During the landmark 1964 Supreme Court decision of Jacobellis v. Ohio, an influential first amendment case involving the state of Ohio’s attempts to ban the Louis Malle film The Lovers, Justice Potter Stewart famously declined to attempt to define pornography, explaining, in his own words, that “I know it when I see it.” It’s a troublesome thing to hear from a Supreme Court Justice, a phrase that gives too much power to subjective interpretation, while also neglecting the need for clear, equitable and well thought out standards when it comes to the judicial task of determining what is art and what is obscenity.
Though it was initially uttered about pornography however, the phrase is equally apt as a summation of the average person’s attitude toward another type of questionable material, propaganda. Just as most would certainly recognize hard-core porn when they saw it, the most bald-faced, incendiary propaganda, like the hateful bile spewed forth by Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, is easily recognizable by anyone not completely brainwashed. But as you move away from the extreme end of the spectrum, the lines start to get a little fuzzier, and just as legislators, academics and special interests can never seem to agree where the line between cinema and smut lies, the question of what is and what is not propaganda can sometimes be hard to figure out.
Technically, propaganda is defined as the use of communications channels in an effort to influence opinion for the benefit of one group or interest, or the defamation or another Naturally, once you cross from defining the term and into theory and practice, things suddenly stop being so pat. Viewed in this light, any movie, TV show, novel or comic book that comes down on any side of an issue, and certainly every campaign ad, can be considered propaganda; even news shows and documentaries that strive for objectivity and impartiality are still colored by the cultural milieu that produced them. There is a certain undefined line separating commentary, marketing and storytelling from the more nefarious arena of propaganda and we tend to think about things crossing that line when a) we realize that moneyed or powerful organizations and not opinionated individuals are really controlling the content, b) when the information presented begins to conflict with verifiable fact, or c) when producers influence important issues with cheap emotional manipulation.
That 1945’s Berlin, also known as The Fall of Berlin, is presented here as a documentary is completely defensible, but it could also arguably be presented instead as a piece of Soviet propaganda. Recounting the then recent Vistula-Oder Offensive, which found the Red Army reclaiming the battlefield as far west as the Oder River before swarming further into German territory where they eventually took Berlin and toppled the remaining Nazi war machine, the film’s celebratory tone is somewhat justifiable. Just as the Americans, the British and the other allies rejoiced after the Nazi’s downfall, the Soviets also breathed a sigh of relief as the formal surrender was made official. They also surely felt an immense pride in being the ones to pound the final nail into Hitler’s coffin by taking Berlin, and while the sentiment was certainly shared by many, its manifestations on film, including here, were the reflection not just of public opinion, but of extreme state restrictions and oversight.
Writing about this era in his book, Cinema and Soviet Society, 1917-1953, Peter Kenez offers this description of filmmaking under Stalin’s thumb: “The artistic and intellectual worlds lost their last vestiges of autonomy; intellectual and artistic disputes were decided by politicians…Once again, cinema suffered the heaviest blows. In these years filmmaking as an art form died. In the late 1930s, a period of great repression, some enjoyable films were still produced. By contrast, the postwar years were entirely sterile. Postwar history provides us with a case study of the role and function of cinema in conditions of extreme repression.” Though it was directed by Yuli Raizman, who continued to sporadically make other, less political fare until the 1980s, the film was, in essence, made by the authorities, who determined what could be presented and how. It’s plain to see why Berlin, with its impassioned portrayal of Red Army forces as liberating avengers, would have please the censorship boards charged with presenting happy thoughts to the masses.
Assembled from footage shot by dozens of war photographers on the 1st Belarusian and Ukrainian fronts, the film is an amazing document of one of the most momentous series of events in the saga of World War II, and though much of the information related is purely factual, it is also consistent with propaganda released by oppressive governments everywhere in distorting, omitting and at times just plain changing pertinent facts simply because they don’t jive with the greater message. In one of its more innocuous forms, this manipulation is evident in the fact that the victory over the Nazis is not seen as a victory for the Allies, but a purely Soviet triumph. Aside from a single token acknowledgement that “The exploits of our comrades-in-arms – British and American soldiers – will also have a place of honor in the chronicle of this war”, the film seems unconcerned with the simple reality that, though Soviet forces were instrumental in winning the war, it was a World War. after all. and the other Allies’ contributions were also key in forcing Germany to fight on two fronts and eventually to unravel and surrender. More disturbing is the way many scenes present the Red Army as strict humanitarians, kind to every non-combatant civilian, when the harsh reality is that Red Army factions marching into Nazi territory were responsible for shocking acts of widespread violence, including the rape of civilian women on an almost institutional level. According to a 2002 recounting in The Guardian, this was due to a variety of factors, including the desire for revenge against the Nazis, medieval views toward women and, strangely, the soldiers’ abuse of “Drink of every variety, including dangerous chemicals seized from laboratories and workshops”.
But of course a film like this wouldn’t dig in to these atrocities (insofar as the powers that shaped it would have even considered them atrocities in the first place), since the main goal of the film is to bolster the image of the Soviet state in the minds of the public. To do so, it often plays on the intended audience’s emotional state. This includes trading on their prejudices via mild animosity toward the German people in general, their ego by trumping up how humane their military is, and even their deeply rooted pride in their pre- Bolshevik Russian history by drawing parallels to the tangentially related 18th century exploits of General Zakhar Chernyshyov. It’s a way of isolating the dramatic, heroic aspects of war and obfuscating the horror of the entire situation, and every propagandist knows that it’s better to side-step reason and inconvenient truths, and to get people to respond on a purely instinctual level.
Ultimately, Berlin is propaganda, spinning a messy international conflict into bombastic display of party pride, but it’s also a finely made documentary film, editing together historically unique footage into a clear, powerful narrative, displaying a flair for montage (the principles of which, ironically, were laid down by Sergei Eisenstein, back when Soviet filmmaking was a relatively free creative enterprise). On the whole, it’s probably not too much more manipulative than Frank Capra’s Pro-American Why We Fight films, though the communists may have seen things as being the other way around. Even if the west have clashed ideologically and, by proxy, physically with the Soviet states over the intervening years, this slice of World War II myth-making is still much easier to stomach, and much easier to come to terms with philosophically, than Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which has continually stirred debate for its revolutionary technical innovations -- innovations which were unfortunately put into practice as a hideous glorification of the Third Reich. With time and the distance it brings, we are able to assess these propaganda films more as cultural artifacts than psychological warfare, but we should also see them as reminders to take everything we see with a grain of salt and continually do our best to parse fact from fiction. In a political climate rife with internet rumors and doublespeak like Fox News calling itself “Fair and Balanced”, that skepticism is more important now than ever before. When it comes to propaganda, we can no longer comfortably expect to simply know it when you see it, because if the spin doctors propagating this kind of misinformation do their jobs well enough, you won’t.