Posted to www.marxmail.org on December 29, 2004
“Hitler’s Hit Parade” is a documentary montage of theater and home movies, archival footage, animated films, commercials and political propaganda that depicts Germany as an altar to narcissism and kitsch. If one did not know that Germany would eventually have the blood of millions on its hands, it might appear as the most innocent and naïve of nations.
In scene after scene free of voice-over, we see Hitler kissing babies, German youth doing calisthenics with Nazi emblems on their t-shirts, Mercedes-Benzes streaking up the autobahn, German versions of Busby Berkeley dance routines, etc. against a nonstop sound-track consisting of some of the most schmaltzy pop tunes ever recorded. All this material is woven together seamlessly with a minimum of irony even though the material cries out for the sort of italicizing found in a Michael Moore film. In the face of such obviously toxic material, a voice-over would probably prove redundant.
The general theme that emerges through the images is that of a society consumed with health, well-being and normalcy. Children are uniformly well-fed and robust looking. One thirteen year old girl has her jaw width measured by a couple of Nazi doctors as if she were livestock. Everybody is prosperous and happy. They all adore Hitler, who comes across as an avuncular figure who would be tempted to tell Germans that they never had so good on every and any occasion.
Against this uniform fabric of optimism, vigor and physical beauty, you have the discordant Jew who is seen in one unflattering photograph after another. In an animated film, we see a beak-nosed Jew plucking the leaves from a tree in the forest out of spite. This imagery comes on the heels of another film excerpt that describes the German nation as a magnificent tree.
The documentary includes the war years, which are depicted graphically and musically as a struggle by the Volk to maintain their way of life despite the hardships. People can endure blackouts and rationing through the help of cheery tunes. Even when men come back from the Russian front missing a leg, they get back into sports and calisthenics with the help of an artificial limb. These images are eerily evocative of the “human interest” stories about American soldiers trying to make the best of things after getting their legs blown off in the Sunni triangle.
Although the German co-directors Oliver Axer and Susanne Benze had German history in mind when they made this unsettling film, it obviously resonates with the contemporary USA even though the country is nominally democratic. The clash between Red State and Blue State values involves many of the same themes that figure in “Hitler’s Hit Parade.”
The Republicans present themselves as “positive” and “optimistic,” while the Democrats are “negative” and “pessimistic.” Politicians like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush demagogically evoke a corn-fed, bible-toting, apple-cheeked America that accepts authority blindly. The charge against critics is that they are “Un-American,” which means that it refuses to submit to these white-bread values.
Germany obviously had the same kinds of cultural tensions in the 1920s with Weimar socialism, decadent art and Jewry standing in for what is suggested by the term Blue State values today and New York City in particular. The whole thrust of the culture wars is to intimidate those who are not seduced by NASCAR races, mass-oriented Country and Western music, Christmas carols and Walt Disney productions.
Marxist cultural theory has tried to come to terms with kitsch of this sort ever since the 1930s. Wikipedia states the term originates from the German and Yiddish ‘etwas verkitschen’ (which has a similar meaning to “knock off” in English).
For Clement Greenberg, Hermann Broch, and Theodor Adorno, the avant garde and kitsch were opposites. Kitsch was perceived as an assault on culture. Adorno developed many of these ideas when he was living in Los Angeles and directed his wrath at Walt Disney cartoons, etc. When I read “Dialectics of Enlightenment” by Adorno and Horkheimer, I was put off by what appeared as snobbery mixed with academic Marxism. After seeing “Hitler’s Hit Parade,” I have a better sense of what was bugging these Frankfurt school Marxists. It is too bad that they went overboard.
Broch called kitsch “the evil within the value-system of art” and argued that kitsch involved trying to achieve “beauty” instead of “truth.”
In his 1939 essay titled “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” written for the Trotskyist Partisan Review, Clement Greenberg lumped Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Stalinist Russia together when it came to the question of kitsch and mass society:
“Where today a political regime establishes an official cultural policy, it is for the sake of demagogy. If kitsch is the official tendency of culture in Germany, Italy and Russia, it is not because their respective governments are controlled by philistines, but because kitsch is the culture of the masses in these countries, as it is everywhere else. The encouragement of kitsch is merely another of the inexpensive ways in which totalitarian regimes seek to ingratiate themselves with their subjects. Since these regimes cannot raise the cultural level of the masses — even if they wanted to — by anything short of a surrender to international socialism, they will flatter the masses by bringing all culture down to their level. It is for this reason that the avant-garde is outlawed, and not so much because a superior culture is inherently a more critical culture.”
In a few years, Greenberg would abandon socialism altogether and enlist in the war against Communism using avant-garde art as a heavy artillery weapon against the USSR.
In 1984, the Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote about kitsch in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” According to Wikipedia, he argued that kitsch functioned to exclude everything that humans find difficult to come to terms with, offering instead a sanitized view of the world in which “all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.” Obviously he anticipated what would be happening in the USA twenty years later under a President who deploys down-home kitschiness on behalf of murderous imperialist wars abroad and assaults on the working-class at home. When he is challenged by his critics, he brushes them aside–assisted by a spineless press and Democratic Party. Someday, when this is no longer sufficient to stay the course, he might resort to more repressive measures. At that time, it will be useful to study the lessons of Hitler’s rise.
“Hitler’s Hit Parade” opens at the Film Forum in New York City on January 5th. It is well worth seeing if you are interested in Germany’s past and our future.