Problem of the Dehumanization of Ghosts and Jewish People in the Cinema

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Table of Contents

  • Nosferatu
  • The Triumph of the Will
  • Europa, Europa
  • The Pianist
  • The Boat


Nosferatu (1922) is a filmic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Directed by F. W. Murnau, the film is considered a classic. A silent film in black and white, the film more or less follows the Dracula story although the names of the characters have been changed for legal reasons. One of the most pivotal aspects of this film is that it was one of the first to use montage as a narrative technique. Murnau is highly successful at using montage as a way to combine disparate aspects of the narrative. One scene is occurring in Bremen, Germany while the other occurs in the Transylvania.

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One of the most provocative aspects of the text and this film in particular is that it is the first of its kind to suggest the link between vampirism and the unknown, especially in relation to 19th century worries over venereal diseases. The vampire represents danger and seduction just as Transylvania exists in lore as the land of phantoms. As a foil to the normative ideal of Germany, Romania also represents the ethnic unknown, full of monsters who are known to prey on human blood, requiring it for their existence. From another angle, the vampire has been infected. He is in fact desperate to sustain his need to feed while existing parallel to normative society as an outcast with special needs.

As a groundbreaking film that touches on aspects of peripheral nationality, a suspect of highly sexualized desires and uncontrollable urges, this film demonstrates the western imagination of the borders of Eastern Europe as edging up on the mysteries of the unknown. As a creeping, desirous, creature of the night that preys on unassuming (often innocent) victims, the vampire cannot be satiated. Not only is he deadly, but he has the potential to infect good-hearted souls. In many ways, Nosferatu serves as an allegory for social organization, good behavior and seeks to put an end to curiosity. Going off into the night alone, or venturing off into the hills of Transylvania is most likely not advisable. By venturing into territory known to be full of phantoms, i.e. danger, one is most likely going to face infection and/or death. This film is a prime example of the fear and anxiety of the German public of difference and any infiltration into the realm of their purity as a people, a nation, and as individuals.

The Triumph of the Will

The Triumph of the Will (1934) is a stunning example of Nazi propaganda. Directed by Leni Riefenstahl, the film features footage of Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. The film is a documentary of the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, Germany which was attended by over a half a million Nazi Party supporters. Triumph of the Will is a tremendous display of the Nazi imagination. One of the early sequences features young German boys and men bathing themselves outdoors. This sequence suggest the virility of the nation’s youth in addition to suggesting their cleanliness and fitness. We continue to see the boys happily eating and drinking, wrestling and showing comradery. These are the Hitler Youth. The next sequence cuts to women and girls parading in traditional garb. Once Hitler enters, we begin to see close-up shots of smiling women and girls, obviously smitten with his presence.

Riefenstahl presents the nation as a unified whole, lined up, obedient and in reverence of Hitler, who goes on to call the youth to solidarity in one party. Throughout these opening sequences, the background is graced by music by Wagner. The film is intended to create a sense of pride in the viewer, to involve them in the events and invite them to share in German pride. Toward the end of the film, we see perfectly formed young soldiers marching in order. We can assume that these were the boys we observed in the beginning of the film being primed for war through their time at youth camps.

We hear directly from Hitler, calling the youth directly into action. His speech is a direct call to action, positioning the German youth as responsible for carrying on the ideal of the German state ideology. By portraying Hitler in a position of power and might with direct close-ups, it places him in a position of power and situates him within a dominate sphere of the frame. The intention of the film is to arise pride, ignite belief in the future of the German state, and compel viewers to identify with the strength and power of the Nazi party. The sheer volume of attendees alone is stunning.

Europa, Europa

In dealing with the nature of shifting identities and what it means to be Jewish, German, and Jewish and German, Agnieszka Hollan’s 1990 film Europa, Europe touches on the hardship and sacrifice related to survival in an oppressive and dangerous era during WWII in Germany. The film is an account of a Jewish boy who escapes into Nazi culture by disguising his Jewishness. As he is brought into the fold of the Hitler Youth, it becomes possible to see how identities are constructed through the context in which they are produced. The film points to major the major issue of race and ethnicity as an essentialist feature of a human being.

Although he is a member of the Jewish “race,” he is accepted by German Nazi’s because they believe him to be one of them. This move in the film’s plot suggests that otherness in the Nazi mind is a fabrication of propaganda belief in the false stability of a national identity. This film points precisely at the ways in which identity is constructed through belief systems based in myths.

The Pianist

Based on a true story, Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist depicts the experiences of a Polish Jew living in the Warsaw ghetto. Once celebrated as a master pianist, the best in Poland, he must now come to terms with living a life in hiding. This film is truly touching and gets at the ways in which class and talent are produced within a cultural context. Although he was an “other” before the beginning of the war, Szpilman was nevertheless able to live a productive and successful life as a pianist and celebrated performer.

As we witness the destruction of his life, we also witness the parallel destruction of Warsaw. The devastation of the individual is in direct relation to the complete destruction and humiliation of the city. By understanding the connection of the individual to the state or the city in this way, it becomes possible to observe the ways in which state and governmental control over our lives dictate our capacity to share our talents. In other words, if the external support structure is not available for us, we will wither. However, the story is not only dark and gloomy. Polanski also depicts the ways in which hope functions to keep a human alive in the face of utter despair. As Szpilman’s entire reality was taken out from under his feet, he had to find other ways to survive. This film depicts the horrid conditions that change humans into animals. By showing the destruction and devastation of war and ethnic cleansing, it becomes possible to see what constitutes humanity and what is taken for granted during times of peace.

The Boat

The Boat by Wolfgang Petersen (1981) is a film set during WWII. It conveys the story of soldiers who are on a German U-boat. In similar ways to The Pianist, The Boat points to the ways in which war shapes human individuals into tools of the state. While these soldiers are supposed to be fighting for the German army, it is suggested that they would identify with the propaganda of the SS and believe in Nazi values.

Yet at the same time, these are, after all, just young men with their own dreams and aspirations. They have friends and family, and just like everyone else, long for peace and happiness and a normal life. What a film such as this suggests, especially in relation to a propaganda film such as The Triumph of the Will, is that the documentary footage is itself a tool to convince those who would otherwise not have a party affiliation that they should be part of the national belief system. A film such as The Boat displays the ways in which propaganda is necessary as a tool of war by defining a national solidarity and shared consciousness that does not naturally exist. In other words, propaganda is a requirement of the war machine because individuals need to be shaped, just as much as boys need to be cultivated into soldiers.

None of the processes that contribute to beliefs in ethnic cleansing, war, a pure Aryan race, etc. are natural. They are rather, well-honed details that have been constructed, edited, put to music and expressed through the hopes that viewers will want to achieve and emulate the strength, power, suppleness and community that is evident in a film like Triumph of the Will. Just as viewers will evidently desire to stay away from the land of the “phantoms,” they will also most likely want to join forces of the party, and reiterate their humanness in relation to the nonhuman vampire or Jew.

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