The Battle of Russia (1943)

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the October revolution in Russia, which led to the forming of the Soviet Union and 70 years of communist domination in Eastern Europe. During most of 2017, I will commemorate this by writing about several films with a Soviet connection. I started two weeks ago with Eisenstein’s Strike (1925). This week, I present to you The Battle of Russia, the fifth part of Frank Capra’s World War II series of propaganda documentaries Why We Fight.

A Soviet army marching in Frank Capra's The Battle of Russia (1943)

Last week, I wrote about The Battle of Britain, and I have also written previously about The Nazis Strike. These, along with the rest of the films in the series, are both very similar and very different from one another. Walter Huston’s excellent narration help to make them similar, as does the style of cutting and the similar looking animated maps and other graphics. Yet, each is uniquely woven around its fact content. In the case of The Battle of Russia, that fact content tells the dramatic, and often tragic, story of Hitler’s idiotic attack on the Soviet Union.

One reason why The Battle of Russia is interesting is that it was seemingly made with respect for the Russian nation and its people. Anatole Litvak, who was the main director (together with series director Frank Capra) was himself Russian. Thus, while the film is certainly propaganda to a large extent, it also shows a deep understanding of Russia and its struggle. It is probably significant that the title contains the word “Russia” rather than “Soviet”. I know next to nothing about Litvak’s background, but I am guessing, based on the film’s contents, that he was not a communist nor, for that matter, a believer in the idea of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Soviet is only mentioned in passing in the film and communism not at all. Mostly, it talks about Russia and the Russians.

Like other parts in the series, The Battle of Russia is propaganda, and it must be used with caution for historical facts. I am guessing that most facts presented in the film are basically true, but on the other hand many things are left out.

This film is best enjoyed for its excellent use of a variety of film material. Everything from old Russian silent historical dramas to captured Nazi propaganda films are used to produce a living picture of how the Soviet Union and the United States became allies in World War II. This is doubly interesting when you consider the bitter enmity that was to replace this alliance only a few years later with the coming of the Cold War.

Soviet soldier with machine gun in Frank Capra's The Battle of Russia (1943)

The Battle of Russia
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.8 G)

The Battle of Britain (1943)

Frank Capra’s famous World War II propaganda series Why We Fight has been justly praised for its high drama and impact. I have previously written about The Nazis Strike, the second part, and the turn has now come to part four, The Battle of Britain. I have seen most of the series, and in my humble opinion, this part is perhaps the best of the lot.

The Nazi whale about to devour Great Britain in Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain (1943)

There are several reasons why I like this film. One is the large amount of genuine aerial footage, both from British sources and from captured Nazi propaganda films. Another is the exciting story it tells. Not the least important reason is the excellent narration by Walter Huston, with brilliant lines like this one: “The Nazi plan called for the RAF to be knocked out of the air, but the men of the RAF hadn’t read the Nazi plan.”

Sure, this is propaganda. It cannot be trusted for historical facts. But it will give you at least a partial glimpse of the reality behind the facts and figures of World War II.

If you are interested in some more facts about the series as a whole, do check my post on The Nazis Strike.

This film is best enjoyed if you are interested in old combat aircraft. The pictures do not lie about these magnificent machines and their performance in the air.

Spitfires in Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain (1943)

The Battle of Britain
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Year: 1943
Running time: 53 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

Der Fuehrer’s Face (1942)

Normally, I do not do short film on this blog, but because of the rich treasure of classic short films available at the Internet Archive, I have decided that October is Short Film Month. First out is the classic cartoon Der Fuehrer’s Face.

Hideki Tōjō on sousaphone, Hermann Göring on piccolo, Benito Mussolini on bass drum, Heinrich Himmler on snare drum, Joseph Goebbels on trombone and Donald Duck in Der Fuehrer's Face (1943)

The beginning of the film cannot really be described any better than Wikipedia does it: “A German oom-pah band—composed of Axis leaders Joseph Goebbels on trombone, Heinrich Himmler on snare drum, Hideki Tōjō on sousaphone, Hermann Göring on piccolo and Benito Mussolini on bass drum—marches noisily at four o’clock in the morning through a small German town where everything, even the clouds and trees, are shaped as swastikas, singing the virtues of the Nazi doctrine.” There, the tone is set, and the rest of the film continues in the same crazy, satiric and nationalistic spirit.

Due to its propagandistic content, the film has not been released on DVD and Bluray as many times as most other Donald Duck films from the 30s and 40s, especially not in Europe. Still, some say it is one of the best. At any rate, there are many brilliant gags, and it is a film well worth watching.

