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The Bootleg Files: Hitler Lives

BOOTLEG FILES 644: “Hitler Lives” (1945 short film that won the Academy Award).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS:
A mistaken belief that it is in the public domain.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.

When the 18th Academy Awards were presented in March 1946, much of the attention was devoted to Joan Crawford winning the Best Actress Oscar for her comeback performance in “Mildred Pierce” and to Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” winning the Best Picture honors. Less attention was given to the Warner Bros. short “Hitler Lives,” which won the Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar. Unknown to the Oscar audience that night, “Hitler Lives” was not an original film, but rather a rehash of an Army training film. And calling the film a documentary was charitable, as the film was clearly more of a propaganda essay than a serious nonfiction production.

“Hitler Lives” began its life as “Your Job in Germany,” a 13-minute training film produced by the U.S. Army Signal Corps and designed solely to be seen by military personnel assigned to occupy post-World War II Germany. The film was released without on-screen credits, although it was later confirmed that Frank Capra served as the film’s director and Theodor S. Geisel – better known as the children’s book author Dr. Seuss – created the screenplay. The film also included uncredited footage from Nazi Germany-era films, most notably Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” which was packaged as “Seized Enemy Material” by the U.S. Office of Alien Property Custodian and presented in violation of international copyright and intellectual property laws.

“Your Job in Germany” is a grim and plodding work that reminds its American military audience that the German people cannot be trusted. The film offers a light history lesson showing the cycles between the bellicose reigns of Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm and the “phony peace” that followed their respective eras. The film predicts that the same phony peace will follow in the aftermath of Hitler, and the military personnel are warned to be suspicious of a German population made up of “two million ex-Nazis” that still harbored pro-Hitler sentiments.

“Your Job in Germany” also offered a montage of the carnage brought across Europe by the Germans, which ruined cities and mass arrests in the countries that fell under the Nazi control. The film very briefly mentioned the murder of Jews within a wider scope of the European nationalities tortured and slaughtered under the Nazi regime, and extremely graphic newsreel footage accompanied the bitter narration detailing the worst that the Germans were capable of inflicting.

As an Army training film, “Your Job in Germany” could not be commercially released to American theaters. However, Warner Bros. learned about the film and secured the Army’s permission to create a different production that could receive a theatrical release. Although the majority of the Geisel screenplay was retained, the original non-dramatic narration by actor John Lund was re-recorded by a bombastic Knox Manning and the focus shifted away from servicemembers stationed in Germany and realigned to postwar civilian Americans seeking to make sense of the new world that emerged with Germany’s defeat.

The Warner Bros. version was given the provocative title “Hitler Lives” and screenwriting credit was given solely to Saul Elkins. Frank Capra did not get directing credit again, with a “Supervised by Gordon Hollingshead” credit slapped on instead. Don Siegel, then at the beginning of his career, has been cited in many sources as the uncredited director of “Hitler Lives,” though it seems that his contribution was stitching together a new montage that gave a shrill warning about efforts by pro-Nazi sympathizers to bring that vile political concept across the Atlantic.

Both versions of this offering present a nonstop denunciation of the German people peacetime hypocrites who hide behind quaint folk costumes and pretentious classical music and wartime savages who bring untold cruelty on their foes. Even by the propaganda standards of the World War II years, the hatred is brutal – and, sadly, much of it is well deserved. The viewer is assaulted with disturbing footage of Russian soldiers being hanged, the insinuation of young women being gang raped by German forces, and heartbreaking footage of dead and severely injured American soldiers. Looking at this footage, the notion of forgiving and forgetting is impossible to consider.

Oddly, “Hitler Lives” deviates dramatically from “Your Job in Germany” when it intentionally fails to give a specific mention the Jewish deaths under the Germans, offering an opaque mention of the “haunted faces of the ghetto that recalled the horrors of the Middle Ages and the medieval tortures of the Inquisition.” But there is newly inserted footage detailing the German destruction of churches and “the ministers dedicated to the service of God,” with a mention of 1,000 priests put to death in Nazi concentration camps. Why the film opted to erase Jewish suffering and emphasize Christian suffering is unclear. Nonetheless, the film gave a not-subtle jab at Father Coughlin, the Detroit-area priest who was notorious for his anti-Semitic radio broadcasts – “Hitler Lives” shows a priest giving an emotional sermon while two radio towers are superimposed over him and the narrator talks about how pro-Nazis were “desecrating the holy cloth.”

The film also liberally rewrites history by noting how American soldiers of different races “fought side by side without questioning the color of their skins.” Really?

“Your Job in Germany” is a public domain film, but “Hitler Lives” is under the Warner Bros. copyright. An unauthorized posting from a TCM broadcast can be found on YouTube. But the film’s heavy-handed consideration of postwar Germany has not aged well, and the studio has not been eager to make it available for commercial home entertainment release.

In retrospect, it is strange that “Hitler Lives” won the Oscar against “To the Shores of Iwo Jima,” a compelling color documentary from the U.S. Marine Corps that captured the Battle of Iwo Jima, including the iconic flag-raising by the victorious Americans. Obviously, Warner Bros. had better Oscar lobbying than the Marines.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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