brought some international attention. “Auto Kredit Finanzieren” wrote:
    Daselbst finden Sie unabhaengige, individuell angepasste Vergleiche dieser wichtigsten Darlehensgeber Deutschlands, über und ohne Schufaauskunft, fuer Schulden, Finanzierungen, vorteilhafte Kreditkarten, wenn selbst allgemeine Ratschlaege fuer Kreditempfaenger.

    Michael nicht understanden Deutsch outziden die wurds fur Cantatas du Bach. Stille, offren dich “Schpam ov die Day!”

  3. I still think of that shower scene sometimes when I’m in the shower!

    I can’t read German so a translation of Auto Kredit Finanzieren’s words may be in order (if they are not too inflammatory).

    • Oh it’s no fun if you can actually read it, and I can’t either. It’s ordinary nonsense about buying a car using their loan services.

      Hitchcock was so good at portraying basic fears including being murdered by a stranger, or a loved one you don’t know is evil or insane, being wrongly accused of a serious crime, fear of heights etc. Thanks for stopping by, Dianne.

  4. Hahaha – Auto Kredit Finanzieren is a car salesman spammer! 😀
    Ah, yes – Hitchcock was a master at tapping in to our primal fears

  5. I’m enjoying this series of posts.

    Interested that you bring up Michael Powell. Personally, for me one of the problems with Peeping Tom (though acknowledging that many now consider it a masterpiece) is that Powell is not an auteur but rather one half of cinema’s greatest partnership. With Pressburger both of them end up so much more than the sum of their parts.

    • I agree with you completely about the Archers partnership being superior to his solo efforts. I just thought the parallels between the two almost simultaneous projects made about similar themes were remarkable. As you probably know, Hitchcock was even Powell’s employer (as a still cameraman) for a couple of pictures in the early part of their careers.

  6. Hey Invisiblemikey,
    Thanks for that, Christian Bale, Daniel Craig, and Ewan McGregor have played several gay or bisexual characters, done nude scenes and been in controversial films, while still being considered stars. Why have male actors been historically reluctant to the play gay characters?
    Holen Sie sich jetzt bei Onlineabschluss tolle Zugaben der DSL trotz Schufa Anbieter. DSL trotz Schufa vergleichen und sparen

    • I guess the obvious answer is that playing gay characters used to hurt their careers more than it does now. There’s a good retrospective on gay characters in cinema called “The Celluloid Closet” I recommend highly, if you want to learn more. Thanks for visiting.

  7. Love movie history, and this is great fun as well as informative. Keep up the good work.

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