The title Hitler’s Hit Parade may sound flip but it’s not exactly an oxymoron. For a dozen years, everyone—or almost everyone—in Germany goose-stepped to a common beat or hummed the same infectious melody. “From the seizure of power onward,” as Richard Grunberger noted in his social history, The 12-Year Reich, “the [Nazi] regime bathed the country in music as in a foetal fluid.”
So too Oliver Axer and Susanne Benze’s found-footage assemblage—a closely edited mix of Reich-time entertainment flicks, propaganda newsreels, giddy adverts, and amateur home movies, accompanied by wall-to-wall samples of once popular romantic ballads, and movie production numbers (“Music! Music! Music!”). Joyous tap-dancing, idiot patriotism, and narcissistic blather are the order of the day. Hitler’s Hit Parade begins with a movie couple gravely discussing J.S. Bach (“That’s where it starts and ends . . .”) before deciding that since every day can’t be a holiday, there must also be happy, “everyday” music. Cut to the first of two dozen chapters, each with its own theme song. A sprightly waltz accompanies scenes of joyous harvesting, waving children, and patterned folk dancing; the swing-scored “Fast and Modern” section showcases the Hindenburg, the autobahn, and the wondrous new invention Tele-Vision.
Given the banality of the music and the romantic Swastikaland ambience, Hit Parade‘s dreamlike free association seems beyond nostalgia. Hitler preferred to characterize National Socialism as a weltanschauung rather than a philosophy, and it’s that militantly joyful worldview that Hitler’s Hit Parade evokes. As a found-footage doc, it’s nothing new. Not just Nazi Germany but Cold War America, East Germany, and Stalinist Russia have been similarly portrayed in such ideologically charged compilations as Atomic Café (1983), Architecture of Doom (1989), Gardens of Scorpions (1991), Strictly Propaganda (1992), and East Side Story (1997)—all of which, perhaps not coincidentally, had their New York premieres at Film Forum. Nor are Axer and Benze the first to represent Hitler’s Germany as a totalitarian artwork. (In 1936, Walter Benjamin wrote that fascism had aestheticized politics and that notion, while not uncontroversial, is nearly a truism.) What distinguishes Hitler’s Hit Parade is its musical fluidity. The flow of images has a terrible inexorability. Watching this movie is like watching people pirouette gaily off a cliff.
The star materializes midway through—a costumed performer attending official functions, appearing in parades, posing for the public, fixing his hair, fondling children, and petting dogs. A society foxtrot that begins with the lines “You walk through all my dreams/You give me happiness” accompanies scenes of soldiers and Hitler Youth training. The images grow increasingly militarized after a stand-up routine in which a buff, menacing comic riffs that, although everything is now “in step,” some people are singing a foreign song and persistently out of tune—they’ll have to go to “concert camp” and learn the correct rhythm. Everything is mobilized: Radios and cigarettes form marching formations. The army goes on maneuvers but when a cartoon snowman melts, the screen is abruptly filled with actual dead soldiers.
Hitler’s Hit Parade is something of a Nazi “silly symphony” and not just because of the symphonic structure or strategic use of Mickey Mouse sound effects—forgotten German color animated cartoons are excerpted throughout, some of them blatantly anti-Semitic. Such propaganda runs riot to the lively strains of “A Star Fell Out of Heaven.” (“What Moves Your Heart?” the filmmakers wonder as Jews are deported.) The myth of healthy sport is transposed to the show concentration camp at Thieresenstadt, and when Zarah Leander sings, she’s serenading scores of men marching on prosthetic legs. Moving into a world of flaming streets, ruined cities, and civilian corpses, Hitler’s Hit Parade becomes painful. Just past the Warsaw ghetto, the Olympic torch merges with crematorium smoke. Finally, Germany awakens to a screen full of concentration camp survivors.
The political economy of harmless entertainment is a rich subject and the Axer-Benze method is not only applicable to the orchestrated media of the Third Reich. Given the image panoply of the past year, it would be illuminating to deconstruct and reassemble the sub-Wagnerian, self-flattering gesamtkunstwerk that constitutes the American social spectacle. Nazi Germany was not the only place where worldview trumps reality.