Premiere Screening of the Early Thriller Film – The “Great Unknown”

From the end of the 1920s, the number of sound films ("talkies") produced began to grow steadily, and within just a few years, silent films disappeared entirely

An invitation to the premier of Der große Unbekannte, 1927, front

Beginning in the last years of the 19th century, a new medium conquered the entertainment industry: cinema. During the first three decades of the development of cinema, viewers had to tolerate watching moving pictures that played with musical accompaniment. From the end of the 1920s, the number of sound films (“talkies”) produced began to grow steadily, and within just a few years, silent films disappeared entirely.

Disappearing with them were also many actors who did not adjust to the new demands of film, including the soundtrack. In effect, film was a technological upgrade of theater: on theater stages, actors would appear every evening before a new audience, as they do today, while films preserve a one-time production of the plot. The film reels could be reproduced countless times, so copies of the film could be screened in the various cinemas in many cities across the globe – and in every screening, the audience would see the same version of the work (with the exception of differences that arose from the conditions of screening or from technical defects in the particular copy of the film).

​Many cinemas also sprung up in Germany, drawing already in the days of Imperial Germany an audience that was enthusiastic for more films to be produced. The rate of film production was greatly accelerated during the years of the Weimar Republic – despite the tremendous economic problems that hindered the growth of the branch in the early 1920s. The production companies also operated movie theater chains such as UFA and EMELKA. In 1927, there were already some 4,300 cinemas in Germany, and the largest among them could house over 1,000 viewers. Premier screenings of the new films took place in prominent movie theaters in the large cities, in order to ensure a large audience and immediate positive public response with the film’s release. Film critics and journalists were invited to these screenings, in the hope that they would write positive reviews in the newspapers, which in turn would be likely to draw more viewers to subsequent screenings.

One of the cultural critics active in Berlin was Karl Ehrenstein (1892-1971), a Viennese Jew, and brother of the well known expressionist writer Albert Ehrenstein.

Karl, who also attempted to create literary works in the expressionist style (but without much success), wrote reviews of various cultural events that took place in the German capital in the mid-1920s, often for the communist newspaper Die Welt am Abend (“The World in the Evening”). Ehrenstein saved the invitation, entrance ticket, draft of his article about the visit, and texts that were ultimately published in the newspaper. In this manner his personal archive presents an impressive picture of the cultural life of Berlin in the “Golden Twenties.”

Albert Ehrenstein, Karl’s brother
One of the events reviewed by Karl Ehrenstein was the first screening of the silent film “The Great Unknown,” held on October 13, 1927 at the Emelka Palace Theater on Berlin’s grand entertainment boulevard Kurfürstendamm. This movie was the first rendering of one of the spy novels by British author Edgar Wallace (1875-1932): The Sinister Man. Wallace’s spy novels were very popular in Germany and appeared on the bestseller lists even decades after their publication. However, because this particular book was translated into German only a year after the premier screening of them film, the play was still unknown to most of the viewing audience.
The text of Ehrenstein’s review of the film

The film was produced and directed by Manfred Noa, a German director – as far as is known, from a Jewish home – who directed approximately 30 films during the 1920s, the most outstanding of which was a cinematic version (the only to this day) of the play “Nathan the Wise” (1922) by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The film, however, whose spectators included Karl Ehrenstein, belongs to another genre and appealed to a wider audience.

The plot tells the story of a drug dealer, the power struggles of criminal gangs, and big money. The assortment of actors appearing in the film is a good representation of the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Berlin in the 1920s. It included actors from England, France, Austria, Germany and even Asia. As occurred often, six years after the production, with the Nazi rise to power, the paths of the actors who appeared together in the film diverged. For example, the chief British actor, Jack Trevor, moved to Germany and stayed there even through the period of the Nazis, who forced him to be the chief British news announcer during WWII. His Jewish colleague, Kurt Gerron, who was a very well-known actor in Germany, tried to flee the Nazis but was apprehended and became an inmate at Terezín (Theresienstadt) where the Nazis forced the actor, who was also a director, to direct a propaganda film on Theresienstadt, the “City of Jews.” Ultimately, Kurt Gerron was murdered in Auschwitz a few months after the film was produced.

The invitation to the premier, including the names of the actors and their parts
It is clear that when Karl Ehrenstein wrote his review of “The Great Unknown,” all that was yet to happen to those involved in it, and to the film itself, was unknown to him. In Ehrenstein’s opinion, the plot of the film was boring and presented bourgeois values (recall that he was writing for a communist newspaper). In contrast, he did not conceal his opinion that the directing and acting were good. As far as we know, every existing copy of the film disappeared. All that remains from “The Great Unknown” is the announcements advertising it, as well as the rare invitation to the opening show presented here, which Karl Ehrenstein preserved among his documents.

