BOOTLEG FILES 169: “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews” (an astonishing 1944 Nazi propaganda charade).
LAST SEEN: Available online at YouTube (although not in the complete version).
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: As with other Nazi-era propaganda, there is no commercial call for it.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
Trying to apply the basic tenets of sanity to the propaganda films of Nazi Germany is a vain endeavor, since those delusional and vile movies exist in their own sphere of logic. But even within that sorry genre, the 1944 short film “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews” is so outrageous that its very existence is mind-boggling.
In 1944, after repeated requests by the International Committee for the Red Cross to examine conditions in Nazi concentration camps across Europe, the German government decided to coordinate a heavily controlled tour of the Jewish ghetto at the Czechoslovakian town of Terezin (called Theresienstadt in Germans). Located outside of Prague, Theresienstadt was not a concentration camp, but rather was a temporary holding location where the deported Jews of Europe awaited their final journey to Auschwitz. A recorded 33,000 people died from hunger or disease from the miserable conditions at Theresienstadt.
For the Red Cross inspection, however, the Nazis turned Theresienstadt into a Potemkin village, complete with hasty paint jobs and the construction of facades for nonexistent shops and cafes. The overcrowded conditions were relieved by deporting thousands of Jewish inmates to Auschwitz. The Red Cross delegates must have been incredibly stupid, as they believed Theresienstadt to be a humane resettlement village for the Jewish people who were taken by force from their homes in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. (For the record, Denmark’s government was not fooled and successfully worked to get nearly all of the Danish Jews released from Theresienstadt before they could be shipped to Auschwitz.)
Buoyed by the charade pulled on the Red Cross, the Nazis decided to create a propaganda film to depict Theresienstadt as a model settlement for the Jewish people. Why this film was needed was never clear, since it obviously contradicted the Nazi goal of the Final Solution as determined by the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. Furthermore, the film was designed to present a positive view of Jewish life, which also contradicted years of propaganda designed to demonize the European Jewish community as parasitic and bloodthirsty.
But the weirdest aspect of this production was the decision to have one of the Jewish inmates direct the film. Kurt Gerron, a German actor/director who was barred from the German film industry after the Nazi rise to power, was living in the Netherlands when he was arrested and sent to Theresienstadt. It is not clear why he was chosen to direct this propaganda film, nor is it clear whether he took the assignment happily or was forcibly coerced. In any event, Gerron wound up with the unhappy distinction of being the only Jewish artist to direct a movie in the World War II-era Nazi cinema.
The resulting film is known in English as “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews” and it shows a happy day in the life of the “city” which the benevolent Adolf H. put aside for Europe’s Jews. On the surface, it all seems benign, almost to the point of being quotidian.
Among the scenes depicted in “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews” are blue-collar labor (a blacksmith shop, a factory that produces clothing and shoes), artistic endeavors (sculptors creating statues and pottery, an orchestra performing for a rapt audience), intellectual pursuits (lectures and a visit to a well-stocked library), athletic distractions (a men’s soccer game), botanical harvests (the elderly and children tending gardens), and even a spot of good hygiene (a visit to the men’s communal showers, complete with an excess of views of nude rear-ends). There’s even a fairly condescending pause to check in on the women of Theresienstadt, where the silly ladies are seen enjoying the leisurely time-wasters of knitting, playing cards and gossiping among themselves.
Despite a bombastic off-screen narrator insisting that everything in Theresienstadt was pleasant and comfortable, the images presented in “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews” are simultaneously ridiculous and disturbing. If one watches the film carefully, there often appears to be a sense of nervous self-conscious behavior by those captured on camera. Very few people in “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews” break into spontaneous smiles, nor do they seem particularly relaxed whenever the camera discovers them. Even something as rudimentary as determining which team leads off in the soccer match looks forced and uncomfortable, as if the players were painfully ill-at-ease to be part of the cinematic hoax.
Plus, the presence of yellow stars on the clothing of everyone in the film further delineates a sense of isolation that the Theresienstadt prisoners have in relation to the rest of the world. The film suggests the Jews of Theresienstadt are happy to be segregated by themselves, and at no time is there any suggestion of interaction between this “city” and its surrounding Christian communities.
It appears the Nazis realized the film was incompetent as propaganda. There is no record of it ever being screened and many scholars believe it wasn’t even completed (that may explain the film’s surprisingly choppy editing, as scenes pointlessly crash into each other). The Nazi regime also changed its mind on the effectiveness of Theresienstadt as a propaganda tool – the entire Jewish population of the ghetto was shipped to Auschwitz after the filming was completed. Gerron was killed upon arrival at the concentration camp. Only a handful of Theresienstadt inmates survived the Holocaust, and their testimony would piece together the bizarre story of life in that ghetto and the creation of this strange movie.
After the Nazi surrender in 1945, all of the German propaganda films were seized by the Allied forces. “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews” remained unknown to the world for years, and today it is shown (if at all) strictly in educational settings as an example of Nazi-era propaganda. Bootleg videos of the film have been in circulation for some time, but their lengths vary – one collector-to-collector service provides a 30-minute version, while a 15-minute version can be found at YouTube.
Watching “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews” is especially painful if one realizes in advance that nearly everyone captured on camera was murdered within weeks of the completion of principal photography. On that level, the film is a tragedy of incomprehensible proportions.
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