The film has many neat little details. For example, in the image below, note how even the telephone poles (barely visible) are shaped like swastikas. Another detail, for anyone interested in how Disney cut corners in the war year animations, is when the band marches back across the screen just after the titles. The swastikas on the uniforms are mirrored, because the entire section is just mirrored from the first time they marched past.

Der Fuehrer’s Face received an Academy Award for best animated short. At least two other nominees from the same year can be found at the Internet Archive: the Tex Avery cartoon Blitz Wolf and George Pal’s Puppetoon Tulips Shall Grow. Both are excellent, and highly recommended.

This film is best enjoyed if you like the Disney shorts from the classic period. This is one you may have missed if you relied on the official collections from Disney.

A factory with swastikas in the Donald Duck film Der Fuehrer's Face (1943)

Der Fuehrer’s Face
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Year: 1942
Running time: 8 min
Directors: Jack Kinney
Stars: Clarence Nash (voice)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (76 M)

Ich klage an (1941)

Over 70,000 people were killed as a direct result of Hitler’s Aktion T4 in the early stages of World War II. Some were jews, but many more were mentally or physically handicapped children and adults that, so Hitler said, would have meant an unnecessary cost for the “Vaterland” in times of war. As terrible as it is to think about all that, there was one arguably good thing to come out of that terror, namely the propaganda film Ich klage an, financed and produced to gain popular support for governmental use of so-called euthanasia (mercy killings).

Paul Hartmann and Heidemarie Hatheyer in pro-euthanasia film Ich klage an / I Accuse (1941)

Thomas Heyt is a medical doctor with a good career and a loving wife. But his life is turned upside down when his wife Hanna becomes the victim of severe, painful and potentially lethal mutiple sclerosis. Heyt seeks in vain for a cure, but Hanna’s condition becomes ever worse. She asks him to take her life before her pain becomes unbearable, which he eventually does. This, however, is not the end of the film, because Heyt thereafter has to stand trial for his actions, accused of murdering his wife.

When I first saw the film, I had no idea about its connection with Aktion T4. Nevertheless, I expected a propaganda film, but I was surprised to see how mild the propaganda is. So mild, in fact, that if it were not for its connections with Nazism, it could very well still be used to argue for voluntary euthanasia (and sometimes is, for that matter). The film does not in any way bring forth the subject of involuntary euthanasia that was actually the foremost purpose of Aktion T4, but it stays ethically within what several democratic countries legally allow today, apparently including the state of Oregon.

In an ironic twist of fate, the film came too late to save the project that had spawned it. In what has been described as the only successful popular protest against Hitler, public opinion was so strongly against the project that it actually had to be cancelled in 1941, only five days before Ich klage an premiered, heavily censored due to the criticism. (I am not sure whether the copy at the Internet Archive is the original or censored.) But even though Aktion T4 had been officially cancelled, Euthanasia according to the guidelines adopted by the project continued in many places throughout the war, killing tens of thousands more.

The available copy of this film has a unique feature, one that I have never seen before. The initial frames of the video file contain a slideshow with very interesting background information about Aktion T4 and about the film itself. If you have a player that can freeze the film on the first frame, and then step frame by frame, I can highly recommend these interesting slides, either before or after watching the film itself. The slides are pro-euthanasia, as is the film itself, but regardless of your own opinion on the subject, they provide a good historical background.

This film is best enjoyed in one of two very different ways. It can either be seen from a historical perspective, remembering that it comes from the same ideas and ideals that led up to the holocaust. Or it can be seen purely as a work of art: a film which, though controversial, is rich with excellent dramaturgy and acting. Indeed, these two perspectives may not be possible to disassociate entirely; they certainly complement one another and provide the watching with further depths.

Paul Hartmann in pro-euthanasia film Ich klage an / I Accuse (1941)

Ich klage an
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Year: 1941
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 51 min
Director: Wolfgang Liebeneiner
Stars: Paul Hartmann
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (661 M)

Triumph des Willens (1935)

Last week I wrote about the American World War II propaganda film The Nazis Strike (1943), a film which made heavy use of the enemy’s own propaganda films, showing them in a very different light. One of the sources most prominently used in The Nazis Strike is Leni Riefenstahl’s classic Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) about the 1934 Nazi congress at Nuremberg.

Sieg heil! to Adolf Hitler and the swastika in Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will (1935)

Riefenstahl had already made a similar film about the 1933 Nazi party congress, Sieg des Glaubens (1933), which is also available at the Internet Archive. I have not seen the older film (which is said to be of great historical value), but I have been told that Triumph des Willens is much more polished and better propaganda.