From Ideology to Racism: Hitler’s Mein Kampf

The content of the book is well known for its blatant aggression against political enemies, democracy, and mainly, against what Hitler viewed as the "enemy race" of the German people: the Jews

Mein Kampf frontispiece, 1933

In 1925, shortly after the end of the period of hyperinflation in Germany, a radical political book was published, written by an activist from the right-wing fringe of the political spectrum of those days. The author, who was not particularly well known outside of Bavaria, served a nine-month prison sentence during 1924 following a failed attempt at overthrow the government that he carried out together with accomplices on November 9, 1923, in Munich, the Bavarian capital. During his period of incarceration, the prisoner wrote what was to be his first book, entitled Mein Kampf, or “My Struggle.” The author’s name was Adolf Hitler. No one thought that within ten years, the author of this aggressive book would be heading the German government. No one could have guessed that six years after that, the same man would launch the deadliest war in human history. Who could have known that within 20 years of the book’s publication, its author would commit suicide after losing a war in which over 50 million people had been killed.

The content of the book, originally written in two parts, is well known for its blatant aggression against political enemies, democracy, and mainly, against what Hitler viewed as the “enemy race” of the German people: the Jews. In Mein Kampf, Hitler combined two main elements: autobiographical excerpts, some of them fictional, and in parallel, detailed political plans.

Hitler sought to offer in his book a political outline oriented against “Bolshevist-Jewish” Communism, which in his opinion was a great danger at the time, and on the other hand, against international financial capital, which, he claimed, was also “in Jewish hands.” The author presented a number of political demands in his book, such as the annexation of Austria to Germany, occupation of more “living space” (Lebensraum) for the German people at the expense of other countries, and, as stated, “exposing” the plans of the Jews to take control of the world. Hitler did not hesitate to rely on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a false composition written by antisemites in order to “prove” the supposed Jewish aspirations to take over the world.

Many versions, stories, legends and defamations were disseminated around the planning and writing of the book. Hitler was accused of having plagiarized substantial portions of it; it was said that he dictated the text to his close associate, Rudolf Heß; many claimed that Hitler was not capable of editing a coherent text and therefore, was dependent on the help of others in the process of preparing the materials for press. Without a doubt, the book is clearly not a high-quality literary work: the reading is indeed difficult and the reader is quickly put off by the awkward style and the shocking content. These characteristics led to the popular opinion that the book, though widely disseminated (by the Nazi rise to power in January, 1933, over 240,000 copies had been sold), was not widely read. And yet, modern studies have shown that apparently, this extremist political manifesto found an audience that showed a keen interest in its content and ideas. Despite a certain amount of success, however, the initial public impact of Mein Kampf was quite limited. The book was not taken seriously by critics during the era of the Weimar Republic, with the exception of a handful who identified with the Fascist movement in Germany.

Beyond the motivation that pushed Hitler to write a political book, there was an additional reason for the publication of Mein Kampf: Hitler’s need for money. His hope was to earn enough funds to finance the lawyers he hired prior to his appointment as Chancellor of Germany. Before that, the book enjoyed a degree of popularity, but the peak of its success began in January, 1933, with Hitler’s appointment to the role. There is nothing surprising about this: beginning with the Nazi rise to power, the book effectively became the basic plan for the “New Germany.” From that moment, further editions were printed, and copies were distributed to newly married couples (instead of Christian Bibles) and as gifts to colleagues at work. According to estimates by historians, by the end of the Nazi period, over 11 million copies had been sold – and this figure represents the German version alone. These high numbers yielded respectable royalties and Hitler, in order to maximize his income, prohibited the sale of used copies, such that officially, one could only purchase new copies of the book.

Irene Harand’s book, Sein Kampf, 1935

Outstanding among the negative responses to the incitement in Mein Kampf is the book by an Austrian Catholic author named Irene Harand. Her 1935 book, called Sein Kampf (“His Struggle”), expresses support for the Jews and tries to protect them from the preposterous antisemitic allegations that Hitler spread through his ideological composition. Harand exposed fabrication as Hitler’s main tool and basis for his claims, and she provides examples of how the lies regarding the Talmud, blood libels, and the claim regarding Jewish “tendencies” to deal in loans and interest, were simply untrue. Harand even undermines the “authority” of the infamous composition The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that Hitler held in such high esteem as a historical document. Luckily for Irene Harand, at the time of the Anschluss she was in England, and was thus spared arrest by the Nazis. Ultimately she immigrated to the United States.

