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Der alte und der junge König slow criticism | Vorbehaltsfilme

Propaganda films made in Nazi Germany are safely stored away only to be screened in special circumstances and in the presence of an expert, notes Beatrice Behn, yet they circulate in the public domain in all kinds of cut-up versions.

We Germans have given a brilliantly euphemistic name to what is the biggest of our film-historical tender spots: the restricted Nazi propaganda films. We call them “Vorbehaltsfilme”, which loosely translates as “retained film”. But Vorbehalt actually has two meanings. One states the polite, fairly mild notion of having reservations towards these films (among which are Veit Harlan’s Jud süss, Hans Steinhoff’s Hitlerjunge Quex and Wolfgang Liebeneiner’s Ich klage an) due to their content. The other indicates that they therefore need to be held back. And so they were kept out of sight of the German post-war public, only allowed to be screened under highly restricted circumstances and always in combination with some kind of re-educational event.
The conditio humana has always had a very specific reaction to prohibition of any kind. Forbidden fruit always tastes better than that which is readily available. The approximately 40 films that still remain under Vorbehalt today have thus attained an aura of pure evil, labelled so toxic to the mind and so redolent of their inherent ideology that anyone who partakes of these devilish fruits is likely to turn into a Nazi. However, this collection of 40 films once counted a full 300, with many films once deemed to be “too Nazi” having been re-cut and reintegrated into the canon of German cinema over the decades. This was not because they had been wrongfully accused, but rather because of key economic interests, mostly driven by the nostalgia of the war generation but also, as time passed, by their growing aura of being part of the restricted canon.
When the renowned Berlin Zeughauskino screened Der alte und der junge König, a historical film about Prussian King Friedrich II produced in 1935, more than twice as many people wanted to see it than there were seats in the auditorium. The film was not a Vorbehaltsfilm anymore and had been deemed acceptable by democratic standards, despite the fact that every frame oozes Führer ideology. One of the most mind-boggling things about the Vorbehaltsfilme is that the ones still on the list are those that hide their agenda the least and show no shame in what they are: pure propaganda. Yet the films deemed to have been decontaminated by re-cuts intended to strip them of their obvious historic and rabble-rousing content still include a subtly toxic ideological sting. And that is far more dangerous, as it is concealed in suggestive narratives, seemingly trivial moments and a quietly seductive visual language capable of undermining awareness and therefore also critical thinking. The fact that some of these films are screened (many of them have been part of German TV schedules for decades) and others are still under Vorbehalt has prevented any broad public discussion of this issue, with any such discourse being relegated to smaller scholarly circles without ever really penetrating the majority of the German population.
Today, as I am writing this text, the copyright of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf has expired, with the end of the 70-year ban on the book leading to a new edition being reissued that is available in stores right now. Before that, you could easily download a copy on the Internet. Today, as I am writing this text, many of the Vorbehaltsfilme are alive and well on YouTube, uploaded and subtitled from dubious sources in terrible quality. But they are there and they always have been, appropriated by Neo-Nazi and other fascist groups all over the world, passed on from person to person, surviving thanks to their aura of being almost mythologically evil and forbidden. There is no discourse conducted around these films, they receive no historical contextualization, and there is no input from survivors and witnesses as to their reception. They simply exist; they cannot be locked away or controlled. Where there is an interested audience, there is always a way.
The reissue of Mein Kampf is almost twice as long as the original due to the extensive notes it contains. It goes without saying that people interested in the ideology it imparts will ignore any such accompanying comments. But others will educate themselves. And both groups can then start to discuss what they have read. And both will find a book full of long-winded military strategies and self-pitying rants that is more boring than evil. In Felix Moeller’s documentary Verbotene Filme, a Neo-Nazi explains how his group screens Der ewige Jude to recruit new people but notes that it hardly helps and that even he and other sympathizers of the cause like him cannot take the film seriously due to the indignant exaggerations it contains. When you finally break through the aura of these evil films, you often find badly aged, hugely boring works, replete with over-acting. It is high time to stop the practice of Vorbehaltsfilme, given that it has been rendered pointless by the Internet. They need instead to be made public, they need to be shown for what they are without any accompanying mythological nimbus of evil, they need to be re-appropriated by society, accompanied by excellent historical contextualization and discourse, which, in the light of the rise of neo-fascist ideas, Germany desperately needs, now more than ever.

Beatrice Behn is the editor-in-chief of She holds a degree in film studies, is a lecturer at Freie Universität Berlin and film critic for a number of other outlets.