"The Great Love" was Leander's most popular film, and one of the most successful of the entire Reich period. In it she plays Berlin torch singer Hanna Holberg, introduced belting out "my life for love, that's how I am." Hanna intoxicates an arrogant visiting airman who pesters her into bed (both of their hands on a doorknob and a fade to the clouds is as frank as it gets) and then spends the rest of the film suffering, suffering, suffering while he is off bombing civilians and thinking about the demands of duty.
Perhaps the closest Third Reich filmmaking got to pure entertainment was 1943's "Munchausen," made in Agfacolor to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Ufa studio. One of the most elaborate of all wartime productions, its size, according to David Stewart Hall's "Film in the Third Reich," forced the Agfacolor labs to work overtime to manufacture the film stock, its clever special effects took 10 months to stage and edit, and it used every candle in Berlin for a banquet scene in Catherine the Great's Russian palace.
Playing Catherine was the seductive Brigitte Horney, the daughter of psychoanalyst Karen Horney; Leo Slezak, Walter's father, played the Sultan of Turkey, and Hans Albers the Baron. A charming confection that is more sexually daring than American films of the period, "Munchausen" has been difficult to see publicly because of rights conflicts, though its influence on Terry Gilliam's recent "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" is clear.
Another epic film, but one that never got shown in the Reich, is "Titanic," which posits that the great ship went down because of the greed of British capitalists who threw prudence to the winds in an attempt to make a killing on the stock market. Not even the stalwart work of the ship's German first officer, the only man with sense enough to worry about those pesky icebergs, could head off the disaster referred to here as "an eternal accusation against England's greed."
Amusing in a floating "Grand Hotel" kind of way, "Titanic" got into trouble with the authorities for two reasons. Its director, Herbert Selpin, was accused of sedition, in an incident unrelated to the film, and murdered in prison by the SS, and the film's scenes of panic and pandemonium were considered bad for morale during a time of increased Allied bombing. One of "Titanic's" stars, Sybille Schmitz, was both the female lead in Carl Theodor Dryer's "Vampyre" and apparently the inspiration for Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Veronika Voss" as well.
The most fascinating and disorienting film in the series, "Request Concert," was also the best-attended of the wartime period, accounting for a record 23 million admissions. Its title comes from an extremely popular radio program, broadcast from 4 to 6 p.m. every Sunday, where soldiers at the front requested snatches of primarily classical music.
What makes "Request Concert" so boggling is the way everything is so inescapably Hollywood but with the politics turned inside out and upside down. Herbert (Carl Raddatz again) and Inge (Ilse Werner) meet cute outside Berlin's Olympic stadium in 1936 after her crotchety aunt has forgotten their tickets to the games. He gallantly offers to take her in and--aren't they the lucky ones?--they get to their seats just in time for Hitler's triumphal entry.
Naturally they fall madly in love, but suddenly, as it does again and again, duty calls for Herbert. The mission is so secret, so important, that he is forbidden to be in any kind of contact with stoic Inge. And what noble action is our romantic hero taking part in: the bombing of Loyalist Spain, including, for all we know, the awful destruction of Guernica.
Running parallel with the Inge-Herbert romance is a subplot concerning a group of clean-cut soldiers from the same neighborhood. Devoted to their mothers, families and sweethearts, loyal to each other, always available for comic relief, these infantrymen are close to indistinguishable from their American counterparts, as are the sailors who break into song in exactly the way sailors do in John Ford movies.
True, no American movie would have a scene where a soldier signals his mates by playing organ music by Beethoven during the invasion of Poland, and it is unnerving to hear the neighborhood butcher say, "Today we chop steaks, tomorrow Englishmen," but those differences simply make the similarities all the eerier.
In the end, the films in "Ministry of Illusion" bring to mind a story by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem concerning a simple Jewish boy who is drafted into the army. Sent to the front, he is told by his officer to shoot as soon as he sees the enemy.
The attack comes, but the boy does not shoot. Upbraided by his superiors, who scream "Look! It's the enemy!," he simply replies: "The enemy's not there. People are there." Of all the lessons World War II and the Holocaust have to teach us, that one continues to be the hardest to learn.
"Ministry of Illusion: Films From the Third Reich, 1933-1945"