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Casting Teutonic Types from the Nineteenth Century to World War I: German Ethnic Stereotypes in Print, on Stage, and Screen

Peter Conolly-Smith

Civilization andThe Fall of a Nation

The next films to present the screen Hun to the American (and German-American) public were released in 1916, a year before the United States' entry into the war. Both epic in their scope, Civilization was produced by Thomas Ince, while its rival at the box office, The Fall of a Nation, was the brainchild of Thomas Dixon. Civilization was marketed as an antiwar film; The Fall of a Nation, as an argument for preparedness. "Diametrically opposed in ideology" though they may have been, however, both made equal use of extreme anti-German imagery (Slide 97). Civilization tells the story of the monarch of an unnamed kingdom who plunges his nation into war but is brought to his senses when Christ incarnate shows him the horrors he has unleashed upon his people and the world. As Variety pointed out in its review of this spectacular film, although "the 'foreword' in the program announces the spectacle as a pure allegory, the mythical kingdom is palpably German, the soldiers and many others being unmistakably Teutonic types, their hair brushed back, with various mannerisms and other indications tending to create that impression." [14] Isenberg adds that the fictional kingdom's monarch "wore a spiked helmet and rammed a declaration of war through his rubber-stamp parliament," and that "the comparison [to] the Kaiser was made quite clear when the captain of one of the mythical king's submarines received a message to 'sink liner Propatria with full cargo of contraband. Passengers used as blind. Disregard sentiment'" — an obvious allusion to the sinking of the Lusitania (147).

At least Civilization claimed to promote peace, albeit by showing battle scenes of extreme brutality. [15] Thomas Dixon's The Fall of a Nation could lay no such claim to pacifism and, if anything, outdid its rival in the violence of its battle sequences. The film was an "unbridled photo play of the battle, murder, and sudden death species" in full agreement with "the new insistence on a greater consideration of our national defenses," according to the New York Times. [16] Its producer Dixon, well-known as the author of The Clansman, the literary model for the previous year's blockbuster The Birth of a Nation, had conceived of The Fall of a Nation as a sort of sequel to that famous film: an illustration of how even a great united nation could be conquered if it failed to assimilate its immigrants — specifically its German immigrants, as the film hinted none too subtly. In this respect, The Fall of a Nation, which "begins in the [then-] present, presumably 1916, and ends about 1919 . . . can . . . be defined as science fiction," according to Dixon's biographer Anthony Slide: a cautionary tale that tapped into the nation's anxieties regarding its unpreparedness and that exploited the public's increasingly ambiguous view of the German immigrant population (100).

Before the backdrop of a fictional war raging in Europe, the film's villain, multi-millionaire Charles Waldron, claims to be a peace advocate but secretly recruits an army of immigrants to prepare the way for one of the European belligerents' planned invasion of the United States. [17] As in The Battle Cry of Peace, the very moment of the peace movement's triumph (the defeat of a bill in Congress that would have strengthened the nation's army and navy) signals the invasion, this time readied by the unnamed ethnic enemy within. "As foolish Americans celebrate a great peace jubilee, explosions rock New York and soldiers in dull brown uniforms march down Broadway . . . headed by Charles Waldron, now identified as Prince Karl von Waldron." The film ruthlessly caricatures famous real-life peace advocates such as Henry Ford and William Jennings Bryan, "shown, with flowers in their hands, approaching the enemy and subsequently facing humiliation" (Slide 96). More ruthless still was the film's caricature of the invaders and the immigrant traitors, "twenty thousand [of whom] rise and capture New York from the National Guard," according to Variety, "aided by a powerful fleet bringing 150,000 invaders with Krupp guns and other modern war devices. . . . The horrors of invasion are vividly depicted, with rape and rapine rampant." [18] Scene after scene, Slide writes, "documents the looting of New York, the rape of its women, and the murder of its men by citizens of an unidentified country who wear Germanic-style uniforms and have strong Germanic names" (96). "The enemy is a debt-ridden participant of the current war," the Times offered helpfully, "a country of incredible efficiency whose commanding officers are given to mustaches strangely like the Kaiser's. You have one guess as to what country Mr. Dixon had in mind." [19]

