Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Council of the Gods may be the defining example of the Eastern bloc propaganda films denied exhibition in the West. A scathing indictment of collusion between American and German industrialists before and during WW2, it visualizes its lead Yankee businessman as a gross caricature of villainy. The irony is that underneath the propagandistic message -- that West Germany will soon collapse from its own greed and corruption -- some of this film's charges appear to be 100% true.
When Hitler comes to power the I.G. Farben Company invests in the Nazi cause and reaps tremendous profits from Germany's military build-up. "The Council of the Gods" is a core of executives led by chairman Mauch (Paul Bildt) that ruthlessly ignores ethics for its own gain and subjects its employees to Nazi anti-union tactics. The Council is wrong in thinking that it has Hitler in its pocket, but its alliances insure its survival should the Third Reich collapse. Council member General Heinze Schirrwind (Helmuth Hinzelmann) marries Mauch's socialite daughter and liaisons with the radical Nazi party, and other executives close a hot deal with Mr. Lawson of the U.S. Standard Oil Company (Willy A. Kleinau). Standard Oil and Farben trade essential materials and patents to their mutual benefit; when war comes they maintain full cooperation with one another. Their exchanges are routed through Brazil and Switzerland. Both companies profit from the war to the tune of billions.
Meanwhile, one of Farben's top scientists Dr. Hans Scholz (Fritz Tillmann) sees his relatives arrested by SS police for union activities and suspects that the uses of his research are being kept hidden from him. When he finally discovers that I.G. Farben is making lethal gas for death chambers, it's too late to complain; Nazi operatives will surely silence him. As Germany crumbles the top executives relocate to safer areas in Bavaria, leaving Scholz behind, promoted at the last moment to a top executive position. At the Nuremburg trials, the Council Members claim ignorance of any wrongdoing and use Scholz as a scapegoat. Mr. Lawson arranges for a change of prosecutor, ensuring that the collusion between Standard Oil and I.G. Farben is kept under wraps. After brief prison terms the Council emerges as a prominent force in the capitalistic rebuilding of West Germany.
Council of the Gods certainly presents a strong argument against the globalization of corporations. Although not publicized, the history of the I.G. Farben Company and its relations with American oil and technology companies is part of the Nuremberg record. While their respective countries were at war, the company executives stayed above such petty matters as totalitarian politics and mass genocide and carefully protected the continuity of their profits. Luchino Visconti's The Damned looks at industrial Germans as political monsters and sexual perverts but this East German film seeks to inspire outrage that Germans would partner with hypocritical Western capitalists. Council of the Gods sees no difference between sharp business practices and conspiracy in war crimes.
The evidence presented is certainly worth our attention. According to the script (which claims to quote American records from the Nuremburg trials), I.G. Farben and the Standard Oil Company honored patent royalty contracts throughout the war: When RAF planes burned aviation fuel from America, the Germans made a profit. Neutral Swiss bankers insured the discreet handling of funds and exchange of materials. According to the film, the American partners saw to it that I.G. Farben's plants were never bombed. And after the war, the same monetary influence was used to protect the German industrialists from prosecution at the war trials. The German elites, after all, were on the American side when it came to opposing the Russian threat.
Council of the Gods uses these assertions (which definitely should have been more widely debated) for manipulative propaganda aimed at East German audiences. The script makes a careful delineation between the 'good' working class Germans (which include the duped scientist hero) and the nefarious Council of the Gods with its relations with Nazis, militarists, mass murderers and Americans. The honest Dr. Scholz and his humble family receive a basket of champagne as a birthday present, while Chairman Mauch and his corporate elite make their crooked deals on vacations in Italy and the Alps.
The recurring image of the I.G. Farben villains is a grand toast. The participants revel in their wicked powers and form romantic liaisons that reinforce crooked relationships. Mauch's daughter marries a high-ranking general. The American representative of Standard Oil is presented as a slimy opportunist and war profiteer, and even has a sinister moustache. Meanwhile, the ethical scientist takes a look at the loading dock behind his lab and finds canisters of Zyklon B gas crystals with printed labels that say, "Packaged for Auschwitz." It's no wonder that Council of the Gods was never cleared for exhibition anywhere in the West.
The film's pro-Communist propaganda angle is largely unsuccessful. After the political disillusion of the first part of the film we're in no mood to accept the idea that Communism is the answer to anything. To provide an upbeat ending, the citizenry of an East German city rises to protest when an explosion at a Farben plant reveals that the company is once again making deadly weapons, this time for the 'warmongering' Allies. A popular uprising condemns the I.G. Farben chairman, suggesting that the incredibly repressive East German regime is simply the result of the public will; there is no mention of the Russian occupational presence. Faced with the righteous wrath of the proletariat, the evil exploiters (with American Lawson in attendance) quiver in their shoes like vampires at daybreak. The film ends with the crazy message that American and German capitalists were the real villains of the war, and that their perfidy continues into the post-war era. Council of the Gods is right at the center of the ideological stalemate of the Cold War, with both sides claiming the cause of Freedom and Justice.
Council of the Gods is a handsome production with good acting and excellent direction by Kurt Maetzig. Clever special effects recreate the giant chemical plants of the Rhine Valley, while the art direction shows the industrialists living in ornate palaces. The 'wicked' women of the Council dress attractively whether riding in the Alps or enjoying a sexy Latin dancer in a Geneva nightclub. Excellent war montages use unfamiliar battle footage from Eastern film archives. In one impressive scene the Farben elites calmly evacuate to the hills. Troops carefully load their antique valuables onto trucks, along with priceless paintings stolen from French galleries. Ordinary German citizens have to escape on foot, clutching their babies in their arms.
Licensed from Ice Storm Entertainment, First Run Features' DVD of Council of the Gods is an excellent B&W transfer of this flat 1950 production and looks much better than other titles sourced directly from the East German studio DEFA. The perfect track highlights a bombastic score by the famed Hanns Eisler, a German refugee who wrote music for patriotic American films (Hangmen Also Die!) until driven back to Germany during the first round of anti-Communist witch hunts.
The extras give insight into the film and help us understand the nature of East German propaganda. Director Kurt Maetzig (The Silent Star) is on hand to assert the factual basis for the film's claims about I.G. Farben and Standard Oil.
The extras also include several East German propaganda newsreels. One rather shocking example lauds the 'new era' in the Eastern Sector while claiming that corruption and aggression in West Berlin will soon collapse under the weight of a scandalized populace seeking the fairness and justice of Communist ideals. That Soviet daydream couldn't have been farther from the truth. Although the state-run DEFA film school and studio produced its share of creative pictures, much of its best talent would flee to the West in the 1950s. Director Maetzig became DEFA's chief executive and continued to make films there for decades.
Council of the Gods is an excellent discussion subject, an eye-opener about the propaganda potential in any film purporting to tell the truth about historical events.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Council of the Gods rates:
Supplements: Interview with Kurt Maetzig, Interview about set designer Willy Schiller, Eyewitness East German Newsreels, trailers, text extras.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 28, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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