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Abstract

Over forty-five films made in Nazi Germany foregrounded classical music, despite the reluctance of film composers to quote the classics and worries on the part of the musicological establishment that cinema could only “trivialize” the “great masters.” But rather than flaunting the classical tradition as the property of the Nazi state, these movies expressed conspicuously mixed feelings toward musical heritage, exposing the contestation for cultural value in modern society. The claim to musicality as a Germanic quality—a tenet of self-understanding since the nineteenth century—unravels in unexpected ways in popular cinema, highlighting the potential of mass culture to disrupt ideologemes of national identity. Part One of this study shows how the Romantic paradigm of absorbed bourgeois listening breaks down in film: images of uninvolved listeners reveal fundamental gaps in the supposed universal appreciation of classical music and point to social strivings toward cultural modernization as well as a politically inconvenient desire for Americanism and its popular idioms. Part Two considers the rhetoric of uplift and aesthetic education in two propaganda features: a film about the Hitler Youth that appropriated elements of amateur musical culture to “ennoble” Nazi populism, and an action movie about the Luftwaffe that unwittingly documented the commodity character of Wagner’s music. Part Three demonstrates how film could not resist “queering” the figure of the musician, registering anxieties about the effeminizing effects of classical music and the incompatibility of art with the dictates of militarism and ethno-nationalism. Cinema figures performers as objects of both desire and revulsion and improbably associates them with the non-normative, foreign and exotic traits of persecuted minorities in Nazi Germany: homosexuals, Sinti and Roma, Jews and political dissidents. The mediations of cultural capital in film of the Nazi era therefore adhere to a broader history of consumerism, popularization and social change, in which the overdetermined ideological construct of “Germanness” in music turns out to be both tenacious and brittle, omni-present and yet eminently unstable. A catalogue of musical quotations in Nazi-era film organized by composer and date is listed in the appendices. Supplementary files contain clips cued in the text.

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