34. Program for Venus Vor Gericht (Hans Zerlett, 1941), showing the so-called Venus vom Acker on trial, and its putative model, Charlotte (Hansi Knotek), testifying.

35. Venus Vor Gericht. Hero and protagonist, Peter Brake (Hannes Stelzer), according to the article in Filmwelt, is “a young, earnest, ambitious sculptor in the Germany of a past epoch, who struggles against the art establishment of his time.” By “past epoch,” Tschauner means about ten years earlier.

36. Venus Vor Gericht. Benjamin Hecht (Siegfried Breuer), according to this article, “became an ‘art’ dealer in order to make money out of meaningless and worthless daubs. He couldn’t have come by his wealth any cheaper.” Ellie Tschauner, “Benjamin Hecht macht in ‘Kunst’,” Filmwelt: Das Film- und Foto- Magazin 16 (18 April 1941): 410.

37. Hitler, Goebbels, and others at the Entarte Kunst Exhibition, Munich 1937.

38. Venus Vor Gericht. In Hecht’s gallery, two sculptures by Richard Haizmann’s Elephant (left) and Head (right), and Wilhelm Morgner’s painting of the Deposition (1912), on the far right, with other as yet unidentified “Entartete Kunst.”

39. Venus Vor Gericht. In Hecht’s gallery, on the left, Wassily Kandinsky’s Two Kinds of Red (1916), with Erich Heckel’s Grosse Stehende (Large Standing Woman, 1912), and an unidentified painting.

42. Marg Moll’s bronze Dancer (ca. 1930), on display near a probable pastiche of a George Grosz painting, as seen in Venus vor Gericht.

43. Moll’s bronze Dancer, one of two “Entartete” works seen in Venus vor Gericht that was recently excavated in Berlin, viewed by Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit (right) at the Neues Museum exhibition of the “Skulpturenfund.”

46. Otto Freundlich, photographed by August Sander (1925).

47. Peter Brake and friends in his studio, a still published in the Illustrierter Film-Kurier, no. 3214 (1941).

48. The monumental plaster sculptures in Brake’s studio invoke the work of the foremost NS sculptor, Arno Breker, whose studio is seen here, on a visit by representatives of eighteen nations, 8 November 1942.


Modernism on trial: Venus vor Gericht (1941)

1933, the year that The Song of Songs was released, was, of course, not only the last year prior to the Hollywood Production Code Authority’s crackdown on films with morally objectionable content. It was also the year Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists took power in Germany. Not surprisingly, Mamoulian’s film was not passed by the Berlin censors when it was submitted at the beginning of 1934. Interestingly, this was not for the reasons that would have then tripped it up with Joseph Breen and the Hays Office. Rather, Ministerialrat Dr. Ernst Seeger censored the film for political reasons, having to do with its representations of a decadent and corrupt bourgeoisie and nobility of pre-WWI Germany.[10] [open endnotes in new window] Although his verdict does not refer to it, the fact that The Song of Songs starred Marlene Dietrich, an internationally known German-born actress with known anti-Nazi sentiments, must have been another factor.

It seems entirely likely, however, that The Song of Songs was seen—perhaps in Paris, where it did play in 1934—by Hans Zerlett, the writer and director of a propagandistic German fiction film of 1941, Venus vor Gericht (Venus in the Dock, or Venus Before the Court), that also told a tale of a sculptor and his model. This otherwise minor film is distinguished by its dramatization of National Socialist art polemics and by its use of—as props—actual modernist works of “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”), which the narrative places into a dialectic with pseudo- and neo-classical sculpture, most prominently a nude rendering of the female lead.

Venus vor Gericht [fig. 34] is set in 1930, that is, prior to the Third Reich. Its protagonist is a sculptor, Peter Brake (Hannes Stelzer), obviously loosely based on a sculptor favored by the National Socialists, Arno Breker. Unlike Breker, who was not an early joiner, though, Brake is heroic in the film’s terms because of his precocious fascism: he’s quietly active in the Nazi party [fig. 35]. He gets embroiled in a political, artistic, and journalistic brouhaha, and is taken to court for libel, after claiming authorship of a sculptural fragment excavated on a Bavarian farm. The fragment, which becomes known as Venus vom Acker (the Venus of the fields), is of a naked female torso and is mistaken for an authentic antiquity by “authorities” the film portrays as suspect (coded as effete, Jewish, homosexual, etc.). It causes a sensation in Berlin.

