What's most striking about this 1938 propaganda short isn't how it masquerades as a newsreel, but how the film's editor and multiple directors - Fritz Hippler, Ottoheinz Jahn, Gustav Ucicky, and Eugen York - chose to wield their unsubtle messages with a sledgehammer.
There's an expectance that all propaganda shorts made prior to Leni Riefenstahl's' 1935 masterwork Triumph of the Will (1935) are crude little creatures, and all subsequent efforts by the Ministry of Propaganda should be slick presentations of Nazi ideology, but Wort und Tat / Word and Deed shows that Riefenstahl was professionally far ahead of her colleagues, and knew how to expand the basics of montage into sequences that build into terrifying movements.
Granted, Triumph is a wholly different animal: Riefenstahl's film is a feature-length promo for the Party, and with audiences trapped in a darkened room for two hours, Riefenstahl had time to build momentum through a series of interconnected sequences; the ideal payoff was to get the volk excited, and have them leaving theatres with specific sentiments & images for and of country, Hitler, and the professed greatness that lay ahead.
Wort kind of plays off of that, but its short running time means information has to come hard, fast, and direct; there's just no room for subtlety or pacing.
The short's opening begins with another fetishistic use of marching music, and establishes a theme of unending progress, although the first batch of images immediately attack elements abhorred by the Party: we see communist protestors clogging the streets, women protestors lumped with the commies, and cutaways to French soldiers that composer Peter Kreuder underscored with a cartoon rendition of the French anthem, ending on a wave of musical ridicule. That's followed by images of Germany 's old guard leaders - seen as pompous and unglamorous during a more staid and scaled-down inspection parade - and a shot of an old man turning towards the camera, symbolizing a Jewish caricature.
The latter image - the clothes, beard, and expression - is deliberately identical to the drawn caricatures and ugly papier-mâché mobiles seen in parade newsreels, and is particularly shocking because it links the Party's accusations of national and cultural enemies beyond historic foes like to French or British, and singles out a specific ethnic group.
While whole feature films - dramas and ersatz documentaries like Hippler's repulsive The Eternal Jew (1940) - employed differing anti-Semitic temperaments, Wort, if taken as an official government newsreel, demonstrates another effort in which ordinary theatergoers were bombarded by hate through symbolic images before a more direct verbal format.
There's no blatant anti-Semitic statement in Wort, but the opening montages are constructed to impart a pre-Third Reich view of chaos and corruption, and set up subsequent montages that doll out statements of progress in the realms of construction, roads, mining, and national resources - all punctuated by onscreen figures of increased government spending.
Hitler gives another statement on blood, purity and progress, and we see troops of flag-bearing workers gathering wheat, with plenty of fancy new logos fluttering in the wind. A montage of digging and carting away dirt for irrigation is a classic motif that was also employed in feature films like Kolberg [M] (1945), where the farmers redirected water to flood their town and prevent French aggressors from claiming their land.
Goebbels also appears in the short, calling Hitler a 'master builder,' and the theme of progress is furthered by shots of the new Berlin Olympic stadium, steel production, and a swanky Hitler Youth retreat. It's all assembled in a choppy style that regularly smash cuts shots of marching military parades, and the short closes with Benito Mussolini addressing a mass rally in German.
Among the film's four credited directors, Eugen York laid low and became more prolific after WWII. Co-director Gustav Ucicky had already made the tense WWI submarine drama Morgenrot / Dawn (1933) and the historical drama Das Mädchen Johanna / Joan of Arc (1935), and continued to enjoy a stable career during the fifties. Fritz Hippler stayed within the documentary/propaganda realm, until the war's end terminated his filmmaking career.
Wort und Tat is available as a bonus featurette on a DVD from A&M Productions featuring Leni Riefenstahl's 1933 documentary, Sieg des Glaubens / Victory of Faith, and is also accessible at Archive.org.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan