“The profound dreariness of life in Nazi Germany”

On January 20, 1938, the American news film series The March of Time released a new episode titled Inside Nazi Germany. This featurette was the first in the series that was exclusively devoted to a single topic and—another novelty—was held over for a second week “in one of New York’s biggest Broadway theaters”.1 With an estimated viewership of 25 million it was claimed to have changed American public opinion vis-a-vis Nazi Germany.

The series’ monthly, usually two-reel shorts consisted, besides original footage, of compiled and re-enacted scenes, while the episodes as a whole were overlaid with a strongly subjective voiceover narration. For the original footage of Inside Nazi Germany its producers had bought a selection of uncensored material that American documentary filmmaker-photographer Julien Bryan had shot in Germany over the summer of 1937. It contained scenes of everyday life as well as events German authorities deemed to have propagandistic value (or as Life magazine suggested at the time, "Propaganda Minister Goebbels was presumably too busy with Mussolini’s visit to Berlin to notice what was getting by his censors."2).

As the March of Time producers had hoped for more explicitly condemnable scenes (read: concentration camps), they added scenes excerpted from other films, e.g. of Nazi rallies and speeches or of Nazi groups within America. As well they made reenactments, a number of which were set inside ‘German’ homes; in reality these were the homes of German Americans, in New Jersey, who willingly volunteered to vent their disgust with National Socialism. "Most foul propaganda", reported the German embassy in the USA3—and they should know. Indeed, practices such as re-enactment, compilation, voiceover narration or stand-ins were standard procedure for the series (and had been and continued to be widely used in its radio forerunner).

One suspects, therefore, that the series’ producers did not quite appreciate what Bryan had accomplished in tightly controlled Germany. And while writer-in-exile Klaus Mann praised the film’s evocation of "the profound dreariness of life in Nazi Germany",4 he supported his review with examples that all came from compiled materials: "[H]orrifying (...) military monster parades, children marching in uniform, and the Führer’s obligatory shrieking".5 So what had Bryan accomplished?

Fundamentally his method didn’t differ much from what the March of Time producers had done, as both used narration counterpointedly. Surely, the news film’s voiceover aimed at maximum dramatic impact, pumping up Bryan’s largely commonplace and unspectacular footage (albeit at times stunningly unique for foreign audiences, such as scenes of the Entartete Kunst Ausstellung, in Munich, or backstage activities during the Nuremberg Party Rally).6 Bryan himself, however, spoke in a more subtle voice, according to a stenotyped transcript made during his 1938 US lecture tour with a thematically structured version of his footage.7 His live talk evoked the conversations he had had during his sojourn in Germany and all the discomforts and contraries they contained as a result of the population’s forced compliance (suggesting that, like many of Germany’s contemporary industrial products he had filmed, its society, too, had become an ersatz). Furthermore, his pointed comments undercut seemingly innocent, everyday occurrences: the busy terraces where people enjoy Kaffee und Kuchen actually belonged to restaurants that had been confiscated from their Jewish owners, while over scenes of farm workers he tells that planting and prices were centrally determined and food was rationed.

Watching the ways Bryan’s footage of 1937 Germany was organized one wonders how Ross might have handled his footage of 1938-1939 America had it been fit for use (it remained unreleased due to technical failure). While watching the reels that were handed down a contrastive portrayal strongly suggests itself. His shots of New York’s unemployed cooling their heels on public benches, shining shoes or selling peanuts and apples, for instance, could have been clearly and significantly juxtaposed with footage of well-heeled holidaymakers at Florida’s beaches, marinas or the Hialeah racetrack; scenes of poverty-stricken sharecroppers, white as well as black, or of on-reservation Navajos could have been used to show a society at odds with itself. All this would have served, moreover, as a foil to the coincident ascendency of Japan, the country that Ross held up as an example of modern government in Das neue Asien, the film of his 1938-1939 journey that was eventually released. But while we will never know to what extent Bryan’s footage was meant as propaganda—he strongly disclaimed it was, and given his footage of commonplace scenes one tends to grant him his point, although here he may have professed the same naiveté that allowed him to film in Germany in relative freedom—, it would have been uncharacteristic had Ross not spoken his mind and pass up an opportunity to spread his view of America through the most popular medium of the time.

Nico de Klerk

Inside Nazi Germany. The March of Time. 4 (6).
USA. RKO; 1938
35mm | b&w | sound | 16’

Topic: Propaganda
Case: American journeys


1 Klaus Mann. “Inside Nazi-Germany”. In: Das Neue Tage-Buch. 1938; 6 (10): 236, http://www.monacensia-digital.de/periodical/titleinfo/31019.

2 Movie of the week. In: Life: 1938 January 31; 24, https://books.google.at/books?id=yUoEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA24&dq=Inside
. Quoting a memo of a meeting between March of Time and Bryan, the narration of a 2012 TV production based on Bryan’s German footage relates that he had actually mailed his undeveloped films before leaving Germany; see: Michael Kloft. Innenansichten. Deutschland 1937. Germany. Spiegel TV Media; 2012. b&w, color | sound | 52', https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLRgRw3BPVw.

3 Quoted in Innenansichten. Deutschland 1937.

4 Mann. 1938; 236-237.

5 Ibid.; 236.

6  Insofar as can be judged from Innenansichten. Deutschland 1937, which contains a larger selection of Bryan’s footage than The March of Time could or was willing to incorporate.

7 Verbatim transcript stenotype system of lecture by Mr. Julien Bryan at McMillin Academic Theatre, Columbia University on Monday, Nov. 14, 1938. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,  Finding aid RG-10.479.03, Box 2, Series 3, Folder 1: Press Clippings and Lectures, 1938. A pupil of renowned travel lecturer E. Burton Holmes, Bryan followed Holmes’s example of financing his foreign trips by lecture tours; see: Jacek Zygmunt Sawicki. Die Farben des Krieges. Die Belagerung Warschaus in den Fotografien von Julien Bryan/The colors of war: the siege of Warsaw in Julien Bryan’s color photographs. Berlin - München: Deutscher Kunstverlag; 2011; 8/18.

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