Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

The Good, the Bad, and the Fatal: Ben Urwand on the Hollywood Moguls and Hitler

Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

The Good, the Bad, and the Fatal: Ben Urwand on the Hollywood Moguls and Hitler

Article excerpt

The Good, the Bad, and the Fatal: Ben Urwand on the Hollywood Moguls and Hitler Ben Urwand, The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013. 327 pp., ISBN 978-0-674-72474-7 (hc). US $26.95.


This review-essay examines Ben Urwand's study of the film censorship and crediting policies applied by heads of the Hollywood film studios, as well as by the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and its subsidiary office, the Production Code Administration (PCA), during the period immediately preceding Hitler's accession to power in 1933 until shortly after the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Urwand's book is examined alongside Thomas Doherty's similar study, Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939, and in the light of Doherty's strong objections to Urwand's concept of "collaboration." Both books portray key decisions leading to the almost complete omission of Jews as film characters throughout the 1930s.

Ben Urwand's book opens with as good a portrait of totalitarian idiocy as one could find:

Eleven men were sitting in a screening room in Berlin [in 1933]. Only a few of them were Nazis. At the front of the room was Dr. Ernst Seeger, chief censor from long before Hitler came to power. Next to Seeger were his assistants: a conductor, a philosopher, an architect, and a pastor. . . . The [American] movie they were about to watch . . . was called King Kong. . . .

They watched an enormous gorilla fall in love with a beautiful woman and then fall off the Empire State Building. One of the characters muttered something about beauty and the beast. . . .

Dr. Seeger looked over at the first expert witness, Professor Zeiss from the German Health Office. "In your expert opinion," Seeger asked, "could this picture be expected to damage the health of normal spectators? . . .

Zeiss erupted. "I am astounded . . . that a German company would dare to seek permission for a film that can only be damaging to its viewers. It is not merely incomprehensible but indeed an impertinence to show such a film, for this film is nothing less than an attack on the nerves of the german people!" (1-2; emphasis in original)

"Enervation," it should be noted, was a powerful phenomenon in that era, when many-on both sides of the Great War (World War I)-who had returned from service in the battlefield found themselves unable to describe what they had been through. Their experience remained mired in the conflict's front-line trenches, along with the multitude of stray bullets, scattered shrapnel, and bodies of comrades. Walter Benjamin, one of the great thinkers of the era, in his 1933 essay "Experience and Poverty," found in their silence, their paralysis of tongue, an apt metaphor for the destruction of experience more generally which the modern era had brought about.1 But Professor Zeiss's reference to "the nerves of the German people" is wielded clumsily and ideologically. The deliberations continued. According to Professor Zeiss: "My judgment has nothing to do with the technical achievements of the film, which I recognize. Nor do I care what other countries think is good for their people. For the German people, this film is unbearable" (2; emphasis in original).

Professor Zeiss was challenged by Dr. Schulte, assistant practitioner at a mental hospital in Berlin: "In every instance where the film seems dangerous . . . it is in fact merely ridiculous. We must not forget that we are dealing with an American film produced for American spectators, and that the German public is considerably more critical. Even if it is admitted that the kidnapping of the blonde woman by a legendary beast is a delicate matter, it still does not go beyond the borders of the permissible. Psychopaths or women, . . . who could be thrown into a panic by the film, must not provide the criteria for this decision" (ibid.; emphasis in original).

With the committee members at an impasse, they postponed their decision on whether the film King Kong, the epic of a giant ape's infatuation with a blonde American woman, was suitable entertainment for the German public. …

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