In a collection of 1.4 million film and video items, there are bound to be a more than a few oddities, those moments when your head tilts and eyebrows arch into that universal gesture of puzzlement and wonder. It happens a lot around here; rare is the week I don’t hear somebody talking about an unexpected/unusual/downright weird thing they found or cataloged. A few examples:
- Cromwell the Wicked. It’s not a documentary about Oliver Cromwell, but rather a 1925 film about Cromwell, Oklahoma, at that time a rather notorious town known for its saloons, brothels, and general lawlessness.
- A home video of an otherwise unremarkable eighth grade basketball game, except for that fact that one of the players was named Michael Jordan. Yes, that Michael Jordan.
- Pay stubs dating from 1911-1913 issued by the Biograph Company.
More things to blog about!
Several years ago we acquired the J. Fred and Leslie W. MacDonald Collection, a veritable treasure trove of the peculiar. Fred is a Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and for many years operated MacDonald & Associates, which he described quite accurately as “an historical film archive of extraordinary scope.” At well over 40,000 reels of film and another 40,000 hours of audio (mostly radio shows), it’s a sizable collection and one we’re still processing. We’ve already shared one MacDonald Collection film on “Now See Hear!,” a 1940 paean to the joys of modern kitchen appliances called Blame It on Love; stayed tuned for more.
In perusing one of the MacDonald inventories, a title caught my eye: [Nazi Driver Education Film]. The title was in brackets because that’s the name Fred supplied; the film has no opening title so we don’t know what it was originally called. I had to watch it, curious if the movie somehow infused what would normally be a rather pedestrian training film with the noxious ideology embodied by the Nazi regime. Not surprisingly, it really is a rather common film for its type, albeit one with the occasional swastika sighting that even today remains a disturbing image. Still, I thought it was illustrative of the unusual things we find in the nooks and crannies of a collection as large and diverse as ours, so kept it in mind for online presentation.
Despite being made in what appears to be, if we may judge from the cars, the mid-1930s, the film is silent with German intertitles. I enlisted the help of two colleagues to present it here: Martin Koerber, Head Curator at the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin, translated the titles, while the talented Michael Mortilla composed and performed the score. I mentioned the film to Michael as an example of an uncommon film that needed scoring, and he eagerly embraced the challenge:
My general approach to scoring silent film is to remain as loyal as possible to the period in which the film was originally created (in terms of musical styles in use up to that time), the era being depicted in the film, and, most importantly, the story being told in the film.
This title is no exception and presents an unusual challenge. First of all, there is no story in the traditional sense. There are no characters to portray musically except good and bad drivers and the pedestrians and cyclists who must share the road with them. Still, there is a history of the time and place that cannot be dealt with lightly.
One might consider making this a comedy, with a “slapstick” style of music poking fun at the absurdity of the situations depicted. Another choice might be to accent the fact that the film was made during an era of Nazi rule, thus calling for dark, foreboding music underscoring the horror that was to follow in the years to follow the creation of the film. Both these might seem obvious choices, but neither option serves the film as an historical document.
My choice was to provide a score in a musical style that would have been familiar to the musicians of that time and place, modeled after the German composers of the romantic period (Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Brahms, etc.) So, when there is conflict or an accident the music gets more dramatic and excited. When drivers are being more cautious and proceeding safely, the music is more flowing and relaxed.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the “message” of the film is that when you make a mistake or act irresponsibly as a driver, it behooves the other driver(s) to get out of their cars and admonish you. Even after hitting the bicyclist, the driver gets out of his car and argues with the guy he nearly killed. From the perspective of the 21st century, turning that situation into a comedy would be easy and many might find it a more “entertaining” choice. But again, my goal is to represent the films with a score that does more to preserve the original intent of the film and, hopefully, provide a context that is historically accurate.”
Although a commonplace training film, today’s viewer simply cannot approach it devoid of any historical context. While the film portrays a society striving for civic orderliness, we now know all too well what lurked beneath the veneer of these placid scenes of mid-Thirties Germany. Given that history, these images are chilling precisely because they’re so ordinary.
[Nazi Driver Education Film]
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This is a great example of a film that is fascinating in its ordinariness, given the time of its creation. I was particularly intrigued by the scenes that utilized stop motion animation with models, and if that was done because of safety concerns or because they had simply not been able to film live examples. Michael’s score set an appropriate tone; I tried imagining a slapstick score and while it may have worked for some scenes, it would have been incongruous to the film as a whole.
I have to say though, I really want to see Cromwell the Wicked!
Excellent job of presenting the driver education film – thank you for posting this!
One of the many issues the film implicates, to me, is the moral character of public service in a totalitarian state. There’s a tension there, because on the one hand, we tend to view public service as an honorable thing; there are essential tasks, in any society, that only the state can accomplish. However, in a totalitarian or authoritarian state, the provision of these basic services legitimizes the state as a whole, including the horrible bits. And we recognize this pretty easily – for example, that’s the root of black-humor remarks that Mussolini was a Fascist dictator, but at least he made the trains run on time.
If you’re a relatively low-level official in Nazi Germany, you can reasonably argue that improved driver education will prevent injuries and save lives. That’s an unambiguously good thing, and no public safety official in a modern democracy would argue with it. But, even if you’re doing something unambiguously good in the service of the Nazi government – well, you’re still doing it in the service of the Nazi government, and that government can then say to the public, “Look, this is one of the ways in which we are doing the day-to-day work of government, and we’re doing it well. This is why we’re legitimate.”
I don’t want to over-sell this point; I doubt that a driver-education film alone shifted even a single German towards stronger support of the Nazi state. The idea’s absurd, right? But the driver education film didn’t exist alone – it existed as part of a sprawling set of fairly benign government services. (Think of the postal service, building code enforcement, etc). When the Nazis are able to provide those services, that’s an important political win – and in a small way, the folks who made this driver’s-ed film were a part of that process. I wonder how they felt about that, or if they even thought about it.
My point is not that the folks who made this film were EVIL FASCISTS (though, hey, perhaps they were; there were plenty at the time) – my point is that the folks who made this film were interacting with a deeply evil system, which (arguably) makes even driver’s education a morally ambiguous act.