Brake, it unfolds, who had lived and worked in Bavaria, had buried the work not to commit art fraud, but to protect the identity of his model, Charlotte (Hansi Knoteck). Since then, Brake has moved to Berlin and Charlotte has become a respectable Hausfrau, married to a loutish small town Bürgermeister. Although the film portrays Brake’s motivations as honorable and chivalrous (he is reluctant to call upon Charlotte’s testimony to defend himself against libel, as it would besmirch her reputation), it also trades on the titillating equation of sculpture with model, as had The Song of Songs: before the court (vor Gericht), Charlotte, who finally comes forward on her own initiative—out of love and righteousness—as a witness for the defense, is briefly faced with the possibility of being asked to disrobe to prove that this Venus is no moldering antiquity.

More significant than the erotic and romantic fantasies around sculptor and model (who do end up romantically united), however, is the film’s polemical representation of modern art and aesthetics. The story’s main antagonist, a gallerist who trades in modern art, is called Benjamin Hecht [fig. 36]. This is an overdetermined name: evidently Jewish and also that of a well-known Hollywood writer, Zionist and anti-Nazi activist, who was also well known in Berlin, having served there as correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, from 1918 to 1919, in that capacity reporting on, among other matters, Berlin Dada activities, and associating with the avant-garde (Chametzky, 45, 224, n. 25). The 1941 audience for Venus vor Gericht must have been thought to be well-indoctrinated, for scenes that to a contemporary audience might seem celebratory introduce its decadent picture of Weimar Berlin.

These scenes, strikingly, are actually cinematic correlatives of the “Entartete Kunst” employed in the film; they consist of documentary footage obviously excerpted from period films shot in the city, such as Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927) and the collaborative Menschen am Sonntag (1929-30). A sequence of about twenty shots begins with establishing shots of Berlin’s Cathedral and wide views of bustling city streets, and is a dynamic montage of pedestrians, including some orthodox Jews, cars, buses, and trains, a man hawking clothing, another stridently gesturing from a soapbox, policemen in a park, a caravan of vehicles with passengers waving flags, newspaper hawkers, sidewalk cafés, outdoor dance halls, night clubs, with dancers dancing the Charleston, jazz combos, chorus girls, a scantily clad dancer, and a black drummer, all accompanied by a lively jazz tune. One might need to be surrounded by the disparaging anti-modernist clamor of a war-period German audience to feel properly offended by either these scenes or by Hecht’s trade, which flow together in a sequence that begins with the Weimar decadence shots, then by way of newspaper headlines introduces a muckraking newspaper reporter, and moves on to Hecht’s gallery, and finally to Peter Brake and friends in his studio, where his monumental statuary is seen.

The unctuous gallerist Hecht has obtained the Venus vom Acker for his Berlin gallery, which—along with a few modernist pastiches—is filled with works that director Zerlett managed to borrow from the government cache of so-called “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”), through the authority of Nazi Cultural Commissioner Hans Hinkel, to whom he’d written in October, 1940.[11] Some such work was “confiscated” from collections of NS victims and refugees and much had been seized from public collections—programmatically in 1937—and exhibited in a series of now infamous exhibitions, beginning that same year [fig. 37].[12]

Works seen in Hecht’s exhibition of contemporary art include Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s now lost sculpture, The Couple, shown in the window, and, inside, Paul Kleinschmidt’s painting, Duet in the North Café, Richard Haizmann’s sculptures, Elephant and Head, Wilhelm Morgner’s painted Deposition, Erich Heckel’s Große Stehende (a large carved wood female figure), and at least two other works that had been in the 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich: Wassily Kandinsky’s painting, Two kinds of red (1916), seized from the National Gallery in Berlin, and Marg Moll’s bronze Female Figure, or Dancer (ca. 1930), from the Museum in Breslau.”[13] A few works appear to be pastiches or copies; according to Andreas Hüneke (43), the two apparent Grosz paintings are pastiches and a couple of small sculptures are copies of works by Haizmann and Naum Slutzky. Narrative details and trappings of the scene ridicule these Nazi-confiscated works, the actual last known public appearances of most of which are preserved in this fiction film [figs. 38-40].

