Author logo Media Study - Nazism in feature films

What do I have to do?
Triumph of the Will: the opening
Cabaret: Tomorrow Belongs to Me
Schindler's List: clearing the ghetto
The Lion King: Be Prepared
Comparing the films
Some other films about Nazism
GCSE criteria: reading
GCSE criteria: writing


This guide has been written to help you study feature films with a common theme. It is specifically written for students in England and Wales, studying media for assessed work in English in Key Stage 4 of the National Curriculum (GCSE). It may be of interest to students of film generally.

Study of feature films is one of the things you have to do as part of the National Curriculum programmes of study for reading at Key Stages 3 and 4. Your teacher should give you general information about film study. A few basic points will be introduced here, but this guide is mostly directed at episodes from three specific films with a common subject. These are Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), directed by Leni Riefenstahl (1934); Cabaret (1972), dir. Bob Fosse and Schindler's List (1993), dir. Steven Spielberg. The guide also looks at one episode from The Lion King (1994), dir. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. All these films in some way look at the subject of Nazism, except for The Lion King which refers explicitly to Triumph of the Will. You may wish to study other films with the same theme. Some of these are listed in an appendix to this guide. You may choose other films, but check with your teacher to see if they are suitable (are there things in them about which you can write?)

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What do I have to do?

If your work is being done for GCSE or a Level 2 diploma course (Key Stage 4 in England and Wales), you should try to follow the criteria given by your exam board. At Key Stage 3 you have more freedom. One thing you are not required to do, is to tell the story of the films (life is too short for this - if it takes the film-maker hours, how long will it take you? You are required to look at the film-makers' techniques (ways of doing things), what the films are about (theme, character and so on) and their significance (making a judgement of how good they are).

In England, Northern Ireland and Wales the National Curriculum and GCSE or Diploma specifications indicate what students should do in order to achieve particular grades/levels of attainment. Your teacher should make this information available to you, to help you do appropriate work. Most of the tasks which are suggested in this guide are suitable for speaking and listening or writing tasks; all of them should enable your teacher to assess you for reading and/or writing.

The AQA's Specification A, for example, has a compulsory piece of written coursework on media, which is assessed for writing, but not for reading. Here is the exam board's own guidance, as this appears in a recent published version of the exam specification:

The task should enable the candidates to demonstrate their ability to analyse, review and comment on features of media texts such as television programmes, film, radio programmes, newspapers, advertisements and magazines. Although this assignment is assessed for En3, candidates' responses should be firmly rooted in a reading of media texts; effective analysis and review of their chosen text(s) will require candidates to use an appropriate critical vocabulary.

Appropriate tasks might include the following:

  • A comparison of the techniques used in the opening sequence of two films.
  • An analytical piece of writing about a genre of programme on television, commenting on the use of conventions with precise textual references.
  • Analysis and review of individual films or programmes.
  • A comparison of two pieces of moving image marketing (advertisements for similar products; trailers; pop videos).
  • Analysis of the presentation of news in different media (e.g. newspapers, radio or television) or as it is presented differently by various groups within the same media.
  • An analysis of an advert or series of television adverts for a product.

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You cannot write about everything, but should focus on selected episodes in the films covered in this guide - your teacher will show you some of these, but may suggest others for independent study. You should try to compare the films. Some things you will write about are these:

  • Symbolism and imagery - how what we see stands for other things
  • Reference - to other works of cinema or of literature
  • Narrative methods - viewpoint, direct or indirect narration
  • Structure - order of scenes, time shifts, editing
  • Cinematography - composition of shots, tracking, viewpoint, colour/monochrome, lighting
  • Dialogue and voiceover
  • Incidental or theme music - how this reinforces or manipulates our response
  • Artistic design - including set and costume design
  • Effect on audience

These headings will be explained in reference to details of the films later.

