Sunday, January 18, 2015

NYJFF ’15: Forbidden Films

You have to wonder if Nicki Minaj’s Nazi propaganda-inspired video is even legal in Germany. If not, it might find a place in the vault where archivists store the National Socialist films considered so incendiary they remain barred from public screenings and above-board distribution. It is there Felix Moeller begins Forbidden Films (trailer here), a documentary survey of banned Third Reich cinema which screens during the 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival.

The explosive nitrate film stock the wartime filmmakers used makes “explosive” metaphors too easy. Given its inherent instability, the storage unit was deliberately constructed facing a large land berm to absorb the shock, should it ever ignite. Recalling the vibe of Into Eternity, documentarian Michael Madsen’s excursion to the underground nuclear by-product holding facility Onkalo, these are arguably the best scenes of Forbidden. Unfortunately, they are soon dispensed with.

Most of the documentary consists of brief analysis of banned films representative of particular propaganda categories and a subjective determination of their lasting potency, often involving rare public screenings, under strictly controlled circumstances. The result is a strange mishmash that almost approaches a hate propaganda installment of the That’s Entertainment franchise.

Moeller breaks samples of the forty remaining prohibited films down into broad themes, such as the gloriousness of war, the supposed villainy of Poles, and the dehumanization of Jews. Granted, just about everyone who sees Veit Harlan’s Jew Süss (the subject of Moeller’s better, previous doc) is disturbed by its naked anti-Semitism and the uncomfortable effectiveness of its dramatic manipulations. However, Moeller is clearly conflicted how to handle audience attempts to defend Wolfgang Liebeneiner’s I Accuse, an ardent euthanasia advocacy film that especially pleased Goebbels precisely because it normalizes the killing of the weak. These viewers cry out to be challenged, but Moeller just punts it away to the next thematic section.

Moeller might think he is plumbing the depths of the German soul, but Forbidden is really rather shallow. For all its purported concern over neo-Nazi groups it never examines the precipitous rise in anti-Semitism in Europe, in part driven by immigration from the Islamic world, or questions how these films might play to non-European audiences. Nor does it get into the deeper wonky details on the Denazification of most of the twelve hundred some films made during the National Socialist era, some of which were musicals and romantic comedies that merely required a swastika to be edited out here and there.

Not nearly as thorough as it should be, Forbidden Films is far from a must-see at this year’s NYJFF (check out the far superior Natan instead). Of course, for those perversely fascinated by National Socialist propaganda, who are also tired of re-watching Minaj’s “Only” video, it is the only game in town, flawed though it is. It screens this Thursday (1/22) and next Sunday (1/25) at the Walter Reade Theater.