Another Nazi Secret Weapon: 3-D Movies

Thanks to the multi-billion-dollar box office achieved by director James Cameron’s 2009 fantasy epic Avatar, Hollywood studios are now totally in love with 3-D technology. It’s a win for theater chains, too, because they can charge premium prices for tickets to 3-D flicks, at least until the novelty wears off. Not everybody, of course, likes this trend; last year, film critic Roger Ebert authored this anti-3-D manifesto, arguing, among other points, that it results in a dimmer screen image and gives viewers headaches. Ebert’s salient complaint, though, was that movie makers were using 3-D to put lipstick on porcine products. “The very notion of Jackass in 3-D may induce a wave of hysterical blindness,” he opined. (But even that prediction didn’t stop 2010’s Jackass 3-D from raking in $50 million in its opening weekend.)

Though 3-D might seem like the latest advance to excited pre-adolescent Saturday mantinee-goers, those of us born in the last century know that the technology actually dates back quite a ways. The 1953 horror film House of Wax, the first stereoscopic film released by a Hollywood studio, was a spectacular box-office success and established actor Vincent Price as a horror movie star. (Oddly, according to a retrospective on the film, director Andre de Doth had only one eye, which limited him to seeing everything in 2-D.)

It turns out, though, that the gimmick dates back even further than we realized.  French-Australian filmmaker Philippe Mora has uncovered two previously unknown black-and-white 30-minute films made back in 1936 by Nazi propagandists. 

The films, which Mora found in Berlin’s federal archives while researching a  documentary on the Nazis’ obsession with visually recording the 3rd Reich, were among the first uses of 3-D. (MGM barely beat the Germans to the punch by making Audioscopiks, a short subject to demonstrate the technology, in 1935.)

In a Toronto Star article, Mora described the two Nazi 3-D films, So Real You Can Touch It and Six Girls Roll into the Weekend, as “hilarious, but really, really creepy.”

The prewar films, created by an independent studio for the  Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda headed by Joseph  Goebbels, apparently were intended to reinforce the notion that life under Naziism would be full of pleasure, good food and fancy possessions for all. To that end, they depict attractive singers and dancers, bratwurst being cooked on a grill, camping, and riding around in Mercedes-Benz automobiles.

“No wonder the Germans didn’t know what was coming,” Mora told the Star. “…It’s all, ‘What a fantastic time we’re having.'”

Unlike the 3-D technology used by Hollywood in the 1950s, the Germans cut standard 35mm film in half to create a split screen, and then projected it through a prism to combine the two images and create a stereoscopic effect.

The films also may have been an attempt to capitalize upon the German public’s then-fascination with 3-D, which Mora described as “a huge fad in Nazi Germany.”

“They had 3-D magazines,” he explained to the Star. “They shot everything, the Olympics, everything, on 3-D film as well as regular film.” They even pioneered 3-D technology for medical X-rays.

The Nazis’ love of 3-D may also have been a reflection of their bizarre belief that Jews had defective spatial and depth perception.

The Nazis early on realized the power of movies to influence the public, and they found eager collaborators in the German film industry. The top German film studio, Ufa, dismissed all of its Jewish employees in 1933, the same year that Hitler rose to chancellor, and the studio’s board chairman even served briefly as economics minister in Hitler’s first cabinet.