Hitler’s Hollywood (2017)/Song of Granite (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Rüdiger Suchsland/Pat Collins

2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It seems that megalomaniacs all have one thing in common—they want a huge audience of adoring fans. In Nazi Germany, it was the job of Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels to capture the hearts and minds of the German people with well-thought-out, targeted communications. Goebbels, an avid movie buff, took personal charge of German filmmaking during the Nazi era, nationalizing the country’s largest production studio, Ufa, and creating feature films and newsreels designed to entertain, distract, and indoctrinate audiences to support the goals of the Third Reich.

Rüdiger Suchsland has assembled a relatively comprehensive and interesting overview of filmmaking in the Third Reich and tries his hand at reading the mindset of the Reich’s leadership and the German viewing public through the use of Goebbels’s own words as the “auteur” of Nazi cinema and those of cultural critics, particularly Siegfried Kracauer. He points out that death and longing play major roles in German cinema at the time and shows many examples of Kracauer’s assertion that the idealized collective memory asserted in Nazi-era films created a world in which they could ignore the reality around them.

The films and filmmakers Suchsland considers are a decidedly mixed bag. Virulently pro-Nazi Veit Harlan and his leading lady and Swedish wife Kristina Söderbaum are shown in their frequent pairing, most notably in the notoriously anti-Semitic film Jud Süß (1940). Director Helmut Käutner, who went on to have a long career in film, was the court jester. Goebbels allowed his faintly critical musical Große Freiheit Nr. 7 (1944) to screen, but banned issuance of the songs on disc or sheet music.

Most interesting to me were the facts that foreign actors were popular as the stars of Nazi era, including young Ingrid Bergman. Douglas Sirk also made films for the Third Reich, and G. W. Pabst, trapped in Germany on the brink of his escape to the United States, made Paracelsus in 1943, a film that looks absolutely fantastic. Hitler’s Hollywood is an excellent look at Germany’s filmmaking industry during the Nazi era and an interesting exploration of the dark soul of Nazism that propaganda and feature films, like those liberally sampled throughout, shored up.

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If I had not just read a book about Jean-Luc Godard’s experiments with sound in his later films (Godard and Sound by Albertine Fox), I might not have given Song of Granite much of a chance. This unusual biopic is an experimental film shot in black and white that privileges sound over image in telling the story of legendary sean-nós singer Joe Heaney. Heaney’s childhood in the Irish-speaking village of Carna in County Galway is recounted in loving detail, with some spellbinding scenes of an storyteller speaking in an ancient stone dwelling to a rapt audience that includes Joe (Colm Seoighe) and a song collector recording Joe’s father and other villagers singing some traditional folk songs. We get a real feel for the rhythms of life in rural Ireland in the early part of the 20th century and especially for the sounds of Heaney’s world—songs, birds, water, mixed Irish and English language.

That said, when director Pat Collins leaves Heaney’s childhood behind, the film becomes nearly incomprehensible in narrative terms. Heaney’s 1949 move to London is tossed off as the clamor of the construction work he did, and his story’s chronology is scrambled. The film seems to suggest that only his childhood mattered, as the sounds of Carna return again and again to the adult Heaney, played in his 40s by Michael O’Chonfhlaola and in his 60s by Macdara Ó Fátharta, particularly birdsong and, of course, the music that defined Heaney’s essence. Most filmgoers are attuned to what their eyes can see, but Song of Granite elevates the importance of sound, a fitting approach to the story of a man who lived to sing.

Hitler’s Hollywood screens Friday, March 9 at 2 p.m. and Wednesday, March 14 at 6 p.m. Song of Granite screens Saturday, March 10 at 3 p.m. and Thursday, March 15 at 6 p.m. Both films show at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

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