The German ethnic press, for one, had no problem identifying the film's villain, nor its intent. George Sylvester Viereck pronounced The Fall of a Nation an "abortion," whose "one purpose is to traduce the German race and make the German people appear as the enemies of the United States. Any American with a drop of German blood in his veins," he editorialized in his weekly Fatherland, "must have his feelings outraged by the attempts to show the Germans as invaders resorting to the most fiendish violations of humanity. . . . Nothing in the category of bestiality is omitted in order to incense public sentiment against the German people." [20] Viereck re-printed approvingly letters to the editor condemning the film for its anti-German stereotyping and the fact that the members of the invading army were "made to think, to feel, to act . . . according to the philosophy of the state currently imputed to modern Germany," right down to their appearance, replete with "German helmets and brutalized caricatures of typically German faces." In full agreement, Viereck noted that "such is the impression made by the film on the majority of those who have witnessed it," concluding elsewhere that the The Fall of a Nation was "absolutely deficient in interest and can only disgust those who have the least sense of art." [21]

Interestingly, Viereck reserved less venom for the film's rival at the box office, of which he wrote only that "a similar film is now exhibited under the title 'Civilization'" — testimony that the ostensible pro-peace orientation of the latter film, notwithstanding its equally offensive typecasting, was perhaps less objectionable than the preparedness message of The Fall of a Nation. [22] After all, German-Americans as a group generally still hoped to keep America out of the war during this late phase of American neutrality, a goal more in step with the pacifist message of Civilization. [23] The Staats-Zeitung, too, appeared to view that film as the lesser of two evils. Although the venerable newspaper would probably have preferred to ignore both films entirely, it did concede, in response to a reader's letter inquiring which of 1916's war epics was the more suitable for German-American patronage, that only Civilization came close. Although offensive in its depiction of Germans, the newspaper wrote, "the film is harmless in this realm compared to what has been achieved by others" — a reference, no doubt, to Dixon's Fall of a Nation. It was the only comment the Staats-Zeitung made on either film as they ran, simultaneously, during the spring and summer of 1916. [24]

All the more intriguing was the response of Hearst's German Journal, which — while lavishing attention and praise on both films — aired more in favor of The Fall of a Nation, a renewed illustration of its willingness to subordinate its still solidly pro-German political inclinations to its popular-cultural leanings. True, the Journal recognized the fundamental difference between the films, noting that Civilization "preaches a crusade against war," whereas The Fall of a Nation, "on the other hand, appeals to [our] preparedness for battle." Yet the latter film was deemed "even greater than Civilization" in terms of the "technical apparatus employed in the staging of its battle sequences," i.e., was greater in its entertainment value, always the decisive factor in the Journal's final analysis. [25] Not that its rival was deficient in the latter realm: "the skills on display [in Civilization], both in terms of its acting and its overall staging, provide genuine pleasure and the film as a whole is an achievement worthy of respect," the newspaper wrote in its initial review. [26] In like manner, the Journal lauded Civilization's opposition to war, an opposition the newspaper shared, in particular in relation to the possibility of the United States being drawn into the European conflict on the side of the Allies. "The film's popularity is a result of its tendency to oppose war," the Journal wrote approvingly, then artfully rationalized the inclusion of violent scenes of carnage in a supposedly pacifist film: "The gruesome battle scenes are not shown to thrill, but in order to depict the true horrors of war." [27] Yet despite the grandeur and right-heartedness of the film's battle scenes, they always came second in comparison to the truly "excellent battle sequences" of Fall of a Nation, a long and glowing review of which ended, typically, with a brief nod to Civilization and an acknowledgement that, yes, "it, too, offers unusually and wonderfully staged scenes." [28] No doubt, however, it was The Fall of a Nation that was the season's "foremost attraction . . . It has been a long time since any film has drawn such attention and led to as much discussion as Dixon's giant achievement," which, "since its premiere . . . has been entirely sold out." [29]

The larger point of interest here, of course, is not that the Journal favored one film over the other — nor even that it privileged the one found to be more offensive by most other German newspapers — but that it embraced both films despite their extreme anti-German typecasting. Rather than sidestep the issue as it had with the previous year's Battle Cry of Peace, the Hearst-owned newspaper this time tackled the films' German stereotypes head on. In so doing, it established once and for all that its long-established willingness to accept, indeed embrace German ethnic stereotypes such as the Katzenjammer Kids extended also to the wartime Hun-baiting of American film. The newspaper thus acknowledged the anti-German bias of Civilization, but added that "the circumstance that the evildoers are shown parading about in Prussian uniforms and with Prussian mustaches should not prevent us from watching this film, which, in terms of its overall conception, offers much that is outstanding." [30]

