- Made with the approval of Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, Nazi movies – musicals, comedies, dramas – generally focused on narratives that promoted the idealized German ethos, character, and “way of life.”
- Below is a brief look at five Nazi movies comprising various genres – history, romance, adventure. The five titles: The Making of a King, Patriots, Request Concert, A Lifetime, and, one of the most reviled motion pictures ever made, Jew Süss.
Nazi movies: ‘Third Reich’ cinema promoted ‘the Aryan way of life’
It may come as a surprise to many, but “Nazi movies” – i.e., German and (later) Austrian cinematic output from the mid-1930s to the end of World War II – encompassed a whole array of genres.
Among the dozens of films released during the so-called “Third Reich,” Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 documentary feature Triumph of the Will is not only the best known effort but possibly the most studied piece of political propaganda ever made. Yet Riefenstahl’s theocratically inclined chronicle of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg – like her 1933 effort The Victory of Faith – was actually an outlier.
In fact, most Nazi movies were eerily similar to what Hollywood was churning out at that time. Their stories revolved around women and men falling in love, suffering heartbreaks, doing silly things, making great discoveries, overcoming tremendous obstacles, singing and dancing.
Not infrequently, the Nazis’ propaganda efforts hailing the imaginary Germanic ethos and the Völkisch (ethno-nationalist) ideology/modus vivendi – e.g., Refugees, The Prodigal Son, La Habanera, Hello Janine, The Great King – were no less subtle than your average Hollywood product promulgating the White American/Christian ethos and way of life, from Flirtation Walk, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Four Daughters to Stagecoach, Gunga Din, and Sergeant York.
How did Nazi cinema manage to achieve that feat?
Universum Film AG
The answer is simple: Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels may not have had at his disposal early 21st-century tools for the massive dissemination of fascist disinformation like Fox News, One America News, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, but he did have control of film production and distribution via Tobis, Terra, Bavaria, Wien-Film (after 1938) and, most importantly, Universum Film AG (UFA).
Notwithstanding financial difficulties resulting from the Weimar Republic’s economic woes, mismanagement at the top, and the gradual loss of the international market during the Nazi era, UFA was one of the world’s preeminent film companies during the interwar years.
In addition to Triumph of the Will, among its noteworthy releases of the 1920s and 1930s were Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, Erik Charell’s Congress Dances, and Detlef Sierck’s (later Douglas Sirk) The Final Chord. During the war, there were Rolf Hansen’s blockbuster The Great Love and Josef von Báky’s Agfacolor classic The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Whether shot at UFA’s Babelsberg or Tobis’ Johannisthal Studios or elsewhere, up to the late 1930s German-language films – featuring internationally known names like Pola Negri, Emil Jannings, Zarah Leander, Lilian Harvey, Willy Fritsch, Lil Dagover, Hans Albers, Marta Eggerth, Mady Christians – were popular not only in German-speaking territories but also in a number of other countries in Europe and the Americas.
5 Nazi movies
Below is a brief look at five Nazi movies released between 1935 and 1940: The Making of a King, Patriots, Request Concert, Jew Süss, and A Lifetime.
Through different narratives – history, romance, adventure – and varying degrees of subtlety (or lack thereof, as in the case of Jew Süss), these titles were designed to project the ideals not only of the ruling regime but also of a large chunk of the German population.
After all, without their tens of millions of Skat-playing, Kölsch-drinking, Apfelstrudel-baking supporters – ardent believers in their autocrat’s promise to make Treaty of Versailles- and Great Depression-battered Germany great again – the Nazi leadership might have never succeeded in attaining and maintaining absolute control over one of Europe’s most powerful nations, and waging a near-six-year war that left up to 60 million people dead in that continent.
The Making of a King
Directed by avid Nazi supporter Hans Steinhoff – “browner than Joseph Goebbels and blacker than Heinrich Himmler,” in the words of actor O.W. Fischer – The Making of a King / Der alte und der junge König (1935) stars the first Best Actor Academy Award winner, Emil Jannings, as the steely King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia – a.k.a. King Frederick I, “the Soldier King” – ever at odds with his irresponsible, artistically inclined son, Crown Prince Friedrich (Werner Hinz).
Inevitably, father and son are reconciled before the final fadeout, so the now more mature crown prince can hear the dying king, in proto-fascist fashion, urge him to “make Prussia great!”
King Frederick II, a.k.a. Frederick the Great, would indeed make Prussia great during his rule from 1740 to 1786. That is, in case your definition of greatness encompasses not only patronage of the arts but also a significant increase in military power and ferocious territorial expansion.