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Triumph of the Will - the opening

Triumph of the Will is a documentary film, written and directed by Leni Riefenstahl, a former actress. The film is a record of the 1934 Nazi Party Rally at Nuremberg. Triumph of the Will is rarely seen today, because it celebrates Nazism and glorifies Hitler. It is important, however, to understand how Hitler rose to power and became popular. Leni Riefenstahl claimed after the war not to have known about the treatment of Jews in Germany. She may not have known about the Holocaust (the attempted genocide), but must have seen how Jewish people were persecuted, as this was public policy (and mostly popular with the German people). However, Triumph of the Will was made in 1934, five years before war broke out, at a time when Germany was on good terms with the UK - among the Nazis' guests at the party conference we see representatives of the British government.

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In the opening frames of the film, we see a view of clouds from an aeroplane. We see shots of the mediaeval city of Nuremberg, and then the shadow of an aeroplane passing over it. In the plane is Hitler, and we see crowds marching in formation beneath it, ready to meet him and line the route of his drive to the hotel where he is to stay. We see cheering crowds of people, young and old. One woman with a child is allowed to step out of the crowd, to shake hands with the Führer. This scene ends when Hitler arrives at his hotel and steps out on the balcony to wave to the crowd. Notice that lightbulbs have been arranged on the side of the hotel to spell out Heil Hitler.

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In discussing this part of the film, you should briefly summarize what you see (as above) then comment on some of the following things:

Visual imagery
  • The insignia and lettering in the opening credits
  • Nazi symbols (swastikas and eagles)shown on uniforms, helmets and flags
  • The shadow of the aeroplane moving over the mediaeval buildings
  • The faces of the people we see in the crowd
  • Hitler standing on the balcony
  • Use (or absence) of dialogue or voiceover
  • Music
Other details
  • The woman and child who step out of the crowd
  • The message spelled out in the lightbulbs on the hotel (can you guess what will happen to this later?)
  • The way Hitler is presented in the film

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Although we know that Hitler created a totalitarian state (where people obeyed the Nazi Party's rules) this does not obviously appear in the film. Do the crowd's responses to Hitler look forced or natural and spontaneous? (You may think they look like neither of these - if so give your own view). It is almost impossible for us (because we know too much about Hitler) to see the film as it must have appeared to German cinema-goers in 1934. Try, if you can, to imagine the effect it might have had.

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You may wish to comment on other episodes in the film. Use the model above to think of your own headings for comment. A number of possible scenes are suggested below:

  • Morning - we see party members wash and breakfast to prepare for the day ahead.
  • Parade of workers - we see labourers who tell the cinema audience which German region they come from; they parade with their spades like weapons and shout the party slogan: "Ein Volk, ein Führer, ein Reich! (One people, one Leader, one Empire!)"
  • Parade of Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) and military display (artillery and cavalry).
  • Evening - torchlight ceremony and display of party insignia (this may remind you of an episode you have seen in a modern film).

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Cabaret - Tomorrow Belongs to Me

Cabaret is a musical drama released in 1972, and directed by Bob Fosse. The film is about a young English writer, Brian Roberts (Michael York), who befriends an American artiste, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) who performs at the Kit Kat nightclub in Berlin. The year is 1931, shortly before Triumph of the Will was made. They are joined by another friend, a wealthy aristocrat, Maximilian (Helmut Griem). A second strand of the plot concerns Fritz, a young gigolo, (Fritz Wepper) who is in love with Natalia Landauer, a beautiful Jewess (Marisa Berenson). Fritz is also of Jewish descent, although he conceals this fact until finally he makes the certainly courageous decision to tell Natalia that he is Jewish so that he can marry her. Effectively he discards a dishonest safety and accepts love and danger. Throughout the film, as the Nazis come to power, we see the knowing face of the cabaret's Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey, who won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role).

Perhaps the most memorable scene in the film is one which is not strictly necessary to the plot, but tells us everything about the political and historical background. It occurs when Brian and Max go to a large country inn, to discuss their plans for the future. Sally is drunk, and sleeps in the back of Max's car, so she does not witness this scene. As Brian and Max sit and talk a young man begins to sing.