A similar sort of reasoning was applied to the even more offensive portrayal of the immigrant traitors in The Fall of a Nation: "Following the general zeitgeist, it is once again the evil 'Hyphens'" who were cast as the villains, the Journal wrote. Indeed, in a great but little-known twist of film history, the extras hired by Dixon to portray the film's immigrants were in fact German: unemployed German army reservists called up for duty but stranded in New York, unable to return home because of the British naval blockade. Those who didn't look sufficiently "German" were reportedly given fake mustaches. Even this was justified by the Journal, however: "He has been criticized for the German faces in the invading army, Dixon says, but he hired these people only because they were hungry and jobless. Five hundred Germans, many of them army reservists, had sought him out for possible work," the newspaper explained, and thus turned an act of ethnic typecasting into a humanitarian effort to aid the immigrant poor. In any case, all casting issues aside, the film was compelling "because the battle sequences have been achieved through incredible technical expertise" and offered "splendid military scenes." [31] As for Civilization, in other words, so too for The Fall of a Nation, cinematic spectacle trumped ethnic sensibilities, making both films suitable for German immigrant consumption despite their negative stereotypes.

More still, the Journal implied that patronage of such films would aid its readers in their ultimate assimilation into American culture, which increasingly emerged as one of the Hearst-owned newspaper's unstated goals. Thus, it specifically advised readers to refrain from feeling ethnic outrage at the negative portrayal of Germans on-screen, with the objective of becoming part of a larger, American mass audience instead. Just as laughing at vaudeville's Dutch Act had once helped German audience members distance themselves from the stereotype, and had thereby sped their incorporation into an Americanized "community of laughter," the newspaper implied, so hissing at the screen-Hun could now work towards the same goal. Thus, "although German-Americans will not like everything shown in Civilization, still the film is commendable for its overall message"; and, "even if parts of the film are offensive to German-Americans, a visit to the [Criterion] Theater is nevertheless well worthwhile." True, Civilization would hardly appeal to Germans back home, the newspaper acknowledged, where its message and imagery would be "prohibitively and energetically opposed," but as German-Americans, the Journal insisted, its readers needed feel no such compunction: the film's appeal cut across "all classes and rank, all races and religions" and, in its universalizing potential, made equals (i.e., "Americans") of all who watched it. [32]

The same held true for The Fall of a Nation: "Much has been written for, and much against the film. The fact remains, however, . . . that even those [presumably of German origin] not in agreement with all the film shows must acknowledge its technical excellence." As important as "Dixon's denial that his film is anti-German," the Journal wrote, was his larger objective: "He is turning against imperialism, regardless of whether it is German or Allied in origin, and has recognized and held up American democracy as the only salvation." As such, the film "emphasizes that all immigrants, no matter their national origin, must be Americanized as quickly as possible," a goal with which the Journal itself wholeheartedly agreed. That The Fall of a Nation and its message were aiding in the realization of Dixon's lofty principles was illustrated by the fact that the film was being patronized by "patriotic associations of all sorts," the newspaper reported — "not just American associations," as it clarified a few days later, "but also associations of citizens born abroad," including Danes, for example, and, to clinch the argument, a New York-based German men's choir. [33] It was not as ethnic Germans, of course, that the Journal encouraged its readers to patronize these films, nor even any longer as German-Americans, at this late stage of the game, for as hyphenated Germans their residual sense of ethnicity may yet have caused them to take offense at the films' negative ethnic stereotypes. Instead, readers were now encouraged to consume these anti-German caricatures as — indeed, in order to become, and join the ranks of — "patriotic Americans." The actual experience itself of consuming such images, in other words, was presented as facilitating German immigrants' metamorphosis into Americans. By checking their ethnic pride at the door, they eschewed all former national and cultural affiliation and, in the words of David Nasaw, "affirmed their inclusion in a great American public" (Going Out 220).

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Peter Conolly-Smith is Assistant Professor of History at Queens College of the City University of New York.

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