Playwright/poet Rolf Lauckner (stepson of writer/dramatist Hermann Sudermann) and Metropolis writer Thea von Harbou (Fritz Lang’s ex-wife) were credited for the screenplay of The Making of a King, which also features Austrian stage star Leopoldine Konstantin as Queen Sophie.
Best Nazi film
Third Reich refugee and multiple Oscar winner Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd., The Apartment) saw Hans Steinhoff as “a piece of shit, … a man without any talent.”
Not everyone agreed.
In his review of The Making of a King, New York Times critic Andre Sennwald affirmed that Steinhoff’s historical drama “emerges as quite the best film that has come out of Nazi Germany,” adding:
You cannot help disliking the work’s stridently nationalistic spirit and the revolting cleverness of its assault on individualism and the fine arts. At the same time, you cannot resist the dramaturgic skill that has gone into the drama, and the genuine emotional vigor with which it tells of the conflict between two iron temperaments.
As for Emil Jannings’ performance, Sennwald felt it “deserves to rank with his finest screen work.”
Steinhoff and Jannings (as star/producer) would later join forces on two other Nazi movies spotlighting notable historical figures: Robert Koch: The Battle Against Death (1939), about the pioneering German microbiologist, and the anti-British Uncle Kruger (1941), the story of South Africa’s Boer leader and first president, Paul Kruger.
Hans Steinhoff killed
Hans Steinhoff’s credits included more Nazi movies – e.g., Our Flags Lead Us Forward (1933) was a paean to the Hitler Youth movement, while An Enemy of the People (1937) corrupted Henrik Ibsen’s tale by turning it into an exaltation of National Socialist leadership.
His final film was the 1945 crime drama Shiva und die Galgenblume (“Shiva and the Flower of the Gallows”), starring Hans Albers and featuring O.W. Fischer in a supporting role.
Shooting in Prague was interrupted due to the advancing Red Army, as Steinhoff fled for Berlin. On April 20, he attempted to return to Prague aboard one of the last Lufthansa flights leaving the besieged German capital.
The 63-year-old filmmaker was one of those killed after the Red Army shot down the aircraft.
Set in France near the end of World War I, Karl Ritter’s Patriots / Patrioten (1937) chronicles the adventures of a German pilot (Mathias Wieman) who, after crashing his plane in enemy territory, finds refuge (à la Ramon Novarro and Stewart Granger in Scaramouche) with a troupe of traveling actors.
Patriots is noteworthy for featuring Prague-born actress Lída Baarová (1914–2000), at the time the former lover of German star Gustav Fröhlich (Metropolis, Asphalt) and the current lover of Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels – who, inevitably, happened to be both an ardent “family values” advocate and an adulterer.
The affair was terminated by Der Führer himself, who proceeded to ban Baarová’s films and have her hounded by the Gestapo. “Life is so hard and cruel,” Goebbels would lament in his diary.
Prevented from working in German films, Baarová left for Czechoslovakia. Prior to the end of the war, she was seen in several Italian features (e.g., La fornarina, L’ippocampo) before returning to her home country, where she and her family would be arrested as suspected Nazi collaborators. Her mother suffered a fatal heart attack during interrogation; her 24-year-old sister, actress Zorka Janu, killed herself.
As found in her The Guardian obituary, Baarová would assert decades later, “I was not a Nazi, but like other women I was afraid to say no to such men.”
When asked about the Nazis’ atrocities, she replied, “I feel indifferent. I just want to forget the whole episode.”
Surely few Nazi movies were as effective a propaganda tool as Eduard von Borsody’s hugely successful Request Concert / Wunschkonzert (1940).
Because this romantic drama is like any unoriginal but well-crafted Hollywood movie of the period – as conceived through the Nazi looking glass.
Using documentary footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, Request Concert begins at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where air force pilot Carl Raddatz becomes acquainted with girl-next-door Ilse Werner.
A secret mission, physical injuries, and a change of address keep the would-be lovers apart until some time after the invasion of Poland, when fate brings them back together by way of the titular “Request Concert for the Wehrmacht.”
Admittedly, setting Request Concert apart from most Hollywood movies, the romantic drama caps its 100 minutes of Nazi propaganda-tinted fluff with a stupefyingly belligerent finale.
Nazi movies’ non-German stars
Somewhat incongruously, Ilse Werner, the personification of the German “girl next door,” was born thousands of kilometers away from any German-speaking neighborhood: More specifically, in Batavia (later Jakarta), Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), to a Dutch father and a German mother.