Mein Kampf’s succesful run came to an end in Germany with the country’s defeat in WWII. After the collapse of the Nazi regime, millions of panicked citizens feared that possession of the book at home would be considered criminal, and many copies were destroyed. To this day, it is illegal to print Mein Kampf in Germany, although of late attempts have been made to publish a critical edition accompanied by studies that present the book in its political-historical context. And yet, there is no way to avoid publication of translations of the book into other languages, and quite unfortunately, many editions can be found – most without any accompanying commentary or critique – in many book stores around the world.

The Nazi Period, World War II and the Holocaust

How did the Nazis, within a short time, destroy general conventions of the modern world pertaining to humanity, law and culture?

During the twelve years between 1933 and 1945, a series of developments and vicissitudes completely altered the face of the country. The changes that Germany underwent during these years illustrate to this day that a high level of culture cannot necessarily prevent a takeover by barbaric forces, the likes of which may exist in any society. The persecution of the Jews, the silencing of pluralist views, and the conquest and devastating destruction of considerable parts of Europe in World War II superseded Germany’s image as a “land of the poets and thinkers” (Land der Dichter und Denker) and gave credence to the saying of the playwright Karl Kraus, that Germany had become the “land of judges and hangmen” (Land der Richter und Henker).

Even today, 70 years after the end of this terrible chapter in world history, this period remains a center of attention for many historians, sociologists, psychologists, artists, writers, and others. At the core of their interest is the question: How was this possible? How did the Nazis, within a short time, destroy general conventions of the modern world pertaining to humanity, law and culture? How can it be that a significant portion of the population supported this process, or at least, did not oppose it? There is no other period in German history that has been studied so intensively as the Third Reich, and there is no other period that has served as the basis for so many literary and cinematic works as the years of terror under Nazi rule.

The list of events that took place and the atrocities during these years is long and uncompromisingly horrifying. Adolf Hitler’s National-Socialist Party, though founded in the early 1920s, became significant towards the end of the decade. In the two elections of 1932 – in the shadow of mass unemployment and a deep economic crisis – the party received a majority of votes, but not an absolute majority. Following the party’s success, German president Paul von Hindenburg believed that there was no choice but to appoint Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, which he did at the end of January 1933. Immediately following the Nazi rise to power, they invested great effort in silencing democratic voices in Germany’s public sphere. In the March 1933 elections – the last to be held for many years – Hitler’s party again improved its lot, ultimately outlawing the existence of all competing parties and ideologies. Democrats and left-wingers were arrested and sometimes even murdered. Just a few months after the political ascendance of the Nazis, anti-Semitic persecution began: the firing of many Jewish state workers, the dismantling of Jewish businesses, the arrests of outstanding German Jewish figures, and other types of terror against the Jews. In response, approximately two-thirds of Germany’s Jewish population left the country for America, Palestine and other countries. German emigration to Palestine is known as the Fifth Aliyah. In Palestine, there was an immediate public response in the form of a ban on German goods, reflected in placards and demonstrations at that time.

During the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II, the Nazi Party succeeded in strengthening its status and buttressing its hold on the general population. Almost all realms of society were under centralized oversight. In autumn of 1935, the Nuremberg Race Laws were passed. These laws determined who was a Jew and who was considered to be of Jewish extraction. Based on these definitions, civil rights were denied to all people who met the criteria, any connections with “Aryan” families were prohibited, and in effect, the lives of Jews thus became impossible. In 1936 the Olympic Games were held in Berlin, and the Nazis seized the opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the “new Germany” and to convince the nations of the world that Germany was “striving for peace”.

Two years later, Adolf Hitler decided to annex Austria to the Third Reich and from that time on Germany became known as “Greater Germany” (Großdeutschland). Most of the Austrian population excitedly welcomed German rule, as Austrians remembered well that Hitler was of Austrian descent. Austria’s Jews immediately began suffering from the Nazi oppression. In September 1938, Hitler received the approval of France and Germany to also annex Sudetenland (most of whose population was German), which until then had been part of Czechoslovakia. Forces from the West thus hoped to satisfy Hitler’s aspirations and to preserve world peace, the end of which had already been decided upon in Berlin long before. The annexation of all of Bohemia in March 1939 was just another step towards another world war, which came in September 1939 with the Germany’s invasion of Poland.