40. A number of the works seen in Venus Vor Gericht had been among those singled out for illustration in the Entartete “Kunst” Austellungsführer (Degenerate “Art” Exhibition Guide), published after the original exhibition in Munich, in 1937. Figurative work was the particular focus of this propagandistic brochure and Heckel’s Large Standing Woman was included with others on page 19, under the heading, “No comment necessary!” Nonetheless, the brochure does explain that “this section of the exhibition reveals that, alongside the negro as the racial ideal of what was then ‘modern’ art, there was a highly specific intellectual ideal, namely, the idiot, the cretin, and the cripple… (Barron et. al., 376-377).

41. Venus vor Gericht. A collage of stills seen in the Illustrierter Film-Kurier, no. 3214 (1941) shows scenes of Charlotte modeling for Brake (left), Brake’s Berlin studio (right top), the discover of the buried “Venus” on Bavarian farm (right bottom), and the Jewish dealer Hecht (right inset).

Almost all the “degenerate” works seen in Hecht’s gallery disappeared during the war; only one of those that could be identified was known to have survived. But just recently, in January of 2010, during excavations for a new subway station in Berlin, workers dug up a bronze head that turned out to be a lost modernist work by Edwin Scharff. In subsequent months, ten other sculptures were excavated nearby; all appear to have been among those withdrawn from public collections and deemed degenerate by NS authorities. The site where they were discovered in Berlin Mitte appears to be buried remains of an apartment building destroyed during allied bombing of Berlin. Michael Kimmelman’s account of the discovery in The New York Times reports official speculation about how the works—which may have been stored with other Entartete Kunst in the depot of the Reichspropagandaministerium—came to be where they were unearthed:

“Archeologists have so far determined that the recovered works must have come from 50 Königstrasse, across the street from City Hall. The building belonged to a Jewish woman, Edith Steinitz; several Jewish lawyers are listed as her tenants in 1939, but their names disappear from the record by 1942, when the house became property of the Reich. Among its subsequent occupants, German investigators now believe, the likeliest candidate to have hidden the art was Erhard Oewerdieck, a tax lawyer and escrow agent.”

“Oewerdieck is not widely known, but he is remembered at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. In 1939, he and his wife gave money to a Jewish family to escape to Shanghai. He also hid an employee, Martin Lange, in his apartment. In 1941 he helped the historian Eugen Täubler and his wife flee to America, preserving part of Täubler’s library. And he stood by Wolfgang Abendroth too, a leftist and Nazi opponent, by writing him a job recommendation when that risked his own life.”

“The current theory is that when fire from Allied air raids in 1944 consumed 50 Königstrasse, the contents of Oewerdieck’s office fell through the floor, and then the building collapsed on top. Tests are being done on ash from the site for remains of incinerated paintings and wood sculptures. How the lost art came into Oewerdieck’s possession in the first place still isn’t clear.”[14]

The eleven unearthed works have been cleaned and exhibited at Berlin’s Neues Museum, not far from where they were found.[15] Two of them—Otto Freundlich’s black-glazed terra cotta Head (1925) and Marg Moll’s bronze Dancer (ca. 1930)—are among those seen in Venus vor Gericht [see figs. 42-45].

44. Otto Freundlich’s terra cotta Head (1925) as seen in Venus vor Gericht. 45. A fragment of Freundlich’s Head, on display at the Neues Museum.

It is as difficult to imagine from their appearance in Venus vor Gericht the catastrophic destinies of these modest modernist works and their makers as it is to comprehend the offense that they are supposed to have constituted when subjected to public ridicule by the NS propaganda machine. But as Kimmelman reminds us,

“the Nazis seized the Freundlich from a museum in Hamburg in 1937, then six years later, in France, seized the artist and sent him to Majdanek, the concentration camp in Poland, where he was murdered on the day he arrived.”

The sculpture’s offense was its strong, minimal primitivism; the sculptor’s his Jewish origins [fig. 46].

The sculptor of the “Brake” works that appear in Venus vor Gericht is uncredited and unknown [fig. 47]. These appear to be props (and to be made of plaster); they are similar to but not clearly the works of a number of prominent sculptors, especially Arno Breker [fig. 48] and Josef Thorak, who employed the reactionary, neo-Classical, and often monumental style favored by Hitler and Goebbels. The “Venus vom Acker,” which is less monumental than the other Brake pieces, though, plays its part reasonably well; it looks like it may have been carved in stone and one can accept it as a contemporary academic nude that—dug out of the ground and fragmentary—might be taken for an antiquity. I must note a troubling paradox around the relation of these sculptures to the sculptures used in The Song of Songs. Those seem more than modern enough in the turn-of-the-century setting in which they perform and downright daring, risqué, even avant-garde in terms of the censorship conventions they flout in Mamoulian’s film, but at the same time, they could be described stylistically as comparable to the “Brake” sculptures in Venus vor Gericht, particularly the Venus, which perform decidedly reactionary roles.

