Television Under the Swastika (First Run Features, 1999)

dvd_swastika.jpgTelevision Under the Swastika is a fascinating look at those early broadcasts, as well as an examination of their social impact.







Long before television made Ernie Kovacs and Edward R. Murrow regular guests in American living rooms, another nation was producing regular broadcasts with a mix of entertainment, news and educational programming which would not be unfamiliar today.

That nation? Nazi Germany, which began television broadcasts in 1935 and continued them until autumn 1944. Because most programs aired live, this chapter of history was assumed to be lost to the world. Recently, however, researchers discovered 285 reels of film used in German television broadcasts from 1935 to 1944, stored in the Berlin Federal Film Archive. These supply much of the content for Television Under the Swastika, a 52-minute program produced for German television and now released on DVD with English voiceover.

Television Under the Swastika is a fascinating look at those early broadcasts, as well as an examination of their social impact. Television was not an immediate hit: the Nazi government discounted the usefulness of television as a propaganda tool, in part because so few people owned television sets. Most watched broadcasts in public viewing parlors, and the initial quality of the viewing experience left much to be desired. The medium didn’t really catch on with the public until the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which were broadcast on film with only one minute’s delay.

In fear of losing their jobs after war was declared in 1939, television executives promoted the idea that television was an ideal source of entertainment for the troops. To this end, they produced a combination of light entertainment (including the expected scantily clad female dancers) and morale-boosting plays and documentaries. Today these efforts are a source of grim humor: What other response is possible to clips from the military documentary Frohsinn und Wille (Cheerfulness and Will), which displays amputees hopping around an obstacle course to improve their fitness so they may be returned to active duty, perhaps to get the other leg shot off?

The vintage footage included in Television Under the Swastika is priceless, as are the interviews with some of the principals from this era of broadcasting. The film falls short, however, in terms of providing context and identifying the clips provided. A commentary track or detailed historical notes would make this DVD a much more satisfying experience; the only extras on the disc are a biography of director Michael Kloft and trailers from other films about the war.

To take just one example, there is a brief clip from 1936 of an unidentified variety-show host who appears to be speaking in code about dissidents imprisoned in concentration camps. Speaking in a smirking, menacing manner, he reports that "so-called foreign foreign-exchange musicians" have been sent to "concert camps" where they will be "taught to sing for their supper" until "they’ve learned to change their tune and play along." The general tenor of this broadcast is clear, but I’d like to know who the speaker is, the exact date of the broadcast, and what historical event or events he is referring to.

Television Under the Swastika is distributed on DVD by First Run Features. Further information is available from the company website or by calling 212-243-0600. | Sarah Boslaugh

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