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At first we see only his face - he is handsome and blond. Then the camera moves down to show his uniform, swastika armband and belt buckle. The song he is singing is about the beauties of the natural world, but each verse ends with a rousing chorus "Tomorrow belongs to me". As he sings, other people in the inn begin to listen, then to join in or stand up to show approval. The young man becomes more animated as the song moves to a rousing crescendo - almost everyone in the inn is standing and singing along (except for Brian, Max and one old man, who looks disgusted). The singer puts on his uniform cap and gives the Nazi salute, while Brian and Maximilian leave.

This is a very powerful and disturbing scene, as the audience is likely to be swayed by the song, almost joining in with the catchy melody and rousing chorus line.

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In discussing this part of the film, you should briefly summarize what you see (as above) then comment on some of the following things:

Visual imagery
  • The physical appearance of the young man who sings (physique, skin and hair colour, face).
  • The way in which the young man's uniform and insignia are gradually revealed.
  • The way the camera picks out faces in the crowd - how we see these people react to the song.
  • The way in which the cinematography resembles that in Triumph of the Will.
  • Shots of the ordinary people listening to the song - reference to Triumph of the Will again.

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  • The use of music and singing to create a powerful emotional effect.
  • The words of the song and especially its chorus.
  • Brian's words to Max at the end of the song: "You still think you can control them?" (Who are "them"?)
Other details
  • How this film refers to Triumph of the Will in its use of camera work, music and themes.
  • How the song's chorus suggests that the Nazi party is bringing good things to Germany.
  • How this song explains the appeal of Nazism to ordinary Germans in the 1930s.
  • How this scene differs from Triumph of the Will in its awareness of subsequent history.

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You may wish to comment on other episodes in the film. Use the model above to think of your own headings for comment. Two possible scenes are suggested below:

  • While the dancers at the cabaret perform a routine which involves wearing Nazi helmets, joke versions of marching and the Nazi salute, a group of thugs climb the fence into Natalia's garden. We cannot at first see what they are doing - as the dance ends in the cabaret we hear the thugs chant "Jüden!" ("Jews"), a slogan which they have also painted on the pavement. Natalia comes to her door, looks out and then down - to see that the men have killed her pet dog.
  • If You Could See Her though My Eyes - this song by the Master of Ceremonies seems to be a comic but touching plea for understanding. A draped figure is uncovered and seen to be an ape in a dress. The Master of Ceremonies declares his love for her, but mockingly gives her a banana and a ring, which he puts in her nose. The end of the song is spoken in a hiss, like the punchline to a racist joke: "If you could see her through my eyes - she wouldn't look Jewish at all".

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Mike Field, of the Western Review, summarizes the film in this way:

"What Cabaret is about is the the Nazification of Germany society, what drove it, and how different people responded to it. The chief point of the that it shows how the Nazis unscrupulously exploited the desire of traditional Germans for some kind of moral order and rebirth when their actual agenda departed very far from that principle...The likelihood is, most Germans looked at excesses of the Nazis as street thuggery and political theater which would be brought quickly in check if the Nazis ever achieved power. Of course, they were half right. The brown shirts were put out of business quickly, but that was because they were being replaced by a more enduring and elitist organization, the SS."

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Schindler's List - the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto

Schindler's List (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993) is based on Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark, a fictional reworking of the true story of Oskar Schindler. Schindler was a Nazi who set out to make his fortune through employing Jews as cheap skilled labour, producing munitions for the German army during the Second World War. By the end of the war he was risking his life to save his workers from the death camp of Auschwitz. To this day the Jews saved by Schindler and their descendants, who number some 6,000, are known as the Schindlerjüden in his honour.

As this film is very long (over 3 hours) you may wish to study one long episode - this is the cleansing of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow, which took place in March 1943. The most active character here is Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the Nazi Commandant of the labour camp to which many of the Jews were to be moved. He is contrasted with Schindler, who sees what is happening from a hill outside the city, as he rides with a girlfriend. Goeth thinks he is making history, but it is Schindler - wholly changed by what he sees - who is remembered today.