This points to a number of interrelated problems, many of them to be situated around political and aesthetic discourses of classicism. Scarpitta, after all, was sculpting for Mussolini at about the same time as for Mamoulian. Fascist aesthetics evolved out of and borrowed from well-established academic traditions that were not necessarily inherently reactionary but were often merely aesthetically conservative. It should be noted that Italian fascist aesthetics embraced not only the classicism and monumentality favored by the Germans, but also incorporated modernist tendencies, including Futurism. To further complicate any facile alignment of art and politics, Scarpitta grew to revile Mussolini and engaged with the partisans, while Arno Breker had been associated professionally and stylistically with Parisian modernists and modernism only a few years before his reinvention as the heroic Nazi artist par excellence. And, as scholars including Patrice Petro and Sabine Hake have observed, popular cinema in the Third Reich “was in fact sustained by well-established generic conventions, cultural traditions, aesthetic sensibilities, social practices, and a highly developed star system—not unlike its Hollywood counterpart (Hake back cover).” It was, that is, a “classical” cinema.

Venus vor Gericht is positively rife with paradox. It stages a confrontation between modernism and anti-modernism in which the latter is obviously the victor—in the terms of the movie’s unambiguous ideology—but at the same time underestimates and overestimates the former, as played by authentic examples of “degenerate art.” Unlike the notoriously propagandistic displays of the Nazis’ Entarte Kunst exhibitions, where works were displayed and framed polemically, to assert their inherent madness and degeneracy, and where anti-modernist screeds—in bold gothic type—filled the space between and around them, Hecht’s display of “Contemporary Art” is plausible as a Berlin gallery exhibition of ca. 1930: the paintings are hung from moldings at reasonable intervals on white walls; the sculptures stand on pedestals; works on paper are kept in portfolios; objects are identified with small labels. It’s all rather civilized, and somewhat tame. And although—as is often the case with prints, drawings, easel paintings, and small-scale sculptures seen in black-and-white film—one cannot experience the sensory power or immediacy of works we know might have had vivid modern “aura” in the flesh, for the very same reason the film seems unable to persuade us to encounter these objects so reviled by the state with the perplexity or contempt that NS aesthetics demand. The decay of the aura cuts both ways.

Additionally, since the modest, degenerate objects’ adversaries are—despite their grand scale—mostly rather indifferent plaster pastiches of a type of statuary that at its best was heroic but bland and its worst mere kitsch, modern art feels like something of a straw man, or even a Macguffin here, in this movie that, aside from its polemics, is a rather conventional, and lightweight romance. As Peter Chametzky notes,

"Venus vor Gericht conforms to many of the patterns Linda Schulte-Sasse has identified in the run-of-mill popular cinema of the Third Reich. The film’s narrative structure and entertainment devices (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, etc.) are contiguous with the pre- and post-Nazi cinema. Venus vor Gericht is, in fact, entertaining. Rather than Nazi propaganda dressed up as entertainment it is entertainment with Nazi propaganda inserted. Perhaps sensing this apparent weakness in the film (the scenes of decadent Berlin nightlife look much more entertaining than Brake and his friend’s gemütliche gatherings; Siegfried Breuer plays Hecht as a more interesting and certainly less annoying character than Hannes Stelzer’s Brake) an extremely polemical article in the journal Filmwelt of April 1941 clearly explained the ideological lessons audiences were to draw from it. The article concentrated almost exclusively on art, juxtaposing the classical, beautiful work of Brake to the 'degenerate' work shown by the Jewish Hecht:

'art works characterize their times and their world views, their spiritual and moral stature…the apparent absurdity of ‘degenerate art’ had a razor sharp purpose and meaning: corruption of all ethical values…this spirit is embodied by the Jewish art dealer Benjamin Hecht (Siegfried Breuer) and the cabal surrounding him.'”[16]

Yet, in the case of this silly, polemical film, the “real” status of the art objects could hardly be more significant. The film not only embodies paradoxes and polemics associated with modern art in Nazi Germany, but is, in effect, evidence of state crimes. 

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