The history of the war is well-known: The Axis Powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) conquered and destroyed large parts of the world; more than 50 million people paid with their lives, including six million Jews who were victims of the Holocaust. Ultimately, for the second time in 27 years, Germany was unconditionally defeated. After almost six years of brutal war, the Allies had defeated the Axis armies, liberating conquered areas, and ultimately taking control of Germany itself, which had, once again, been devastated and destroyed.

The Nazi Rise to Power Through the Eyes of Sebastian Haffner

Everything went "strictly by the book," using means that were permitted by the constitution

Beginning in 1928, German voters were called to the polls at least every two years as the political system suffered from instability due in part to the world economic crisis and the ensuing mass unemployment, but also due to the diffusion of political force between the many parties that gained representation in the National Parliament. In 1932, the situation was so dire that the German government disintegrated twice in the same year, leading to general elections in July and in November.

Hitler and his party had already succeeded in convincing many voters to support them in previous elections, but in July 1932 the Nazis garnered the largest number of votes and entered the Reichstag as the strongest party. Together with the Communist Party representatives (both parties were anti-Democratic), the Nazis achieved an absolute majority in the National Parliament, precluding the establishment of any type of coalition. At this stage, Hitler refused to cooperate with a government that would not be under his leadership, but President Paul von Hindenburg was not yet prepared to appoint Hitler as the Chancellor of Germany. There was no choice, then, but to hold a re-election in November 1932.

These elections created the impression that the unabated rise of the Nazis had been halted: for the first time in years, they had lost votes. And yet, they were still the strongest party in the Reichstag. Despite this development, there was still no realistic possibility of forming a stable coalition. The president appointed the Prussian General Kurt von Schleicher as the Chancellor of Germany. He tried to build a government in collaboration with various moderate political forces, including the moderate branch of the Nazi Party, hoping to thus split the Nazis. Nevertheless, the attempt failed and on January 28, 1933, he was forced to resign from his post. Two days later, President Von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, though most of the government portfolios were still in the hands of other parties. Nonetheless, Hitler and his people knew how to seize control, both politically and through violent means. Within months, the Nazis already held all of the political and state power – with almost no resistance on the part of the German people, most of whom had not voted for the Nazis in the elections.

On the evening of January 30, endless lines of uniformed Nazis bearing torches marched towards the Brandenburg Gate, in order to celebrate the “victory”. There are reports that upon seeing this sight, the well-known Jewish painter Max Liebermann, who lived in the building adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, said, “I cannot eat as much as I would like to puke.”

The German publicist Sebastian Haffner (1907-1999) reported on the Nazi rise to power, and more generally, on the developments in Germany during that period. Haffner was a law student at the time, and opposed the Nazis and their barbaric political style. In 1938 he emigrated from Germany to England where he began writing political-historical works about Germany and contemporary history. He authored a series of books and even wrote for an anti-Fascist German paper published in England. Haffner’s first composition on the topic, 1939’s “Defying Hitler (Geschichte eines Deutschen – The Story of a German)”, was neither completed nor published during his lifetime. The work was ultimately published in 2000, a year after Haffner passed away. In this work, which has been translated into various languages including Hebrew, Haffner describes the political and social developments in Germany in the years 1914-1933 from a personal, everyday perspective. Writing about the events beginning in 1933, after the Nazis’ political strength had been strongly established, Haffner observed:

The whole façade of everyday life remained basically unchanged. The cinemas, cafes and theaters were full; couples danced in the open air and in the dance halls, people strolled down the streets, while others sunbathed on the beaches. The Nazis used this to great effect in their propaganda: “Come and see our peaceful, quiet country. Come and see how well even the Jews are doing. The secret vein of madness, fear and tension, of living by the day and dancing a dance of death: those one could not see. (Adapted from p. 154 of the English edition, entitled, Defying Hitler – A Memoir by Sebastian Haffner, translated from the German by Oliver Pretzel, 2002).

On the Nazis’ rise to power and the concurrent political changes, he wrote:

What is a revolution?

Constitutional lawyers define it as a change of constitution by means not foreseen therein. By this definition the Nazi revolution of March 1933 was not a revolution. Everything went “strictly by the book,” using means that were permitted by the constitution. At first there were “emergency decrees” by the president of the Reich, and later a bill was passed by a two-thirds majority of the Reichstag, giving the government unlimited legislative powers. (Defying Hitler, p. 124)

Reading Haffner’s book is both riveting and spine-chilling from the reports of the violent political takeover to the April 1st ban on Jewish businesses and the slow infusion of Fascist poison into broad segments of the general population. Haffner’s writings prove that it was already possible in 1933 to know where Germany was headed.

Those like Haffner, who so desired, could see it clearly.