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Case Number 14397: Small Claims Court

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Television Under The Swastika

First Run Features // 1999 // 54 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // August 28th, 2008

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All Rise...

People call Judge William Lee a TV Nazi because of his strict "no cheese powder on the remote" rule.

The Charge

The world's first television broadcasts—brought to you by Nazi Germany.

The Case

In March of 1935, the world's first television broadcasting service went on the air with the words "Heil, Hitler." For the next nine years, Greater German Television ruled the airwaves. Newsreels, cooking shows, documentaries, educational program and variety shows trumpeted the glory of the Third Reich to German citizens from an 8 x 10 inch screen.

television under the swastika

Television Under the Swastika is a brisk documentary, made for German television by director Michael Kloft (The Reich Underground), chronicling the world's first television shows. Archival footage provides a taste of what was seen during this time and a handful of historians put it in context. There are even personal accounts from a few surviving original staffers.

The first part of the documentary briefly talks about the technology of early television. Initially, the picture quality was so poor that Joseph Goebbels dismissed the medium as an effective propaganda tool. In the early days, only a few hundred television sets were available. Elite Nazi members had them installed in their homes and television parlors were set up for public viewings. It wasn't until the 1936 Summer Olympics that television gained popular acceptance when 160,000 Germans watched the games on TV screens.

The archival footage—285 reels of film recovered from the catacombs of the Berlin Federal Film Archive—is the main attraction. Most programs were broadcast live and since a method of recording television did not exist yet, all of those broadcasts are lost. In order to have programs that could be rerun, a film troupe was tasked with producing content on 35mm film. Covering everything from interviews with Nazi officials to vaudeville acts and musical performances, these filmed programs are all that remain of Nazi TV.

It is no surprise that these TV shows openly promote the ideals of the Third Reich, but it almost seems comical how they practically beg for official approval. Though rife with Nazi propaganda, these programs did not match the frightening majesty of Leni Riefenstahl's films. One variety show host pauses to remind viewers that good Germans don't criticize the Nazi party. Instructional programs teach women how to be good wives for the cause of bettering the Aryan race. A sporting competition featuring amputees encourages maimed soldiers to find new ways of being useful. Ironically, one of the former film troupe workers tells us, the Nazi officials were largely hands-off when it came to television because the propagandists saw it as an "insignificant medium." Consequently, the television producers continually sought ways to demonstrate that they were essential to the war effort. As the tide turned against Germany, the role of television, and the nature of its message, moved away from cultural promotion and toward moral-boosting entertainment for recovering soldiers.

While it is quite satisfying to see so much of the recovered archival footage, the second half of the documentary drags. You can only watch so much Nazi propaganda before it feels tiresome. There are no key personalities in the film troupe, so the history of Greater German Television is less than engaging. Tracing the evolution of the broadcast service works well enough to provide a chronological framework for the various clips. The most fascinating information comes early when Kloft focuses on the technology of early television. The medium is so established now that no one ever stops to wonder how it actually works. The topic is only fleetingly covered, but I enjoyed the explanations of how the cameras and other equipment worked. However, I'm still unsure how filmed footage was broadcast. Did they simply project it on a wall and then point the TV camera at it?

This DVD presents the program in a translated English narration, without optional subtitles. The archival footage and some interviews retain their original German audio and these scenes are permanently subtitled. The soundtrack is reasonably strong, dialogue is clear, but it only does what is required for the program. The picture quality is good throughout and the new interview footage is bright and clean. The archival clips are visibly worn in places, with varying degrees of dust and scratches, but even these scenes have good image detail considering their age. Among the meager extras, you can read the director's biography on two screens of text. There is also a WWII film gallery that advertises for 14 other Nazi-themed movies available from First Run Features.

Television Under the Swastika is a treasure trove for history buffs with an interest in WWII, Nazi propaganda or early television. Who invented TV remains open to debate—demonstrations of the technology date back to the 1920s—but the archival footage on display here proves Nazi Germany was the first to establish a regular broadcast service. Accordingly, we can add bad television to the list of Nazi crimes. This DVD is not guilty and Kloft is free to dig up more material from history's well.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 72

Perp Profile

Studio: First Run Features
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• PCM 2.0 Stereo (German)
• English
Running Time: 54 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical
• War

Distinguishing Marks

• Filmmaker Biography
• WWII Film Gallery


• IMDb

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