The Berlinale presented its second year of the series Selling Democracy, a special program on the historical post-war films made to promote the Marshall Plan to Europeans. This year’s series Selling Democracy - Winning The Peace included three full-length feature films, two programs of re-orientation films, one program of films about the reconstruction of the Soviet Occupied Zone (later the GDR) and three programs of actual Marshall Plan films.
I was fortunate to meet one of the curators of the whole program, Sandra Schulberg, whose devotion to bringing these films to both the American public and the rest of the world is truly inspiring. She was conceived while her father produced the official record of the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals and then grew up in Paris, where he was the chief of the Marshall Plan Motion Picture Section. She commented, “I didn’t realize the extent to which the films had shaped my earliest consciousness – the same way they shaped the consciousness of millions of other European post-war children. Now it is our turn on the main stage. As we look at the wars going on around the world, I believe we have much to learn from the films of the Marshall Plan.”
I learned from Ms. Schulberg that we are partly to thank Senator John Kerry for being able finally to see these films. For almost fifty years the U.S. government had banned screenings for American audiences who were not to be propagandized with their own tax dollars. In 1990 Senator Kerry introduced legislation to lift the ban and they were first shown publicly in the U.S. at the New York Film Festival premier of Selling Democracy, October 2004. I would venture to guess that it is no coincidence that Senator Kerry chose as a slogan for his 2004 presidential election campaign the phrase “Help is on the way”, a recurring theme of the Marshall Plan films.
In the first few years after the war, France was the center of a battle between friends and foes of the Marshall Plan. Over 200 films were produced to sell its benefits to an impoverished and hopeless war-torn people. The essence of the Marshall Plan films is that they construct a world in which the plan is not only welcomed and yearned for by Europeans, but in which the plan makes the decisive difference in every respect: “transforming stagnation, destruction and confusion into renewal, reconstruction and self-confidence,” said curator Rainer Rother.
Billy Wilder’s 1947 provocative romantic comedy A Foreign Affair was made in response to an offer by the U.S. Office of War Information to produce an anti-Nazi propaganda film for German audiences. This film was controversial for portraying Germans and Americans as equally corrupt. Deliberations on the floor of the U.S. Congress denouncing the “irresponsible” film led to its being banned. Sandra Schulberg’s father recalled the disgust it provoked in the group of officers watching the first screening and he decided to ban the film in Germany. Ms. Schulberg researched the Congressional testimony and saw the controversy over the film as a telling harbinger of the decade that would see the accusation of being “un-American” made as well as the argument over who loves his country more.
Between 1949 and 1952 some one hundred films were commissioned by the Americans in West Germany. These films no longer mentioned the National Socialist dictatorship and its crimes, but rather looked to the future and made the case for democracy. Instead of re-education, the focus was on re-orientation towards democratic values and against the new threat of communism. The end of poverty and the responsibility of the individual was key to the development of a new and democratic united Europe.
Increasing productivity in every industry was one of the key aims of the original Marshall Plan, as well as ensuring the provision of energy supplies, removing trade barriers and many rebuilding projects. Based on the American experience, the model of investment, production and consumption would lead Europe to the economic benefits of democracy. Traudl’s New Vegetable Garden and Hansl and the 200,000 Chicks not only showed new methods of improving productivity but also grassroots involvement with people. Two-hundred-thousand baby chicks were actually sent from America to teenagers in Austria to start new methods in chicken production.
In Adventure in Sardinia the tragic effects of malaria are shown in an effective scientific manner, the main culprit being stagnant water. Malaria itself becomes a metaphor for stagnancy, or the fatalistic acceptance of the status quo. Specialists from the Rockefeller foundation set up headquarters in Cagliari bringing jeeps and tons of DDT. An information and recruitment campaign is initiated and the entire island became a battleground against the mosquito. Swamps are drained and the entire island sprayed with DDT until the next spring shows that for the first time there was not one casualty to malaria.
The Italian Marshall Plan films went on the offensive against a society trapped in tradition, habit and lethargy and showed a new, energetic and forward- thinking modern approach to life. In Aquila impoverished and rubble-strewn Trieste is the playground for little boys. The communists, shown at a sports event and demonstrating with red flags and banners, are shown taking advantage of the country’s economic ruin. A newspaper headline shows that 2.7 billion lira are being made available for the Aquila refinery from the European Recovery Program headquarters. The main character is then shown making a wise choice as he begins to work at the refinery and ignores the communist posters hanging on the wall where he strikes a match to light his cigarette.
In the Soviet Occupied Zone in East Germany, the authorities also developed a two- and a five-year plan to rebuild and improve the economy. These plans followed the Soviet centralized model and the focus on heavy industry and raw materials. They also required the expropriation of private industry and land as well as demanding heavy reparations. The work force was also under threat as many were fleeing over the open border.
The occupying forces began to openly attack the Marshall Plan because it strengthened the economic and political position of German imperialism and forced the policy of a divided Germany. The main criticism was the rearmament of West Germany and its alliance with other European nations, with the possibility of nuclear armament. They began to produce films to present the other side of the cold-war propaganda. They stressed a society built at the grassroots level and a basic democracy built on personal commitment, solidarity and reliability. What the DEFA filmmakers could not talk about were the taboo topics of reparations and state control.
Winston Churchill once called the post World War II recovery program “the most un-sordid act in history”. General George Marshall received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, the first time an Army General was awarded the prize for peace.
Sandra Schulberg commented, “Today the U.S. government is engaged in an effort to sell democracy, this time in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Calls for a Marshall Plan compete with calls for a martial plan. Yet, fewer and fewer people have an understanding either of the fundamental tenets of the Marshall Plan or of the means used to implement it. For the past two years we have been on a mission to publicize the lost films of the Marshall Plan because they illuminate every facet of its grand design – and they do it with style. The Marshall Plan filmmakers were no fools. Some of them had come out of Hollywood, others out of the union halls; but they knew the adage ‘a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’”.