In fact, Werner – the recipient of the German Film Academy’s Honorary Award in 1986 – was one of a number of performers born outside germanophone Europe who starred in movies of the Nazi era.
Besides Lída Baarová, notable names included Swedes Zarah Leander and Kristina Söderbaum, Cairo-born Hungarian Marika Rökk, Englishwoman Lilian Harvey, Dutchman Johannes Heesters, Russian Olga Tschechowa (of at least part-German ancestry), and, following a Hollywood stint, Polish import Pola Negri.
Directed by former actor Veit Harlan from a screenplay by Harlan, Ludwig Metzger, and Eberhard Wolfgang Möller, Jew Süss / Jud Süß (1940; Süß = “Sweet”) is undoubtedly the most infamous film production of the Nazi era, eventually leading to a postwar “denazification” trial.
A pet project of Joseph Goebbels, Jew Süss was a bastardization of Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1925 historical novel and Wilhelm Hauff’s 1927 novella, both based on the life of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer (1698?–1738), financial advisor to Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg. Following the death of his protector in 1737, Oppenheimer was arrested, charged with various crimes, and sentenced to death.
A major box office hit, Jew Süss stars Ferdinand Marian (instead of earlier choices Emil Jannings, Willi Forst, etc.) as the title character, a greedy, repugnant moneylender who covets and ultimately rapes the youthful Dorothea (Harlan’s wife Kristina Söderbaum), leading this embodiment of Aryan female purity to suicide.
Oppenheimer is convicted of having sex with a Christian woman, while Württemberg’s Jewish residents are expelled from the city.
Before the final fadeout, one character exhorts, “May the citizens of other states never forget this lesson.”
Jew Süss reportedly sold 20.3 million tickets – in 1940, second only to Request Concert’s 26.5 million.
‘Performing under duress’
Veit Harlan, whose first wife, Jewish actress/cabaret singer Dora Gerson, would be killed at Auschwitz in 1943, later claimed that Goebbels forced him to take on the project, adding that “virtually every actor was performing under duress.”
Ferdinand Marian, for one, had a half-Jewish daughter, while new mother Kristina Söderbaum, as per Harlan, claimed postpartum weakness and considered fleeing to neutral Sweden.
Yet both Werner Krauss (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Waxworks), who played multiple supporting Jewish characters in Jew Süss, and Heinrich George (Metropolis, Berlin-Alexanderplatz) cast as Duke Karl Alexander, had seemingly become willing pawns of the Nazi regime.
That despite the former having a Jewish daughter-in-law and the latter having been not only a real-life communist but also Émile Zola in Richard Oswald’s Dreyfus (1930), about the anti-Jewish political persecution of French officer Alfred Dreyfus.
One definitely eager Jew Süss participant was co-screenwriter/playwright Eberhard Wolfgang Möller, brought into the project once Goebbels decided that assigned screenwriter Ludwig Metzger’s draft wasn’t anti-Jewish enough.
In Möller’s words, his aim was to show “that the Jew is a human being completely different from us, and that the inborn moral control over our actions is completely missing in him.”
Veit Harlan trials
In the postwar years, Veit Harlan, whose Nazi movies also included The Great King and Kolberg, was tried and acquitted three times.
According to author Nobert Muhlen, the prestigious filmmaker’s defense contained the admission, “I did not want to have to ride again on street cars.” In addition, Harlan pleaded the following:
“… [H]e intervened on behalf of a political prisoner (true), he remained on friendly terms with a number of Jews (also true), he had many controversies with Goebbels (again true), and – that eternal half-truth in the fellow-traveler’s self-defense – he ‘kept things from getting worse.’”
Lastly, it should be noted that Jew Süss’ Heinrich George, one of the most familiar faces in Nazi movies before and during the war, died of starvation at age 52 in September 1946 at a Soviet concentration camp.
A cross between Stefan Zweig’s novella Letter from an Unknown Woman and Leo McCarey’s Love Affair, Gustav Ucicky’s popular romantic drama Ein Leben lang (“A Lifetime,” 1940) features Austrian screen legend Paula Wessely and eventual Nazi victim Joachim Gottschalk as star-crossed lovers who are kept apart by fate – war, pestilence, marriage – until years later they’re at last reunited. Gerhard Menzel penned the screenplay.
On Oct. 4, 1940, Joseph Goebbels enthused in his diary, “Ucicky, Menzel, Wessely, a very big Wienfilm hit. Poignant and heartfelt. Such films we’re releasing now! Each more beautiful than the other.”
