The editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television once described the cinema of Nazi Germany as ‘the world's most fascinating subject’: at least that's the way it must seem if the sheer number of articles submitted on the subject is anything to go by. That said, is there really need for another book on the cinema of the Third Reich? The answer has to be an emphatic yes. Susan Tegel generously acknowledges her debts to scholars who have preceded her in this crowded field, and to some extent what she offers is a synthesis of the existing literature. This is valuable in its own right, particularly for the secondary sources published in German that may not be as well known and are accessible only to those students with the requisite linguistic competence. But Nazis and the Cinema is much more than that: it is itself informed by a substantial amount of primary source research, and it offers new perspectives on the subject. It is also lucidly written and persuasively argued without any recourse to cultural studies jargon. Tegel's approach is very much that of the historian, with the emphasis throughout on understanding the films in context: as well as analysing their narrative and ideological strategies, she documents their production histories and, where evidence is available, considers how they were received and understood by contemporaries.
Tegel provides a comprehensive survey of film production in Germany from 1933 until 1945. She considers the structure of the German film industry and its reorganization as it came increasingly under the influence of Joseph Goebbels's Propaganda Ministry. A film bank and the special merit awards were instituted to encourage the sort of films the regime wanted, while the state secretly bought controlling interests in the major film companies. Even so, as Tegel demonstrates, state control of the cinema industry was not monolithic. A particularly illuminating finding of her study is that the representation of Jewish characters in Nazi-era films was not necessarily as uniform as previous commentators have suggested: there was still some scope for directors and writers to make films that, while not off message, were sometimes more nuanced that one might expect given the ideological climate in which they were produced.
There are detailed case studies of some of the major ideological landmarks of Nazi cinema – Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935) and Fritz Hippler's notorious The Eternal Jew (1940) among them – but refreshingly Tegel also finds room to consider the entertainment cinema of the Third Reich, such as Josef von Baky's spectacular Agfacolour fantasy Münchhausen (1943). She concludes with an assessment of the importance of the allied newsreels of the liberation of the extermination camps. Much of the film legacy of the Third Reich was concerned with the manipulation of images: on this occasion what film showed was the raw truth. Overall, this is a highly illuminating and well-researched book that will almost certainly become the standard text for a generation.