Friday, January 7, 2005

NEW YORK — “Hitler’s Hit Parade” is hardly a trip down memory lane. This film’s juxtaposition of romantic songs and wartime brutalities can cause viewers to squirm or turn away in horror.

The disturbing collage of Third Reich musicals, newsreels, home movies, cartoons and commercials, including rare segments in color, shows how the Nazis relied on escapist entertainment to promote their murderous ideology and bolster the veneer of normalcy during the nightmare of Adolf Hitler’s reign.

The 75-minute production, co-directed by Oliver Axer and Susanne Benze, opened Wednesday for a two-week run in New York — the U.S. premiere after limited screenings in Germany. It’s a provocative study of seductive propaganda techniques, a partial explanation of the riddle of mass German support for Hitler.

Portraying themselves as protectors of German traditions and historic continuity, the Nazis promised law and order and national respect at a time of economic despair when Hitler came to power in 1933. Lighthearted entertainment was allowed to flourish to distract Germans from harsh realities of totalitarianism.

Sentimental songs churned out by Germany’s light-music industry were crammed with code words like “fate” and “homeland” that served as psychological tools to enforce mass conformity.

Allusions to discipline and obedience were reflected in seemingly innocuous popular tunes with titles like “Don’t Ask How, Don’t Ask Where,” “Don’t Let It Bother You” and “Everything in Life Will Pass.”

“I know a miracle will happen some day and a thousand fairy tales will come true,” Zarah Leander, a wartime diva, croons in one segment, hinting at “wonder weapons” rumored to be in Hitler’s arsenal to beat back the Allies.

“Entertainment rather than propaganda proved to be the most effective support for the regime,” Moshe Zimmermann wrote in his Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper review of the film. “One could whistle ‘Eternal Spring,’ take pleasure in Heinz Ruehmann’s amusing films, sing along with the pop tune ‘The World Isn’t Collapsing’ as bombs fell, and the world seemed intact.”

“Hitler’s Hit Parade” (in German with English subtitles) plays without a spoken commentary, instead using Nazi catchphrases to preface segments on idealized Third Reich society. Lyrics from 20 popular songs serve as ironic commentaries on the sinister policies propelling German industrial expansion for the coming war, mass physical fitness, higher birth rates, anti-Semitism, military training and adulation of Hitler.

The film shows “how dangerously tempting and engaging the general mood of an era can be,” according to co-director Axer. It serves as a warning to “recognize the true, hidden meanings before believing” in the brave new world promised in Nazi rhetoric.

Interspersed with sugary ballads and sentimental love songs are films of blond girl gymnasts, German cars on the new autobahns, humming factories, a physician encouraging a couple to have babies, Hitler at his alpine retreat and waving to crowds at mass demonstrations and Hitler Youth in military training.

The scenes become increasingly militant. In a sequence about “Our Women,” a home movie shows a German woman and a Slavic man being paraded through a village to have their heads shaved in public for a relationship banned by Nazi racial laws.

Accompanied by a love song, “A Star Fell From Heaven,” the documentary shows anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews and newsreels of ghettos with people wearing Star of David insignias on their coats.

With the advertising slogan, “Millions Ride German Rail” promoting travel for pleasure, cattle cars filled with humans are shown en route to Auschwitz, and “Take Commuter Rail to the Country” shows doomed Jewish inmates at another concentration camp.

To the strains of “When the Lights Shine Again,” Germans are shown filing into bunkers to escape bombings. The scene abruptly switches to color newsreels of bombed-out cities and smoking piles of corpses.

“Wake Up, Germany,” a Nazi brownshirt slogan, serves as the chapter heading for films showing the liberation of death camps and skeletal survivors, a shrunken head and another head preserved in a jar from Nazi medical experiments.

In the closing scene, a little boy with a U.S. Army insignia pinned on his shirt, smiles through tears at his rescue from a death camp.

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