Nazi Propaganda, Destroyer of German Film Stars

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a confession to make:  I did not want to write this post.  I also did not want to write the post about the Reichstag Fire back in February.


Nazism infuriates me more than anything in the world.  The mere mention of the Third Reich puts me in a bad mood for days, sometimes weeks.  I do not exaggerate.

So why am I bothering with it here?  As a German-American who is fully immersed in researching German history and the arts, I feel that I must.  It is a dark part of German history that I cannot ignore, even though i would like to.

What Was Nazi Propaganda?

Triumph of the Will

Triumph of the Will (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Propaganda was essential for the Nazis to obtain power and control people.  They used posters, books, films, and other materials to show off their so-called “superiority” and cut down anyone they considered an enemy or political suspect.  They used these things to sway public opinion in their favor, essentially scaring people into supporting them.

If you did not submit, you died.  Plain and simple.

Many Germans, such as actors William Dieterle, Conrad Veidt and Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, openly defied the Nazis and barely escaped with their lives.  They were forced out of Germany and had to plant roots in countries far away from the Fatherland, where people did not speak their language or share their culture.

Propaganda Films Destroyed the Careers of Some German Film Stars

It was not unusual for actors who starred in films for Universum Film AG (Ufa) to become members of the Nazi Party (NSDAP).  Some, such as Werner Krauss (best known for playing Dr. Caligari in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), were big supporters of the Nazis, while some, such as Willy Fritsch (best known for his popular teaming with Lilian Harvey), were simply members and that was that. They did not make a huge fuss about it.

And association with the Nazis indeed destroyed the careers of some of the biggest and brightest German film stars. Two of the biggest examples are Emil Jannings and Leni Riefenstahl.

Emil Jannings


Jannings as Mephisto in Faust (1926) (Photo credit: nevan)

Emil Jannings was the first person to win an Oscar for his roles in The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command.  (Fun Fact:  Rin Tin Tin was actually the favorite for Best Actor, but the academy didn’t want to look foolish giving the Oscar to a dog.)

A truly gifted actor, Jannings’ portly presence onscreen was a force to be reckoned with.  Unfortunately when the talkies hit Hollywood, his thick German accent killed his career there. Back in Germany, he starred in a long string of Nazi Propaganda films that, by 1945, killed his career for good.

By the end of World War II, he frantically went around clutching his Oscar, trying to salvage what was left of his fame, but it was too late.  He was blacklisted and forced into retirement.

Leni Riefenstahl

Deutsch: Leni Riefenstahl (* 22. August 1902; ...

Deutsch: Leni Riefenstahl (* 22. August 1902; † 8. September 2003), deutsche Tänzerin, Schauspielerin, Filmregisseurin und Fotografin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In her heyday, Leni Riefenstahl was an extremely popular German actress and dancer.  Not only was she gifted onscreen, she was fabulous behind it, too.  Unfortunately it was what she could do behind the screen that was her downfall.

In 1932, she met Adolf Hitler and embarked on a career she later came to deeply regret.  Hitler admired her work and she was hypnotized by his powerful presence.

She became a faithful National Socialist and willingly took on the role as the director for propaganda films, notably Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) in 1935, a documentary about the Nazi Congress in Nuremberg.

Her film career did not suffer the way Jannings’s did.  Indeed, she often received praise outside of Germany for her skills as a filmmaker, but she was (and still is) saddled with the black mark of Nazism and propaganda. A sad thing to be known for when she could have been known for so much more.

What can be said about why so many German stars submitted to Nazi control?  Were they evil people (as some would like to think)?  Were they gullible? Were they afraid of what would happen to them and their families if they did not do as they were told?  Or was there another reason things happened the way they did?

Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!


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10 thoughts on “Nazi Propaganda, Destroyer of German Film Stars

  1. Julie

    Sad that so many were caught up in these events. I only hope that these lessons will not be lost on future generations. It infuriates me to see people throw around the word Nazi as if it is an appropriate political title for those you disagree with. Every time that word is misused it loses it’s impact for what it really meant and the unspeakable tragedies it created.

  2. Sacha

    I have long felt that it is easy to criticize with a 20/20 hindsight. I remember travelling through East Germany as a teen and we asked older German folks on the train how they handled the Nazis (that was 1988, a year before the fall of the Wall.) They said it was simple: if you did not join the party, you were out of a job. And that particular gentleman had a family of 4 kids to feed. Similarly, many if not most actors felt they had to join in order to continue with their careers, their lives or doing what they love most: acting. It is easier to defy a regime when you have a backup plan, contacts outside the country or personal wealth. I am sure that most actors, as today, are open minded, embracing of lifestyles and cultures. They worked side by side with their Jewish colleagues for years. Today, we cannot even fathom what it must have been like under a Nazi regime, hence we should be careful and sparing with the criticism of the passivity. Remember that this was a time of polarization: you could vote for the Nazis or the Communists. Well, there was a lack of the “middle”. Makes you think when politicians today are trying to polarize voters, no?

    1. Angie Schaffer Post author


      Many people do not know that Ufa was used as a propaganda machine by the German government. They established it FOR that reason after WW1. Actors who did films for Ufa either did what they were told, or they were out of a job. And it might be easy for someone to say, “Well, get another job then…” That is ignorant for several reasons. 1) Jobs were hard to come by. The country was economically depressed after WW1. 2) The Nazis controlled the job market, so you were going to be subjected to their tyranny regardless.

      The majority of people weren’t Wilhelm Dieterle or Conrad Veidt, so they had to make do with what they had. They couldn’t pack up and leave. Leaving wasn’t as easy as the fictional version of the von Trapp family made it out to be in Sound of Music.
      Angie Schaffer recently posted…Nazi Propaganda, Destroyer of German Film StarsMy Profile

  3. Pingback: An Actor at Auschwitz - The Little Jazz Baby

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