The propaganda era: film is a political tool

March 28, 2013
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

TIna Cody / The Silhouette

2012 marked a groundbreaking year in cinema. Both Paramount and Universal Pictures celebrated their 100th anniversary while The Avengers became the third highest grossing film of all time. Other blockbusters like The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises were released in 2012, making it the most profitable year in cinema history. At the same time, film producers and critics became increasingly focused on historical and politically oriented films.

Some of the year’s most acclaimed movies began with the moniker “based on a true story.” Films like Lincoln, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty all garnered heavy praise and seem to supply the same message: that the United States is a powerful force of social justice. Perhaps 2012 should instead be recognized as the year of political cinema.

For much of history, the connection between politics and film has been both intimate and concealed. Films have often served as a tool of propaganda given their unique ability to reproduce images, movement and sound in an extremely lifelike matter.

Unlike other art forms, films possess a sense of immediacy and are capable of creating the illusion of reality. For these reasons, movies are often taken to be accurate depictions of real life. This issue becomes even more pronounced when films depict unknown cultures or places.

While serving as a source of entertainment, movies are able to arouse social consciousness by distorting historical events. This makes film both a persuasive and extremely untrustworthy medium. Political officials have long been aware of cinema’s powerful attributes, and have thus used this media forms to mobilize and indoctrinate society with different views.

During the Second World War, for example, Reich officials commissioned the film Ich Klage or “I accuse” to persuade German citizens to accept the practice of euthanasia. A related purpose was to test public opinion as to whether there was sufficient support to officially legalize the program.

Ich Klage was an evident falsification of actual Nazi policy. The Nazis murdered medical patients against their will while the film depicts a physician giving a lethal injection to his incurably ill wife.

Throughout the film, the woman pleads her husband to put an end to her misery and suffering by ending her life.

During World War II, President Roosevelt also apparently recognized the benefits of cinema as a medium of propaganda.

He encouraged members of the American film industry to insert morale-building themes that would generate a patriotic mindset. This ultimately led Frank Capra to create seven government-sponsored films that were intended to support the war effort. Other propaganda movies of this period, like Casablanca and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, have become so well loved that their initial role as propaganda vehicles has been almost entirely forgotten.

In some ways, the relationship between politics and cinema has become even more pronounced. For instance, North Korea and China maintain strong public control over their nation’s film industries. Within North America, however, it is often difficult to realize the implicit connection. If this year’s Academy Awards provide any indication, it appears that movies can still be effectively employed as tools of propaganda.

Lincoln, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty all garnered critical and commercial attention last year with each film receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. During a period of deep American unrest, these films showcase triumphs of the United States government and its political authorities. In order to provide this depiction, however, these films grossly distorted historical events.

Watching these films impresses the notion of America’s superiority at the expense of factual information and cultural sensitivity. These films led many people to draw erroneous conclusions regarding the U.S. government and its foreign policy.

The social power of cinema became further evidenced when Michelle Obama presented the Academy Award for Best Picture.

With an impassioned speech on film’s ability to incite an emotional response, one could not help but realize the authority of the film industry. All this being said, it is essential that moviegoers maintain a critical eye when viewing films. As a tool of propaganda, cinema can either create divides or bridge them. So often it has been used with the former goal in mind, but by remaining a critical and rational viewer, one can prevent this unfortunate outcome.

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