Operation European Freedom

The propaganda films the Pentagon didn't want you to see

Did you see the latest news about Iraq on al Iraqiya? No? Did you hear about it on Radio Sawa? Never come across that name? Maybe you get your news about the Global War on Terror from Al Hurra. Or are you a reader of Al-Sabah?

Wait, you say. Aren't these the broadcasters and news gatherers that operate out of Qatar or the United Arab Emirates--the ones who are always airing Bin Laden's audio postcards and showing ghastly footage of grieving Palestinians? No, that would be Al Jazeera or Al-Arabiya.

Achtung baby: A victim of "Hunger" from 1948
Schulberg Productions, Inc.
Achtung baby: A victim of "Hunger" from 1948

You've never seen Al Iraqiya or Al Hurra for a number of reasons, the main one being that both are, to varying degrees, propaganda projects--of the Pentagon and the blandly named Broadcasting Board of Governors, respectively. These satellite channels do not have the domestic audience in mind. In fact, the government would violate the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act if it tried to distribute them in the states. Whatever newscasts and home-decorating tips are going out to the skeptical Muslim world (Al Hurra dubs Inside the Actor's Studio into Arabic!), we'll probably never see them.

It took more than a half-century for the propaganda films packaged under the touring program Selling Democracy to find their way onto domestic screens. And so it's only now, in a four-night, 25-film series at the Walker Art Center, that we'll have the chance to consider what the ad campaign looked like the last time the U.S. was hawking freedom in a bombed-out marketplace.

The battleground then was Europe in the aftermath of World War II. And the medium was film. Some 300 reels were made in conjunction with the Marshall Plan, the cooperative aid program that pumped $13 billion of American assistance into agricultural and industrial reconstruction. They screened before feature films in Europe's metropolises and toured the countryside by truck and barge in 16mm tent shows. Though American officials funded and oversaw the information program, local film teams wrote and directed the individual projects. It's an unfamiliar Europe that these filmmakers show us in their docs and shorts, a despoiled, pre-industrial land. The obvious question--and the most stubbornly unknowable--is what role the movies played in making over the continent into the place we know today.

The starkest presentation of European poverty comes in the 1948 short that opens the series, "Hunger" (Wednesday, April 5), which was made for a German audience. We see haggard women picking over trash heaps and shoeless urchins leaping into the gutter and scrapping like curs over a tossed-away morsel of food. These scenes aren't from war-ravaged Germany, the stern narrator declares, but from London, Greece, France. Hunger is everywhere, "another casualty of the Nazi war." It's not easy to imagine an audience in Berlin cottoning to that message, especially on an empty stomach. Indeed, a letter reprinted in the Selling Democracy program explains that American authorities yanked "Hunger" after angry audiences could be heard yelling, "Hermann [Goering] wouldn't let us starve."

 

Equally bleak in its premise is the Italian dramatic short "Aquila" (Friday, April 7). The specter here is joblessness, as the camera follows a man trudging hopelessly around town in torn shoes. At the end of a long day of futility, he drags himself up a hill with his young son in tow, only to have to explain to his wife, who holds a bambino, why he's empty-handed again. The next morning, the same beaten-down man is throwing a rock through the window of the Perugina candy shop and fleeing on foot. A box of chocolate is not the only thing being stolen here, as the 1950 short cops shamelessly from Vittorio De Sica's 1948 film The Bicycle Thief. This being a piece of propaganda, however, and not a neorealist masterpiece, "Aquila" delivers an upbeat ending. On the way back from the police station, the family man spots an ad for the Aquila refinery--where he's hired on the spot. American economic aid, we learn in a brief image, has made the job possible. The happy new gas worker hoists his baby overhead: The Marshall Plan has restored another man's masculinity.

There are a lot of men working in these movies. They're mining coal in "Me and Mr. Marshall" (Wednesday); they're laying aqueducts into a parched mountainside in "Town Without Water" (Thursday, April 6); they're turning American hatchlings into a home egg business in "Hansl and the 200,000 Chicks" (Thursday). Leisure isn't a luxury in these films, but a curse; by the 1950s, the Marshall Plan movies would begin to assert that idle hands are the Marxist's tool.

The most artistically accomplished of the films in the Walker series, the Dutch doc "Houen Zo" (Wednesday) shows almost nothing but work. Stitched together to the sounds of diesel engines, train whistles, and pile drivers, "Houen Zo" is a brilliant tone poem of labor. Tug captains and stevedores, winch operators and mason tenders--we see all of them doing their part to rebuild Rotterdam from the ground up. In the closing shots, the pounding of the pile driver punctuates a Viewmaster sequence of gleaming new buildings. The contribution of the United States to this success story goes without mention, save for the opening credits.

But then who needed it? The unflagging can-do-ism of these movies must have carried the clean, brassy scent of the United States. The Marshall films present a world of beneficent technocrats and their miraculous infrastructure. One can imagine a young Frederick Wiseman or John McPhee thrilling to a piece like "The Home We Love" (Thursday), which provides a thorough tour of a French town's wool-denapping industry--a very thorough tour. It's harder to fathom what inspired a filmmaker to chronicle the drying process for a tin of powdered milk ("The Extraordinary Adventures of a Quart of Milk," Thursday). Granted, no one could deny the genius--or lunacy--that inspired the director to narrate the industrial process from the point of view of the milk itself. There are not one but two documentaries ("Bulls and Rice" and "Island of Faith," both Thursday) about the desalinization of damaged soil. Put another way, these weren't exactly women's pictures.

It wasn't just people who were working, these films insisted; the system itself was working. Beyond the countless shots of scaffolding, the Marshall Plan movies laid out a new architecture for the continent. Europe was to be a zone of free elections and even freer trade. The animated allegory "The Shoemaker and the Hatter" (Saturday, April 8) is the kind of tariff-trashing movie that the Cato Institute would make compulsory viewing for kindergartners. Just such a group of tykes commandeer a mountain ski resort in the charmingly hokey "Let's Be Childish" (Friday). Junior nationalism and a lack of a lingua franca lead to a cataclysmic snowball bombardment. But when a basket of candy is on the line, cooperation wins the day. Here and elsewhere, the seeds of the European Union can be seen--although they would first be fertilized with a goodly amount of rank manure in the form of anti-Soviet and anticommunist messages. At times like these, the filmmaking earns the label propaganda.

But that's to be expected. Only a congenital naïf would find these movies innocent. Our experience in Iraq tells us to look for the graft, the waste, and the profiteering, the criminal syndicates and the regime dead-enders. For the most part, they're hiding outside the sprockets of these filmstrips. The peaceful and wealthy Eurozone that emerged in the decades that followed has justified those omissions of ugliness--and probably gives comfort to the current crop of optimists in the White House, who have mastered the art of selective vision.

Without a tidy sense of historical analogy, what may attract today's viewer are the quirky touches. Who knew that the European man had such a broad variety of hats at his disposal? That struggling dirt farmers toiled in vests and blazers? No less than three-quarters of the films in the Selling Democracy series depict the common donkey at work and play. The Marshall Plan, with its rural electrification projects and its promise of mass-produced consumer goods, stamped out not just postwar poverty, but a rich, artisanal world. This is a Europe of small-plot farming and kerosene lighting, brass bands and cave cities, short pants and urban cyclists. We look backward while the people in front of the camera look forward. We're watching the same films that these people once saw, but we're seeing a different picture.

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