They don't make propaganda like they used to.
Today, we get fake news stories, news releases disguised as journalism, and columnists paid by the president's administration to endorse its policies. When the government tries to sell its particular brand of soap, it's not with delicacy or style but with deception and subterfuge.
How different it all was 50 years ago, as the series "Selling Democracy" makes entertainingly -- and painfully -- clear. This extraordinary collection of films, all made under the auspices of the Marshall Plan, provides an inspiring glimpse of the United States' role in Europe's post-World War II recovery and the government's incredibly sophisticated approach to using film as a tool to educate, persuade and, yes, sell soap.
French farmers sow rice fields in "Rice and Bulls," one of the features in the "Selling Democracy" film series.
(Ampas Film Archive Via Goethe-institut)
Of the more than 250 short movies made for the Marshall Plan between 1948 and 1953, 25 will be on view today through Monday. Anyone with an interest in history, media and America's latest efforts to market its principles in hostile territories shouldn't miss this opportunity to see cinematic rarities that aren't often made available outside archives and film collections. (A 1948 law forbade the U.S. government from propagandizing its own citizens; the exhibition ban was lifted in 1990.)
To watch "Selling Democracy" is to attend a European film festival in miniature, with the collection running the gamut in style and substance. There are the predictably nuts-and-bolts documentaries, of course, explaining the cogwork of economic progress. But there are also fiction films: surprisingly poetic examples of early Italian neorealism, slyly satirical comedies and wildly expressionistic animated essays. Most of the directors' names are unknown today, but these smart, funny, moving, visually stunning works are part of a legacy that will surely endure beyond mere fame or accolades.
Today, the European Recovery Program (known as the Marshall Plan) undertaken after World War II is considered the most ambitious economic development enterprise a country has ever embarked on outside its own borders. Conceptualized by Secretary of State George Marshall, the ERP sought not only to restore Europe's flagging economy and decimated infrastructure but, more difficult, resuscitate its citizens' morale and kinship with one another. Although the United States invested $13 billion in aid, goods and services, the money would have been worthless without the Europeans' buy-in. In a stroke of brilliance, ERP organizers decided to make a series of short movies explaining Marshall Plan policies, celebrating its successes, and gently -- and sometimes not so gently -- exhorting former enemies to overcome years of mistrust and victimization in a new spirit of cooperation.
Even more brilliant was the decision that the films would be made not by Washington publicists or Hollywood directors, but by European directors. Giving the filmmakers modest budgets and virtually free creative rein, the ERP hewed to Marshall's most visionary philosophical principle: Real and enduring change in Europe could only be effected by Europeans themselves.
As is made clear by the order of this weekend's programs, the aims of the Marshall Plan films changed over the years, from explicating the importance of the policy's economic goals to emphasizing anti-communism. In 1948's "It's Up to You," for example, German viewers are presented with the choice of embracing the country's venerable intellectual history or reverting to the more brutish impulses of its recent past; by 1953, when the stylized animated short "Without Fear" was made, the enemy was to be found eastward, not at home.
Although the films never pretended to be something they weren't -- it was always clear they were Marshall Plan productions -- they were often amazingly subtle, providing honest portrayals of postwar privation and suffering even as they were trying to instill optimism. In the Italian "Aquila," a man searches for work, finally resorting to stealing for his family. With its expressive lead performance by newcomer Natale Peretti, its real-life settings and its lyrical simplicity, "Aquila" stands with "Rome, Open City" or "The Bicycle Thief" as an example of classic Italian neorealism. The searing, seven-minute "Hunger," which reminded German citizens in 1948 that they weren't the only ones facing food shortages, was such an unsparing portrait of its subject that it was rejected by audiences and pulled from theaters.
When in doubt, the Marshall Plan filmmakers knew, make 'em laugh. "The Smiths and the Robinsons," another fiction film, is a cheekily amusing look at class rivalry in Britain, as well as the British gift for, as the film itself puts it, "steadfastness in the face of continued crisis." And "Let's Be Childish" is a sweetly subversive take on the importance of overcoming past rivalries (note that adults in the film are represented only as pairs of legs -- the visual equivalent of the "wa-wa-wa" sounds in the Charlie Brown cartoons).
Only a smattering of the Marshall Plan films were available for pre-screening, so these titles are just a tantalizing few of the dozens of absorbing and provocative films on view over the next few days. With luck, American citizens will take advantage of this rare chance to be propagandized, if ex post facto. And so will present-day propagandizers, who may find they have a few things to learn about winning the peace.
Selling Democracy will be presented in four programs. "Out of the Ruins" will be shown today at 3 at the Goethe-Institut, 812 Seventh St. NW. "Help Is on the Way" will be shown today at 6:30 p.m. at Regal Cinema, 707 Seventh St. NW. "True Fiction" will be shown Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Goethe-Institut, and "Strength for the Free World" will be shown Monday at 7 p.m. at the Goethe-Institut. Tickets to the Goethe-Institut screenings are $6 ($4 for Goethe-Institut members, seniors and students). Tickets to the Regal screening, which is part of Filmfest DC, are $9. Call 202-289-1200 or visit www.goethe.de/washington.