How the Nazis Stole Storytelling

Adolf Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl.

Adolf Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl.

Austrian film director Michael Haneke is known for rubbing violence in the face of the viewer. Though it’s less about the act than it is the physical and psychic pain that the victims experience. His best-known movie is Funny Games, which he actually directed twice, first in German, then in English. Because of the empathy for the victims he evokes, a spoiler is justified to spare you the pain when, at the end of the English-language version, last-woman standing Naomi Watts isn’t spared.

In 2007 John Wray profiled Haneke for the New York Times magazine in an article titled Minister of Fear. Their conversation took a curious turn. Wray wrote:

Haneke has his own theory for the divergent routes taken by Hollywood and Europe, one in which, perhaps not surprisingly, the darker side of German and Austrian history plays a central role. “At the beginning of the 20th century,” he told me, “when film began in Europe, storytelling of the kind still popular in Hollywood was every bit as popular here. Then the Nazis came, and the intellectuals — a great number of whom were Jewish — were either murdered or managed to escape to America and elsewhere. There were no intellectuals anymore — most of them were dead. Those who escaped to America were able to continue the storytelling approach to film — really a 19th-century tradition — with a clear conscience, since it hadn’t been tainted by fascism. But in the German-speaking world, and in most of the rest of Europe, that type of straightforward storytelling, which the Nazis had made such good use of, came to be viewed with distrust. The danger hidden in storytelling became clear — how easy it was to manipulate the crowd. As a result, film, and especially literature, began to examine itself. Storytelling, with all the tricks and ruses it requires, became gradually suspect. This was not the case in Hollywood.”

In other words, included among their many crimes, the Nazis stole narrative and turned it into propaganda. But in the process, they gave avant-garde film and literature an unexpected boost.