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Note: consider this essay as a diversion from the coronavirus.

Some of our most notorious dictators have had, in addition to the usual depredations, a hobby in common: an infatuation with cinema. The mise en scene appears common to all; the leader invites his minions to see a movie, these, typically a dozen or two, are seated in his personal screening room. They watch a film (woe to the guest who nods off) and at the end- or during- the leader delivers pronouncements on its director and actors; he’s rarely contradicted. Frequently the attendees are forced to sit through multiple, and often exhausting, offerings and some of the leader’s favorite films are shown ad nauseum.


After dinner Hitler would invite Nazi big shots to his private screening room at the Berghof; the prints were provided by Joseph Goebbels’ international contacts. His voracious appetite for film exhausted his entourage who were unused to binge-watching. Albert Speer appreciated how much the pictures lightened the Fuhrer’s mood, but dreaded having to endure the nightly marathon; often one flic after another. Some of the foreign films were subtitled, others not. His adjutants with some foreign language skills would try to translate on the fly with mixed results; Hitler didn’t seem to care.


We know Hitler’s favorites. Along with Gone with the Wind, he enjoyed Laurel &Hardy, Snow White, King Kong, and many American westerns. For his birthday in 1937, Goebbels gave him 12 Mickey Mouse reels. Hitler was fond of every film directed by Fritz Lang, a Jew. His private projection room included him and others banned by his regime. Charlie Chaplin’s spoof The Great Dictator was released in 1939 but we don’t how it was received by Hitler, if even he saw it.

According to his pilot, Hans Baur, Hitler would avert his eyes at the sight of animals being hunted but not when men were brutalized. And he was a bit of a prude; the 1938 film ‘Capriccio’ included a brothel scene. Hitler’s reaction: ’this is a piece of ****!’. His judgments were not open to appeal; the film was immediately removed from the theaters. During the screenings his adjutants scrutinized his reactions; if favorable they would alert Goebbels for another viewing.

Once the war began, Hitler’s viewing decreased, but he did watch 1939's Gone with the Wind multiple times at the insistence of Eva Braun; she couldn’t get enough of it. He told Goebbels, 'Now that, that is something our own people should also be able to do.' They never did.



Re-creation of Stalin’s movie room

Although Stalin owned lavish cinema setups in every one of his many homes but the pièce de résistance was held in the Great Kremlin Palace. It seated 20 leather armchairs and the peripherals were top-notch: high-tech lighting and sound were serviced by a crew of experienced technicians. Scattered tables offered hors d'oeuvres, wine, and -an essential- Vodka; as a tactic, Stalin encouraged inebriation among his guests- typically Politburo ministers and assorted apparatchiks- on the theory that drunks tell no lies.


Stalin, nursing a glass of mineral water and Vodka, sat in the middle of the front row. Invariably he would announce ‘What will Comrade Bolshakov (above) show us today?’  Ivan Bolshakov was the Soviet minister of film and it was up to him to select the evening’s film(s), a hazardous job if it failed to please the Vozhd. On occasion Stalin would announce jokingly, ‘If this is no good, we’ll sign his death sentence!’ The ensuing laughter was mandatory.

Stalin and other members of his inner circle were watching a movie that Bolshakov had brought. Suddenly, without saying a word, Stalin stood up and left the room. There was big confusion and comrades, who had always aligned with their leader’s opinion, began blaming Bolshakov. “What utter crap have you brought us here, Comrade Bolshakov!” shouted Molotov. And continued: “The movie must be banned and all of those responsible, must be punished!” All others agreed. Suddenly the door opened and Stalin entered with his coat on as if nothing had happened. “Why did you stop the movie? Great film! Let’s continue!” Everyone was pale. “The film strip broke off”, mumbled Molotov and the cinema show continued.
- Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin; the Court of the Red Star

Another arduous duty of Bolshakov was translating the various foreign films often with comic results. The dialogue was often utterly incomprehensible to anyone in the audience but Stalin, like Hitler, remained absorbed nevertheless. But give Bolshakov his due, he remained in his job for fifteen years; the previous head of Soviet cinema had been lined up against a wall and shot- for reasons unclear.


Stalin considered himself an expert movie critic. He would heavily intrude into the production process ‘suggesting’ improvements or revisions with dialogue, plot and suitable actors. Many of the industry players were justifiably terrified but Stalin would feign humility: ‘You don’t have to listen to me. This is just a suggestion from an ordinary viewer. Take it or leave it.’ Yet even the great director, Sergei Eisenstein (above), prudently allowed Stalin to lecture him on every aspect of his trade.
Similar again to Hitler, Stalin was prudish in his tastes. In the film, Volga Volga, he ordered a long scene depicting a French kiss be cut out. He adored Spencer Tracy and he allegedly watched Boys Town 25 times. During a fight scene, Stalin would excitedly grab the viewer next to him saying ‘look at that! Look at that!’ But his all-time favorite was the 1934 Chapayev, depicting the life of the Russian Civil War commander, Vasily Chapayev. It’s said he saw it 39 times.
Why are dictators drawn to film? It appears there are no exceptions. The propaganda aspect cannot be denied but aside documentaries like those of Leni Riefenstahl, essentially advertisements for Nazi Germany despite the indisputable artistry. The films cited here were designed for entertainment. Of course, there’s the prestige factor, nations wish to impress their rivals with their cultural achievements; for many years the US film industry rose to the status of near hegemony.
Or is there an additional element? The screenings- the trappings- favored by Hitler and Stalin suggest something more calculated. The modalities were almost precisely identical; the private screening room, an audience of party members usually around 20, the primacy of the leader who cannot be contradicted and chooses the film, often multiple films. The small audience fosters an agreeable sense of ‘eliteness’ among party members at the same time they're remain mostly silent; the leader does most of the talking and he has strong opinions. The guests are reduced to passivity; the leader’s authority is reinforced. But this is pure speculation.


Some dictators were not content with merely screening movies; they aspired to be screenwriters and directors in their own right. Benito Mussolini approached Columbia Pictures with a million dollars to make a biopic about his life, even offering to write the script himself. Columbia mercifully refused.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein plunged $30 million into the production of an epic war movie starring British actor Oliver Reed. Witnesses confirm that his role was ‘hands-on’. Entitled ‘Clash of Loyalties’ and produced in 1983, it quickly sank beneath the endless sands of the desert.

We’re told the Korean despot, Kim Il-Jong, was never tempted to aspire behind the camera but is nevertheless an indefatigable movie-lover. His favorites were the James Bond films, Friday the 13th films, and anything with Elizabeth Taylor. It’s rumored that he owns the largest private collection of films in the world. In 1978, when Kim Jong-Il was just the dictator-in-waiting of North Korea, he reportedly ordered the kidnapping of the most famous film director in South Korea. Shin Sang Ok was imprisoned for years in Pyongyang and forced to make movies under Kim's supervision.

Edited by Childress
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