Home / Opinion / Views /  Why period films are deployed as tools of propaganda

Invariably, films set in the past are really about the present, reflecting either the zeitgeist of the times or a narrative the film maker wishes to project, whether consciously or unconsciously. First, history is often too complicated and multi-faceted to fit a neat narrative of heroes and villains so beloved to cinema. Second, it would be almost impossible to fit everything into a two-hour time frame, so filmmakers must pick and choose what the movie shows. Third, dialogue is nearly always done in a way that takes the narrative forward, so material that doesn’t do that is ignored. Fourth, black and white characters are far more fun than grey ones.

All of this means that even cinema that claims to be “true" is often just a perspective, lacking nuance and context.

Academic history is much the same, but as a picture can be worth a thousand words, the sheer visceral impact of cinema makes the truism particularly important in evaluating it. It is hard to dispute that people perceive historical events through the lens of movies to the extent popular memory becomes indistinguishable from popular cinema. For example, the popular perception that World War I was a “misbegotten shambles" is in no small part due to Black Adder Goes Forth.

It is no wonder then that the period film—with its great ‘historical truth’—is frequently the go-to vehicle for political mythmaking or propaganda. Movies showing grand heroics or victimhood can bolster national narratives and create historical ‘memories’ that engender ‘patriotism’ or help in getting votes.

This need not be a bad thing. Since the ‘truth’ a movie shows is merely a perspective, a film that highlights humanity, decency, the principles of democracy and the essential equality of all is one that is worthy of being celebrated by all responsible leaders.

Perhaps the foremost movie of this type is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece La Grande Illusion which was released in 1937 to near universal acclaim. The movie tells the story of three French prisoners of war in various German camps 20 years earlier during World War I, and their eventual escape. It was based on Renoir’s memories of his war-time experience. In the hands of a lesser director, this would have been an opportunity for jingoism and rousing dialogue interspersed with action set pieces. In Renoir’s hands, it was a hauntingly elegiac piece of art about friendships across class, nationality, language and religion, the artificiality of human borders, and the essential humanity of all sides. There were no cartoonish villains, just ordinary people doing their best. As Renoir believed, everyone has their reasons. The richly etched characters are unforgettable: the working-class hero Marechal played by Jean Gabin, the cheerful and generous Jewish Rosenthal played by Dalio, the lonely German widow Elsa played by Dita Parlo, the aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu played by Pierre Fresnay who sacrifices his life for his compatriots to escape, and above all, the tragic Captain Von Rauffenstein played by Eric Von Stroheim. The themes Renoir touches, the generosity with which he deals with his characters, and the humour and pathos make La Grande Illusion one of the greatest movies ever made. The movie was released 85 years ago when the Spanish civil war was raging and Western democracies were headed for a war against fascism. Yet, its message remains ever relevant. That’s why The Grand Illusion won the admiration of US President Roosevelt, who screened the movie in the White House and wanted every democrat to see it. Mussolini kept a copy in his private collection. Goebbels, that master of propaganda, recognized the damage this movie’s message could do to his philosophy, declared it to be “cinematic enemy No. 1" and tried to destroy every print in existence during World War II.

Goebbels also used the format of the period film to promote Nazi values. The notorious Jud Suss, released in 1940 and a massive hit in occupied Europe, was the work of director Veit Harlan based on the life of Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, an employee of Duke Karl Alexander of Wurttemberg, who was accused of fraud, embezzlement and treason and was sentenced to death in the 17th century. The movie portrayed Suss as a sexually licentious man who was responsible for unfair taxation and brutal oppression of people. The movie ended with all Jews expelled from Wurttemberg and this closing dialogue: “May the citizens of other states never forget this lesson." Although it was promoted as true history, it was largely based on a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger with anti-Semitic tropes added by Goebbels and Harlan. It was heavily promoted by the Nazi brass. Himmler apparently made his Schutzstaffel watch the movie before anti-Jewish pogroms. There were also incidents of violence against Jews after screenings. After the war, the film was banned in Germany and Harlan was tried for crimes against humanity, though he was later released. The actors all tried to disclaim responsibility for the movie, claiming, like Harlan, to have been coerced by Goebbels.

Not every propaganda film works as intended. Eisenstein’s expressionist Ivan the Terrible movies made in the 1940s were intended by Stalin to show a strong leader whose decisive leadership resulted in the Russian empire’s recapture of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Instead, what emerged was a thinly veiled criticism of Stalin’s paranoia, absolutism and ruthlessness. The two parts were banned in the USSR till the time of Khruschev and Eisenstein could never complete his trilogy.

When political leaders promote films, it is rarely for the truth espoused. It’s usually just an endorsement of a particular narrative.

Rahul Narayan is advocate on record, Supreme Court of India, and solicitor, England and Wales 

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