If you are interested in Riefentahl’s career, incidentally, you will also want to check out the silent film Der heilige Berg, where she participates as an actor before becoming a director.

I think Triumph des Willens has much to teach us about today’s political climate. It teaches us what can hide behind seemingly harmless rhetorics; it teaches us about the power of mass psychology; hopefully it also teaches us that in order to build a peaceful world, you have to look beyond your own borders and beyond your own social group.

This film is best enjoyed in small pieces. The entire film, with all the speeches by almost-forgotten Nazi officials, feels rather stiff today unless you have a strong interest in Nazi propaganda and ideology. But it is certainly both educational, and to some extent enjoyable, to watch some classic sequences, not least the beginning with Hitler’s flight to Nuremberg and ensuing triumphant motorcade. Another classic is Hitler’s concluding eight-minute speech, containing a lot of tosh about the superiority of the German people in general and its leaders in particular. If you have already seen The Nazis Strike, it is very interesting to watch this film to see the material in its original context.

Adolf Hitler: "We carry the best blood and we know this." in Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will (1935)

Triumph des Willens
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Year: 1935
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 44 min
Director: Leni Riefenstahl
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: H.264 (619 M)

The Nazis Strike (1943)

When the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it became necessary for the government and military to explain to people in general just what the war was all about. Why they were fighting and who they were fighting. The assignment to create a series of propaganda films, collectively titled Why We Fight, went to Frank Capra. These classic films are all available at the Internet Archive, and today we take a look at the second of the series, The Nazis Strike.

Swastika over world map in Why We Fight: The Nazis Strike (1943)

The film describes mainly Nazi Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia and Poland, and thereby the events immediately before and after the beginning of World War II. It does so mainly by using German news and propaganda films. Through ingenious editing and splicing the whole thing together with animations (mostly strategic maps) made by the Disney Studios, Capra puts the German material in a new light, turning the German propaganda into American propaganda.

But the most disturbing part of the film is the beginning, where Nazi methods of propaganda and infiltration are described. Most startling is, perhaps, a scene from a meeting of the Nazi American federation known as the German-American Bund (see image below). During the meeting, guards drag away and beat up a person who seems to a protester. Frightening parallels come to mind with today’s political realities.

The best versions of the films in the Why We Fight series can usually be found in the FedFlix collection, along with thousands of other films produced for the U.S. government. Not only military films with great historical value, but also films about energy, education, health and just about any other subject that a government could want to inform about.

Below follow links to the complete series Why We Fight.

  1. Prelude to War
  2. The Nazis Strike
  3. Divide and Conquer
  4. The Battle of Britain
  5. The Battle of Russia
  6. The Battle of China
  7. War Comes to America

I will probably write in more detail about a few of the others in the future.

This film is best enjoyed for its novel and beautiful turning German propaganda into highlighting the dangers of Nazism. For historical facts, this film, as all propaganda, should be used with considerable care.

Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund in Why We Fight: The Nazis Strike (1943)

The Nazis Strike
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Year: 1943
Running time: 41 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (549×366)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

It is perhaps tempting to believe that the idea of putting Sherlock Holmes in a contemporary setting is a recent idea. Not so. That gimmick has been used at least since the 1940s, when the American producers of new Sherlock Holmes films deicded to enlist Holmes and Watson for the ongoing war effort. In Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, as well as several other films from the war years, they help fight Nazi spies in England. This in spite of the film being based on an original Arthur Conan Doyle story.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson and Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1945)

The film begins in Switzerland, where an inventor has constructed a new revolutionary bomb sight. He wants to offer it to the English government, but the Nazis are wise to his intentions, and so the chase begins. The rest of the film depicts the efforts by both sides to gain control of the inventor and his plans. Professor Moriarty naturally turns out to be the leader of the Nazi spies, and the thing turns into a battle of wits between the two master minds.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon was Basil Rathbone‘s fourth Sherlock Holmes film, but only his second by Universal Studios (the first two were made by 20th Century Fox), and the oldest of his Sherlock films available at the Internet Archive.

Fans tend to be divided regarding Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson. Many see him as the classic Watson, but others, myself included, think he is way too thick-headed, contributing very little beyond cheap comic relief. Still, it must be admitted that Nigel Bruce was a competent actor, and he did the best he could under the circumstances.

This film is best enjoyed because of Basil Rathbone’s usual excellent performance. His Sherlock is possibly the coolest and most laid-back. As much as I enjoy Jeremy Brett or Benedict Cumberbatch, Holmes on screen does not get more classic than this. As an added bonus, Lionel Atwill does a very sinister Professor Moriarty.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Lionel Atwill as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 8 min
Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (656×496)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.2 G)