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MOVIES : Reflections of the Third Reich : The UCLA series 'Ministry of Illusion: Films From the Third Reich, 1933-1945' provides a rare look at the filmmakers who chose to work under Hitler and Goebbels. It wasn't all Nazi propaganda.

January 08, 1995|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic. and

"The Prodigal Son" begins in a picturesque Alpine village where everyone is so bursting with Aryan health it makes your teeth hurt. Trenker plays Tonio, a happy-go-lucky woodsman who divides his time between sweet-talking his shy shepherdess sweetheart Barbl (Maria Anderngast) and cutting down trees with similarly hearty lads who invariably sing when they work. Any spare moments are spent with the local teacher, mooning over a huge globe and talking dreamily about seeing the world.

Then, after doing a good deed for some visiting wealthy Americans, Tonio gets a chance to visit New York City, much to Barbl's demure disgust. The teacher, however, tries to calm her down with a pointed dose of mountain wisdom: "He who never leaves can never return."

Shot on location in lower Manattan, "The Prodigal Son's" New York scenes strike a different tone. Photographed in stark, verite style, they provide a more graphic look at the realities of Depression America than most Hollywood films dared, concentrating on shots of grim tenements and homeless people sleeping in the streets. The film, which won the Grand Prize at 1935's Venice festival, ends with a striking visual display of another sort, a heady harvest event back in Tonio's hometown that is a combination Winterfest and pagan bacchanal.

More energetic still is the other Trenker film in the series, the beautifully photographed "The Emperor of California," which is nothing less than a full-dress Third Reich Western starring Trenker as Johann Augustus Suter (John Sutter) of California gold rush fame.

Forced to leave his native Germany because of political oppression (a rather boggling scenario to be approved in 1936), Suter is told in a vision to go out and do his country's work in the world. Practically the next shot has him wearing fringed buckskin and hanging out in a rowdy cowboy bar full of disreputable characters, all of whom speak impeccable German.

As Suter makes his way to California, this cultural topsy-turvyness continues: Our hero smokes a peace pipe with some fierce Sioux, a tribe whose native language was apparently English. And since Trenker did second unit work in Arizona, the area around Sacramento where Suter used honest German hard work to build a paradise with his bare hands turns out to be rife with large Saguaro cacti.

Despite this brio, and perhaps because of his fascination with America, Trenker, whose ability to resume work after the war always rankled Riefenstahl, never became one of Goebbels' favorites. "Trenker makes national films," the minister commented in a rather tart diary entry, "but he is and always was a real dirt bag."

While the Trenker films promoted a chauvinist pride in the German people and a distrust of foreigners, other films pushed other messages, one of the most persistent being the necessity for sacrifice among women. Many of the Reich films turned into veritable orgies of denial, full-blown celebrations of self-abnegation that propagate the feeling, as one character puts it, that "one doesn't have to be happy when one is in love."

Perhaps the most unreal of those films is "The Great Sacrifice," an elevated soap opera filmed in delicate Agfacolor where everyone is irreproachably wealthy, exquisitely polite, and lives in a world that barely intersects with reality.

The hero, Albrecht Froben (Carl Raddatz), is an athletic wind-and-sun kind of guy who'd rather be sailing his boat than reading gloomy poetry with the family of his refined wife, Oktavia. Out on the water, he runs into a naked vixen named Als, a Valkyrie from Finland who is known to lead "a free and irregular life," which in addition to nude swimming includes seaside bow-and-arrow target shooting while riding bareback in a bathing suit.

Albrecht and Als appear to fall in love, but it is hard to be sure because both Als and Oktavia spend most of their time catering to self-absorbed Albrecht's whims and telling him that their desires don't matter as long as he is happy. Als is played by the popular Kristina Soderbaum, who, according to Cinzia Romani's intriguing "Tainted Goddesses: Female Film Stars of the Third Reich," became "the embodiment of the fresh, ingenuous German fraulein-- modest and selfless--as well as the strong and healthy Aryan."

Even more adept at self-sacrifice was Zorah Leander, the best-paid actress of the Reich years. A plump Swedish contralto who had to resort to intense weight-loss regimens before each new film, her deep-voiced songs (there were a few in almost every picture) were as much of an attraction as her ability to suffer for love on screen.

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