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The episode opens with images of both men shaving, as they prepare for the day, followed by a voice-over of Goeth's speech as he tries to inspire his men. We see Schindler (Liam Neeson) on horseback looking down on the city, followed by a series of scenes in which the Krakow Jews try to save themselves. A family takes out its jewels, places them in slices of bread and each member swallows some - their only way of saving their valuables. A man hides in a sewer but has to leave as the Germans have discovered this hiding place. A young boy runs from the soldiers and is shot, as is a man who tries to help him. A doctor takes poison from a pharmacy to kill his patients before the Nazis can shoot them. A Jewish boy, working for the Nazis, risks his life to help a neighbour and her daughter into the "good line".

As Schindler looks down he notices a little girl, picked out by the camera in her red coat, who walks freely, as if the Germans cannot see her. The soundtrack mixes Jewish choral singing with faint gunfire. Later in the day, many Jews who think they have escaped discovery emerge - only to be found by the Germans and shot. One man is discovered as he steps onto a piano keyboard - while his soldiers kill more of the Jews, an officer sits at the piano, playing a piece of Mozart's music.

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In discussing this scene, try to be selective, but you may wish to comment on some or all of the following.

  • Spielberg's comparison and contrasting of Schindler and Goeth - they start the day in similar fashion (half-dressed, they show their common humanity) but spend it doing very different things - when Goeth puts on his uniform he is more obviously a Nazi.
  • Goeth's speech to his men - this has echoes of heroic and patriotic speeches in Shakespeare (like Henry V before Agincourt), but what he is about to do is shameful and inhuman. We know what the real judgement of history has been on what Goeth does.
  • English and German dialogue - why Goeth's speech is in English, while elsewhere in this episode the soldiers speak in German. What reason has Spielberg for this?
  • How the Jews are presented - images of family and domesticity; how the Nazis treat them and how they try to save themselves.

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  • Powerful and moving images - the family swallowing their jewels, the doctor's mercy-killing, how families are split, the German soldier who asks a child how old he is after shooting one of his adult relations. The mother and daughter being shown the "good line" (explain what this is).
  • Images of brutality - repeated images of Jews being shot (a sick young woman, a boy who runs away, a person who is strapped beneath a bed as a hiding place).
  • The randomness of the killings - we can see no reason why some of the Jews are shot and others spared.
  • Contrast - how the same soldiers kill without pity, but enjoy music and can tell Mozart from Bach.
  • Music and sound effects - the Jewish choir and the piano playing, mixed with sounds of gunfire.

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The most important detail in this episode is the girl in the red coat. For Schindler, she suggests the idea that escape is possible - it is as if, watching her, he sees what he must do for the Jews he employs.

This detail is also a cinema reference (a tribute or homage) to Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 Rumble Fish, a film about disaffected teenagers. Like Schindler's List, this film is in monochrome, except for one scene in which two boys look through a pet shop window, at some Siamese fighting fish, which are coloured red.

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The scene in Schindler's List itself became the subject of a celebrated reference - this time in a 1990s UK television advertisement for the Peugeot 406. This advertisement was partly monochrome and showed a series of images of heroism, among which a girl in a red dress stands in the path of a speeding truck, but is saved by the actions of a car driver. Comment on how Spielberg uses the image of the girl in red. If you can, refer to some of the following things:

  • Cinematography - filming in monochrome but here with a colour insert; how, and why, the girl is out of focus when we see her at first, and only comes into focus when the colour is removed.
  • Composition of shots - how the eye is drawn to the child, while elsewhere on screen we see brutal killings depicted.
  • Effect on the audience - how we share Schindler's interest and concern for this girl, and how she seems magically protected from the dangers around her.

You could comment also on possible references to Triumph of the Will. These appear in Goeth's sense of Germany's historic destiny and in Schindler's looking down on the rooftops of the mediaeval town.

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The Lion King - Be Prepared

This short episode from The Lion King (dir. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994) refers explicitly to Triumph of the Will. Walt Disney is believed to have been sympathetic to some of the aims and policies of Nazism, but once the USA declared war on the Axis (German, Japanese and Italian) powers in 1940, the Disney studios made propaganda cartoons ridiculing Hitler.

As the evil lion Scar plans to seize power from his brother (a theme taken from Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet) he tells his hyena followers, in a song, to Be Prepared. The animation of this song should suggest Triumph of the Will in a number of ways. It is appropriate to the theme of this episode, as we see a dictator coming to power. But it looks like Leni Riefenstahl's film, too.

