It's just this little chromium switch, here... (derspatchel) wrote,
It's just this little chromium switch, here...

things done watched

The best thing I've watched in recent memory was a very interesting documentary on the television of the Third Reich. Oh, indeed. Didn't know the Nazis had television? You bet your Blutfahne they did. Back in the 30s, upon learning that the US and Britain were developing and perfecting this newfangled technology that let you transmit sound and picture, Nazi Germany decided it wanted to beat those other guys at the game, and in 1935 -- that's one year before Britain and six years before US commercial broadcast television -- launched its own television service.1 Even the 1936 Olympics were televised. Live, even. Television's reach in Nazi Germany was far from "mass", however; only top top party officials could get their own set and, for reasons listed below, few did. The majority of the receivers were placed in "television parlors" for public viewing. Think of a 20-person movie theater with two magnified TV screens in the front and staffed by one guy who is the only one what gets to fiddle with the knobs when the picture goes wonky. And it was hosted by a perky Aryan lady who cheerfully chirps "Heil Hitler!" as she introduces various programs of social and political import. That's how the Nazis watched their television.

In what feels like a parallel universe.

Thing was, the Reich was pretty ambivalent about television as a whole. They didn't consider it a practical or useful propaganda tool (and apparently Goebbels hated how he looked on TV.) Radio and film were much more useful to them. Leni Reifenstahl's film Triumph of the Will was an incredible and effective propaganda piece because it was so carefully constructed, shot, and then edited to perfection. All bumps smoothed out and erased, all glitches left on the cutting room floor. The live television footage of that same Nuremberg rally reveals a barely-organized chaos, with long fixed shots of a parade route, cameras on high platforms showing a mad swirl of humanity around what Triumph depicts as an elevated, isolated speech platform, and dizzying pans back and forth to try to find some crowd reaction to look at. All the while former radio announcers are on hand, trying desperately to fill in the blank gaps with commentary.

The live location shoots were done on film, actually, as the television cameras couldn't work outdoors in the bright light. Film cameras mounted on top of large vans shot footage which was then developed, on the spot, inside the van, and then screened in the van before a television camera hooked up to a transmitter. This meant stuff was shown live on German television with only a few minutes' delay. And it's these films (along with some studio material shot on film) which are the only surviving records of Nazi television programming, as there were no kinescopes at the time and anything shot directly by the television camera wasn't recorded and thus evaporated long ago into the aether.

Without the luxury of post-production, television was not as flexible or as easily controlled as film and so found itself relegated to novelty status. Yet because of the general indifference from the Party, the television producers found themselves with quite a degree of autonomy -- and very little budget or facility considerations -- when it came to programming. "We felt like outlaws," one former producer says in a present-day interview.

Still, this autonomy didn't allow them to run anything they wished. Programming was strictly party-line, from the Aryan hostess to the interviews with Party officials that sound very much like some political programming nowadays. In one classic instance, a large, nervous official in charge of the "Strength Through Joy" organization mixes up way too many tree and seed and growing and nurturing metaphors in an attempt to answer the simple question "Will Strength Through Joy continue on?" (Judging from the year indicated in the interview, the movement didn't continue on far past that point, so it's understandable for one of the guys in charge to be incredibly nervous in delivering optimistic propaganda when he very well knew he was on the chopping block.) No politician ever metaphors poorly in an attempt to sidestep a question these days, no sir.

But it's not all pomp and goosestepping. There's actual honest to goodness entertainment shown. Musical selections played from the rooftop garden of an entertainment complex in Berlin called the Funkhaus (yes I am still giggling) and a cabaret program featuring dancers, jugglers, traditional singalongs, and a large and ominous-looking compère. This dude delivers, at one point, a bizarre Toe The Party Line Or Pay The Price monologue without any trace of irony.

"I'm very happy that everything is so harmonious today," he says, with this creepy-ass grin which then turns into a disapproving face quickly. "Granted, there are still quite a few sour notes and people playing out of tune. And maybe even some that would like to march to a different drum. To the Center beat." But then grinning again, he cheerfully reports how these dissident 'musicians' are regularly "...sent to concert camps for their further education, and there they're taught to sing for their supper. And there they stay until they've learned to change their tune and play along!"

You can't make this up. Not even Alan Moore in one of his fits of historical revisionism could make something like this up.

Then there's the "slice of life" vignettes, including one where two happy German citizens (who cheerfully greet each other with "Heil Hitler, Rudolf!" "Heil Hitler, Erich!") discuss how great it is that the Fuhrer and the Party have given them home garden plots to tend to, because apparently they're going to feed all of Germany this way.

There's one genial host whom I admit I really liked, he was a heck of a TV guy, and he gets to do things like overseeing a cooking show with a happy hausfrau, who's showing off all the state-dispensed recipes she's got. His best moment of acting involves getting excited over a dessert dish of grapes with vanilla on top. ("Marvelous! But my dear madam chef, this is easy for you! You get all these wonderful dishes from the German Women's Institute.")

We also have the director of a Party-approved theater, when asked "which factors played a part in drawing up the repertoire for the theater?" responds by saying that there aren't any special factors, oh and by the way, it wasn't difficult to put together the repertoire because the Fuhrer has made it so easy for him.

The programming continued all the way up to 1944, with the producers gaining more funding and production space after they convinced the Party brass that they could entertain injured and convalescing soldiers with television. All the better to get them back into decent shape and on the battlefield once more, right? In this incarnation, the day's programming was taped in a remarkable circular studio, with the single camera set up in the center on a rotating platform, and all the sets made up along the circumference. When it was time for a new program, the camera simply rotated over to the next set. The only other example of this I've seen was Joel Hodgson's experimental "TV Wheel" in the 1990s, but he didn't get very far with the concept. (Neither did Nazi Germany, I guess, but what a great setup!)

The most depressing footage comes at the very end of the documentary, and the very end of the television experiment. It shows army amputees convalescing in what we're told are high spirits at a hospital in Berlin. We watch as they become acclimated to their new lives. A man with two artificial legs dances with a pretty lady during a Party party while his fellow soldiers look on. The dialogue is cheerful in that artificial Educational Film way: "You dance wonderfully!" she says, and he demurs, admitting that he only learned to dance once he'd been in the hospital. And there they wobble back and forth. Perhaps they shall wed.

But the grim faces of everybody around, their body language, their exhausted postures, and their hollow stares, betray that optimism. They reveal nothing but a bleak feeling that this war, this struggle, and this Reich was all pretty much Over. The television camera does not lie as well as the film camera. It picks up all the blemishes as well as the bright spots. Goebbels' opinions on television seem to have been vindicated at this point, but he didn't hang around to see what happened when the technology was loosed upon a truly wide segment of the population. He may have changed his tune once he saw Howdy Doody getting kids to bug their parents for Maypo. I don't know.

1. The US had been broadcasting television signals since 1931, but to an even smaller audience and definitely not on any commercial or social scale.
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