Volume 74, Number 35 | January 05 - 11, 2005

Largely in German, with English subtitles
Film Forum
209 West Houston Street
(212) 727-8110
Jan. 5-18

Scene from “Hitler’s Hit Parade” a film that illustrates Hitler’s bizarre rise to power.

The art of seduction

Film shows how Hitler used culture to influence a generation

By Jerry Tallmer

It is a cartoon Jew out of Julius Streicher’s ferociously anti-Semitic newspaper, Der Sturmer, only this is an animated cartoon, or a brief fragment of one – a hook-nosed, humpbacked caricature Jew clumping into some dark, conspiratorial woods as the sound track bizarrely supplements that image with the patched-in lyric of a soupy, sentimental German song of that era: “A star that has fallen from heaven, straight into the human heart . . . ”

This is one of the dozens or maybe hundreds of striking moments, underplayed ironies, in “Hitler’s Hit Parade,” a superbly edited 76-minute German-made documentary that opens Wed. Jan. 5, for two weeks at the Film Forum. It bears the date 2003 but it was actually 11 or 12 years in the making, or more precisely, in the financing that brought it to completion.

When Hannah Arendt wrote “The Banality of Evil” she wasn’t talking about animated cartoons, sappy movies, or sloshy songs, but all those things, and many other elements of what is now called pop culture, unearthed and re-examined here, supply background music German style, so to speak, to the benificent civilization of cattle cars, railroad tracks, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” and Zyklon B.

Farmers, fat pigs, pretty girls with hoops, a female archer on horseback galloping down a beach, mountain climbers advancing a swastika, amusement-park rides, nude manikins glorifying the Aryan female form, tap-dancing chorus lines, a lonely lady dancing with her coat, campers in a mass exercise, beauty queens, Hitler in his touring car pushing its way through jam-packed streets, smiling Adolf amid girls and banners, tiny Adolf in a long-distance overhead shot strutting between the massed hundreds of thousands of storm troopers at Nuremburg – all this to actual background music (from German films and records) that clearly owes a great deal to 1930s American jazz.

“Except that it is very German, that music, very composed, no improvisation whatsoever,” says C. Cay Wesnigk, the 46-year-old producer of “Hitler’s Hit Parade” who has come to New York for its American premiere at Film Forum. His key role has been that decade-plus effort to raise the money to put the whole thing together.

The film itself was thought up, researched, assembled, and directed by two other Germans of his generation: Oliver Axer, who is fundamentally a designer, and Susanne Benze, a historian whose studies at the University of Hanover focused on anti-Semitism, National Socialism, and film music of the Third Reich.

“Oliver Axer came to me 12 years ago,” says producer Wesnigk, “because I had made one full-length film called ‘Strictly Propaganda.’ I was 30 and so was he. He said: ‘We would like to make a film called “Hitler’s Hit Parade.” ’ I was really very suspicious. They came to my house. How they got me: They put on this tape of a song, ‘The little town will go to rest . . . ’

“I said: ‘Okay, but this film will be very hard to finance. You can’t even calculate it. You don’t know what you are going to use.’ ” Before they were through their “collage film” had embraced archival footage, commercials, political propaganda, educational films, animations, home movies, and just plain movies.

“They had a grant to write a screenplay. I told them: ‘Use this money to make a raw cut.’ They went away and came back a year later with that raw cut, which is 70 or 80 percent of the film as it stands today. I watched it. Amazing. It made me laugh and made me cry.

“This film was a quest for the truth, a look back, a very personal look back by two people of today trying to figure out what went on in that time. Oliver and Susanne were driving through northern Germany, for instance, when they heard on the radio that song, ‘Ein Stern ist vom Himmel gefallen’ – ‘A star which has fallen from heaven.. . ’

“Oliver is also a singer just for the fun of it. In fact he sings two of the songs in the film. We used the old sound tracks and dubbed him into it, and remixed it, and nobody notices.”

Hitler was always underestimated by his opponents, Wesnigk observes. “They thought him ridiculous. He looked ridiculous, and he WAS ridiculous. The music emphasizes it. It is much better to laugh at the beginning of the film, and then be shattered at the end.

“We seduce the audience. When they watch, they start tapping to the music. And at one point the tapping freezes – just freezes.”

A very scary sequence that may be unclear to Americans (including this one) is when an otherwise unidentified young man and young woman, with cardboard signs dangling from around their necks, are being pushed around and forcibly having the hair on their heads sheared off.

Wesnigk clarifies:

“The young man and the young woman are a loving couple. He is German. She is Polish. Her sign says: ‘I am a Polish pig.’ His sign says: ‘I am a traitor to the German race.’ ”

C. Cay Wesnigk was born in Bad Schwartau, near Lubeck, Germany, close to the border with the former East Germany, on November 4, 1962. The “C” is for Christian, and Wesnigk in Russian comes out Yesnick, which means – “I couldn’t have made it up” – something like “the messenger who brings the true message.”

His paternal grandfather, a Berlin patent attorney, “raised the wrong flag” – for Hindenburg, not Hitler – and was informed on and brought to trial. He died of an ulcer. That grandfather’s son, Wesnigk’s father, was 15 when World War II ended, at which point he jumped on his bike and pedaled west as fast as he could, to get away from the Russians.

The other grandfather, a farmer, was a Nazi party member who had fought in the first World War. “Hitler was good to the farmers.”

That grandfather’s daughter, Wesnigk’s mother, was herself a party member in her youth, and in fact worked in the library at S.S. headquarters in Berlin, translating foreign newspapers. It was some years later that she would translate several of the lyrics used in this film.

In short, she changed her mind?

“Oh yes,” says her son. “Definitely. The most anti-Nazi person I ever knew.”

Wesnigk was himself a kid in the revolutionary 1960s. “All this” – the Hitler years – “happened 20 years before I was born. It felt like 1,000 years ago. Self-righteous like everyone else, I was sure I would never have been a Nazi. I wasn’t born then.” Short pause. “If I had been, of COURSE I’d have been a Nazi. I’d have been in the Hitler Youth.”

When, 11 years ago, Wesnigk started trying to raise the money to make the film, “nobody wanted to do it.” It was only when he went to Hans Peter Kochenrath, an editor at German television’s ZDF, that he found an ear willing to listen, even if Kochenrath said: “I only have 10 minutes.”

The 10 minutes stretched to three hours as Kochenrath watched the raw cut, back and forth. And then went to work helping them to raise that money. In the end, Wenigk says, a million-dollar film was made for 180,000 euros (about $200.000). It is dedicated to the late Hans Peter Kochenrath.

It was only cleared for one broadcast (and one repeat) on the German cultural channel ARTE, but Karen Cooper, who runs Film Forum, saw it at an International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.

One small incidental bonus. To watch “Hitler’s Hit Parade” with all its kitsch and all its terror is to realize, once again, how great, how prescient, and how percipient was and is the Kander & Ebb & Isherwood & Van Druten & Masteroff & Prince musical of 1972.

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