by Lydia Howell
With debates raging about “bringing democracy” to Arab countries, it’s a perfect time for “Selling Democracy: Films of the Marshall Plan 1948-1953.” These U.S. government-sponsored films—part of the “de-Nazification” of rebuilding war-torn Europe after WWII—were buried for almost 60 years but are coming to the Walker this weekend.
Marshall Plan represented true partnership. “The business of building
Europe is the business of Europeans,” said its developer, Secretary of
State George Marshall. “All the U.S. can do is lend a hand.” Europeans
developed agencies of their own, which planned the rebuilding and decided how
the money was to be divided. “Ultimately, these agencies [were the foundation
for] the European Union and the Common Market,” observes Sandra Schulberg,
co-curator of the series. Her father, Stuart Schulberg, headed the Film Division
of the Marshall Plan. “These films are so relevant. The challenges [were]
so similar to what we face now. It’s a rare opportunity to see how we
handled it once before.”
The current media campaigns in the Middle East are being led by Americans while
the bulk of reconstruction is handled by American employees from Halliburton,
but most of the filmmakers involved in “Selling Democracy” were
European and Europeans were re-employed rebuilding their homes and industries.
In our outsourced age, the “triumphant labor” images permeating
these films create edgy nostalgia.
“Many of the people making these films were Left-leaning, with socialist
views [and] respect for the working-class,” Schulberg said, noting that
after the invasion of Korea in June 1950, co-operative internationalism increasingly
gave way to anti-communist re-militarization. “There’s a wide spectrum
of films here, from straightforward, technical assistance [to] docudramas [that]
instilled hope about the future. [There’s] satire. Even fiction and animation.
They were aware that they had to make them entertaining.”
Each night’s offering has a different theme and includes a post-screening
discussion led by various scholars of European history and politics. Here are
Apr. 5: The first night of the series, entitled Out of the Ruins,
exposes war’s destruction in timeless fashion. “Hunger” shows
elegiac images of suffering across the continent. The Cannes-prize-winning “Houen
Zo” shows Rotterdam, destroyed and rising from the rubble. “Life
and Death of a Cave City” is a rare color film, set in Italy. Intimations
of the Cold War appear in “The Bridge” as the U.S. Air Force airlifts
aid to West Berlin after the U.S.S.R. blocks all the roads into the city.
Thu., Apr. 6: Help Is On The Way is a tour of American
can-do spirit in collaboration with 17 European nations and the city-state of
Trieste. The films mix charm and practicality, and one feels pride (mingled
with a sense of loss) for what America meant to post-war Europe.
Fri., Apr. 7: True Fiction breaks out of documentary
style with drama and comedy. “The Smiths and the Robinsons” is an
amusing look at the British class system and the continued rationing of meat,
TVs and cars post-WWII. Its envious “consumer competition” is recognizable
(in magnified form) today. “Aquilla,” which depicts the struggles
of an unemployed husband and father, is a magnificent early example of the Italian
“neo-realism” that flowered in the 1950s with giants like di Sicca.
Its black and white images resonate with feeling.
Apr. 8: Strength for the Free World plunges into the Cold War,
displaying some surprisingly artistic anti-Communist propoganda. Made under
the direction of the Mutual Security Agency, films like “Do Not Disturb!”
expose the absurd side of the Cold War. A satirical sendup of the Communist
critique of Western consumerism, this short film also manages to sell American
products as the ultimate “good life.” “Whitsun Holiday”
treads similar ground, comparing how Western (capitalist) and Eastern (communist)
citizens spend vacation. Hilariously hamfisted, it’s hard to imagine anyone
being convinced by these films. “The Hour of Choice” mixes film
and animation, and attains real art in its clarion call to “choose sides”
in the intensifying battle with the U.S.S.R. Democracy is represented in watercolor
pastoral scenes that clash with ominously expressionist communism.
“What does “Selling Democracy” say about what’s going
on today?” asks Schulberg. “I wish we were empowering people in
Iraq and Afghanistan to tell their own stories. This was actually a mini-Marshall
Plan for European filmmakers, who went on to have careers in film and television.”
Her father was trilingual and educated in Europe, unlike Bush’s fellow
Texan Karen Hughes, who is leading public relations efforts to “improve
America’s image” in the Middle East. Schulberg underscores the role
of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.—created in gratitude for America’s
aiding European recovery—in funding cross-cultural exchanges 60 years
later, including this film series.
“We got it right once [with the Marshall Plan]. Americans can see that
program was well-designed to benefit all sides. George Marshall had a broad
vision and rose above national borders [to help people] have a decent life-—the
same struggle we see today,” Schulberg says wistfully. “We can be
so heavy-footed! But, we can also act with grace and intelligence, in partnership,
without imposing the American viewpoint. The Marshall Plan was all about dialogue.”
“Selling Democracy: Films of the Marshall Plan 1948-1953”
runs Wed., Apr. 5 through Sat., Apr. 8. 7 p.m. $8/$6 for Walker members. 1750
Hennepin Ave., Mpls. 612-375-7600. For full schedule, see WalkerArt.org.
Hear Sandra Schulberg on KFAI’s “Catalyst” (3/21) archived