Academic journal article German Quarterly

Innocent Action and Splendid Spectacle: Fascism and Entertainment in Harry Piel's Movie Die Welt ohne Maske (1934)1

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Innocent Action and Splendid Spectacle: Fascism and Entertainment in Harry Piel's Movie Die Welt ohne Maske (1934)1

Article excerpt

Actor, filmmaker, and producer Harry Piel was the first pop-culture icon of the German movie industry during the early decades of the twentieth century. His high tech action thriller Die Welt ohne Maske from 1934 dramatizes the invention of an "über-television," a technological device capable of penetrating walls and bridging long distances. What makes this sensational action thriller worth a closer look is the way the film takes up the spectacle-mania of its time. Die Welt ohne Maske is built around the pleasures of looking; the TV's special powers allow the disciplining of deviant citizens, the conduct of sophisticated manhunts, and the performance of heroic actions in front of a live audience, thereby transforming dry politics, law and order into exhilarating and gratifying action entertainment. The article situates Piel's film in the context of an emerging Nazi film industry that sought to infuse consumption with coercion and entertainment with ideology.

In his well-known piece on "Eternal Fascism/' Umberto Eco explores twelve essential features of fascist anxieties and fantasies through a number of key concepts, all of which contributed to the terror of fascism's tyranny. These features include the cult of tradition and heroic death, collective attitudes of national chauvinism and misogyny, and socio-cultural patterns such as the need for action, the fear of difference, and the rejection of analytical criticism. Eco does not touch on the more elusive question of fascist aesthetics and its appeal to the masses. While racism is still considered the main characteristic of the German brand of fascism, it fails to explain what made Nazism so appealing to Germans, allowing it to draw the mass following it did.

In the search for explanations, Walter Benjamin's famous dictum, "die Ästhetisierung der Politik" (49), has often been called upon. This aestheticization is best illustrated through what Siegfried Kracauer so aptly described as "tableaux vivants," by which he referred to the carefully staged mass spectacles of Nazi political rallies, as filmed most famously by Leni Riefenstahl (301). In the early years of the Third Reich, this aestheticization of the public sphere was consciously devised as an integrating force by a regime aware of the need to manufacture unity and consensus in the face of continuing discontent over social and economic conditions (Reichel 39).

Contemporaries of Benjamin and Kracauer have highlighted how National Socialism appealed to the masses through sights and sounds rather than arguments. Ernst Bloch scrutinized the illusion-producing aspect of National Socialism, paying special attention to the desolate situation of the masses in the 1930s and what he called their famished imagination ("ausgehungerte Phantasie"), which responded equally to "Gott, Führer, Vaterland und Feuerwerk" (403-04). Bertolt Brecht took careful notice of the ways in which the Nazis appropriated stage effects for their political mass events. "Die Scheinwerfer und die Begleitmusik, die Chöre und die Überraschungen" turned political rallies into media extravaganzas (560-61). Brecht also saw in Hitler the first actor-politician, whose stage/staged behavior in public was both media-savvy and role-conscious. It was not only as a polemic critique of Hitler's questionable talent as a painter that he nicknamed him the 'Anstreicher/' a person capable of coloring the world at will (565). In his famous 1946 examination of the language of the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer takes into account not just the rhetorical, but also the visual effects of the spectacles organized by the Nazis.

In gewissem Sinn kann man den festlich geschmückten Markt oder die mit Bannern und Spruchbändern hergerichtete Halle oder Arena, in der zur Menge gesprochen wird, als einen Bestandteil der Rede selber, als ihren Körper ansehen; die Rede ist in solchem Rahmen inkrustiert und inszeniert, sie ist ein Gesamtkunstwerk, das sich gleichzeitig an Ohr und Augen wendet . …

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