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In explaining this, you could comment on the following things:

  • How each part of this episode uses monochrome effects (colours change, but we have one at a time only).
  • How characters are viewed from below or above, using the same angles as those in Triumph of the Will.
  • How the animators use effects of light and shadow which resemble Leni Riefenstahl's lighting of the night-time parades and speeches in Triumph of the Will.
  • How the hyenas are shown in formation, using the Nazi "goose-step" march - which recalls the troops on the Nuremberg parade ground in Triumph of the Will.

Clearly most of the intended audience for The Lion King would be unaware of Triumph of the Will. Why might the animators have included all these references to it in this episode?

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Comparing the films

There are many ways in which you can compare these films, but you may wish to focus on the central thing they have in common, and look at it in ways suggested by the criteria for your exam specification.

In three of these films we see a depiction of Hitler's Germany and Nazism. Explain what you think the directors' attitudes are. If you are not sure of this, see if you agree with these suggestions:

  • Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph des Willens) - an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler.
  • Bob Fosse (Cabaret) - critical, but also interested in how the Nazis came to power. The brutal treatment of the Jews is mostly in the background or hinted at in this film: we see the results of violence, but little violent action on screen.
  • Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List) - a powerful sense of what it means to be a Jew today, and to recall the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Schindler's List is a more graphic account with repeated images of violence. Why does Spielberg choose to show these things?

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Of all these films perhaps only The Lion King is a film one can enjoy simply: all of the others are films with dark and sinister elements. Try to give an opinion of the parts of each film which you have seen. You may consider some of the following:

  • Symbolism and imagery - how what we see stands for other things
  • Reference - to other works of cinema or of literature
  • Narrative methods - viewpoint, direct or indirect narration
  • Structure - order of scenes, time shifts, editing
  • Cinematography - composition of shots, tracking, viewpoint, lighting, use of colour or monochrome
  • Screenplays and dialogue
  • Incidental or theme music - how this reinforces or manipulates our response
  • Effect on audience*

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*You should judge for yourself, as you are part of an audience, although you may not have seen the films in the cinema, or in a single showing. The most well regarded film guide is Halliwell's Film and Video Guide. This has a star rating for films: "four stars indicate a film outstanding in many ways, a milestone in cinema history…three stars indicate a very high standard of professional excellence or great historical interest…two stars indicate a good level of competence and a generally entertaining film." According to this grading system all of these films rate four stars, except for The Lion King, which rates three. Would you agree with this? Say why.

Finally, make a judgement - how good are these films, and what do they have to say to the viewer at the start of a new century?

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Some other films about Nazism

In each case, the directors and writers have different stories to tell - how far they want to depict Nazism explicitly will vary.

  • The Great Escape, dir. John Sturges, 1963 **
  • Lacombe Lucien, dir. Louis Malle, 1974 (French, sub-titled) ****
  • Mephisto, dir. Istvan Szabo, 1981 (German, sub-titled) ****
  • Das Boot, dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 1981 (German, sub-titled) **
  • Heimat, dir. Edgar Reitz, 1984 (German, sub-titled) ***
  • Au Revoir les Enfants, dir Louis Malle, 1988 (French, sub-titled) ****

This is not an exhaustive list. Ask your teacher if you wish to write about other films. Star ratings are from Halliwell's Film and Video Guide, 1998.

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GCSE criteria

Exam boards publish guidelines (descriptions, called criteria) for teachers, to help them award marks for speaking and listening, reading and writing. Oral coursework may be marked for speaking and listening, and for reading. Written coursework may be marked for reading and for writing.


For reading, your mark depends upon how well you do, but you must look at three things:

  • The content of the films - what they are about, and their historic and media significance.
  • Style, structure and appeal to audience.
  • Language, presentational devices and visual images - how these create emotive and persuasive effects, and relate to other media.


For writing your mark depends upon how well you do in two respects:

  • How you organize your ideas.
  • How you choose a suitable (impersonal) style and control your writing.

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© Andrew Moore, 2000; Contact me