Joachim Gottschalk suicide
Likely a mere coincidence, but Joachim Gottschalk was left unmentioned in Goebbels’ Ein Leben lang diary entry. (His name does pop up in a later entry about The Swedish Nightingale, which the Ministry of Propaganda dismisses as “not a success.”)
On Nov. 6, 1941, as his Jewish wife, Meta Wolff, and eight-year-old son, Michael, were about to be transported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, Gottschalk and Wolff sedated their son and committed suicide by gas poisoning. The boy died along with them.
“5 Nazi Movies: ‘Third Reich’ Cinema” notes
 O.W. Fischer’s remark about Hans Steinhoff is found in Dorin Popa’s 1989 book O.W. Fischer: seine Filme, sein Leben, which adds that the filmmaker invoked “Reich Minister Goebbels in every stage direction.”
In the the same book, Hans Albers is quoted as saying that Steinhoff was “the biggest asshole of the century. Also a pig.”
According to various sources, Fisher’s and Albers’ quotes were originally found in Kauf dir einen bunten Luftballon, the 1975 autobiography of screenwriter-director Géza von Cziffra (Melody of a Great City, Gabriela).
Best Actor Emil Jannings
 Emil Jannings’ Best Actor Academy Award win was for two movies, The Way of All Flesh (1927) and The Last Command (1928).
As he was leaving for Germany before the awards ceremony, Jannings is supposed to have been the first individual to be handed an Academy Award statuette.
Living in disgrace due to his participation in various Nazi movies, Emil Jannings – one of Joseph Goebbels’ “Artists of the State” – died at age 65 in January 1950 in Strobl, Austria.
Leopoldine Konstantin post-WWII comeback
 Leopoldine Konstantin – as Madame Konstantin – would be seen as escaped Nazi Claude Rains’ domineering mother in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rio-set 1946 thriller Notorious.
Rape victim switch
 In Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1925 novel – and in Lothar Mendes’ 1934 British film adaptation, Power, starring Conrad Veidt – the duke is the one who attempts to rape Süss’ daughter, causing her to fall to her death.
A similar dramatic sequence is found in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Civil War drama The Birth of a Nation, when freedman Gus (Walter Long in blackface) lustfully pursues the virginal Flora (Mae Marsh), leading her to jump to her death.
Adolf Hitler’s promise to “make Germany great again” is discussed in various sources. A direct quote from 1933 – “I will make Germany great again but before that happens the Treaty of Versailles must be destroyed” – is found in John Kerr’s National 4 & 5 History: Hitler and Nazi Germany 1919-1939.
Billy Wilder quote: Joe Hembus & Christa Bandmann’s Klassiker des deutschen Tonfilms, 1930-1960, Vol. 1.
Hans Steinhoff’s death: Online sources citing Horst Claus’ Filmen für Hitler – Die Karriere des NS-Starregisseurs Hans Steinhoff.
Paul Ickes’ Die Filmwoche review of Patriots: Cinzia Romani’s Tainted Goddesses: Female Film Stars of the Third Reich, translated from the Italian by Robert Connolly.
The fate of Lída Baarová’s family: Ralf Georg Reuth’s Goebbels.
Use of Olympia footage in Request Concert: Hans-Jörg Koch’s Das Wunschkonzert im NS-Rundfunk.
Eberhard Wolfgang Möller quote & Jew Süss’ ticket-sales data: Frank Noack’s Veit Harlan: The Life and Work of a Nazi Filmmaker.
Joseph Goebbels’ Ein Leben lang quote: Die Tagebücher von Joseph Goebbels: Diktate 1941-1945, edited by Elke Fröhlich.
The fate of Joachim Gottschalk’s family: Multiple sources, including Filminstitut Hannover.
Veit Harlan Jew Süss quote: David Stewart Hull’s Film in the Third Reich: A Study of the German Cinema, 1933-1945.
Nazi movies’ images:
- Ilse Werner & Carl Raddatz in Request Concert: UFA.
- Emil Jannings in The Making of a King: Deka Film.
- Lída Baarová & Mathias Wieman in Patriots: UFA.
- Kristina Söderbaum & Ferdinand Marian in Jew Süss: Terra-Filmkunst.
- Paula Wessely in Ein Leben lang: Wien-Film.
“5 Nazi Movies: ‘Third Reich’ Cinema Extolled ‘Aryan’ Virtues” last updated in April 2022.