In the long march of history, the relationship between politics and films has been both cliquey and yet subterfuged. Films have often functioned as an instrument of propaganda given their exceptional facility to facsimile imageries by reconstructing historical events that give a flavour of authenticity.
While being a source of entertainment, movies are able to skew social perceptions by convincingly misrepresenting or spinning bygone events. This can make films both a convincing but also an evocatively fickle medium. Politicians have long been aware of cinema’s potent properties, and have exploited this media instrument to both rally and proselytise people with dissimilar opinions.
As far back as 1922, the founder of the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin, issued a commandment that affirmed that the People’s Commissariat for Education should control the dissemination of all film properties and structure that industry properly. He believed that cinema had the potential of bewitching the masses through its ubiquitous yet unique ability to convey propaganda without appearing to do so. Lenin asked the party apparatchiks to expose the masses to the horrors of Britain’s imperialistic occupation of India and the work of the League of Nations, among other such themes. Old Marxists and writers were tasked with vetting pictures of a propaganda and educational nature to avoid instances where propaganda subverted its own purposefulness. He ordained that film screenings should be held in villages and in the eastern part of the country where cinema was considered to be a novelty, thereby making propaganda all the more efficacious.
The opaque and closed off realm of the cinemas juxtaposed with the cut and thrust of the political universe have, and not surprisingly so, had a symbiotic relationship from the advent of the first motion picture. More than a century ago, in 1915 to be precise, US President Woodrow Wilson delineated D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a Civil War blockbuster mourning the ephemeral of the antebellum South, as “like writing history with lightning.” Wilson wanted to capture the film’s power to turn dry old actualities into a riveting fable in a way it would be able to kindle passions, thereby both overwhelming and yet instigating. Birth of a Nation’s illiberal reminiscence for slavery certainly exhilarated rich white viewers, reaffirming their misplaced feelings of superiority and privilege at a time of swift social transformation in America, but, on the other hand, it incensed the African-American community.
This chromatic medium has been exploited and manipulated to rationalise crimes and wrongs against humanity. Cinema has publicised racial and cultural animosities, battered political foes, glorified the national aura of governments, and depicted the homeland as a victim of malevolent external powers. The Nazis were the ultimate gurus in this respect, hijacking the German movie business and institutionalising a ministry to ensure that films served the interests of the Third Reich. They drafted film directors to augment Hitler’s authority and depict grotesque images of Germany’s alleged enemies.
Nazi domination of the German film industry is the supreme example of the usage of films to subserve the fascist national program. Prior to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Germany had a buoyant and creative film community in which many Jewish actors, directors and producers were active participants. However, in 1933 itself, Hitler created the Reich Ministry for People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda and appointed Joseph Goebbels as its potente. He had the authority to decide which films could be produced. His ministry reviewed scripts, decided which actors, directors and screenwriters should be given work, and controlled the content of films. Film critiquing was banned and Jews were forbidden to work in the film industry. In the Nazi broadcasting dictatorship, films were the most important tool.
By 1937, Adolf Hitler had nationalised the film industry entirely. At that point, the Nazi film industry had two major and mutually reinforcing objectives — first to provide the German people with entertainment that was at least consistent with and preferably supportive of the Nazi worldview, and second, to generate consummate propaganda movies to create public support for their cause.
During World War II, Reich favourites in the industry commissioned a film entitled Ich Klage or “I Accuse” to influence German populaces to accede to the practice of euthanasia. A corollary was to assay public attitudes as to whether there was appropriate backing to formally sanction the program. Ich Klage was an ostensible deception of real Nazi intent. The reality was that the Nazis murdered medical patients against their will while the film portrays a doctor giving a lethal injection to his terminally ill wife. Throughout the movie the woman beseeches her husband to put an end to her misery and pain by terminating her life.
Though it is generally believed that Nazi filmmaking was predominantly a drill in propagandising, the reality is that it was focused on the creation of entertainment also. Banning of foreign films and increasing war reverses coupled with relentless enemy bombing created a pressing need for diversion. Indeed, something like a billion cinema tickets were sold in Germany between 1942 and 1944.
However it was not only the Nazi’s, even President Roosevelt of the United States acknowledged the use of cinema as a vehicle of propaganda. He exhorted Hollywood to introduce morale-building leitmotifs that would engender a nationalistic outlook. This eventually led Frank Capra to produce seven government-sponsored films that supported the war effort. Other iconic movies of that time like Casablanca and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo have become so cherished that their original role as propaganda instruments has been virtually forgotten.
The relationship between politics and cinema has become more blasé with totalitarian states maintaining autocratic and iron-fisted control over their nation’s film industries even in the 21st century.
While it is true that propaganda is no longer a candidly top-down process with the proliferation of social media, the experience of the last century shows that films that are undisguised and naked political propaganda are not able to influence people. People may watch them but they see through the design and reject their crudity in entirety.